|Black Widow #1 © 1999 Marvel Comics. COVER ART BY J. G. JONES.|
From her introduction as a superheroine in Tales of Suspense #52 in 1964, the Black Widow (created by the writer/artist team of Stan Lee and Don Heck) has been an almost constant presence across a dizzying array of Marvel Comics titles, equal parts superhero and superspy. The first communist heroine to appear in comics, the Black Widow is Marvel's longest lived solo heroine. In her first appearance, battling Iron Man, she was simply Natasha Romanoff, a Soviet spy sent on an industrial espionage mission to Stark Industries—wearing an inconspicuous veil and figure-hugging cocktail dress combination. A few issues later she was back with an embittered young circus performer, the archer Hawkeye, whom she persuaded to battle Iron Man, but he soon saw the error of his ways and joined the Avengers. Inspired by his example, she denounced her cold war masters and defected to the West, donning a black and grey fishnet costume and signing up as a member of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-Enforcement Division), Marvel's all-purpose secret intelligence agency.
Throughout much of the 1960s, the Widow was a regular guest of the Avengers, alternately joining in their adventures and pining for Hawkeye. In The Avengers #43, her past was fleshed out in more detail; she had been orphaned during World War II and was brought up by the grizzled mountain man, Ivan Petrovich. She later married the Soviet superhero the Red Guardian, but on his
death she joined the KGB and was trained to become their top operative. In that same issue editors revealed that the Red Guardian had been alive all along, but in the following issue's m?lée he was killed anyway. Following several rebuffed attempts to join the Avengers, she abandoned her efforts (for the next twenty years, at any rate) and struck out on her own, determined to be a solo adventuress.
Readers next met the Black Widow in Amazing Superman #86 (1970), sporting a revamped all-in-one, black leather catsuit and armed with all-purpose
wristshooter wristbands (incorporating a
widow's line wire for swinging, tear-gas pellets, and
widow's bite electric stinger), transforming her into a groovy late 1960s heroine ? la Emma Peel of TV's The Avengers. This appearance was immediately followed by the Widow's first solo series, a co-headlining slot (shared with the Inhumans) in Amazing Adventures, which revealed a new jet-setting Natasha Romanoff, complete with penthouse pad, chauffeur (Ivan), maid, and swinging parties with playboys, princes, and Jackie O. The strips were sharp, hip, and beautifully drawn by Gene Colan (among others). They pitted the Widow against slum lords, the mob, and hippie cults. However, the split-book innovation failed to win a large enough readership, and the Inhumans were granted sole ownership of the title with issue #9. Undeterred by this setback, Romanoff jumped ship to Daredevil, without missing a month, and there she stayed for four years, even sharing cover billing for a while.
Daredevil and the Black Widow were a good combination: two sleek, elegant figures swinging gracefully through the night sky of San Francisco; this period of the comic is fondly remembered for its sophistication. Following a change of writer, Romanoff was written out of the comic and straight into another, one of the era's less memorable teams, The Champions (running for seventeen issues from 1975 to 1978). Former X-Men Iceman and the Angel put the Champions together, which also included Hercules and Ghost Rider in addition to the Black Widow—a more unlikely group of superheroes would be hard to find. Following the group's inevitable break-up, the Widow appeared to go on a tour of Marvel's entire line, taking in The Avengers and Daredevil (again), Marvel Two in One and Marvel Team-up, as well as a couple of well-executed solo strips in Bizarre Adventures #25 (1981) and Marvel Fanfare #10–#13 (1983), which emphasized her spying past.
A further guest slot in Daredevil (issue #187, 1983), under the aegis of enfant terrible Frank Miller, led to a harsh, 1980s-style makeover, replacing the Widow's flowing locks with a spiky buzz-cut and sacrificing her hipster belt and groovy bracelets for a grey leotard. If the ensuing decade was a relatively fallow one, then the 1990s proved spectacularly successful, initially through a lengthy run in The Avengers—a team she was finally allowed to join and eventually lead. Her increased visibility as an Avenger cemented her place in the Marvel hierarchy, resulting in appearances in numerous titles, including Forceworks and Captain America, though a little of her unique background was sacrificed in the process. In 1996, the Avengers were literally spirited away to another realm, leaving the Black Widow holding the fort alone and, notwithstanding guest appearances in the new (volume 3) Avengers title, the end of the decade was to be one of unprecedented solo success.
Having already returned to the glamour and sex-appeal of her 1970s costume, the Black Widow made the biggest splash of her career with an immensely popular 1999 miniseries by writer Devin Grayson and artist J. G. Jones. The story placed the Widow in the shady world of international espionage, and introduced her blonde Russian counterpart Yelena Belova, a new Black Widow. The combination of Romanoff's doubts over her age and abilities, an arch-enemy worthy of the name, a succession of exciting action set-pieces and Jones' beautiful artwork (which made him an instant star) was dynamite. Further miniseries followed, as well as appearances in the Marvel Knights superteam series and (in only slightly modified form) the popular parallel-universe Avengers comic The Ultimates, confirming that the Black Widow's time had finally come.