“Because We’re Heroes”: A Natasha Romanoff Manifesto

People love to tell Black Widow fans that their fave is boring.

This is, of course, not unique to Black Widow – almost inevitably, name a female character in a group of (male) comics fans and you’ll get someone saying she’s boring, or useless, or in some other way unworthy. (But wait, you’ll be quick to protest: doesn’t this happen with male characters too? Oh, absolutely – but with far less consistency and not often with the “top list” characters. Call Iron Man boring and then call Captain Marvel boring and see which gets the bigger outcry.) Fanboys will tell you, as a Black Widow fan, that it’s not just their opinion: the numbers prove it, her comics just doesn’t sell.

But all numbers aside, just down to brass tacks: Black Widow is awesome.

There are a whole lot of reasons I could give for this entirely objective statement. Her relationships with women, for instance: as mentor, friend, and protector, or her unique and nuanced morality which provides a refreshing shade of gray to the relatively morally black and white superhero universe. The aspect I want to focus on for the purpose of this blog post, however, is the issue of choice, or agency. (relationship to feminism)

Natasha’s storylines have always dealt in some way with her choices. The choice to be hero instead of villain is both the most obvious and the simplest – most simply put in her early comics in terms of defection from Communist Russia to the good ol’ United States. For those not up to date on their comics Black Widow storylines, she first popped up in Tales of Suspense #52 as an Iron Man villain – a Communist spy sent to steal Tony Stark’s technological secrets. Her mission fails, but she returns the next issue, stealing a powerful object that lets her move mountains. She is ultimately defeated, of course – only to return again a few issues later, this time teaming up with Hawkeye (Clint Barton, in his first appearance), who was mistaken for a robber in his attempt to launch a career as a costumed hero. (Whoops.)

Black Widow remained an on again, off again villain character for a very short time – but in that time, readers were given startling insight into her motivation (her parents were being held by Soviet authorities). It was in 1966 that Black Widow officially joined the good guys – though her status as a vaguely morally ambiguous figure remained. At this point, when the prohibition against heroes killing people was still very much in effect, Natasha was the wild card who could threaten murder and be believed.


Avengers #37 (1967) by Roy Thomas

Choice continues to be a powerful theme in many of Natasha’s appearances – the repeated confirmation that she is allow to define, redefine, and create her own identity, always remaining a hero.

One way this has been written over the years is in various storylines where Natasha’s loyalties come into question. In one recent story arc, Natasha’s espionage against her allies is revealed in an attempt to isolate and destroy her. Natasha embarks on a campaign to take back her own life. On the way, she encounters Elektra, a character who has suffered theft of her agency throughout her life: replaced by Skrulls, manipulated or directly controlled by the Hand, killed by Bullseye to hurt Matt Murdock (effectively reducing her to an object).

Elektra is furious at the idea that Natasha has stolen information about her and is selling it to others. At the end of the fight, she proclaims her commitment to reclaiming her own life. “My life has been stolen from me, time and time again,” she says. “I will not let it happen once more.” Natasha answers simply: “Neither will I.”


Furthermore, because of the ways in which choices were taken from her, Natasha battles for the right of others to self-determination. This is linked, again and again, with Natasha as an advocate and defender of other women. In Marjorie Liu’s 2010 run on Black Widow, Natasha detours from a dinner with then boyfriend Bucky Barnes to corner a man in the bathroom.

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Black Widow #1 (2010) by Marjorie Liu

In Nathan Edmondson’s run, Natasha confronts her neighbor, another man abusing his wife. In X-23 #20, also written by Marjorie Liu, she encounters X-23 (Laura Kinney) while busting a group of men trafficking women. She rescues a young woman being harrassed by truckers in the semi-canonical Black Widow: Homecoming series. Natasha, again and again, not only stands up for other women but takes on the role of mentor and guide. She provides Rikki Barnes, Bucky Barnes’ universe-displaced granddaughter from an alternate timeline, with a costume and advice, offers to take X-23 under her wing (and would have, in a pitched series that was never written), and . In one issue of Klaws of the Panther, featuring Shuri (the original Black Panther’s sister, who at that time had taken the mantle), Natasha offers guidance to the conflicted young woman.

In the Thunderbolts series, Natasha breaks her cover to save Songbird, another young woman superhero. As they make their escape, Natasha tells her that “superpowers are a crutch…in the end, all you really have are two fists and a brain.” Natasha values self-reliance above almost all else – she encourages the women she mentors to make their own choices and pushes them toward independence.

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Thunderbolts #136 (2006) by Andy Diggle

This is also a major theme of Black Widow: Itsy Bitsy Spider (Devin Grayson & Greg Rucka), in which Natasha comes face to face with her mirror image: Yelena Belova, Moscow’s new Black Widow, who has arrived to attempt to eliminate her predecessor. Natasha advises Yelena to back down, lecturing her on the costs of the life she lives even as they face off, guns pointed at each other.

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Black Widow #2 (1999) by Devin Grayson

“You learn to be lost all the time, so as to never be able to direct anyone to your employers. Or your heart. Or your vulnerabilities. And for what, rooskaya, for what? To play pawn to any one of a dozen governments that will shoot you in the back just for becoming the dispassionate creature they require?”

Later, in a spectacularly morally dubious act, Natasha swaps her and Yelena’s faces, literally putting Yelena in her shoes for a period of time and forcing her to experience the life she is trying to claim for her own. As Nick Fury puts it, explaining to Daredevil:

“Blondie down there sees things like you do…she thinks she’s a super herobut Natasha, she’s the Black Widow. She’s the real deal. She knows better. She knows espionage is nasty business.”

The central idea of all of this is the same: people have the right to self-determination and freedom. Natasha pushes Yelena away from her goal because it will make her a pawn. She offers Laura Kinney a chance to be useful, rather than used. For Natasha, her choices, good or ill, define her, and she will allow no one to take them away. Even as far back as the Bronze Age, this was true – after a run of being underwritten by (who was the daredevil writer?), Natasha broke up with Matt Murdock (Daredevil) because she felt she was losing herself.

