Black Widow #1 - 5. Marjorie Liu (writer). Daniel Acuna (art and covers). Blambot's Nate Piekus (letters). Marvel. 22-pages, full color. $2.99.
I’m not sure I know how to write about the first five issues of the new Black Widow series without talking about my
concern, frustration, and puzzlement as to why the creative team of Marjorie Liu and Daniel Acuna is changing just as this great series gets started. But I'm definitely having some mild deja vu flashback to how I felt when I learned Greg Rucka would not be writing Batwoman.
Let’s be clear – there is very little information out there, and what is out there (from Liu's blog) says that it was her choice to leave and it was always intended to happen that way, so I’m not trying to blame Marvel. However, as Greg said in his What I Bought post this past week…WHAT THE HELL? Okay, Greg said it much more eloquently than that, but I've whittled it down to its core. It’s REALLY hard to launch a new comic series these days, especially one with a female lead, so I just don’t know why you’d let the creative team and entire look and feel of a book that's looking great and getting a good critical response, shift focus.
I certainly understand that Liu can only do what she can do (although why Acuna is leaving at the same time is still a mystery to me since the visuals are such a major part of this book's identity) and since she’s adding a new X-23 ongoing to her schedule I guess she simply can’t do both. Liu is also a novelist and I’m sure has many commitments beyond the comic book world (there is a world outside of comics, or so I've been told), so she may not have unlimited time for comics. But I have trouble understanding why anyone (regardless of affection for a character) would abandon Black Widow for X-23. I suppose it doesn't help that as a reader I intensely disliked the X-23 one shot that came out from Liu this past spring, and I intensely liked this opening arc on Black Widow…so there's frustration there for me. I look DESPERATELY for good books with strong female leads...and they don't come around every day and it's even more rare that they're actually good - so this is a blow for me.
As for Acuna, his work, though not for everyone I’m sure, has been mind blowingly good on Black Widow (except for that pesky first cover that, though lovely, makes me want to stab my eyes out with its unzipped silliness) so it's really hard to lose him on this title. I can imagine, like Liu, that the schedule (Acuna does ALL the art – pencils, inks, and colors) has been hard on Acuna and maybe is not maintainable long term. Although I will say that the art was wonderfully consistent for these first five issues, and if an issue was late, it wasn’t late enough to be noticeable.
So apparently it's Liu deciding to move on by choice or necessity (or both) and for Acuna I don't know what it is - choice, necessity, or something else. But I can't help but feel a little paranoid about these decisions. It wouldn't be the first time that a writer or artist fell on their sword for the big two...and with the information being so vague and limited (literally Liu's blog is the only place in about half a dozen articles that I saw a grain of anything that resembled "why") I remain suspicious. Truth be told, silence makes me nervous…it makes me think publishers are hiding something…but it seems like this will just have to a mystery that never gets solved beyond what I read on Liu's blog. If I was The Black Widow I wouldn't take that for an answer and I would dig deep and uncover this mystery, but I'm not The Black Widow and I've got to work in the morning, so we'll never know. Sad, that.
Of course if the second arc of Black Widow by Duane Sierczynski and Manuel Garcia is great, I’ll be better able to accept both the change and the secrecy surrounding the reasoning of such a change. If it’s terrible, I’m going to be horribly bummed out and even more suspicious. In truth, I hated the preview pages that were released. Though they were unlettered and I could not get a feel for Sierczynski’s work I found Garcia’s pencils to be really out of synch with how well I thought Acuna nailed the tonal feel of a book about a Russian spy. Acuna's pages were appropriately dark and noir-like and full of excellent fashion and beautiful quiet moments, not to mention well executed action. In contrast, Garcia’s pages seem garish and overly bright, the action appears a bit more confusing and I found the clothes and camera angles to be very poor choices. But it’s only four pages…I could change my mind. I hope I’ll change my mind. It looks like, judging by some quick research that I've never read a single thing of Sierczynski's, which seems odd but is entirely possible, so I'll be coming to his work with no preconceptions, good or bad. But he's still got a tough act to follow in Liu and Acuna.
So what’s to like here? What am I so desperate not to lose?
Well, for starters Liu’s Black Widow is smart and sexy, dark and serious, but not without humor, sharp though it is. She’s casual about who she is, regardless of what badass thing she’s doing, which feels right considering who she is and how long she’s been around. She even says to Lady Bullseye in issue #4 “You’re a baby compared to me. Of course I’m bored. I know how this will end”. And that line, all her lines, feel right. They feel consistent and well considered - it's some nice writing that fits the character beautifully, and in the case of someone like me, that hasn't spent much time with Natasha, it's a real indicator that done well, I could be a huge fan of the character.
It’s also a triumph that Liu can give Natasha this confidence and air of boredom and yet still raise the stakes enough on what’s happening to her that you do catch yourself worrying if she’ll be okay, despite her casual badassitude. But more interesting than whether she’ll be okay or not is how she’ll get out of it, what tricks she’ll pull next. And Liu writes that part well too. The book, along with Natasha, is smart. It asks a lot of the reader – the story is complex, as are the characters – and you can’t read casually and expect to get it all - but I say “hell yeah to that”. I wish more comics asked more of me. I think for people that don’t know much about Black Widow beyond the hype – of which I am one – this book is not throwing any softballs – there are some things that I don’t totally get or understand – some of the nuance and convoluted history – but it’s not necessary to know it all in order to still understand the story and the character and feel totally fulfilled.
