When it was first announced post Avengers film that Hawkeye was getting his own book while Black Widow was getting a lousy one shot I was pretty frusrated. Of course Hawkeye turned out to be an utterly fantastic joy of a comic book and a person can’t complain about a fantastic comic book and so I sat back and hoped that Natasha would get her own equally fantastic shot at an ongoing (again).
And last week she did.
Everyone do a little dance (and for those Buffy fans - "Numfar do the dance of joy!") because Natasha's book is here and it's great.
Black Widow #1 by Nathan Edmonson and Phil Noto is not as groundbreaking or unconventional as Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye, but it’s solid beautiful superhero comics (or perhaps spy comics is a more accurate descriptor) and it’s a gorgeous step in the right direction.
For his part Edmonson delivers a Natasha that feels effortlessly on point from a voice perspective. She’s both likable and a heroine we root for, but without feeling compromised or watered down. They’ve found a way to integrate the fact that Natasha was and is still a killer but also make her relatable. She feels tragic but not whiny or entitled. It's a great blend on the whole. Edmonson does a wonderful job of not overwriting. He keeps Natasha's interior narration light, which feels right both for Natasha and for the book generally. Natasha is not a character of many words, she's an action-based character like a Bond or a Jason Bourne. She's smart and she's considered, so it doesn't make much sense for her to have a heavy handed interior narration and I'm incredibly relieved that Edmonson gets this about her right out of he gate. At the same time, Edmonson's Natasha is not devoid of a sense of humor. It's minimal as presented here, which is feels accurate and I hope as the series progresses Edmonson will continue to find those small moments to expound upon. Warren Ellis's take on Natasha in Secret Avengers was similarly matter of fact but had a great sense of humor woven in that fit the character well, so I'd love to see Edmonson head in that direction with Natasha. Time will certainly tell where he wants to go, but everything that's here now is incredibly solid and well considered.
This is pretty much the book Phil Noto was born to draw. There’s a cinematic quality he brings that’s reminiscent of some of his tumblr illustrations done as “From The Hank Pym Photo Archives” taking pictures at a party (a party that just happens to be filled with superheroes). And a cinematic quality it not a bad tack to take considering that a lot of Natasha’s raised profile in the last few years is owed to movie roles, and given what’s on the horizon – an increased presence in Captain America 2 and surely a large role in Avengers 2 in 2015. So cinematic feels right for Natasha. More important than cinema however is Noto’s exceptional ability to capture what makes superheroes feel real – to feel human. And that’s a great quality for a Black Widow book as well. She’s a tough character and finding the humanity in the assassin is a tricky blend. Noto's pages are clean and clear in their vision, they're flawlessly gorgeous, but effective in conveying both character and the simple mechanics of storytelling.
Perhaps most important of all, for a character like Natasha, and for a the way the book is being written, Noto is exceptional at getting to the heart of a character through the small moments. The almost missed expressions, move of an eye, the wave of a hand, the posture of two characters talking, the devil is in the details and never more so than in a book like this. Noto's expressions for Natasha are never broad or generalized, they are tight and specific, incredibly well-considered and expertly executed. It's because of Noto that Edmonson ccan do the right thing and step back and not over write the character - he can count on Noto to deliver all the subtle nuances that will make the book work and the character sing. It's like a well composed piece of music, each instrument doing their part individually so that they may come together to a more lovely and important whole. It's wonderful.
The entire book is gorgeous but two of my favorite pages are below. The first is of course beautiful, because, well, they all are, but it does a great job of remembering small details like Natasha taking her hair down as she prepares for the next phase of her plan:
The second page is an example of a smart action sequence:
If there’s a flaw in this book it’s perhaps that it’s too safe, but given comics rocky sometimes flat out wrong-headed approach to female-led books, I’m okay with slightly safe, especially if it can also be smart and beautiful. The other minor sticking point is that this first issue feels very self-contained. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it wouldn’t hurt to have some sense of the raised stakes as we move forward. Edmonson has done a great job of establishing where Natasha is as a character and it’s clear where he has her pointed, but there’s not much sense of a larger arc surrounding her beyond general “redemption” and more to the point, “redemption the character knows and acknowledges is impossible.”
Overall they are incredibly minor quibbles in an otherwise excellent first book. Though it's only a first issue Edmonson and Noto have established themselves as a capable and well matched team and the book feels almost elegant. It knows clearly what it wants and what it is. And as a result it succeeds at both of these things with flying colors. Its future is bright and I'm excited for what's next.
The real elephant in the room however is not whether this book is worth the wait, it’s “will it last”? Because quite frankly, Marjorie Liu and Daniel Acuna’s Black Widow series from 2010 was worth the wait as well. It was a very strong book, smart and gorgeous with a Natasha that felt three dimensional and wonderfully human while still kicking ass and taking names in much the same way that she is here. Seriously, pick up the trade The Name of the Rose if you haven’t read it. And yet less tan four years ago Black Widow lasted only 5 issues with its original creative team and only 8 issues total before it got canceled/weaved into Widowmaker.
Will 2014 be any different? Will Marvel give this book the time it needs to find its audience? Will Natasha’s raised exposure in the last few years make a difference? Here’s hoping the answer to all three of those questions is a resounding yes.
Because who doesn't want to see a whole lot more of this in 2014?