In yet another arc, Natasha confronts an alternate universe version of herself who took a different path and is out only for herself. This version of Natasha has retained her Russian accent, and when Natasha comments on it the alternate universe Black Widow responds by accusing her of losing her edge. Natasha’s response is telling: “you remind me of someone who didn’t think for herself. A puppet. A marionette dancing at the pull of the string.” Natasha associates her past with being under others’ control, and her change in allegiance with making a choice – reclaiming her agency.

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Captain America and Black Widow #638 (2012) by Cullen Bunn

In a recent Ms. Marvel comic, Kamala Khan repeats to herself a mantra (from who?): “Good is not a thing you are, it’s a thing you do.” If there is one theme that echoes through Natasha’s arcs, again and again, it is that idea: not just of self-determination in a general sense, but in the choice to do good as an action not taken once but again and again. Natasha recognizes that “good” is not just a state of mind or being, but rather a decision that has to be constantly reaffirmed.

The power of doing good is in making that choice – deliberate, constant, and difficult. And that choice is not – has never been – inevitable. And perhaps even more so: the meaning of doing good comes from the ability to make that choice.

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Black Widow #17 by Nathan Edmondson

In Marvel Team Up #85, Natasha faces off against Viper, fighting with her to stop her plan to blow up the Capitol Building in Washington DC to take down “the warmongering leaders of this corrupt nation.”

“No,” Natasha corrects her. “Innocents will die. Millions of people who’ve done no one any harm – whose only crime is that they exist.”

You speak so casually of death, Viper. I grew up with death. I’ve walked hand in hand with it all my life! I saw children starve in the ruins of Stalingrad, and men freeze solid as ice overnight. Because I know death so well…I know how supremely precious life is.”



Marvel Team Up #85 (1979) by Chris Claremont

If there is a brief description of Natasha Romanov’s personal manifesto, that may be it. Death may follow her, as her name suggests – for a time, Natasha angsted a great deal about her “Widow’s Curse” that killed those closest to her. But the flip side of that darkness is her awareness that life is valuable, that people are valuable, that (in the words of Sam Gamgee), “there is good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.”

I love superheroes. I really, really do. And I love the classic superheroes, like Captain America, that are just good people, who are, to their core, essentially decent. But I also love a story that says that you don’t need to start out good to wind up there. I’ve talked a lot on this blog about my love for Laura Kinney and the importance of her story of self-determination – her ability to make her own identity. My love for Black Widow is related to that, and more.

It’s the idea that Natasha Romanov has suffered and been through hell. She’s done bad things and worked for bad people. She’s fought on the side of the devils and chose to change – and she has. Stories of redemption are incredibly powerful for me. Natasha is a hero – and she’s a hero because she’s chosen, again and again, that that is what she wants to be.

Hence the header for this article: “You say I pick sides. I pick good guys. I pick winners. I pick regret and kindness and mercy.”

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Avengers Assemble #14 by Al Ewing

All the filth the Black Widow has waded through, and she’s come out stronger and more determined than ever. Her life has been built on sadness, but it isn’t defined by it. She came out of a dark past, but isn’t limited by it.

That’s a model that inspires me. It’s a model I can live by.

#TeamBlackWidow forever.

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Black Widow #20 (2015) by Nathan Edmondson

Further Reading: The entirety of the blog fuckyeahblackwidow, but especially World Class Assassin?: Black Widow and Lethality, Our Princess is In Another Refrigerator, and Spy vs Superhero.


Why Laura Kinney Matters

I first encountered Laura Kinney (aka Wolverine or X-23) because of Black Widow. I happened to see a panel on the fuckyeahblackwidow blog with the two of them, and tracked down the issue in question because at the time I was busily reading every single appearance of Black Widow I could get my hands on. The issue was X-23 #20, written by Marjorie Liu and drawn by Phil Noto, and it follows Laura as she spends a night out with Jubilee. While at a club, she discovers – and takes down – a human trafficking ring, which is where she encounters Black Widow, who offers to train her.

Something about the issue hooked me. I went back to the beginning and read the entirety of Marjorie Liu’s run on X-23. Then I tracked down her introductory miniseries, X-23: Innocence Lost, followed by X-23: Target X. And kept digging, looking for more: I read X-Force solely for her, and picked up New X-Men and Avengers Academy for the same reasons. I fell in love.

The basic conceit of Laura’s character is fairly simple: she is a female clone of Logan Howlett (Wolverine) who was raised as an assassin until her eventual escape. A lot of the themes of her stories are similar to Wolverine’s: nature vs. nurture, beast and man, killer instinct and heroic urge. But the specific way those themes are executed, and the way they resonate, are unique. Specifically, Laura’s story, especially during her years as X-23, was one of struggling to define herself as more than what she is told she can be.

During her childhood, Laura was raised with very little connection to others – treated like a machine or an animal, actively discouraged from emotional attachment to others. Laura struggles to think of herself as human, and began self-harming at a young age. Her eventual escape came at the cost of the life of the one woman who showed her kindness, her mother, due to a trigger scent that forces Laura into a killing frenzy. One of her first acts after escaping is to seek out Wolverine and attempt to kill him, convinced that they are both monsters who deserve to die. Laura has been told, again and again, that the only thing she is good for is killing.

Throughout Marjorie Liu’s run, Laura gradually struggles to redefine herself by setting out on her own, and discovers her own heroism – and her own humanity – along the way. She befriends Gambit and Jubilee. She faces off with Daken – Wolverine’s son – and holds her own, calling Daken out on his amorality. In the final issue, entirely wordless, Laura fights her dark side and wins by reconciling with herself, becoming whole.

Stories about reclamation of agency are powerful. Everyone wants to have power over their own lives. Stories about people becoming heroes are also: it’s the reason we keep coming back to origin stories. But Laura’s story says something, specifically, to women.

Gender in general is a trap in a lot of ways. Femininity and womanhood present a number of double-binds: be sexy but not too sexy, smart but not intimidating, succeed at your job but be a nurturing mother. Women are told, over and over from childhood, that they have to fit into certain molds, and if they do not fit those molds are forced into them. Women are objectified and dehumanized daily and in hundreds of small gestures.

