Last week, I talked about the introduction of the Black Widow and her recurring rôle as an Iron Man foe in Tales of Suspense. She started out as an exotically beautiful seductress who used her feminine wiles as a spy for the Godless Commies. But after only four appearances in the traditional femme-fatale mould, she was “upgraded” to a costumed villainess. Instead of manipulating behind the scenes, Madame Natasha was in the midst of the action and she was rewarded by being injured by an electrical blast in a confrontation with Iron Man. Her lapdog partner, Hawkeye the Marksman, put her in a car and rushed her away from the battle.
What the readers didn’t know at the time was that he was driving her out of the pages of Tales of Suspense, as well. As far as the Silver Age goes, the Black Widow had already peaked, in terms of prominence. She would make a couple more cover appearances, but as an incidental character and not the featured antagonist, as she had in Tales of Suspense.
There would be a couple more plotlines in which Natasha figured in significantly, but at this point, she had started on her way to becoming a hanger-on.
As it turned out, fans had to wait only one month to learn of the Widow’s fate. In The Avengers # 16 (May, 1965)---the landmark issue in which Stan Lee shook things up by changing virtually the entire line-up---Hawkeye presents himself to the group as an applicant, promising to be a good boy, now. The fact of the matter is the bowman was never so much a villain as he was morally ambivalent. He explains his now-solid conversion to the side of the angels to the outgoing Avengers.
Sometime since the end of her last encounter with Iron Man, the Black Widow had recovered from the electrical jolt she had received, only to be ambushed by a pair of Soviet assassins sent to kill her for her previous failures. The Reds gun her down in an alley and leave her for dead. Hawkeye arrives in time to “avenge her” (the exact nature of his avenging was left undescribed, but you can fill in the blanks) and call an ambulance. The Widow was still alive when the paramedics rushed her off, but as Hawkeye relates “I didn’t try to learn what happened after that! I---I was afraid to find out!”
He really should have made the effort. Sometime after Natasha is hospitalised, she’s kidnapped by Communist agents---this time, from Red China---and brought to Peking. There, the beauteous spy is brainwashed into becoming a loyal servant of the Party, again. Obviously more ambitious than their Russian counterparts, the Chinese dispatch her back to America to destroy not just Iron Man, but all of the Avengers.
We don’t learn any of this for quite awhile, not until The Avengers # 29 (Jun., 1966), when the Black Widow puts her plan into motion. She recruits Power Man and the Swordsman, both having burrs in their saddles from previous defeats by the Avengers. Then she lets word leak to S.H.I.E.L.D. that she is back in the United States. S.H.I.E.L.D. tells Captain America, and Cap tells Hawkeye. The Star-Spangled Avenger warns Hawkeye that she has probably been brainwashed into serving the Communists, again. But the archer blows it off. All he knows is that his lady love is back in America and that he’s probably going to get lucky to-night.
On a hunch, Hawkeye rushes to the Long Island mansion that was her headquarters back in Tales of Suspense # 57. The Widow is there, waiting for him, and she plays kissy-face with the bowman long enough for Power Man and the Swordsman to jump him. The villains give him a good thumping, then hang him out as bait to lure the remaining Avengers into a trap. But they don’t stay trapped very long, thanks to the recently returned Goliath. (This was during the time when he was trapped at a ten-foot height and mighty peeved about it.)
However, the Widow and her two cohorts make their getaway when Hawkeye’s love for Natasha keeps him from firing an explosive arrow which would bring the roof of their escape tunnel down on their heads.
In the following issue, the villains try “Plan B”, this time taking into account majorly pissed ten-foot giants. They make a better go of it this time and have the Avengers on the ropes---until Natasha’s brainwashing wears off and she sabotages her own partners. The adventure concludes with her and Hawkeye in a long-awaited clinch.
The Widow shows up next in a one-page appearance in The Avengers # 32 (Sep., 1966), in which she tries to persuade Hawkeye that she really is free of the Communist brainwashing. The love-struck archer really doesn’t need that much persuading to be convinced, but his Avenger buddies---seeing as she tried to kill them and all that---remain sceptical, even after the next issue when, in a last-minute arrival, Natasha takes out the leader of the Sons of the Serpents.
At this point, I don’t think Stan Lee, or new Avengers scripter, Roy Thomas, knew for sure what they wanted to do with the Black Widow. Her brief appearance in the Sons of the Serpent tale and a couple of other cameos gave her some “face time” with the readers until they could decide.
In The Avengers # 36 (Jan., 1967), it looked like Stan and Roy had finally made up their minds. Hawkeye proposes the Black Widow for Avengers membership. Unfortunately, his timing stinks, as the team is preoccupied with a current crisis involving the kidnapping of one of their own, Quicksilver. Captain America tries to explain to Hawkeye that a special meeting is required to consider it and there just isn’t time right now, but the hot-headed archer persists. That’s when Goliath speaks of the thing which is on all of their minds (well, except Hawkeye’s): they don’t trust her. Moreover, Hank Pym states, “As one of the original Avengers, I don’t care to see it turned into a rest home for retired super-villains!”
