With the comics industry continuing to battle the effects of the pandemic, Brendan Allen and I are continuing to talk about comics that the other might not have read. I’m more of a capes, laser guns and swords guy, while Brendan loves dark magic, criminals and things that go bump in the night. This week, we dive deep in one of the most recent solo outings for Marvel’s latest movie star!
Marvel’s Black Widow was never really a solo star until around the turn of the century when she starred in a series of well-received miniseries. Prior to that, she’d been a guest star or member of a team. That clearly began to change in 2010, when Scarlett Johansson was cast as the character in Iron Man 2. Since then, the character’s profile has steadily grown and she’s starred in multiple series from some of Marvel’s greatest creators.
The one which stands out the most is 2016’s SHIELD’s Most Wanted, a twelve issue story from Mark Waid, Chris Samnee, Matthew Wilson and Joe Caramagna. The creative team was just coming off a years-long Daredevil run (one of the best in the character’s history), and could have had their pick of any character in Marvel’s pantheon. They chose Natasha Romanoff, and set the Widow on one of the most high octane adventures in her history. And trust me, every Black Widow story is high octane.
When Natasha is blackmailed by one of the most brutal spymasters she’s ever faced, she’s thrown into a race against time, and a battle against the darker corners of the Marvel Universe. She’ll travel the world, battle old friends and new foes, and betray her closest allies. It’s all in a day’s work for the Marvel Universe’s greatest super-spy.
Tony Thornley: I’m going to be real straightforward about this book. I’m not a huge Widow fan, which is why I’ve only read this book once before. However, I am a HUGE fan of Waid, Samnee and Wilson as a creative team. They connected about a year into Waid’s Daredevil run and not long after they started being credited as storytellers, rather than distinct but separate parts of the creative team.
So a few years removed from this, I really dug reading it. I think on the writing side there’s a couple weak spots but the art is just stellar stuff. What did you think?
Brendan Allen: I think this is the part where I admit I have never read a single Black Widow comic until today? There are so many characters in the Marvel Universe, I’ve never really known where to get started with any of them. Most of my knowledge of the character comes from her inclusion in the MCU, and I haven’t actually seen all of those either. I always forget where I am in the franchise, end up watching one I’ve already seen, then get frustrated and shut the thing off. My kids are getting old enough to watch some of them now, so maybe I’ll go back to the beginning and re-watch the whole thing over.
That all being said, I’m not super familiar with the character, and this book made me like her and want to get into some of the other stories at some point. Not a whole lot of backstory, but what we get here is right in line with the character’s identity as an elite ninjamurderspy.
Tony: Yeah, this is VERY structured to be a “Baby’s First Black Widow” story. It’s evergreen, and it has a lot of the hallmarks of her character in there. Plus it includes enough of the larger universe that you get an in if you have a very general working knowledge of Marvel.
I like Waid a lot even if I don’t think his work has quite been as strong in recent years. However when he’s working with Samnee, he’s back on the top of his game. He’s got a great eye for character dynamics, and really getting to the root of the character. With Nat, he gets deep into her loner side.
I think the best depiction of that is when she callously betrays Iron Man about two-thirds into the story. She has a mission and needs to get things done. Unfortunately, that does mean hurting one of her oldest friends and confidantes, but mission ahead of relationships. She can deal with the latter afterwards.
Brendan: I did like that bit for the comedy, but I was thinking the same thing as Stark as that was unfolding. Why was Natasha allowing herself to be captured this easily, and all that, but then I was a little irked that he let himself be drawn in. I guess they kind of needed her to steal the intel to line up with her mindset, training, and character, but it does go against Stark’s typical portrayal. Cocky as he is, I think he should have figured that out a lot sooner in the interaction.
Tony: It’s classic Tony Stark. Gets suckered by a pretty face way too easily, even if that face is a longtime friend who he should know better with.
Brendan: Then that makes some sense, I guess. Pretty face and an overestimation of his own abilities. Still, though. Wouldn’t that same body scan thing be available in the dude’s helmet? Either way, I’m disappointed, Stark. Do better.