The plot, complicated and winding, is essentially that someone unknown is waging war on Natasha and it's quite personal. By attempting to first isolate her and ruin her reputation by turning the Avengers against her with the erroneous (we hope) claim that she has been spying on them all along and is a traitor, long and deeply buried in their ranks. Natasha attempts to clear her name, protect her friends (and keep herself among the living) by unraveling the mystery of who is after her. There's a lot of great spy stuff and superhero stuff combined with some nice thriller and mystery elements. Natasha's search takes her from old friends like The Black Rose to enemies like Lady Bullseye and to somewhere in between (Elektra) as she jaunts across the globe and from trains to operating tables trying to get to the bottom of things.
For his part I think tonally there’s not a better artist for this book than Daniel Acuna. His Natasha is incredibly beautiful and stylish, but much in synch with what Liu is doing, it’s almost a lazy bored beauty - as if she’s been around so long and seen so much that it’s just in her nature to be this way, look this way, move this way, act this way. It comes across as almost matter of fact - which though horribly unrealistic I suppose - really worked for the style and tone of the book. From the way Natasha is styled - her “superhero clothes” (which are blissfully practical with combat boots and a fully zipped catsuit) to her “spy clothes" - a stunning suit and stylin’ hat to her "play clothes" (although in truth all of Natasha's clothes seem to be work/play combination clothes) it's all visually realized in a completely cohesive and consistent way - I believe that this is Natasha's wardrobe. And maybe that's not wildly important, but it is kind of rare for a character to be fleshed out so deeply that I believe that these are the clothes hanging in her closet. It's an attention to detail that I'd love to see more of in comics.
Excerpt from Black Widow #4:
Natasha feels three dimensional to me in a way that I rarely feel superhero comics accomplish – and that was equal parts Liu and Acuna. The style of the book, as I said before, really tonally fits the kind of dark, depressing, spy noir that they’re doing – and is fitting for a character like Natasha (it’s one of the many reasons the art – and to a lesser degree the writing - didn’t work for me in the two Black Widow mini-series we saw earlier in the year). The art is almost made for this exact story. I don’t know enough about Acuna as an artist to know if he’s just naturally suited to this specific kind of story or if he’s just good enough to slightly modify his art to MAKE it perfectly fit – but either way, the adjustment to a new artist will be considerable – and judging from those preview pages – for me – painful. My sole complaint about Acuna’s work is that the book occasionally goes too dark, making things hard to follow, but those panels were few and far between.
From a female positivity point of view, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. I'm always hopeful when reading a female writer, but in truth I feel they often let me down, perhaps because my expectations are too high. In Liu's case, I hadn't read much of her work prior to Black Widow, but I was cautiously optimistic. In Acuna's case I was quite nervous, because while I knew I loved his style, between the first cover snafu and a few pieces here and there (he was responsible for one of the most egregious Rogue unzipped illustrations which you all know by now is a pet project and pet frustration of mine) I wasn't sure he could deliver this book without the heavy cheesecake, and I just honestly think Black Widow is above that and deserves better. But I was wonderfully surprised. Acuna was clever in his clothing choices, and clever in a way that well reflected Natasha's personality, and I saw little to no overt male gaze positioning and camera angles in his storytelling. Instead he just told the story and he told it beautifully. In fact, the story calls for Black Widow to (several times) be naked or only partially clad, and Acuna handled these with a wonderful restraint, the way I feel any story dealing with a male lead would handle them. Rather than seeing a coquettish Black Widow that arches her back and looks at us sexily we saw a badass spy that was cavalier about being unclothed because it was secondary to whatever was happening. It was great. It made me proud and not embarrassed to be seen reading it. It was a book respectful of both the character and the readers, which is sadly, all too rare.
Additionally, while the series thus far has been filled with great cameo appearances by other badass ladies (Elektra and Lady Bullseye) and heavy hitters Wolverine, Iron Man, Hawkeye, and Captain America, the guest stars never overwhelmed the story. And perhaps most importantly the book never felt like it didn't belong 100% to Natasha, which is often a problem in new series that front load themselves with guest stars. Natasha's love interest (James aka Captain America) makes a few appearances as both her teammate and lover, but he never takes control, and Liu does a clever balancing act of establishing both the trust and affection in the relationship, but also the boundaries. It was easy to believe that Natasha would fall for him and he for her. But like the guest stars, the love story never overwhelms the larger story, which could have been fatal.
Overall I'd say that Black Widow has been one of the better books I've read this last year, and certainly the best offering to come out of Marvel's "Year of Women" next to Heralds (though this was certainly more consistent than Heralds). So it's a shame to be losing it. Sure, it's possible the future is still bright for Black Widow, and that Liu and Acuna have positioned the book well to be a success, but it's just such a tricky balancing act to launch a new book, let alone one with a female lead, that I find myself wishing Liu and Acuna had at least gotten (and given?) a year on the title. Just the possibility of what we could have seen excites me, instead I look toward the new creative with a wary eye and hope in my heart. We'll see.
The Black Widow #5 released on August 25th, 2010. Issues #1 - 5 are available in comic book stores everywhere and will are expected to be collected in trade format at a later date.