What Laura’s growth – Laura’s journey – offers is a story of a young woman who says no. Who against all of the odds, fights her way free of those who try to define her. The majority of Laura’s opponents are male, many representing patriarchal institutions or predators: sex traffickers, male scientists, a male demon (who impersonates Cyclops, an authority figure, and Logan, a father figure), the Collector. I doubt this is an accident. The one female opponent in her solo series is Mr. Sinister’s daughter, seeking to use Laura’s body as an escape as Mr. Sinister tries to take over hers: a dark and more literal mirror of Laura’s own struggle for autonomy.

Laura realizes, through her own agency and her own efforts, her own strength, that she is not a monster, not a killer, not an animal. Captured by enemies in Madripoor who are cutting her apart like an experiment, Laura suddenly recognizes the wrongness of what she is going through.

I have been on other tables. But this feels worse. It all…feels worse. Not because of the pain. Because I know better now. I am not an animal. I am not…a thing. Why did no one ever see that? How could they look at me and hurt me like they did? How was that possible? How? What was wrong with them? How could they? How could they?

Her sudden recognition, that she did not deserve what happened, that she was never what was wrong, is an incredible turning point from her words to Wolverine after her escape from the Facility: “We are weapons! We must be stopped! We must be destroyed!

Now, in comics, Laura is Wolverine. Not only that, she’s taken on mentorship of clones of herself – other girls raised as assassins who escaped their masters. She’s come into her own, reaching out to and giving back to her child self. It feels like a kind of forgiveness – a recognition that she was never the monster. That these girls, these clones, deserve life, and freedom. Despite everyone else telling her what she is, what she’s destined to be, Laura makes herself a superhero.

In one issue of X-23, trapped in space and facing off against the Whirldemon King on an alien world, the demon claims that she is trapped, never going home. Laura contradicts him, saying that she can still see the stars; he says it doesn’t matter because she cannot touch them.

“I do not need to touch them,” Laura says. “I am made of stars.”

Captain America, Actual Social Justice Warrior

In a note of hideous irony, I started this article immediately before the news dropped about Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 (Steve Rogers Is HYDRA!). I rather lost heart in writing this blog post at that point.

However, in light of recent events and the fact that Marvel is still beating this terrible idea of a plot, it seemed important to come back to the point in the title of this article. It seems to be something Marvel in general has forgotten, and may need to be reminded of, particularly those who thought the choice to make Captain America a Nazi (expy) was a good and sensible idea – or even quality storytelling.1  

Though he’s an iconic and instantly recognizable character, there are a lot of people who don’t know much about Captain America. He is frequently characterized as boring or simplistic, and (more often lately) as a jingoistic fantasy, the uberpatriot aligned with conservative values and blindly loyal to the American government.

That’s not Captain America.

When Sam Wilson, formerly known as Falcon, became Captain America in 2015, outcry followed. Fox News was particularly outraged by the first story arc of Sam Wilson: Captain America, which featured the superhero battling the xenophobic, anti-immigrant Serpent Society. Part of the outcry ran that Marvel was making Captain America too political – the political in question here meaning “political in a way that does not align with my values.” This criticism conveniently forgets that Captain America has not only always been political, but has frequently been political in ways that align him with decidedly non-conservative values – neither political nor social.

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Earth’s Mightiest Heroes: Now With More Silver Age Racism

After a long delay (how long has it been? nobody tell me) I’m finally getting back into the swing of writing these recaps. I’ve missed it! Though these five issues presented kind of a cornucopia of the Silver Age at some of its…not finest. On the bright hand, it also introduces some personal favorites.

Starting off with Avengers #16 – this issue is kind of a big deal. It represents the first major shift for the team line up (of many to come). I don’t count the departure of the Hulk and addition of Captain America as a true line-up change, considering the Hulk barely stuck around for the issues he was in and most of the team stayed the same. In Avengers #16, however, which promises to be “possibly the most memorable illustrated story you will read this year!”, almost all of the former Avengers leave and a new team – one frequently cited as one of the best iterations – takes their place. We’ll see what I make of them, but I’m looking forward to it.

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“The House Always Wins”: Agency and Metafiction in Journey Into Mystery and Loki: Agent of Asgard

Comics have a long history with using metafiction (that is, the reference within a work of fiction to that work’s status as a work of fiction). Deadpool’s fourth-wall breaking is an obvious example, but even earlier than that Sensational She-Hulk was lampshading comic conventions and Animal Man confronted writer Grant Morrison in an issue of his own comic. One of the most interesting places this has shown up recently, however, as well as one of the more subtle, is over the course of a story arc spanning three years about one of Marvel’s major supervillains.

Loki in his most familiar incarnation first appeared in Journey Into Mystery #85 in 1962 as a fairly stock supervillain: Thor’s sworn enemy (the “jealous younger brother” angle came later).

Loki makes his first dramatic entrance. (Panel from Journey into Mystery #85)

Over the years, Loki changed somewhat to become more complex – more background was added to his story, making him Thor’s younger half brother, jealous of Thor’s success. A notable moment for the character occurred in Thor #353, where he joined Thor and Odin in defense of Asgard against the fire demon Surtur, if only for selfish reasons.

However, the real turning point came in Siege #4 during the 2010 crossover event. Loki, seeing the destruction of Asgard at the hands of the insane superhero Sentry, attempted to defeat him using the power of the Norn Stones, sacrificing his life in the process. Not long afterward, however, Thor searched for Loki and found him reincarnated as a child, possessing all of his past memories but (relatively) innocent. (It was revealed in the oneshot Siege: Loki that Loki made a bargain with Mephisto (then ruler of Hell) and Hela (the Norse god of death) to write his name out of the book of death, thus leaving ambiguous the possibility that his death was planned ahead of time.)

His reasons for doing so? The desire to escape his fate. After cycle after cycle of Ragnarok, Loki wants to change but is unable to, just like the other gods:

“For the first time in history, the Asgardians think themselves free from the whip of destiny. We are free…yet Asgard remains. Even here, on Midgard’s lowly soil, we are as we are. Balder is good. Thor is noble. And Loki…is Loki.”

Superhero comics are narratively conservative. What this means is that things tend not to change – characters don’t stay dead for long, heroes might change names or costumes but tend to return to their original forms eventually, heroes tend to stay heroes and (most crucially) villains tend to stay villains. Even when character development happens it is frequently rolled back or undone later.

