Today, Patrick and Drew are discussing Black Widow 18, originally released May 27th, 2015.
“All these voices / All these memories / Make me feel like stone.
All the people / Make me feel so alone.”
-Brian Wilson, “Midnight’s Another Day“
Patrick: One of the universal experiences of the comic book reader is the gradual sense that you’re actually getting to know these characters. Readers watch them grow and evolve, and there’s frequently running voiceover to add extra context to their actions. You ever notice that comic fans are much quicker to refer to Superman as “Clark” than people that just know him as a cultural icon? Surely, everyone knows that Superman is Clark Kent, but only those of us that feel close to him would have the audacity to use his first name. But what happens when a comic series actively keeps the protagonist’s perspective at arm’s length? Nathan Edmondson and Phil Noto’s Black Widow shows off a Natasha Romanova that can only really be herself when hidden from everyone else. That includes Bucky Barnes, the Avengers, S.H.I.E.L.D., you and me.
The issue opens on Natasha breaking the surface of the ice and stabbing the Prophet in the throat, effectively shutting down Chaos (at least for the time being). It’s a largely silent sequence, and the only voiceover Natasha has is the simple “I’m alive … and Chaos is not.” That lack of voiceover explanation for how exactly Nat escapes to ice is a fascinating omission. She’s in a classic superhero/superspy situation that could easily justify monologues about the mechanics of how she’s escaping or the wrestling with the concept of her own mortality. That’s the expectation. When Batman gets caught in a deathtrap, you had better believe there’s going to be some voiceover to explain the techniques and gadgets he’s using to free himself. Edmondson’s script is without copy, and we never know the nature of the red dot she fires at the surface. Noto gets in on the obstruction game on the next page, giving us scant visual information about how Black Widow gets out of the freezing water and overpowers her attacker.
She completes the job, stabbing the Prophet in the neck with very little ceremony. Afterwards, she mutters the totally utilitarian “My work is done here. You can come and get me now” and activates a tracker in her spy-gauntlets. Edmondson and Noto let us wait with Natasha for an entire page without any indication of how she’s doing in the wake of this encounter. Is she relieved? Proud? Regretful? With each passing silent panel, it’s as though the character is intentionally withholding herself from the reader. She’s basically giving us the silent treatment — and we’re not the only ones. She barely saying anything of substance to Bucky, and when she finally quits her position at S.H.I.E.L.D., she doesn’t offer much insight to Maria Hill. She’s polite enough to suggest that there are no hard feelings, but enigmatic enough that it’s sort of impossible to get a read on her. Noto captures that feeling perfectly on Hills’ face.
That’s some incredible acting, made all the more effective by the fact that she’s expressing what I’m feeling in this moment in the issue.
And Edmondson doesn’t let up on this confusion. The next scene finds Natasha saying that she just needs to be alone, and leaving her cat with her lawyer. But in the scene immediately after that she’s back at Avengers Tower, offering her services as a member of that team, and then calling to get her cat back. The overwhelming sense is that we — as the reader — never get the privilege of really knowing Natasha Romanova. In fact, that’s just about the only thing her voiceover will confirm:
All alone, but not quite. I might have enjoyed the company, but that would mean letting someone get close. And if I left someone get close, they might find out who I really am. And no one will ever know my full story. No one.
I love this — it’s a total inversion of a character study. Noto and Edmondson do everything they can to not illuminate this character, and in so doing offer a real insight into what she values most: her privacy.
Drew, let me tell you what I don’t understand: those last two pages. Who’s the “Philip” in this story? Are we flashing back to Coulson as a child? Or somehow flashing out to… Noto as a child? What the hell would either of those mean?
Drew: You know, I took those pages at face value — this was just a random kid contacted by Chaos in the wake of their last disciples death — but I suppose I hadn’t considered that this was a flashback. If Chaos really is from the future, I guess they could have anticipated needing a new disciple long before this one passed. I definitely don’t think that’s Phil Coulson, though: the Marvel Wiki informs me that he has brown hair and eyes, while the kid in this issue is blond/blue. I think “random kid in the present” is still the most logical read, supported by its place in this issue as an unexpected coda, but you’re right to pick up on how any clothing or technology that might date that scene is totally omitted.
Patrick, I love your read that secrecy is the big takeaway from this character study, but I don’t think her quitting S.H.I.E.L.D. is all that inscrutable. Take a look at her exchange with Maria in light of her stated motivation to make up for all of the horrible things that she’s done:
That’s about as plain a statement as what this character wants as you could hope for. She’s done being used for “bad things.” More importantly, she’s done being used by an organization that has pigeonholed her as the one who does bad things. She’s trying to become a better person, so is shedding the relationships in her life that are holding her back.
I think that read makes the reaffirmation of her commitment to the Avengers more understandible — just as she’s cutting out her negative relationship, she’s strengthening her positive ones. Being the anti-hero isn’t what Natasha wants, but being the hero is exactly what she’s looking for. Still, she needs some time alone, but she’ll make time for the Avengers when they need her.
It’s that time alone that our reads really start to diverge, Patrick. You’re not wrong to say that this issue witholds a lot of Nat’s emotions from us — that page of her waiting to be picked up is a fantastic example of this — but I’m less convinced that she knows what her emotions are. That is, when she asserts that “no one” will ever know her full story, she might be including herself. I know that seems like a stretch, especially when she’s also decrying letting anyone get close, but I think that boat represents how uncertain Nat is about what she wants. I suppose there’s some “wherever the wind blows” symbolism there, but I actually mean how it relates to the previous issue, where Chaos gave Nat a blissful vision of the future, relaxing with Matt Murdock on a sailboat. Really driving that parallel home, Noto even offers us the same composition:
Though both scenes are set at sunset, Noto loses some of the magic hour coloring in the real-world scene, getting rid of Nat’s literally rose-colored glasses. This is less of a dream, for sure, but I’m not sure it’s definitively what Nat wants. The whole reason the fantasy was so compelling in the previous issue is that it might be what Nat wants. It might not be, for sure, but it’s curious how close what she choses to do is to that fantasy.
Moreover, Nat is clearly still conflicted about her big takeaway from that fight with Chaos: that she might be a different person if she had made different choices. A better person? A happier person? It’s not that Nat knows what path would have made her happier, just that there are other paths out there that could have led her somewhere else.
She’s deeply conflicted about who she is, but I don’t think she’s withholding answers — she just doesn’t have them.
Which is to say, I don’t think Nat’s emotions are ambiguous because we’re not given access to them, but because they’re ambiguous to her, too. In that way, I think this is a much more traditional character study: we’re put in the character’s shoes and are presented with her hopes and desires. This particular character just happens to not really know what she hopes and desires. Still, she knows that the Avengers are good for her, S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t, and that it’s okay to like cats. That’s certainly enough for me to hang my hat on for now.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?