Issue #20 of Black Widow brings us to the end of an extremely unique run in the history of Marvel’s most formidable spy, and does so with both a gentle whisper and a bang. (Five bangs, to be exact. Or is it too soon after the comic’s release for that joke?)
What we finally have now, as we look at all twenty issues of this run, is a book so unusual as to almost defy description. It’s a twenty-issue run of a solo female title, in which the title character is consistently treated with respect, dignity, and clear affection by its creators. It’s a series where the creative team remained the same from issue #1 all the way to issue #20 and stayed on a steady publishing schedule, during a time when the standard is for a comic’s creative team to change over completely two or three times before the end of its run. It’s a book with art like nothing else on the market today and a single artist responsible for everything we see drawn on its pages.
This book is truly a rarity, and it’s very hard to put down its final issue and truly accept that this is the end.
I really, really don’t want to say goodbye to this run of Black Widow.
Yes, all good things come to an end, and yes, there comes a time to bid farewell to everything that we love. But unlike the recent conclusion of Hawkeye, there is no new Black Widow book dropping next week to tide us over. In fact, there’s no new Black Widow book at all in the monstrously large list of Marvel’s new launches and relaunches post-Secret Wars. If that wasn’t bad enough, trying to find Natasha Romanoff in the horde of new titles is almost like playing Where’s Waldo and failing miserably. Even her presence in the piles of Secret Wars titles is remarkably slight, with the only sightings I’ve had of her so far being in Ultimate END and possibly in A-Force (she appears on the cover of issue #1).
This conclusion to Edmondson and Noto’s Black Widow series may just be the last we see of the Black Widow for a significant period of time. Given her uncertain presence in the future of Marvel comics, it makes me even more reluctant to give up a book I’ve come to enjoy, delight in, and look forward to so much.
What does sour the ending for me is that Secret Wars #1 tells us that Natasha’s mission was ultimately for naught, that the transport carrier was blown up in the final battle and everyone aboard was lost. It feels as if it cheapens her desperate fight to complete this mission and wipe another small piece of her record clean, and leaves us as readers with a bitter taste in our mouths as we are simultaneously confronted by her last, most important mission and her final, critical failure.
Despite the disappointing revelations of Secret Wars, I do still love the way that Black Widow #20 (and the entire run, really) is framed and how it ends, especially the fact that it doesn’t tie everything off into a neat little bow and declare, “There; that’s the end.” It would be a disservice to the book to claim that it concludes with everything neat and tidy, because that’s never been the point of this Black Widow book or Natasha’s character. Even while we learned more and fit more pieces of a plot puzzle together, we gained more questions and more mysteries, and we must resign ourselves to the fact that some stones will always remain unturned. That’s the beauty of it– there is always something left to explore or learn, and I hope future creative teams write Black Widow with as much insight and intricacy as Edmondson has.
And what can I say about Phil Noto’s art that hasn’t been said fifty different times by fifty different people? It is gorgeous. There’s no question about it; it is absolutely stunning. The amount of emotion and meaning he’s able to convey with just a few brush strokes is phenomenal, and his color work is always incredibly well-balanced and striking. It’s been such a pleasure to have his work on the Black Widow comics and covers, and it fits the book incredibly well. His style gives the book constantly eye-catching visuals from month to month, and it only seems to surpass itself in visual beauty and expressiveness as you move from one issue to the next.
Issue #20 picks up where issue #19 left off to conclude this two-part finale, with the flashback story once again bookended by Natasha enacting and reflecting on her final life-saving mission before the world ends. It’s a remarkably effective technique and works especially well in this issue– possibly even better than it did in Black Widow #19— because it serves as the most effective contrast to the emotionless, unquestioning, loyal Red Room agent we see for most of the story.
Having effectively frightened the Comienza family in the previous issue, they come to Natasha for safe passage out of Cuba, believing the Americans have betrayed them. In offering up what valuable information they have as currency for transport, they effectively damn themselves, since the Red Room was working with Castro to find out what the Comienzas were going to tell the Americans. With their value gone, it’s time for Natasha to carry out the assassination portion of her mission: starting with the Comienzas and ending with Marina, her boyfriend, and even Marina’s cat.
This is the Black Widow of whom stories are told to frighten children and adults. Cold, able to suppress her emotions so much as to be nearly emotionless, calculating, tactically brilliant, a master of manipulation and spycraft, loyal to the Red Room above all else, and completely willing to kill anyone at all, even a child, if it is deemed necessary. This is the Black Widow we are afraid of. This is the Black Widow that Natasha herself is afraid of. This is Natalia Romanova, Черная Вдова of the Red Room, who represents everything that Natasha Romanoff hates and fears about the person she was and the person she always has the potential to be again.
In a particularly chilling and effective choice, Natasha’s internal monologue and narration doesn’t appear even once during the entire flashback. Edmondson has used this narration to great effect in previous issues to allow Natasha to reflect on her situations and the world around her, but we are given no glimpses through the text into the inner workings of the Red Room-era Black Widow. Instead, Noto employs his incredible skill to convey a huge emotional range with his depictions of minute facial expressions. Even when drawing the past Natasha (whose emotions are buried so incredibly deep down as to smother them), Noto is able to tease out images that lend insight into Natasha’s personality and desires, no matter how cold and impassive her outward appearance seems to be.
The pacing and placement of panels are also used to drive home both the timing of scenes and the meaning behind them, particularly when Natasha initially aims her gun at Marina, hesitates, turns away, then turns back and finishes the job. It’s a chilling scene, depicted using a nine-panel grid on a page absent of dialogue, and yet its meaning and impact couldn’t be any clearer. No matter if Natasha’s own feelings and desires (suppressed though they were) went against what the Red Room ordered, even if they were to kill her closest and possibly only friend for daring to want her own life, the Red Room trumped everything else.
It’s a very bold move to end the story of a hero by showing her at the point where she was the farthest thing from heroic as she could be. At the end, we see Natasha wait calmly for pickup, completely collected and unconcerned, while we know that the reddest entry she will ever have has just been entered into her ledger.
It’s that inherent complexity, the fact that the Natasha we know today was not a perfect, heroically good person for her entire life, that lends such depth to her character and allows incredible stories like this to be told. Natasha is written as a person, first and foremost, not merely a “hero,” with failings and regrets and things to atone for as well as kindness and heroism and a drive to do good. It’s a story of constant redemption that will never truly be enough for the person trying to redeem themselves, and yet they keep trying and fighting and saving and doing good anyway.
It’s summed up best by Natasha herself in the closing page of the issue, and I can’t think of a better way to end this series– and this series of reviews– than with her words.
“Save those you can. Do good. Even if it seems impossible. Even if it’s a fool’s mission. It’s something we choose to do. Because we’re heroes.”
It’s been an honor and a privilege to read Nathan Edmondson and Phil Noto’s Black Widow. This book has been an incredible journey, and I can only hope to see more work from this remarkably talented creative team in the future.
Black Widow #20 was written by Nathan Edmondson, with art by Phil Noto and lettering & production by VC’s Clayton Cowles.
Images courtesy of Marvel
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