I mentioned a couple weeks ago, before I felt compelled to go on a massive rant, that I was working on a Black Widow “Required Reading” post…and as promised here we are!
I’ve been reading a bunch of Black Widow stuff in preparation for this, along with the material that I’ve already read and so these are the books that rose to the top for me. I’m sure I’ve missed some things (and I’m sure you’ll tell me) but I’ll just let you know right now I did NOT miss Black Widow: Deadly Origins, Black Widow & The Marvel Girls, and the current Black Widow Strikes mini-series, all of which I found to be quite terrible. Feel free to disagree in the comments, but please don’t assume I didn’t consider them. I did consider them and I found them disturbingly lacking. If you want something really great that Natasha is guest starring in that’s more current than the list below, I’d recommend the very good Winter Soldier ongoing by Ed Brubaker. It’s a great book with a really well written (and drawn) Natasha.
I read in the Marvel Solicits for August that apparently “Hawkeye is the breakout star of The Avengers” which I guess means he gets a shot at an ongoing title while Black Widow is relegated to that truly abysmal mini-series that’s almost over now. So Hawkeye gets Matt Fraction and the brilliant David Aja and Black Widow still gets the equivalent of bupkis. Now, I don’t know what movie the people responsible for these things saw but I have no idea how anyone would walk away with “Hawkeyes as breakout star” from the movie I saw. I like Renner very much as an actor and I have no problems with Hawkeye as a character, but there is just no damn way he outshined Natasha/Scarlett Johansson.
Marjorie Liu (writer). Daniel Acuna (artist)
My first recommendation is Marjorie Liu and Daniel Acuna’s absolutely wonderful five -issue Black Widow run The Name of The Rose from 2010. Don’t let the too unzipped cover seen here fool you - the insides are smart and funny, with some of the most stylish, beautiful, and appropriate art I’ve seen. This is fantastic vintage spy stuff, tinged with a tiny bit of revenge (both by and against Natasha) mixed in, some tragic but not over the top romance, old friendships, old enemies, and a whole lot of Natasha being an absolute badass as you’d expect. Of all of the Black Widow reading I did over the last month or so, this remains my favorite story when it comes to Black Widow. There’s not a single misstep (except that first cover, and it’s a shame they picked that one for the trade release).
It’s worth noting that Duane Swierczynski picked up this title with issue number six for a three-issue run and did a great job with it. Unfortunately the art is something I have trouble recommending (except for the gorgeous covers by Travel Foreman), but if that kind of thing doesn’t bother you it’s totally worth picking up Black Widow: Kiss or Kill by Swierczynski. Furthermore, the end of the Black Widow title dovetailed into Widowmaker by Jim McCann, Duane Swierczynski, Tom Defalco, and David Lopez. It’s a strong story and it well features Natasha as a guest star alongside Hawkeye and Mockingbird.
Warren Ellis (writer). Jamie McKelvie, Kev Walker, David Aja, Michael Lark, Alex Maleev, and Stuart Immonen (artists)
Though not solely a Black Widow story, this is one of the best Avengers runs (collecting Secret Avengers #16 - #21) I’ve ever read, and one of the best superhero comics I’ve ever read. Natasha plays a significant role in four of the six issues, and issue 20 is all Natasha all the time (and lo the gods saw it and said it was good!). With a brilliant and singular vision from writer Warren Ellis, and some of the best artists in comics executing that vision, this comic just cannot be stopped. Written as single standalone stories, but with themes that tie together beautifully, it’s exactly what more superhero comics should be. The Natasha centric issue (#20) with art by Alex Maleev, is fantastic and proves that Warren Ellis has an exceptional handle on Natasha's voice. In fact, he writes one of my favorite Natasha's ever. Practical, matter of fact, to the point, dedicated, determined, and clever as all get out without being a genius (i.e. she understand time travel about as well as I do) and it makes that issue of Secret Avengers one of the best ( if not the best) Black Widow stories of all time. Combined with the Maleev art, which beautiful as well as a great tonal fit for a dark spy story it's totally required reading for any Natasha fan, or just a fan of good damn comics.