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Earth’s Mightiest Heroes: Even an Avenger Can(‘t) Die

Avengers #11-15 are an odd set of issues. The last five to feature the first iteration of the team (before a shuffle happens in #16), they mostly feature few one offs with various villains, most of whom will come back but none of whom are particularly memorable at this point. On the other hand, Wasp gets to do things! Sort of. Sometimes.

One note/correction to earlier recap posts – Kang the Conquerer and Immortus are the same person, sort of. Or, Immortus is Kang’s alternate future self. Both are the same character as Rama-Tut from Fantastic Four #19 and also the same character as Iron Lad of the first team of Young Avengers. Comics are fun and trying to make sense of continuity is an exercise in futility. I will continue to try to do it anyway!

Kicking things off in Avengers #11, which introduces the first of what are to become many, many guest appearances of Spider-Man. He has to start appearing in every book at some point, right? As far as I can tell, this is one of the first series where Peter Parker guest stars in a book other than his own.

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Earth’s Mightiest Heroes: Zemo and the Masters of Evil

Here we are, for the second edition of Elise Reads the Avengers, and the continuing coverage of the wild and (sometimes) wonderful Silver Age. In these five issues, the series starts to find its footing, with the appearance of some recurring villains and a more credible threat – although abrupt end of issue solutions continue, and Wasp still doesn’t get to do much.

The cover of Avengers #6 promises “more super heroes, super villains, and more super bonehead mistakes”, and it certainly delivers on…some of that. After opening with a brief reminder of how Cap Wants Revenge on Zemo for his role in killing Bucky back in the 1940s, we travel to the wilds of South America to meet the man himself, wearing one of the best supervillain outfits there is, and what basically looks like a bucket made out of fabric over his head, though he calls it a “hood.”

After literally using the backs of some South American natives as a boardwalk, Zemo proceeds to discuss how he is desperately searching for a solution, because apparently his reason for wearing a very stupid hood is that it is literally stuck to his face. While working as a scientist for Der Fuehrer [sic], Zemo wore a purple hood with his Nazi uniform to disguise himself from his enemies, despite the fact that really, a purple hood makes you stick out more. But when Captain America spilled a bunch of experimental “Adhesive X” on him, the hood ended up stuck, where it has apparently been for the last twenty years.

The main question that comes to mind is: what kind of nefarious plans did the Nazis have for super strong glue? 

Regardless, this is Baron Helmut von Zemo’s backstory. A major Captain America villain and recurring Avengers villain, and while he’s got the whole “Nazi” thing going for him, his major claim to fame is that he was making very strong glue and got a hood stuck to his face.

Joining him, without much introduction, is the first iteration of another name that’ll keep coming back: the Masters of Evil. They don’t actually call themselves that in the comic (probably a good PR move) but Black Knight, the Melter, and Radioactive Man, all former opponents of solo Avengers, attack them under the leadership of Zemo (who seeks to kill Captain America). They are…not a very impressive team, as might be guessed by the fact that one of them is just named “the Melter”. This Black Knight is a different one from the one who later becomes a superhero who will be on the Avengers himself (that one is Dane Whitman, this one is Professor Nathan Garrett).

Impressive or not, however, they do succeed in miring all of the Avengers in the aforementioned Adhesive X, which would be a problem except that Paste Pot Pete has a special dissolving agent. Paste Pot Pete, a minor supervillain here offered parole for unsticking the heroes, later changed his awful code name to the slightly less awful “Trapster”, which is less hilarious but also less memorable.

All in all, this was a weird issue.

Avengers #7 opens with Tony being suspended because he didn’t answer an Avengers call over in his own comic, probably because his heart is malfunctioning (as the exposition helpfully informs us) and no one must know that Iron Man & Tony Stark are the same person! Oh yes – that’s currently the state of Iron Man’s secret identity, which will be true for the next long, long while. Given that Iron Man comes back later in this issue to help save the day, and his suspension never comes up again, I’m not entirely certain what the point of suspending him is, unless perhaps it’s just for continuity purposes.

That done, the team splits up in a move that everyone knows is going to end poorly, Rick Jones cosplays Bucky (to Steve’s displeasure) and everyone else goes off to do their own thing somewhere else.

Meanwhile, on Asgard, Enchantress and Executioner are being exiled from Asgard for attacking Thor. Enchantress (also known as Amora, like amor, for love, get it) is primarily a Thor villain, characterized mainly by her overwhelming lust for Thor and determination to make him hers. Executioner (also known as Skurge, like scourge, because he’s mean, get it) is her beefy muscle, primarily characterized by his overwhelming lust for Amora. We also get a great family resemblance shot of both Odin and Thor pointing dramatically and declaiming in this issue, which is apparently a genetic trait.

(Side note: Loki pops up in the background to cackle in a sinister fashion about how Enchantress and the Executioner only attacked Thor because he made them do it. Oh, Loki, you cad.)

Of course, Enchantress and Executioner find their way to meeting up with Zemo, who is looking for some new henchmen-slash-co-workers, and they quickly team up. Seeing her chance, Amora tracks down Thor while he is on his own, and hypnotizes/brainwashes him into seeing the Avengers as enemies, which leads to a…mildly anticlimatic flight because the light of the sun apparently dispels evil hypnotic influences, which seems like good information to remember. Successfully un-brainwashed, Thor uses Mjolnir to make a space warp, which it can apparently do? The ship carrying Zemo, Enchantress, and the Executioner is warped to an unknown location.

One common trait of these early issues seems to be the introduction of a new villain, an extensive fight, and a rather abrupt solution. This is probably a side effect of another trait of Silver Age comics, which is their sheer density – each issue contains a complete story that might in a modern comic be spread over a complete arc. This story, for instance, concerning Iron Man’s suspension, Zemo’s recruitment of Enchantress/Executioner, Thor’s brainwashing and the inter-hero battle, would probably take several issues to write in today’s pacing, but at this point it’s all finished in one issue. There are benefits and drawbacks to this compact style of writing, but personally I find that it ends up feeling a little rushed most of the time.