That dig bites into Hawkeye too, and the two Avengers are about to come to blows when the Scarlet Witch shames them by reminding them that there is the “little matter” of a teammate in trouble.
Natasha accompanies the Avengers to central Europe, where Quicksilver has been taken hostage by a band of invading space aliens called the Ultroids. Once in the thick of things, she acquits herself well in battle, and slowly, the other Avengers begin to have confidence in her. It starts to look like she’s going to get that parking space with her name on it in the Avengers Mansion parking lot after all. Then things get sticky.
All of the Avengers are put out of action, except Hawkeye. He and the Widow confront the alien ruler, Ixar. Ixar’s plan is to gain immortality by transferring the life force of every living being on Earth to his own body. And that’s the good news. The bad news is he is one push of a button away from accomplishing that. The only way to stop him is to kill him. And Ixar isn’t worried about that because he overheard Captain America earlier, blabbing about the Avenger code against killing.
Right then, we see who the real clear-thinker is. While Hawkeye lowers his bow and capitulates, the Black Widow sets her wrist stinger to “lethal force”. She is not an Avenger, she points out, and there’s no code against killing in her playbook. She grimly aims her weapon at Ixar and after a few seconds of staring each other down, the alien ruler decides “Heh heh, I was only funnin’! We leave you in peace!”
Once the Avengers are safely away and the alien invasion fleet is gone, Hawkeye dodges the issue of how he and Natasha were able to persuade Ixar to surrender---threatening to kill someone would look bad on the Widow’s Avengers application. It’s a good thing too, since in the next issue, The Avengers # 38 (Mar., 1967), the group finally holds that special meeting to consider her as a member. Hawkeye, of course, is all for her joining; most of the others are still sitting on the fence. But you have to give Hank Pym credit for keen intuition. He is more dead-set than ever against Natasha being an Avenger, and not just because of the reasons he had before. Even though Hawkeye remains silent about what exactly took place with Ixar, Goliath suspects that the Widow’s part in it was distinctly un-Avenger-worthy.
Before taking a vote, Captain America insists on waiting until the Black Widow arrives, so she can state her own case. Unfortunately, on her way to the meeting, Natasha is intercepted and rendered unconscious. She awakens on the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier. Her abduction, it develops, was one of Nick Fury’s typical recruitment techniques. Colonel Fury wants to send the Widow on an undercover mission behind the Bamboo Curtain. It’s advantageous for both of them. For Fury, the Widow already has an “in”, as long as her former Red Chinese masters believe she is still under the influence of their brainwashing. For Natasha, it’s a chance to prove that she is loyal to the United States.
There’s one hitch: she can’t tell anyone about it, not even her bow-slinging boyfriend. To establish her cover, Natasha appears at the Avengers Mansion and tells the Assemblers that she is returning to Communist China. Dropping the other shoe, she informs Hawkeye that she had been simply toying with his emotions. The Avengers draw the natural conclusion and show her the door.
This was the next effort by Stan Lee and Roy Thomas to make something lasting out of the Black Widow. She had started as a Commie spy, then she became a costumed villainess, and then a super-heroine. None of it seemed to break her out as a lead character. (By contrast, Hawkeye, who debuted after the Widow, proved popular enough to give him a prominent Avenger slot less than a year later.) Linking her to S.H.I.E.L.D. as a spy for our side was the latest tweak.
For the next few issues, the Avengers are occupied with battling the Mad Thinker, the Sub-Mariner, Diablo, and Dragon Man. They also take in Hercules as a boarder when the demi-god’s ill-tempered pop, Zeus, exiles him to Earth. From time to time, Roy Thomas cuts away from the main action to follow the Black Widow’s secret-agenting.
First off, the Widow infiltrates a military base and steals top-secret plans for a nuclear submarine. This is to establish her bona fides as a traitoress. Nick Fury makes sure the caper makes the newspapers, leaving out the small detail that the plans the Widow stole are for an obsolete prototype.
In a hijacked jet, Natasha flies to the heart of Red China and confronts her former handler, Colonel Ling. She hands over the plans to the sub and reclaims her position as the Communists' best spy. During her repatriation, Colonel Ling shows the Widow their side’s newest weapon---the psychotron. Natasha smells success; this was the very information that Fury had sent her to obtain. It appears to be a short-lived triumph, though, as Ling reveals that the Commies’ second-best spy is pretty good too and he knows that she is a double agent for S.H.I.E.L.D.
As retribution, Colonel Ling makes her the first victim of the now-operational psychotron. The psychotron invades the mind of its victim and manifests his greatest fears. Natasha is bombarded by living nightmares reducing her to a cringing, huddling mental case. Believing her will has been broken, Ling shuts off the device to prepare her for interrogation. But there is a twist on the twist. The plan all along had been for the Widow to be exposed as a S.H.I.E.L.D operative, anticipating that she would be subjected to the psychotron. It was the only way to learn what the device did and how effective it was.
