jim Holdaway

ladyaureum  asked:

you how el zorro and the shadow influenced the creation of batman, well what are the black widow's influences? what were people think about when they created the character?

Unlike Batman or Namor, Black Widow wasn’t the first of a kind. She was introduced to comics at a time when Soviet-spy themed villains were common, both at Marvel and in the wider pop-culture world, and the Cold War had inspired an espionage craze. For example, the earliest Hank Pym stories featured Comrade X, the USSR’s best espionage agent, soon revealed to be a woman in disguise.

Comrade, you are our best espionage agent! Thus I have selected you to capture the Ant-Man and learn how he is able to change his size!

Comrade X was introduced much the same way as Black Widow would be a few years later: a fearless leader called her into his unnamed office, and told her she needed to stop an American scientist-superhero. In Tales of Suspense, the old world CCCP headquarters became a villain-of-the-week factory, a constant stream of functionally faceless Soviet mooks. I don’t mean to suggest that Black Widow was “influenced” by the Larry Lieber/Jack Kirby Comrade X, but that they were both part of a wave of early sixties Cold War villans. Even Marvel poked fun at the ubiquity of commie spies in their comics: in Natasha’s first appearance she had a partner named Boris, after the archetypical Boris and Natasha of Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Of course, unlike Comrade X, Natasha was presented as a woman from the start. Russian beauty is famous in Western pop culture, but it only applies to women. Silver Age Marvel is full of Eastern European with mysterious, sultry eyes, with heavy lashes and arched eyebrows: more dangerous than Gwen Stacy’s wide eyes or Pepper Potts’ freckles. The Russian men, on the other hand, are uniformly squat and large-nosed brutes. Almost inevitably, Soviet women were seduced by handsome, Western heroes. The captialist west offered freedom, redemption, and a superior standard of masculinity.

Hank Pym’s first wife, Maria, seen mostly in dreamy flashbacks, was a Hungarian woman convinced of the evils of communism. And then there are the Bond girls, notorious for their ambiguous motivations and unambiguous names. Natasha’s story most resembles Tatiana Romanova, the From Russia With Love honeytrap. Like the very early Natasha, Tatiana’s beauty is presented as dangerous, and like the very early Natasha she’s debatably a victim of Soviet espionage as much as its agent. Both Tatiana and Vesper Lynd are said to be based on stories of Krystyna Sarbek, a real Special Operations agent and war hero who did not disappear after one movie. Likewise, the archetype is informed not a little by the legend of Mata Hari, which married female sexuality with exoticism and patriotic danger.

As her comic book appearances went on, though, Natasha and her plotlines were written more and more in the visual and symbolic language of superheroes. She became a reluctant villain and later a hero in her own right. The introduction of Hawkeye into her story set up a mutual redemption arc, and she began teaming up with the Avengers, whose stories went places besides Communist Russia. The Cold War elements in Natasha’s story didn’t go away, but they were woven into a more traditional redeemed-villain storyline. Natasha’s motivations became less ambiguous: she wanted to prove herself and moral worth and win her own freedom. The romance with Hawkeye became complicated not by divided loyalties but by Natasha’s determination to act for herself.

This was the era of the fishnet costume, which bore not a little resemblance to what Black Canary was wearing over at DC. In Black Canary’s original appearances she was a criminal who enraptured the hero— it was later revealed she’d been working for the good guys all along. Borrowing the Black Canary colorscheme and fishnet details turned Natasha into a costumed fighter ready for four-color action. The romance with the archer-hero Hawkeye is also an obvious parallel, but the Black Widow/Hawkeye pairing actually predates Black Canary/Green Arrow. This is a case, I think, of both companies riffing off of what the other was doing.

In 1970, though, Natasha left Clint to persue solo adventures, and got the black jumpsuit red hair look that’s she’s most known for. The obvious visual comparison is to Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel, an early icon of style and competence. But even though elements of the sixties Avengers TV show have worked their way into the Marvel universe (especially when Chris Claremont is writing), Natasha’s black jumpsuit look isn’t one of them.

John Romita was instead influenced by the Golden Age character Miss Fury:

Miss Fury by Jack Kirby in the style of Tarpé Mills.

Miss Fury was a glamorous and determined adventuress who, like Natasha in the 1970s, had a wealthy socialite alter-ego. She was one of the first female heroes of the pulp era and her creator signed herself Tarpé Mills to disguse the fact that she was a woman. Dynamite Comics has recently revived the character in period stories.

Finally, in those early seventies stories, Natasha became marked by what I think is her most profound and specific influence, the British newspaper heroine Modesty Blaise. When Natasha went solo, remember, Marvel didn’t have much real precedent for solo female heroes, so Gerry Conway especially used Modesty Blaise as a template. Like that Natasha, Modesty was a bored socialite with a criminal past and action-hero impulses. Readers learned about Natasha’s background as a orphan refugee, something I always felt was a tribute to Modesty. Ivan became her Willie Garvin, a quasi-platonic older male sidekick who called her princess. The recent Warren Ellis/Alex Maleev Secret Avengers even features a black and white time travel interlude in the style of Modesty Blaise:

The Black Widow by Warren Ellis and Alex Maleev in the style of Peter O'Donnell and Jim Holdaway.

Modesty Blaise was stylish and competent and complex, everything Conway wanted Natasha to be. But she never became Modesty, because there was too much Natasha already established. The thing about Natasha’s character history is not that she’s became important by avoiding cliches. Instead, her character straddles and combines tropes of different genres, creating something new and different in the pop alchemy. Like the universe she inhabits, Natasha is a bit of a mess, but like the universe she inhabits, that’s what makes her unique and enduring.


Images from Tales to Astonish #36, Miss Fury #2, and Secret Avengers #20.