Another note about the current form of the Avengers team is the state of leadership, which rotates from member to member. We see Wasp advocating for a permanent leader, but as of yet no one’s taking her up on that. So far, notably, Wasp has not been a team leader. You may also note that I have not mentioned Wasp much so far, and that is because she still isn’t getting to do much other than make periodic stereotypically “female” comments about clothing and boys. Her and Hank Pym’s relationship is also not yet defined – there have been some hints toward romance but nothing definite.

The next issue, though, Avengers #8, introduces yet another Avengers villain who will bedevil them through the modern era: Kang the Conquerer. Kang, a time traveler from the year 3000, previously appeared in Fantastic Four working with Doctor Doom and as the time-traveling Pharoah Rama-Tut (in an issue that has been rewritten several different times). He also, according to his narration, traveled to the far future and took over a dying Earth, and is now back to take over present Earth! Kang is kind of a continuity snarl that no one needs right now, so we’ll leave that alone and just focus on this specific story, which is fairly basic.

Kang the Conqueror announces his intent to take over the Earth using his superior future technology, with which he manages to handily best everything that comes at him – including our heroes. Wasp gets to again attempt heroics, but has to be rescued, because Silver Age comics. Eventually she’ll get to do stuff! I assume. However, she does remain uncaptured, unlike the other Avengers, and she and Rick Jones escape to attempt retaliation of their own.

This is a perfect opportunity to give Janet a chance to shine on her own, but of course that isn’t what happens – Rick fetches the Teenage Brigade and Wasp’s contribution is to bring Ant Man a weapon. By pretending to join Kang, the Teenage Brigade enters the ship and frees the other Avengers, who manage to defeat Kang the second time around.

I feel like I am expected to care about Rick Jones, but I really don’t. It seems as though he’s meant to be the point-of-entry character for the presumed reader of the comic – the young boy – similar to the role Kitty Pryde played in the second team of X-Men. In this, though, he just feels out of place and uninteresting, since his character is basically “plucky teenage sidekick” who doesn’t even have the bonus of making bad puns a la Dick Grayson as Robin.

Having handily defeated Kang, the Masters of Evil return in Avengers #9, which introduces yet another character in his first incarnation (who will be back again). This is Wonder Man, otherwise known as Simon Williams. Simon Williams was an inventor who embezzled funds from his company after Tony Stark’s work rendered his own worthless.

On trial for embezzlement, his bail is paid by none other than Enchantress, who offers him revenge in the form of being bombarded by experimental energy by a Nazi scientist, making him an invulnerable being of ionic energy known as Wonder Man. However, it seems Simon didn’t read the fine print, because the ionic energy will also kill him without an antidote that only Zemo possesses. There is no way this could possibly go wrong. Also, I am sure this is all legitimate science.

By attacking the Avengers, Zemo creates an opportunity for Wonder Man to “miraculously” save them, allowing him to infiltrate the group. However, it really seems pretty unnecessary since the only thing Wonder Man really does is lure the Avengers to South America, which can basically be done by telling Captain America “hey, Zemo’s in South America” as far as I can tell. Also, Wasp is literally damseled for this (as in, kidnapped and tied up by Zemo), oh boy. This was the first reference I’ve spotted to the Wasp’s Sting that becomes Jan’s primary offensive power, though, if only to note that she can’t use it.

The Avengers are handily beaten, Iron Man mostly by the use of…a giant magnet. There seems to be kind of a weird fascination with magnets at this point in continuity – Mjolnir is a magnet, a giant horseshoe magnet is basically sufficient to defeat Iron Man, and over in X-Men Magneto’s powers are basically magic, because you can do anything with magnets. This might also be a time to note another interesting character detail that’s been disgarded since – at this point, when Thor is separated from Mjolnir for 40 seconds he reverts into his Donald Blake persona. I wonder if that changes only when he and Donald Blake are “officially” separated after Thor: Disassembled or if it gets dropped before then.

Anyway, once the Avengers are all beaten Wonder Man realizes that he’s been working for a Nazi and turns on Zemo – or actually mostly because the Avengers were honorable foes, which is something multiple opponents have counted on, in case we weren’t sure. Tragically, however, Simon Williams perishes due to not receiving Zemo’s antidote in time. He’s dead forever. Really.

(He isn’t.)

The Masters of Evil retreat to fight another day, though, ending this set of issues with probably the weirdest one I’ve read so far. Opening with a classic “oh no! The Avengers fight amongst themselves!” sequence that turns out to just be them training against each other (Steve continues to establish himself as the team badass, complaining that he could only defeat the other four for 47 seconds rather than a minute). Mostly it just serves to remind the reader of the team order and set up the next story, which is mostly about a new recurring villain.

This one is Immortus (the Master of Time! the one who rules Limbo, where things never change! as the narration helpfully informs us) and he’ll be back. At this point he doesn’t get a lot of backstory – he’s mostly just an evil dude who makes a petition to join the Masters of Evil, who demand he prove himself by defeating the Avengers.

Oh, but first the Executioner fights Paul Bunyan.

I love this issue, you guys.

Basically, Immortus’s schtick in this issue is summoning various figures from across time to fight on his behalf. In order to lure the Avengers into his trap, however, he places an ad that basically amounts to “free superpowers at this address!” Rick Jones decides this sounds like a great deal, mostly because he wants to join the Avengers, and runs into Immortus, where he fights Atilla the Hun.

Rick Jones fights Atilla the Hun. Yep. Honestly I don’t even know what I like best about this.

With Rick Jones having been captured and sent to the Tower of London (explaining this issue feels kind of like explaining comics, in a nutshell), Captain America goes looking for him only to find Immortus – and apparently just believes a random, weirdly dressed dude when he says that the Avengers sent Rick Jones to be imprisoned as a means to control him? This is not a high point for Steve Rogers’ critical thinking skills.

At any rate, he obediently brings the Avengers to Immortus, who then declares that the Avengers will have to each fight a “specially selected foe from the past” before he returns Rick.

In a very civilized manner, the Avengers proceed to do single combat with Immortus’s chosen champions. Ant-Man and Wasp fight Goliath, Iron Man fights Merlin, and Thor fights Hercules – all of them, of course, manage to defeat their chosen foe. Also, Ant Man uses himself as a stone against Goliath, which is kind of a highlight. Meanwhile, Captain America gets transported back to the Tower of London, where he fights his way through the guards and returns with a rescued Rick Jones.