Fury had arranged for a post-hypnotic suggestion to be planted in Natasha’s mind, to enable her to withstand the psychotron’s effects. It was a good gamble. Once alone, the Widow drops the panicky female act and makes a break for it. In a twist on a twist on a twist, though, Colonel Ling had suspected just such a thing and was prepared. He gasses the Black Widow in mid-escape.
By The Avengers # 43 (Aug., 1967), Hawkeye is fed up with idly mooning over his lost girlfriend. He decides to hunt her down and have it out with her. Knowing his teammates wouldn’t sanction the idea, he appropriates an aero-car, accompanied by Hercules, who has grown tired of sitting around the mansion watching I Love Lucy reruns. Together, they fly to the heart of Red China.
Unfortunately for our heroes, the Chinese Commies, in alliance with their Soviet comrades, have developed a champion of their own---the Red Guardian! Created as the Iron Curtain counterpart to Captain America, the Red Guardian spearheads the counter-attack when Hawkeye and Hercules assault the base. The Guardian easily outclasses the archer and dupes Herc into falling under the influence of the psychotron.
When the other Avengers discover a message Hawkeye left behind, they figure their friends have gotten themselves into deep kimchee. Ever the practical thinker, Captain America realises that going after Hawkeye and Herc will probably result in an international incident. He points this out right before ordering the team to saddle up for an immediate rescue mission!
“We’re bringing back Hawkeye,” Cap declares, “or we won’t be coming back ourselves!”
The next issue is a full-scale donnybrook between the Avengers and the Communist forces holding Hawkeye and Hercules. As to be expected, Captain America winds up squaring off against his Soviet version. For awhile, it’s an even match---until Cap’s greater experience puts him ahead on points. But when Colonel Ling shoots Cap in the back with an electrical blast, the Red Guardian protests the cowardly action. This brings a momentary halt to the battle. It also causes Ling to notice that the Black Widow is missing.
In fact, she has been absent throughout most of the issue. Only now does she reënter the plot, in an attempt to sabotage the psychotron. An enraged Ling guns down both the Widow and the Red Guardian, who falls in an attempt to save her. The Guardian dies, but the severely wounded Natasha holds on long enough for the Avengers to destroy the Communist stronghold, psychotron included, and make the super-sonic flight back to a U.S. hospital.
In the recovery room, Natasha provides the kicker: the Red Guardian was her husband, Alexi. Believing him killed while test-piloting a jet, she became the Black Widow to serve the State in his place. The Soviets had---big surprise---lied about Alexi’s death.
With all this face time, and a two-issue adventure revolving around her, you’d think that the Black Widow would be a shoo-in for a prominent place in the Avengers title, right? Wrong!
In issue # 45 (Oct., 1967), the Avengers award Hercules with membership on the team. And the Widow, who has been hanging on the fringes for over a year? She doesn’t make the cut---but, the Assemblers insist, only because Natasha has announced her retirement from spying, super-heroing, and costumed derring-do in general.
This seemed like an unexpected development, especially given the Widow’s key part in the last adventure. Even if she was denied a place in the Avengers, you’d think she would be a natural to cross over to the S.H.I.E.L.D. series in Strange Tales. Instead, Roy Thomas took her completely out of the action.
Logic would dictate that it was because, as a character, the Black Widow just wasn’t making it. I’ll grant you, it’s only suggestive at best, but a scan of the “Avengers Assemble” letter columns over the previous nine or ten issues show little comment on the Widow, positive or negative. I found only one letter strongly supportive of the Black Widow’s biggest moment, in The Avengers # 44-5. Most of the remarks for that adventure were devoted to the Red Guardian, with barely a notice that Natasha was even there.
It may not have been indicative of all the mail Marvel received, but one has to think that, if the Widow had generated a big buzz, it would have been plastered all over the letters pages.
Combine that tepid reception with the fact that Roy Thomas’ next story arc---the alienation and eventual removal of mutants Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch from the team---didn’t really have a place for the Black Widow, Thomas may have found it easier to just remove her as a player.
As ordinary citizen Natasha Romanoff, she continued to make stray appearances in The Avengers. Mostly to provide Hawkeye with moments to sound off his private thoughts and to keep reader interest in their romance. We see her and Hawkeye in civvies, double-dating with Hercules and the Scarlet Witch in The Avengers # 46 (Nov., 1967). In issue # 52 (May, 1968), a tearful Natasha grieves over the apparent death of Hawkeye, “killed” along with Goliath and the Wasp by the Grim Reaper.
Her retirement lasted for about a year. She resumed her costumed identity just long enough to dump Hawkeye and go out on her own. Then, in Spider-Man # 86 (Jul., 1970), she underwent a total makeover, becoming the familiar figure known to to-day’s fans.
Her modern-day popularity is even more remarkable when you consider she started the Silver Age as a cover-featured arch-villainess and ended it as the occasionally seen “hero’s girlfriend”.