Richard K. Morgan (writer). Bill Sienkiewicz and Goran Parlov (artists)
Having not read much of Morgan’s work, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found inside Black Widow: Homecoming. With Sienkiewicz’s evocative and darkly serious art the visuals are a near perfect match for a moody spy story, and Morgan tells a great yarn that ends up exploring Natasha’s past in creative ways as she tries to solve a crimes that seem tied to an attempt on her life. Morgan and Sienkiewicz get bonus points for doing a really well balanced Natasha that doesn’t seem too vengeful or over the top, even though she has a lot to be pissed about. They also deserve bonus points for keeping her in gorgeous but practical clothes unless the situation requires otherwise. It’s smart and fun, and Natasha is a badass from page one.
Unfortunately, I think the follow up volume – Black Widow: The Things They Say About Her – is not as good. It’s worth reading, but it’s a let down after Homecoming. The art, though still by Sienkiewicz and with layouts by the generally excellent Sean Phillips is less consistent and a bit heavy on the boobs for my tastes. It’s also the first time in this run that we start seeing an unzipped Natasha, which is just silly, and quite frankly doesn’t look nearly as cool. It’s not a bad book, but it’s got an excessively violent side and Natasha is pitched very high throughout. She’s very emotional in a way that I don’t think rings true for the character, and some of the violence seems a bit senseless and unnecessary. The writing feels like it’s trying to hard to be badass, instead of just being effortlessly badass, pregnant with over the top emotion on every page. It’s unfortunate, and strange, since it is also by Richard K. Morgan. Morgan.
Greg Rucka and Devin Grayson (writers). J.G. Jones and Scott Hampton (artists)
The is trade is divided into two very visually different stories, but that tread the same interesting ground as they deal with the relationship between Natasha and Yelena Bolova. The first half by Grayson and Jones is slick and pretty, and though sometimes Jones’ art isn’t my favorite at other times it’s absolutely stunning. Grayson has a great handle on Natasha and presents a wonderfully world weary but utterly capable Natasha. The second half by Devin Grayson, Greg Rucka, and Scott Hampton is a bit of a Face/Off type story, although it works much better here than it does in that ridiculous movie (which I forgot was so ridiculous but saw some of the other day by chance on cable. Ridiculous). Scott Hampton’s art for the second half of this book is a surprisingly nice fit for a Black Widow book – in the same way that Maleev was a good artist for her in Secret Avengers. The spy stories and “humanity” of Natasha lend itself naturally to a less high superhero story style I think and the results here are pretty cool. Bonus points to everyone involved for not one single unzipped cat suit in the bunch. Yelena has a bit of a silly costume what with her bare midriff, but I’m sure that was as much to distinguish the two widows from one another as anything else. And it’s never particularly excessive in the way it’s handled.
Ralph Macchio, George Perez, and Gerry Conoway (writers). George Perez, Paul Gulacy, George Freeman, Bob Layton, and Luke McDonnell (artists).
For those interested in something a little more classic, there’s a good series of collected Black Widow stories in Black Widow: Web of Intrigue. Collecting stories primarily from the early eighties and with a series of strong creators this is a good book if you prefer the older stuff. In truth, though I love the art in this collection, Marvel writing from this time period is not for me. I find it really clunky and laughable. Every little thing is explained, from character thoughts to overly detailed descriptions of what is happening in the panels (just let the art do its job gents!), and there are a lot of re-capping and exposition dumps. But if you don’t mind that kind of thing and like the classic tales there’s a lot of fun to be had here. Some of the characters are deliciously campy if you can get into it – though sometimes the annoying stereotypes and pigeonholing was irritating from a critical standpoint, if you just accept it as flawed due to its age and style, it’s a good ride. The art is straight up gorgeous.
Also, not on this list because it’s not a real Natasha story, but deserving of mention is the strong Greg Rucka four-issue mini (not yet collected) called Black Widow: Pale Little Spider, which is entirely about Yelena Bolova. If you can get past the horrible Greg Horn covers, it’s a pretty great read. It was released by Marvel Knights in 2002 and so it’s a little darker and sexier but it’s good stuff if you’re interested in The Black Widow beyond just Natasha and don't mind a more overtly sexual and adult story.
So that’s my list, the best stuff you should read if you’re looking for stories about The Black Widow. What are some of your favorites? Have you read these, did you enjoy them or not so much?