With Immortus defeated, disappointingly, this fantastic plot concludes with Enchantress transporting everyone back in time to before Immortus contacted the Masters of Evil, this time ignoring his transmission. This is an anticlimactic end to this issue, but I am now thinking what other historico-mythological figures I want to see superheroes fight. You know, because.

Overall, this second set of issues sticks out mostly for the introduction of longer term opponents of the Avengers – the Masters of Evil, Zemo, Immortus, Kang the Conquerer. Not much else changes here – the issues are a little more connected, sequentially, and it feels more like the characters are better defined – with the exception of Wasp, who even more than in the first few issues stays underwritten and is given little to do. The fact that she doesn’t get her own individual fight with Immortus is emblematic of her status on the team as primarily adjunct to Hank. At this point, Rick Jones is more of a character than Jan is, which bugs me.

Pun not intended.

Next Up: Spider Man guest stars! Count Nefaria is, surprisingly, a bad guy! The Watcher makes an appearance, and even an Avenger can die (no they can’t).

Earth’s Mightiest Heroes: Something Colorful and Dramatic

This post marks the beginning of a new project – that is, an effort on my part to read through, recap, analyze, and summarize the entirety of the Avengers comics, starting from 1968 and, ideally, all the way up through 2016. Am I insane? Possibly.

Inspired in part by the excellent podcast X-Plain the X-Men, and by the realization that a) nothing similar, as far as I know, exists for the Avengers (my personal pet superhero team), I intend to try to do something on the order of five issues per week, including images from the issues in question and commentary on notable moments. At the moment, my plan is to cover only comics with “Avengers” in the name – so this will include West Coast Avengers and the various New/Uncanny/All-New, All-Different in the modern age, but for the most part not the solo series of team members.

So! Moving forward.

Avengers #1 was released on September 10, 1963, inspired by the success of the Justice League comic published by DC. The line up of the first team included five previously existing characters, each of whom had previously appeared in their own comics: the Hulk in The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man in Tales of Suspense, Thor in Journey Into Mystery (which became Thor in 1966), and Ant Man and the Wasp in Tales to Astonish. All were relatively new, however; the Wasp (Janet van Dyne) was only introduced in June of 1963.

The first issue largely serves to bring the team together through the machinations of Loki (who had made his first appearance in Journey Into Mystery #85 (1962) as Thor’s archnemesis. From his imprisonment on the Silent Isle, Loki attempts to attract Thor’s attention by provoking the Hulk, making it seem as though he is on the rampage. This marks the first time Loki is the catalyst for the Avengers forming, but not the last: he has since been instrumental in the establishment of the Mighty Avengers team (disguised as Scarlet Witch) and the second incarnation of the Young Avengers, as well as the Avengers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Loki, bringing people together since 1963.

Rick Jones, a teenage character who is friends with the Hulk, hears about the Hulk’s apparent attack and goes to his ham radio club, the Teen Brigade. I’m not sure why this detail sticks out to me – maybe it’s because the name “Teen Brigade” is inexplicably funny. Regardless, he radios the Fantastic Four for help (at that time, the only established superhero team). Loki diverts the signal, however, leading to the convergence of four of the future team members: Iron Man, Thor, Ant Man and the Wasp.

The rest of the issue involves the attempts of Iron Man, Ant Man and the Wasp to capture the Hulk (without success), as Thor hares off to the Silent Isle to confront Loki, where despite attacks by some very ugly trolls he manages to…magnetize Mjolnir so Loki sticks to it, and bring him back to Earth, where the Avengers imprison him in a lead lined chamber. (It’s lead lined because he made himself radioactive, for some reason.)

A few things stuck out to me, reading this first issue – one major thing was the way the Hulk was written. Modern readers have gotten used to the idea of the Hulk as a brutish, semi-intelligent beast who speaks in monosyllables and the third person (“Hulk smash!”). In this, the Hulk is both articulate (speaking in complete sentences and attempting to defend himself) and intelligent (when he accidentally destroys train tracks, he prevents a derailment by lifting up the tracks and supporting them with his body, and hides himself in a circus by pretending to be a robot). It’ll be interesting to track when and where the way the Hulk is written changes.

Another interesting note was the use of exposition: namely that there was a lot of it. This is a quality of early comics in general, and it was particularly noticeable here (and in the first few issues in general). Characters explain exactly what they’re doing at all times. It reminds me of the way comics have grown and changed as a medium, particularly having just read another issue of Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s Black Widow, which frequently has entire pages without any text, relying solely on the art to tell the story.

The other thing I want to talk about (and will probably be talking about a lot) is gender, but I’ll leave that to the end of this post, after summing up the next few issues. Avengers #2 features an interesting villain that I don’t think has been used in a while – Space Phantom, who has the ability to take on the body of anyone, and transfers that person into Limbo for as long as he possesses their form. He’s defeated in a rather disappointing literal deus ex machina, however, when he attempts to take on Thor’s form only to be sucked into Limbo himself, because apparently gods can’t go to Limbo. All right.

The fact that the Space Phantom uses Hulk to attempt to divide and conquer the Avengers, however, reveals their suspicion of him, causing the Hulk to angrily abandon the Avengers after one issue and cause a great deal of the conflict for the next three. It’s interesting that Hulk gets counted as a major Avengers founder when he really only joins the team for one issue, and spends most of the next one in Limbo while someone else takes his place.

The Avengers, disheartened by Hulk’s disappearance and concerned about what he might get up to, approach other superhero teams for help – namely, the Fantastic Four, the newly formed X-Men, and Spider Man. This sequence of panels was incredibly interesting to me, because it really shows how new the Avengers are as a team – far from the cornerstone of the line that they are today. While the Avengers look for help, Hulk finds an ally of his own in none other than Namor the Sub-Mariner, who is one of my weird favorites primarily because he is a glorious misanthrope who hates elevators. Namor, who hates the human race for reasons that are relatively unimportant, chooses to ally himself with the Hulk (while planning to stab him in the back later. The Hulk really gets a raw deal in these issues.).

