Since her introduction into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Iron Man 2, perhaps no single member of Marvel’s current Avengers film roster has cultivated such a dedicated following as Natasha Romanov, the Black Widow. As the only female member of the team pre-Age of Ultron, fans have been demanding a solo film for the character for years, and have dedicated websites, tumblrs, campaigns, and fan films and trailers to its creation. So far they’ve been given glimpses of Widow’s unique origins throughout the MCU films and TV shows, piecing together the story of an ex-KGB assassin trying to atone for her violent past. However, they have yet to be given an illustrative look at her other life.
What they have gotten is perhaps the next best thing: Nathan Edmondson and Phil Noto’s Black Widow comic series. Bringing Black Widow back to her roots in espionage and covert affairs, the series has beautifully depicted Natasha’s journey to redress her past sins, the infamous red in her ledger referenced in The Avengers. With issue 19, the series seeks to start from the beginning, detailing how Natasha earned her very first lines of red and giving us a gripping, finely-crafted tale from her early days.
The issue begins with a heartbreakingly foretelling scene, as Natasha is seen standing atop a building with Captain America (Sam Wilson) prior to the battle of Secret Wars, during which Natasha is seemingly killed in Issue 1 trying to pilot an evacuation vessel off a doomed Earth. Even Natasha’s first line of dialogue speaks volumes: “I can’t save them all.”
We’re shown Sam and Natasha facing the fated vessel as Sam explains it’s Natasha’s job to assist in the effort to save as many people as possible before Earth as they know it is destroyed. “If it’s the last thing I’ll do on Earth, I’ll make it something good,” Natasha says. Just between these two lines we’re given a deep look into Natasha’s character: someone who, despite all the good she’s done since her KGB days, will seek redemption to the very end.
The story then transitions to Cold War Russia, where a young Natasha (here called Natalia) speaks with two Russian functionaries in the infamous “Red Room.” She is given her first mission: travel to Cuba and locate a family called the Comienzas, who are at risk from Castro’s regime and who may have information of vital importance to Russia. She is told to rendezvous with another agent, her classmate Marina, and befriend the family under the guise of a Russian businesswoman. Natasha assures them of her competency and leaves. When one of the officers questions her youth, the other assures him, “she’s a killer. She will not disappoint.” It’s a tragic depiction of Natasha’s early induction into a world of violence and treachery.
Natasha meets Marina in Cuba and the two friends catch up before meeting with the Comienzas that night at a local bar. It’s here that we see Natasha’s talent for deception blossom, as she casually and politely convinces the husband and wife that she’s seeking inside information to help her import various goods into the country. The Comienzas explain they can’t reveal said information, prompting Natasha to later explain to Marina that the family might need “a little push.”
The following scenes present us with a glimpse of Natasha’s early capacity for cruelty as she effectively terrorizes the family into desperation. First, she plants an American flag on their doorstep to mimic someone accusing them of defecting to the United States, and then later by detonating a car bomb outside their home when the first attempt doesn’t make them “nearly desperate enough.” In between these scenes, we see Natasha meet with one of the Russian officers from the Red Room to report her progress. Following the car bomb explosion, Natasha declares the family is indeed desperate enough to reproach for information. Before letting Natasha go, the officer announces she has one additional task before her mission is over: Marina has become too much enamored with her civilian guise, and is now a security risk. Natasha will have to eliminate her.
Writer Nate Edmondson has a long history with spy and espionage thrillers, having written prior comics as Who is Jake Ellis? and The Activity, and his talents definitely show here. The issue is expertly paced, and the writing as intelligent and introspective as would be expected from the genre, showing Edmonson’s understanding of Widow’s complexity. Several lines of dialogue in particular are especially reflective of Natasha, such as when the Russian official brushes a Black Widow spider away from Natasha, commenting the spiders used to be experimented on in Cuba. When Natasha asks what they learned from this, the official simply comments, “I cannot say what anyone could learn from a spider except that it is deadly.” This is a fascinating parallel to the comic’s intention itself: teaching us about Natasha, perhaps only to learn of how deadly she truly is at her core. It makes the Natasha we know at present all the more interesting, seeking to overcome the violent, deceptive instincts she had indoctrinated so early in life.
Much of the comic’s effectiveness also owes itself to the gorgeous artwork of Phil Noto. With an illustrated style that toes the boundary between two and three-dimensional, reminiscent of the type of animation seen in movies such as A Scanner Darkly, the issue is given an effectively cinematic feel. If the Black Widow movie ever does come to fruition, this is definitely the team you want making the storyboards.
Black Widow #19 is an excellent, gripping start to what looks to be a definitive telling of Natasha Romanov’s origins, and leaves us appropriately anxious, and perhaps apprehensive, to learn just what earned her the red of the Black Widow.