With Marvel’s New ‘Black Widow’ limited series collection (2018), writers Jen and Sylvia Soska continue the proud comic book tradition of using superheroes to challenge readers to take a closer look at our culture.
Spoiler Alert: the following article contains some plot and thematic details (which I think will make you rush out to read the series).
It’s one of the most iconic and legendary comic book images in history. The moment Captain America’s fist connects with the jaw of Adolph Hitler still elicits a raw emotional response. People remember the image, but very few realize that Hitler was a threat long before Captain America existed. In fact, Captain America was created because of Hitler.
Super-soldier Steve Rogers, dressed head-to-toe in the American flag, was created as a visceral and cathartic response to the Nazis. And yet, believe it or not, that punch was a precarious move In 1940. Many Americans were opposed to the U.S. entering the war in Europe and Cap’s fist was a call to action in the face of inaction. Timely Comics risked alienating a large portion of their audience.
What was the fallout? There were protests at the Timely offices and there were death threats from pro-Nazi organizations. Despite that, Issue #1 of Captain America sold a million copies. Before long, superheroes of all shapes and sizes were taking swings at Nazis, Fascists, and Communists.
In 1971, Stan Lee defied the Comics Code Authority when they refused to approve Issues #96-98 of The Amazing Spider-Man. The dispute involved Peter Parker’s best friend, Harry Osborn, becoming addicted to drugs and overdosing. Even though the storyline was officially requested by the U.S. Department of Health, the Authority still refused to grant Lee a seal, because any discussion of drugs in comic books was forbidden.
For the first time in their history, Marvel Comics published a comic book without the CCA seal. There was a concern that readers would reject the storyline and Marvel would suffer an expensive loss. Instead, the response was overwhelmingly positive as churches, parents, and teachers praised Marvel’s courage. But, even more importantly, the CCA recognized the cultural impact and they changed the code.
This marked a new maturity in comics, and soon after that many superheroes finally began to acknowledge and battle social and cultural issues that were previously ignored. And I think that’s a very important point. If superheroes are modern mythological heroes who teach us values and show us how to overcome struggles, the lessons they teach must be culturally relevant.
Comic books and superheroes are as much influenced by the culture as they comment on the culture. By their own nature, superheroes adapt and adjust to the values of their time in history. Take a look at Batman or Wonder Woman and see how their temperments fluctuated over 70 years. However, as the examples by Timely Comics and Stan Lee show, comic books and superheroes can also challenge the values of the culture of their time. And I think that when comics take a stand that makes us look at our current reality and decide for ourselves if we like what we see, that’s when they are truly heroic.
Jen and Sylvia Soska’s five-issue limited run of Black Widow (2019) continues the proud tradition of challenging readers to confront social issues through the allegorical lens of the comic book superhero.
They take the reins at just the right moment in the saga of Natasha Romanoff, a Red Room-trained ex-KGB assassin, an ex-Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and sometimes-Avenger. The state of emotional flux Natasha inhabits allows the Soskas to introduce themes they explore in their films (specifically, American Mary) to add a powerful subtext to an already gritty tale of loss, rage, redemption and, ultimately, learning to let go of the past and move on.
To catch everyone up on what state the Soskas find Natasha in, let me briefly summarize. While teaming up with the Avengers, she is betrayed by an imposter version of Steve Rogers (Captain America), who attempts to take over the USA for HYDRA. In the ensuing battle (chronicled in the Marvel limited series Secret Empire) this evil Captain America murders Natasha. But the Red Room won’t let her rest. They bring her back to life as a clone with implanted memories and she repays the favor by destroying the Red Room and any remaining clones. The Black Widow, this assassin, this ghost in spiritual limbo, disappears into the wind…
The Soskas pick up the story with Widow teaming up with the real Steve Rogers to take down a group of terrorists. It’s a shaky alliance at best, and it becomes apparent that Nat is done with the rules heroes are supposed to adhere to. She is there to put animals down and to feed a seemingly bottomless rage within her. When Rogers narrowly stops her from killing an imposter Captain America (a guy who wears the colors of a patriot but spews hateful jingoism), Black Widow lets Rogers know that she’s changed and she’s no longer like him.
Natasha travels to the island country of Madripoor, a rich trade center that is also a haven for criminals and lawlessness because of their anti-extradition laws. She comes to the island not as a hero but as an assassin, hoping to discharge her overwhelming wrath on people who deserve to die by her hand.
She’s come to the right place. Natasha soon finds out about “No Restraints Play”, a private, encrypted and firewalled website that allows members from around the world to pay top dollar to watch, and even direct, live torture of a human being. The website and the “playpen” are somewhere on the island. Even worse, the victims of this deviant game are the lost children of Madripoor, abducted off the street. Most are never seen again, but some of them survive, maimed, sexually abused, and spiritually destroyed.
Natasha’s search for the site location, those responsible, those who profit from NRP, and those anonymous internet scum who pay to watch rape and torture is the narrative drive of the story. And that story is in turns brutal, funny, grotesque, heartbreaking, exhilarating, infuriating and sad.
The horrific topics of human trafficking, child abuse and the exploiting of the powerless for money are current social abominations that need to be acknowledged, addressed and acted upon, and the Soskas do not flinch in their call to action. They wisely use the abstract and fantastical medium of the comic book to explore these intense and painful subjects. The panels showing mutilated children and the terror just behind their eyes may have been too much to bear in a film. Artist Flaviano Armentaro’s powerful illustrations are up to the task of interpreting the Soska’s vision and the result is both horrible and beautiful. He captures the cinematic drive of the story in one panel and in the next, the action comes to a full stop to let us sit with our emotions.