The pair are, of course, defeated – Wasp makes a bid for independence and is almost immediately crushed by the falling rocks of Silver Age gender politics. Also, literal falling rocks. Thor also uses the phrase “to me, my enchanted club!” which, while hilarious, is not a very elegant catch phrase.

The enraged, fleeing Namor goes north and finds a group of “Eskimos” apparently worshiping a figure frozen in a block of ice, and I would like to take a moment to look at that sentence and recognize how awful it is. I fully expect that to not be the worst racism I’ll encounter in this read through, but wow. Namor flings the block of ice into the sea, where it floats until the Avengers fish it out of the water on account of the human figure inside it, and find none other than the final member of what will become the stable Avengers team for the next twelve issues: Captain America.

The rest of this issue is fairly irrelevant – the team fights Namor and his Atlanteans, Captain America is made an official Avenger, and Thor uses Mjolnir’s magnet powers (?) to pull an alien spaceship out of the ocean. Right now, each issue is mostly a one shot with a few plot threads carrying over from issue to issue, the team battling a different villain every time. Avengers #5  introduces the Lava Men, who become a lot more complicated and continue to come back as recurring villains (but never particularly major ones). Betty Ross appears, and Thor walks into some lava, but there are no particularly significant developments.

Interesting notes: Iron Man’s (very ugly) golden suit only lasts for one issue, becoming the more familiar red and gold in issue #2. At this point, the Wasp and Ant Man use “shrinking capsules” to change size – it’ll be interesting to watch how that develops. Wasp’s stings have also yet to make an appearance, but that may be because Wasp doesn’t get to do very much.

Which leads me nicely into what’s going to be real fun: Silver Age gender politics. Like Jean Grey in X-Men and Sue Storm in Fantastic Four, Janet’s role is to be the girl of the team. She gets a little more character than I expected right off the bat – she’s vivacious, talkative, and outgoing – but a lot of that character is based around men. Namely, the fact that she comments on the attractiveness or lack thereof of literally every male character. She also doesn’t get to participate much in fights, since at this point her power set is basically just “shrinks and flies” – much like Sue Storm, it’s a primarily passive or defensive power. She uses it in Avengers #4 to distract Namor and throw him off balance, and while the Space Phantom is impersonating Iron Man she is able to partially disable his suit, but she is not a particularly equal participant, and Ant Man (Hank Pym) is frequently downright dismissive of her.

That being said, however, I do kind of love her thing for Thor, mostly because her appreciation for him is so over the top it’s almost objectification, making her the one who initiates and allowing her to assert interest (rather than being the object of that interest). It’s a small thing, and doesn’t mitigate that her main characteristic at this point is “boy-crazy”, but it does make her more interesting. Being the only girl on the team, of course, doesn’t do her any favors.

Next up: Zemo and the Masters of Evil! Rick Jones fights Atilla the Hun! and Enchantress gets to wear some great pants.


The Problem With Watchmen

The first time I expressed interest in comics, having read Sandman and not sure where to go next, there was a chorus of recommendations that amounted to “read Watchmen.” I read it, and found myself decidedly unimpressed and uninspired. Fearful of expressing such an opinion, however, given that this seemed to be a universally lauded work and part of the generally agreed upon comics canon, I kept that to myself.

Fast forward several years to now, where I have read a fair amount of comics across imprints and houses (primarily Marvel and Image, but a little bit of sampling the others as well) coupled with extensive reading of secondary sources and the small and largely disappointing field of comics scholarship, I now feel relatively confident in saying that I still don’t like Watchmen, but now I understand why.

I don’t like Watchmen because I’ve been reading comics in a post-Watchmen universe.

When Alan Moore wrote Watchmen, it was responding to a particular moment in time, both in history and in comics. The unfortunate thing since Watchmen’s publication, however, is that the premise has been removed from its original context and stretched to expand into a general philosophy of comics and storytelling. Shorthand for this philosophy is the portmanteau “grimdark”: a term that generally is used to mean stories that wallow in misery or “gritty realism” – here meaning a fixation on violence (frequently sexual) and a seeming inability of anyone to be happy. In a grimdark world, there is no such thing as heroes, morals are a mark of the weak, and women die in droves. “Grimdark” fiction purports to show the world in its unvarnished state, but more often than not what it really shows is a reality distorted through a cynical and limited lens that substitutes shock value for good storytelling.

Cynicism has its place, and I’m not saying everything needs to be sunshine and roses all the time. But there is such a thing as too far, and too much, and the one note storytelling that infected comics in the wake of Watchmen was it. When that’s the comics environment you’re familiar with, Watchmen doesn’t feel like something new or revolutionary: it feels like more of the same.

Moore wrote Watchmen with a specific aim: examining contemporary political anxieties (as in his other work, most obviously in V for Vendetta) and deconstructing the idea of the superhero. Moore said that Watchmen was about”power and about the idea of the superman manifest within society”, and critic Bradford Wright describes it as an “admonition to those who trusted in ‘heroes’ and leaders to guard the world’s fate.” This particular political pessimism springs from the era of Reagan and Thatcher, the disillusionment of radical politics in the 80s.

This kind of deconstruction, however, need not be a repudiation of the medium from which it springs, or a wholesale denouncement of the possibility embodied by superheroes. The ending of the series might gesture toward this, with the massive destruction by Adrian Veidt perpetuated with the goal of creating a new unity. The divided, gritty world of Watchmen is no more sustainable than the pure idealism of Silver Age comics.

Moore has discussed the impact Watchmen had on comics as a whole, such as in an interview with AV Club in 2001.

I think that what a lot of people saw when they read Watchmen was a high degree of violence, a bleaker and more pessimistic political perspective, perhaps a bit more sex, more swearing. And to some degree there has been, in the 15 years since Watchmen, an awful lot of the comics field devoted to these very grim, pessimistic, nasty, violent stories which kind of use Watchmen to validate what are, in effect, often just some very nasty stories that don’t have a lot to recommend them.

In the same interview, he continues: “The gritty, deconstructivist postmodern superhero comic, as exemplified by Watchmen, also became a genre. It was never meant to. It was meant to be one work on its own.”

