Today, Patrick and Spencer are discussing Black Widow 10, originally released January 18, 2017. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
“Thank you for being a friend.”
–Golden Girls Theme Song
Patrick: In college, I made a friend name Melanie. She was a freshman during my senior year, and she had kind of a tough time adjusting to the more Wisconsonian aspects of her college experience. She was from Portland, Oregon, and between the winters and the culture shock, she couldn’t connect with her classmates very easily. I loved that Melanie could see through the dorky Wisconsin obsessions with the Packers, or cheese, or beer or whatever, but that meant a lot of the ways we connected were extremely cynical. We complained about people together, we came up with strategies for getting each other out of small talk at parties – I’d consider it misanthropic if it weren’t also the thing that bonded us so tightly. We used to exchange birthday cards that read “Happy Birthday you fucking cunt.” Obviously, she’s the only person in the world I’d send that card to. Being friends with Melanie was unlike being friends with anyone else, and it’s important to recognize how unique each friendship is. For me and Melanie, that meant one thing, for Natasha and Bucky it means something else.
And because that “something else” is “spy shit,” we’re in for treat! Issue 10 of Black Widow pulls back the curtain on one of the gentle mysteries that’s been running through the series. Back in our discussion of issue 3, I mentioned that we never get the identity of the man on the other end of the sniper scope, but we appear to be getting the story from his removed perspective. It turns out that every time there was a secret hand at work supporting Natasha, that hand was on the end of the metallic arm of the Winter Soldier. Chris Samnee reveals this information with characteristic flair, panel-less-ly jumping around between all of those moments he helped her out.
It’s a rad way to re-contextualize the previous 9 issues, and emphasizes that the series we’ve been reading is less about the hyper-competence of one spy, and more about the enduring relationship between Natasha Romanov and James “Bucky” Barnes.
Though, I do think my favorite detail here is that it’s Nat who says it out loud. She knew what was going on all along — how could she not? — and it’s the reader alone that is surprised to learn this information. Think about how powerful that is: instead of making Bucky Nat’s white knight, they are instead co-conspirators.
There’s another cool information collage like this a few pages earlier. It happens when The Weeping Lion, a telepath, reads the mind of Nick Fury, AKA The Unseen, and it ends with the Lion’s head EXPLODING WITH INFORMATION. What a point of comparison! The only two times in the issue we get that device are when a telepath reads the mind of an omniscient creature and when two friends share a moment. Granted, neither Bucky nor Nat’s heads explode, but Samnee is still making one hell of a statement about the power of their bond.
Also making a statement about friendship: The Unseen.
That’s “friendship” in Russian. That’s what Nick Fury wanted to bring Natasha to the moon to discuss. If that extends beyond Nat and Bucky, Samnee and writer Mark Waid are keeping their cards close to the vest.
But the issue’s closing moments do provide a sort of warped view on what friendship can be. When Recluse and a small swarm of Dark Room recruits all team up to take down Weeping Lion (the, uh, other one), it’s done amid of flurry of violent little red insert-panels. It’s not a collage in the same way that Nat and Bucky’s relationship was, but the action takes up space on the page in a remarkably similar way. Friendship and family mean something specific depending on the relationship – and sometimes it ain’t pretty.
Spencer, what’d you think of this issue? I’m sorta relieved to see Natasha’s psychic sidekick’s head explode. He sorta messes up the tone of this series anyway. Also, what do you make of that CPR scene? It’s cool how Samnee walks us through all the steps, but I’m not totally sure what it does for the story of their relationship. Does Nat still owe Bucky?
Spencer: Once the concept of “owing” somebody gets past general gratitude and down to keeping a ledger of specific instances, it starts to feel pretty silly to me. Bucky and Nat would just keep “owing” each other in an infinite loop of life-saving and repayment if that was the case. I’d like to think their obligations to each other are less mercenary.
But I loved that CPR sequence too — let’s take a closer look at that.