Tony: I do think there are two weaknesses in the writing. In the storytelling, the first two issues are out of order chronologically. Now, if there was more to clearly delineate that in either the dialogue or even just some captions, I think it would have worked really well. The first issue might be the best of the entire run, with Natasha breaking out of the helicarrier after stealing something… However, taking the step backwards a few days or a week before in the second issue is jarring because you’re halfway through the issue before you realize that it takes place before the first. It’s such a big shift that it pulled me out of the story for way longer than it should have.
Brendan: You know, I actually thought that was a strength. Popping around the timeline a little, showing some obvious flashbacks, some ambiguous ones, and then overlaying experiences and memories over current events adds to the mystery.
Tony: Once I caught on, I did like it, but I think it needed just a little bit more clarity when they started using it, know what I mean?
The second issue I have is that the plot goes back to the Red Room AGAIN. Now, thankfully, the focus isn’t on the Red Room, but virtually every Black Widow story is about the Red Room in some way. It would have been so refreshing to just keep them out of it entirely. Make the Macguffin something other than a Red Room ledger.
Brendan: Isn’t that kind of her deal, though? I mean, nearly every Wolverine story ties back to the Weapon X program at some point, doesn’t it? And they won’t quit going on about that doggone spider that bit that other fella.
Tony: I mean, yeah, there’s not going to be any way to 100% avoid it but it would be nice to not have a story centered on the Room. To Waid’s credit, it at least did something relatively different with the idea, but still…
Now for the art, I think Samnee is one of the best line artists in comics right now. He has a style that’s just a little too realistic to really be cartoony, but cartoony enough that the fantastic situations in the stories he’s drawing works. He also has really expressive characters, which this story needs because Nat is either by herself or silent for A LOT of the volume.
Brendan: I really liked the art. You mentioned the character work. There are several sequences that are carried entirely by the characters’ body language, facial expressions, and ambulation with hardly any dialogue or narration at all. It’s refreshing to see teams that work together like this, where the writer doesn’t feel like they need to get in the artists’ way with unnecessary word salad.
Tony: Yeah, Waid and Samnee have a great relationship as a team and I love seeing them work together for that reason.
I also really dig the action, which is a symbiosis of Samnee and Wilson. In the first issue, they do a massive fist fight through what seems to be an office building (turns out to be a helicarrier) and it feels like a cube farm lit in all fluorescent bulbs. The setting has this stark artificial nature that makes the action pop, especially with Nat’s red hair and black suit against the navy and beige of the SHIELD agents.
But then the second issue is in a snowy cemetery, and it’s full of white and greytones. It feels way more somber. My favorite art-wise might be the third or fourth issue in Russia where there’s a bunch of flashbacks happening simultaneously to Nat’s search, and Wilson sets them apart by rendering Samnee’s inkwash with a red overtone. Whether it’s the more somber moments or the bombastic action, the art team just rules through the entire volume.
Brendan: The action scenes are fantastic. I read this one using the guided view that hops from frame to frame, then went back and looked at the whole pages, because I could see from the skewed panels and gutters that there was something bigger going on with the layouts. It’s a really cool device that adds tension and gives a frenetic feel to those fights and crashes without sacrificing readability.
Tony: Yeah, this is one of those that you need to read in full screen or print. It’s an all around great package visually. Samnee and Wilson just teach a class in how to do it right.
So what did you think?
Brendan: I liked it. It’s a fantastic jumping on point for folks just like me, who may have seen a few films but haven’t really read Black Widow going in. From what you’re saying, it sounds like there’s plenty of meat on the bone for established readers as well.
Tony: Yeah, I don’t think I loved it first time around, but that may have been missing Daredevil. This was just a great standalone superspy story, but an even better 101 for Black Widow.
So what do we have up next?
Brendan: We’re going to revisit Southwest werewolf horror with Coyotes Volume 2, by Sean Lewis and Caitlin Yarsky.