Those who followed Moore seem to have taken his deconstruction of the superhero comic at face value, without looking at the nuance underlying it. This is the source of the idea that the idea of the superhero as heroic is somehow outdated or irrelevant, that there’s no such thing as a good person. While flaws are important to the construction of a compelling character, the extreme of grimdark storytelling makes a character out of nothing but flaws: no striving to be better, no room for idealism. The world can only be saved by killing everyone in it. The solitary (invariably male) hero is all.

An example of this, almost parodic and now ascended to the status of meme, is Frank Miller’s notorious All Star Batman & Robin. In the comic, Batman is violent and cruel, a sadist who even extends his abuse to innocents, slapping Dick Grayson (the first Robin) across the face and withholding food, telling him to eat rats if he is hungry. The most notorious, and most parodied line is Batman’s response to Dick Grayson’s demand to know who his near kidnapper is. “What are you, dense? Are you retarded or something? Who do you think I am? I’m the goddamn Batman.”

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This may be an egregious example, but it is far from the only one of its kind.

The problem with grimdark storytelling is not just a matter of boring homogeneity or the misogyny that often comes along with it – it is the stripping of the possibility of joy and wonder, an excising of the ability of characters to form relationships and interact meaningfully with others. It limits and stifles narratives, locking everything into blacks and grays. This not only creates a world devoid of happiness – it also devalues its tragedies.

Thankfully, comics in recent years have started to turn around, as exemplified by playful titles like Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur that aren’t afraid to use bright colors and exuberant writing. Nothing exemplifies this paradigm shift quite as much as DC’s Rebirth initiative, which foregrounds in its first issue the relationships, familial and romantic, that were lost in the widely derided New 52 reboot. To make the repudiation of the ethos of the New 52 almost anviliciously obvious, the reveal of the villain at the end of issue #1 uses the smiley face splashed with blood: Watchmen’s most iconic image.

Further Reading: When Were Superheroes Grim and Gritty? by Jackson Ayres, On Grittiness and Grimdark by Foz

Why You Should Be Paying (Some) Attention to Marvel Comics

Note: I wrote this post a few days before the list of post-Civil War II titles came out, which noticeably lacks some of the series I praised in this essay. Complete solicits are still forthcoming, so it is possible titles that did not appear in that release may yet emerge, but it does add a touch of irony to this piece.

The website http://www.hasmarveldonesomethingstupidtoday.com counter is set to 0, though it may not have been updated in a while. Anger over their latest stunt (the “reveal” that Steve Rogers aka Captain America was a member of Marvel’s Nazi expys of choice HYDRA all along – except oh wait, it was fake memories, despite vows to the contrary) has yet to subside. Recently, they killed James Rhodes (War Machine), one of few black superheroes, in order to generate angst for Tony Stark and Carol Danvers in their newest big summer event, Civil War II.

Still, news at Marvel isn’t entirely fuck-ups as usual.

As news begins to drop about Marvel’s post-Civil War II plans, and even in the midst of the mixed bag that has been the so-called All-New, All-Different Marvel post-Secret Wars, there are some bright spots that deserve highlighting.

Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Black Panther series continues to outsell almost every other Marvel title, excluding Civil War II and Deadpool. The Mighty Thor series, with Jane Foster as the titular character, is outselling Invincible Iron Man. As of June 2016, there are 15 solo female led titles and one all female team book, compared to five in June 2014 and eight in June 2015.

Carol Danvers, despite naysayers when she received the name in 2012, remains Captain Marvel, with Kamala Khan taking up the title of Ms. Marvel. Laura Kinney, formerly X-23, has moved into the role of Wolverine and Jane Foster is Thor. Among Marvel’s leaked post-Civil War II titles was Hawkeye #1, which will solo star Kate Bishop. And most recently, and perhaps most significantly, the news dropped that the new Iron Man will be Riri Williams, niece to James Rhodes.

It isn’t just the name on the cover that matters, of course – the content inside is good stuff. Of course, I’m biased, but almost the entirety of my pull list is female-led titles, and my top five series that I anticipate are all female solos (Black Widow, Mockingbird, All-New Wolverine, Scarlet Witch, and Ms. Marvel). The stories being told are fantastic, too: Mockingbird mocks female cheesecake with two issues in which the titular hero rescues men from dire peril, who subsequently spend the entire issue in their underwear. Scarlet Witch finally (finally!) allows its heroine to move beyond the events of Avengers Disassembled and House of M and strike out on her own. In All New Wolverine Laura Kinney mentors a young clone of herself, and Ms. Marvel continues to tell stories that resonate both with humor and themes of family, integrity, and growing up. In Black Widow Natasha Romanov returns to her spy roots in an espionage thriller story where Mark Waid frequently allows Samnee’s art to tell the story, showcasing the power of visual storytelling in comics.

The presence of big name writers on the covers of some of these titles – Waid on Black Widow, Jason Aaron on The Mighty Thor, and Brian Michael Bendis writing Invincible Iron Man in the fall – demonstrate a commitment by Marvel to put some weight behind these titles, even as others bring lesser known (at least in superhero comics) female creators on board, like Chelsea Cain on Mockingbird and Kelly Thompson on A-Force. It’s a small improvement of behind the scenes diversity – female creators are still the minority, and that’s not even getting into the whiteness of Marvel’s creative teams – but it’s still an improvement.

Comics change slowly. Painfully slowly. And that change, more often than not, comes with a lot of kicking and screaming from those who see a loss for themselves in those changes. However, it is heartening to see that diversity in comics continues to make news: that a conversation is happening, and continues to happen. The promotion of Sana Amanat to Director of Content and Character Development in February 2015 seems like a good sign, for one. The fact that Women of Marvel panels have become a staple at major conventions is another.

I’m not saying to stop criticizing Marvel – lord knows they deserve it, and it’s important to hold them accountable for their mistakes. Nor am I saying everything is good – now more than ever seems like a good time to look behind the scenes and insist on showcasing diversity not just in the pages of their comics but in Marvel’s offices as well. And again, that’s not even touching on the many dimensions of Marvel’s race problem.

At the same time, however, it can be easy to lose sight of the positives, and forget to note that all is not entirely awful.

I try to be cynical: all too often, the comics industry disappoints. But hope is stubborn, and it looks like a eighteen title pull list without a single white male lead.