Colorist Matthew Wilson, of course, immediately creates a tense mood with the stark-red backgrounds, and Samnee ramps up that tension by pushing the “camera” in closer with each consecutive panel. Bucky’s suddenly stiff arm in panel five is a smart way to show that the motion of the previous four panels has come to an end, and also emphasizes how close to breaking Bucky really is. Then there’s the ambiguity of the lean-in in the next two panels — is he attempting another round of CPR? Kissing her? Simply cradling Nat in sorrow? Panel 7 has zoomed in so close on Bucky that all we know for sure is that he’s distraught. The zoom also obscures the background completely, signaling the end of the tense red that characterized the sequence up until then. Indeed, the final panel is nothing but pure black, driving home Natasha’s supposed death — that’s a motif that carries over to the next page, where Bucky cradles Natasha’s body, the two of them nothing but silhouettes against a white background.
By the end of that page, though, Samnee and Wilson have flipped that symbolism on its head — when Nat sputters back to life, her body has actually merged with the gutter, shaped by nothing but pure white. It’s life, in contrast to the color black’s death.
Color actually plays an integral role throughout this issue. Besides the red flashbacks Patrick’s already highlighted, I’m fond of how the magenta shade of the sound effects that follow the Unseen match the color of the runes carved into his chest — it’s almost like the sound emanates from within him, which is a great horror effect. The most striking use of color in Black Widow 10, though, is probably Weeping Lion’s showdown with the Unseen.
Nat, Bucky, and Lion’s helmets are all bathed in that hazy yellow, and it’s a shade found nowhere else in the issue — especially not on the moon. To me, it highlights how out of their element these fragile humans are, and that’s further emphasized when Lion takes on the Unseen. Lion’s giving it his all, letting his telepathic powers fill the entire panel in a vicious blast, but the Unseen is barely putting forth any effort at all. Just a small fraction of his power — portrayed by cool blues and blacks, matching the otherworldly aesthetic of the moon — is enough to quite literally blow Lion’s mind. He never stood a chance.
With that kind of power, it’s clear that the Unseen’s message of “friendship” is worth listening to. Patrick, I think you’re right on the money when you mention the differences between Natasha’s friends and family and Recluse’s, but perhaps the most important element of that comparison is the fact that Recluse’s idea of friends and family used to be Natasha’s, as well. Both were raised in an abusive environment that linked affection to competition, intimacy to murder.
This is even apparent in the contrast between the issue’s two kisses. Recluse’s kiss of the elder Lion is a feint, a prelude to murder, the kind of femme fatale stuff the Red Room taught, and which Natasha used to specialize in. Her kiss with Bucky, meanwhile, couldn’t be further from that.
There’s romantic sparks here, obviously, even if Natasha dismisses them by the end of the page, but more than romance, there’s intimacy. They embrace in the panel prior, Natasha rests Bucky’s chin in her hand and tells him he has no secrets from her. Natasha lets herself be close to Bucky in a way Recluse can never be close to anyone, not even her girls in the Dark Room.
I think that might be the Unseen’s message to Natasha. She’s zealous to save the Dark Room kids from the life she once had to live, but it might be even more important to keep in mind, not the life she’s saving them from, but they life they can have once she does. It’s also a reminder to Natasha of how important trusted friends are to her mission. Natasha began this series alone and on the run, and while she’s fiercely competent on her own, it’s been friends who’ve come through for her on more than one occasion.
Weeping Lion, though, was never a friend, and Patrick’s right that he was always a bit of a strange element in Black Widow. In fact, all of the very, very few criticisms I have with this issue revolve around Lion. For starters, how was he able to use his telepathic powers against the Unseen? Natasha and Bucky had his power-dampeners on; if Lion was able to override them, why didn’t he use his powers earlier to kill them instead of setting up such an elaborate plan to do it instead? Honestly, considering how important Lion was to this series at its outset — and not to mention the stuff Samnee and Waid were seeding with his elder brother — their exit feels more than a bit unceremonious, almost like Recluse stole the villainous spotlight away from them. As viscerally exciting as the Lion brothers’ demises were, they were less than satisfying from a narrative standpoint.
Besides that, though, I greatly enjoyed this issue. The only other aspect I didn’t fully understand was the hints about Nat and Bucky’s previous relationships and Natasha’s memories about them, but that’s because I haven’t had a chance to read any Natasha/Bucky stories up until now. If anybody more familiar with their relationship wants to explain and speculate in the comments, I’d love to listen.
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