Sara Ziff at Balenciaga, Fall/Winter 2004
Sara Ziff at Balenciaga, Fall/Winter 2004
Women in Marvel’s The Complete History of Black Widow (Part 8)
Welcome back to our tour through the History of Black Widow. Last week we saw the influence of the Women’s Liberation movement on Black Widow rise and fall. Together with Daredevil, Natasha took on a number of now forgotten villains, such as Stiltman, Angmar the Screamer, and Terrex. After a run in with Moondragon, she starts pressuring Daredevil to better define their relationship, which begins a downward spiral for the superhero couple.
This week we’re continuing through Black Widow’s lengthy run in Daredevil, going from Daredevil #109 (May 1974) to Daredevil #117 (January 1975).
If you haven’t been following along with womeninmarvel's History of the Black Widow, you should be. I wanted to comment on this edition specifically because I think pound-for-pound and panel-for-panel Steve Gerber has been the worst creator in Black Widow history. And I think I’m the only one who thinks this, so I gotta explain.
Here’s how it goes, guys, the narrative strikes back. Marvel introduced a bunch of “women’s lib” heroes in the 1970s, but then they took them away. When Ms. Marvel was cancelled, Carol moved into the Avengers, and was then infamously written out of the book with issue 200. Greer Grant, original alias the Cat, was created by a women for women audiences in the early 70s, with a woman writing her series and woman pencillers when they could get them. The story goes that the Wally Wood, the inker, handed back the pencils with all clothes removed, and Marie Severin had to white out the nipples and pubic hair. But Greer was an explicitly feminist hero: the widow of a controlling cop learning to fight for herself. Her powers came from a lady super-scientist, who Greer meets when she returns to the college classes her husband forbade her from attending.
Steve Englehart didn’t like the Cat, and still says so. “I wasn’t real interested in the Cat. I read the books and they seemed like pandering, frankly — not very good stories written to appeal to a demographic.” When he took over Avengers and Avengers West Coast, he gave her original costume Patsy Walker as an ironic turn on both heroines (the 70s feminist being replaced by the 50s romance queen) and regressed Greer into a hypersexual cat creature with an animal mind, who couldn’t help but throw herself at all her male teammates. “Whatever failings I may have, I do like men— !” she thinks to herself in one issue, “—and men like me! I’d never have been this free if I’d stayed Greer Nelson the feminist!”
Likewise, Steve Gerber didn’t like Black Widow in his book: in her book, really, because the book he took over was called Daredevil and the Black Widow. Years later, this is what Gerber had to say:If I recall, Black Widow also left during my run on the comic. And I have to say, in all honesty, I didn’t miss her… One of the keys to understanding the Daredevil character is that he’s one man alone, in darkness. Mitigate the totality of that darkness and the character becomes much less interesting. Natasha was a mitigating factor. However much I may have liked looking at her, she just didn’t belong in DAREDEVIL.
Look, as a longtime Daredevil fan, I’m okay with the idea that Matt Murdock is a man alone, a man of bleakness, and later writers have doubled-down on that idea, so it seems especially inevitable in retrospect. But Natasha got put in the Daredevil titles because both their books were struggling, so it was time to try shaking the status quo. Marvel thought about merging Daredevil and Iron Man, but Gerry Conway brought in Natasha instead. She was pitched as the “Gloria Steinem of the jumpsuit set,” and the title of the book was changed to give her co-billing. And then Gerber took Natasha from courageous co-star and feminist inspiration to discarded love interest. He introduced a bunch of new women for Matt to flirt with for a few issues and made Natasha jealous. Part of the “women’s lib” direction of earlier runs was Natasha’s determination to get herself a job, pay her own way. Gerber had that quest wind up in humiliation: Natasha becomes homeless, confesses she has no skills, and that her whole quest for self-sufficiency was silly, stubborn pride.
And then, yeah, Gerber brainwashes her into the “bride” of a misogynist-monkey supervillain. It’s terrible, needs all kinds of trigger warnings, and full of racial ickiness besides. (The Mandrill is a mutate with a baboon face whose only power is removing women’s ability to consent, and his secret origin is basically being black. Yeah. )
Tony Isabella and Chris Claremont noticed what a raw deal Natasha got under Gerber and tried to give her space to address her diminishment in other comics, in other runs. (Even back then, Natasha didn’t go out quietly.) I don’t know if he was trying to kill Natasha’s message or just get her the heck out of the book. I do know that Steve Gerber has since been made a Marvel comics legend, remembered for Defenders and Howard the Duck, and his odd and beautiful and different outsider heroes. And so his Daredevil run is remembered as brave and forward-moving, for introducing space aliens and monkey villains and not the careful destruction of its feminist hero. It’s remembered as a Daredevil run, and not as Daredevil and the Black Widow.
Like I said before. I’m trying to remember better.
[ don’t care what others think — people only hold you back.
dogs have really good advice, don’t they? ]
She knelt and held out her hand for the dog to sniff.
"You like cats, Stinky?"
Her anxiety passed through her hand and affected him, his lower lip tucked until his teeth as he chewed it nervously. His brows were furrowed as he looked up at her, concerned marking his features. She was more tense than she should have been and it worried him. His knees still ached and he shifted his weight back so he was sitting on his ankles. He listened quietly as she began, arm starting to hurt from the way it was twisted to hold her hand, but he didn’t dare move or pull away from her. He’d endured much more pain before and for far less of a cause. His own eyes stung as he heard her out and he reached back to grab her another napkin, unsure of how to respond.