But what I think makes this a heroic piece beyond the plot lines are how Jen and Sylvia Soska use the history of what the character of Natasha Romanoff has been through to create a Black Widow that comments hard on the realities that women face right now in our culture. The subtext of Black Widow examines the rage of betrayal many women feel with a society that remains apathetic in the face of real abuse, real trauma, and a system that wants to marginalize them. In the face of that, there is fury that is channeled into protecting those who can’t protect themselves and a refusal to back down.
The text of Black Widow comments on how evil groups of people continue to profit on the suffering of the powerless and the enabling of predators. However, the subtext challenges us to look closer and realize that the only reason evil groups of people get away with what they do is that they are enabled by good people who do nothing to stop them.
The Soskas make it clear that there are no sidelines in either the comic book world or the real one…and there never were. Abusers, predators, and misogynists remain protected by inaction, comfort zones, shame, convenience, ignorance, and indifference. The only innocents in Black Widow are the lost children of Madripoor. Everyone else is culpable at some level for feeding the machine.
Including Natasha Romanoff.
One of the things that I really appreciate about the Soska Sisters’ vision for this series is that they are unafraid to present a superhero who is flawed and has to overcome those flaws. The Black Widow portrayed here is a far cry from the one represented in the current MCU film-verse. There’s a tendency in comic books to white-wash heroes when they battle the morally reprehensible as if you need to be a saint to call out the evil in the world. But Black Widow has always had a complicated moral ambiguity to her and it’s refreshing to see that dark side unbridled. It sends the message that even the most damaged of us can find redemption.
Romanoff was trained to be an assassin. She has murdered for the system she was born into. Her life has been spent bound to this duty. She forfeited a part of her soul for the good of that system only to be betrayed by her allies who sacrificed her for “the greater good.” Even when she changes sides and joins a new team this pattern repeats itself until someone she trusts as an ally uses that trust to manipulate her and then kill her.
When Natasha is resurrected into a clone’s body with implanted memories, she’s aware that she has killed to protect ideologies that in the end destroyed her. There is no taking back what was done in the past. The old Natasha died in the trauma and only Black Widow survived.
There’s a telling moment when Natasha discovers NRP on the internet and looks in horror at the image of a mutilated child. She takes a swig from a whiskey bottle and thinks to herself,
“…somewhere deep inside of me…part of me smiles. These men. These disgusting monsters. Finally, I can let my monster loose. The killer I was made to be.”
She isn’t thinking about justice. She wants vengeance. For everything. All that rage has to go somewhere.
It’s not hard to see the parallels between Natasha’s journey and the tribulations of women who have suffered sexual assault and trauma only to be told that they need to be patient and trust in the system. When nothing changes and these women object, the powers that be patronize them or denigrate them or threaten them. How many times does this cycle need to be repeated before the frustration boils over into anger? I think we’re finding out right now.
Throughout this saga, Natasha continuously deals with men who try to intimidate her or underestimate her. When she disguises herself to go undercover, the Soskas make sure we notice how every man touches her when they speak. There are men who are overstimulated and desensitized by gratification, men without empathy who try to excuse their actions as harmless. Others try to paint themselves as the real victims. The Black Widow smites them all.
As much adrenalized fun it is to finally see an untethered and uncensored version of Black Widow go ballistic in a vengeful rampage through the scum of Madripoor, the Soska Sisters have higher ambitions. This is a superhero story and Natasha becomes a hero again by rescuing the lost children. She is a wounded warrior and she has true compassion and empathy for them. Her level of warmth for these broken souls is a powerful contrast to the hardness she shows the rest of the world.
Natasha not only rescues them physically, but she also rescues them from a seemingly hopeless spiritual state. Even if it is only a spark, she gives them some hope. And in return, the children point her towards the long road to redemption. She has taken many lives, but now Natasha knows the path to self-forgiveness is in saving them. She is once again in the wind, but she’s no longer a ghost in spiritual limbo. She has a purpose.
The crushing weight of the past figures prominently in Black Widow. Natasha’s assassin is fueled by anger and fury from past injustices. Steve Rogers lives with regret from his past tragedy with Natasha that sullied his All-American reputation. Even the villain tries to blame his actions on his own abuse in his past. Jen and Sylvia Soska tell us that we can’t change the past, nor can we live in it. They give Natasha Romanoff’s saga a hopeful and emotionally satisfying end.
Jen and Sylvia Soska’s Black Widow continues the proud comic book tradition of using superheroes to challenge us to look closer at our culture and decide if we like what we see. Black Widow is a call to action. We as a culture may have failed the powerless and the innocent in the past, but we can make amends by owning our mistakes and getting into action in the present. We can be that punch to the jaw to our modern day tyrants. The Soskas tell us that it doesn’t matter what the story has been up to now. It’s up to us how it’s going to end.
Black Widow (2018) #1-5. Written by Jen and Sylvia Soska. Illustrated by Flaviano Armentaro. Color Art by Veronica Gandini. Lettering by Joe Caramanga. Cover Art by Clayton Crane. Variant Cover Art by Mirka Andolfo and Kevin Nowlan. Remastered Variant Cover Art by John Buscema and Chris Sotomayor. Edited by Jake Thomas. Associate Editor: Mark Basso. Editor-in-Chief: C.B. Cebulski. Chief Creative Officer: Joe Quesada. President: Dan Buckley. Executive Producer: Alan Fine.
Digital versions can be purchased at the Marvel Digital Comics Shop: https://comicstore.marvel.com/
Get Involved. Eradicate Sex Trafficking: https://sharedhope.org/