Cold War Kids Are Hard to Kill
There was really nothing bad about Greg Rucka’s Pale Little Spider, the 2007 Marvel MAX series introducing the new Black Widow, Yelena Belova. Taken on its own terms, the mini-series was lavish in a Kafka-esque kind of way. Filthy and downtrodden, the story was dark and sexually perilous. Yelena, the replacement Black Widow to the original title-bearer Natasha Romanova (re-popularized by Scarlett Johansson’s portrayal in the recent Iron Man 2), investigates the murder of her handler in a sex club located in the morally ambiguous district of Staroprivoskiy Prospekt, Moscow.
That series had Rucka’s surgical eye for characterization by way of locality. Too much of what we are, Rucka has always held as an essential theme in his writing (dating all the way back to Whiteout), is dictated by the chance of our geography. This powerful insight has long informed both a positive kind of nationalism, and negative geographical-oriented racism.
But Rucka’s great contribution to the evolution of the Black Widow character, the ultimate Russian spy who denounced Communism, was to navigate the character out of the dead-end of Cold War logic. This had already been done to the Black Widow, evolving the character from the Golden Age version of Clare Voyant to the more modern vision of a Cold War superspy. The problem of course was, that in jettisoning Natasha Romanova, some of the political complexity and moral ambiguity of the character was shifted to the storytelling.
Natasha Romanova was a classic character, much like a Hamlet or Orlando. Rucka’s Pale Little Spider refocused the character as marginally easier to understand, but awash in a politically complex, but morally ambiguous world. More a James Bond or the Kid from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.
Marjorie Liu’s radical shift of course, is to re-contextualize the terms of the debate once again. She begins with thoroughgoing reversal of Rucka’s initial proposition. What if, in some senses, Natasha Romanova herself could be evolved beyond the Cold War milieu that birthed her?
Liu’s proposition is as sweeping as it is seductive. But her resolution of the conundrum has even wider-ranging implications. What Liu presents readers with is a classically-defined character (with all the attributions of greatness intact), awash in an even more politically complex world. The new struggle for the Romanova character is not a Cold War dynamic of escaping the evil empire, but the recalibration as the US-Russia diplomacy as a North-South struggle. For all intents, according to Liu’s magnificent reimagining of the character, the Black Widow is living through a Russia is perpetually teetering on the brink of Third World status. And isn’t the superspy as exemplar of struggles with Third Wave feminism the perfect cultural metaphor for this social reality.
In Liu’s Black Widow we are treated to the codes and practices of the espionage genre being used as a vehicle for chronicling the shift to Third Wave feminism. In a Spivak sense of things, why compartmentalize subaltern struggles for representation in the mainstream? Surely feminism should be able to speak to post-colonial struggles for ideological liberation. Liu’s genius lies in harnessing the story of a highly competitive, never-say-die, superwoman in the service of these politics.
With Natasha Romanova’s past come back as a conspiracy bent on killing (or possibly testing) her, and her own earthy intelligence on moving unseen through urban landscapes, the Black Widow stands on the cusp of a shift in politics.
More than being read, Black Widow deserves to be taught, announcing Liu as a powerful new literary voice.