His tongue mashed against the roof of his mouth, forcing the tears that had welled up in his eyes to recede. For a moment, he was pulled back into the memory of delivering a still-born child to an abused woman in India. He remembered her wails of anguish, her pleas to her gods, but what haunted him the most was the look in her eyes when the baby was out of her womb and silent as a winter’s night. They’d buried the child together in the middle of the night, the ground soft from the rains of the day before. She had healed by then and had run away from her husband with whatever Bruce could give her as soon as the child was buried.
He didn’t remember crying like that since.
He didn’t quite understand her Russian, only catching ‘baby’, ‘show’, ‘alive’ and piecing it all together. He didn’t react when her hand left his, only kneeling there in stunned silence, eyes vacant as her words repeated in his head: she died before she was born. “Nat… I…” His voice was hoarse and he cleared it before meeting her eyes. “Мне очень жаль.”
When she finally felt strong enough to pull her hands away, Natasha shot Bruce a weary, sad smile. She could see the pain of memory crossing his features and yet she couldn’t bring herself to ask about his own wounds. Instead she took Bruce by the hands and tried to guide him to his feet. “You’re going to wreck your knees,” she told him with a watery laugh.
Possibly the worst part of it all was knowing. Knowing that if Rose had lived and Natalia fled with her into the frozen wilderness they would have starved to death. Or the Red Room would have caught up with her, killed her and left her baby to die in the snow. The reason Natasha Romanoff was alive to feel a new daughter kick in her belly was that her first daughter never breathed. “We were both so sick. At least this time I know my baby has a fighting chance. It’s a different world.”
Steve, of course, didn’t have that difficult a time of parting ways with his apartment and all the zero people living inside it. He didn’t hardly have the proper amount of clothes or the right kinds to fit in as smoothly as they meant to- he’d need to have Natasha help him shop. More denim, he thought. People these days love their blue jeans and right now he was wearing his only pair along with a white thermal shirt. At least his wardrobe was simple enough to pass for that of a simple guy.
And the thing he was most happy about with this whole ordeal was that he could bring his bike. Apparently it wasn’t uncommon for a young newly married gentleman in 2014 to have that as a hobby and after a few changes to make the ride unrecognizable, he was approved in having it and it’d been picked up earlier that day.
The soldier felt just fine getting to the airport and checking the bags he had and then waiting in the terminal as he and Natasha had planned. However, standing there with his hands pocketed alone in his own mind for the time being- then the uncertainty kicked in.
Steve could handle an exceptional amount of danger, risk, injury, responsibility, leadership, extreme conditions- whatever a mission called for. Nothing on those scared him; he’d been trained to excell in every field he was scheduled to participate in.
But not this one.
This was so different and out of his comfort zone that he hadn’t realized until now how difficult it would be. He wasn’t sure how Natasha was feeling about it, similarly or maybe the exact opposite- after all, she had her own family now and she’d been living in the modern world since forever. He hoped internally that this was going to be a breeze for her, because he could already sense that he’d be leaning heavily.
Natasha’s voice preceded her behind Steve and slightly to the left: “I’m late; I’m sorry.”
With a duffel over her shoulders and a ratty pullover completing the image of a new wife fresh out of graduate school, she gave Steve a perfunctory greeting kiss on the cheek. “Saying goodbye took longer than I anticipated,” she explained while handing out their boarding passes. Shooting him a wry look from beneath her lashes, she made a show of pinning his boarding pass to his lapel—along with his GPS tracker.
"Don’t lose this," she warned him with a wry grin. Shrugging her duffle a little higher, she looked their arms and tugged them toward security. "As soon as we pass the gates we’re Natalie and Grant Rushman. I just received my graduate degree at NCSU and you just came home from a tour in Iraq. You served one tour in Baghdad and another in Mandali before being offered a home position training ROTC troops. I have a job in the local government center, and our place at the country club has been reserved.”
The mere idea of being so out in the open made Natasha uneasy, but it wasn’t as though she’d never done this kind of op before. It was only that it so closely mirrored her own life, now. She had a husband, a child, and a semi-stable career. Friends. There was so much more to leave behind.
She pulled out her phone and showed Steve a picture of the baby, beaming like sunshine. “She sounds like a real person when she laughs now.”
"Wrong Rogers then." He gave her one of his disarming smiles and wiped some more blood away, then stood and walked toward the chest of medical supplies against the wall, to grab the dental floss. There was a bottle of whisky on the shelf in the corner of the room as well, "Besides." he said as he snagged the floss from the chest and grabbed the bottle too, "I don’t use a hammer…might ask Thor about that."
Natasha rolled here eyes with a pained smile. “Very cute—Mister Rogers was a television character,” she explained. “He was well-known for encouraging children to believe in their own self worth, loving his neighbors, and wearing cardigans. I’m not sure if it was the same cardigan every time, though…”
When he came back with the supplies Natasha took a deep breath, took a swig of whiskey, then poured a generous amount over the wound in her knee. Rather than make a sound she bit the heel of her hand until a trickle of blood ran down her chin.
"Okay, I got this," she repeated, taking the needle and floss. Her hands shook so badly she couldn’t thread the needle.