Russian Dolls – The Many Faces Of The Black Widow In The Silver And Bronze Ages

Jul 5, 2021
Cover of Tales of Suspense Vol 1 #52

It’s safe to say that Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow, has had a chequered career in the history of Marvel comics; mostly relegated to a series of guest appearances, team-ups, short, prematurely aborted runs of sometimes dubious quality, and frequent design changes, but never more so than during the period of the Silver and Bronze ages. She’s had highs and lows but has always struggled to achieve any sort of permanency in the pages of comic books, despite her recent popularity in the MCU.

When she first appeared in the pages of Tales Of Suspense #52, Natasha was just the latest in a long line of Cold War villains designed to plague arch-Capitalist, Tony Stark/Iron Man. Lacking any sort of costume, and exhibiting nothing in the way of enhanced abilities, Natasha was simply a classic movie femme fatale, dressed stylishly for the time, in a pencil evening dress, mink fur coat, high heels and a veiled hat. Fired up with the communist rhetoric of her Soviet masters, Natasha in her debut is essentially a sexy spy tasked with infiltrating Tony Stark’s industrial complex to murder the Crimson Dynamo – a reformed Soviet villain who had defected to the United States some months ago after (presumably) a rousing speech by Iron Man.

There were a lot of rousing speeches in Silver Age Marvel comics.

And early sixties Marvel comics were, for a time, big on the ‘Red Menace’ threatening Western Democracy. This was to change after just a few years as Stan Lee’s liberal sensibilities began to reflect both the growing unease over American intervention in Vietnam, and the rise of the counterculture-driven civil rights movement, but in early 1964 the Russian menace was still a rousing source of villainy for Marvel to exploit in East versus West ideological conflicts.

There must have been a good enough reaction from the readers, as Natasha continued to be a thorn in Stark’s side in the pages of Tales Of Suspense, most notably in issue #57 when she recruits the fledgling Hawkeye to her cause. Poor Clint Barton falls madly in love with Natasha (Hawkeye has form for this sort of thing, as only a few years later he had an unrequited crush on the Scarlet Witch just when she herself fell in love with the Vision) and the Russian spy is only too happy to manipulate that love and persuade him to do her bidding.

Throughout these early appearances, Natasha seems to just be an ordinary woman, albeit one who is trained in spy craft. The spy craft however seems to be primarily how to turn on her sex appeal and get men to do whatever she wants with a flash of an ankle.

Cover of Tales of Suspense Vol 1 #64

The first real change comes in issue #64 of Tales Of Suspense when her Soviet spymasters provide her with a gadget-laden costume for the first time. Now sporting a mid-sixties bouffant hairdo that isn’t particularly flattering, and a costume that is essentially a one-piece bathing suit with fishnet stockings on both the arms and legs, Natasha can now seemingly scale walls and ceilings and fire grappling lines to swing from. Hawkeye remains her faithful lapdog, of course, but in a gradual softening of Natasha’s character, she begins to feel something in return for Clint Barton and soon decides to defect from the USSR to a life of love and leisure in Mad Men-era America. Unfortunately, her divided loyalty comes to the attention of the KGB who promptly gun her down before she can compromise them in any significant way.

Is she dead? Of course not. This is comics.

Cover of Avengers Vol 1 #29

When we next see Natasha, it is in issues #29 and #30 of Avengers. By now the original line-up had been replaced by Hawkeye, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch in a controversial move that alienated many readers, but in respect offered up some great interpersonal relationships of a caustic nature rarely seen in mainstream comics of the time. Natasha has been freshly brainwashed by the Russians (insidious brainwashing was a big thing in sixties pulp fiction – see The Ipcress File as a classic example) and is once more fired up with patriotic fervour with a new mission – this time to destroy Earth’s Mightiest Heroes! Once again, Natasha turns on her charms to recruit arch villains the Swordsman and Power Man, no doubt promising them both her undivided attention if and when they kill Captain America. But that pesky Soviet brainwashing just won’t stick, and when faced with Hawkeye’s life in mortal peril at the hands of Power Man, Natasha betrays her cause once again and throws in her lot with the Avengers at the last possible minute to save him.

True love, of course, can conquer all, even insidious Soviet brainwashing.

Now we begin to get the rehabilitation of Natasha Romanoff, as she genuinely embraces Western values and pleads with the Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D. to accept her. Hawkeye of course plugs away for the Avengers to take her as a member, but while he does, a cigar chomping Nick Fury sidelines the team and offers Natasha a place in S.H.I.E.L.D. and, in a tragic twist typical of Silver Age Marvel books, her first mission for Fury requires her to pretend to be a callous villain again, and heartbroken Hawkeye must not be told the truth!

Relationships in Silver Age Marvel books would almost always be torn apart by circumstances of misunderstood tragedy, usually with both parties tearfully expressing verbose internal monologues of how they love one another, as they walk off in different directions, never knowing their loved one feels the same way.

Cover of Avengers Vol 1 #44

For a year or two, Natasha is a recurring guest star in the Avengers, with the most notable story being issues #43 and #44 when we are introduced to her estranged ‘husband’ – the Russian super soldier, Alexei Shostakov, aka the Red Guardian – a man Natasha thought was dead. In the first real bit of backstory for the Black Widow, we learn that Alexei was a famous Soviet test pilot who was picked to be Natasha’s husband in some sort of arranged breeding programme. But when Alexei is then chosen to become the Russian version of Captain America, his death is faked so that his machismo can’t be compromised by too much time getting amorous with the Black Widow.

Cover of Amazing Spider-Man Vol 1 #86

As the 1960s gave way to the finely-flared 1970s, Natasha received her second upgrade in the pages of  Amazing Spider-Man #86 where she was reintroduced to her adoring public in the now familiar skin-tight black full body costume with zipper and gadget laden wristbands. Her hair too had changed from the previous jet black bouffant to her (presumably natural) long mane of red hair. Now dedicated to being a costumed crime-fighter, Natasha sets out to prove herself by tracking down and defeating Spider-Man, a task she completely fails at. It’s a great look, and ASM #86 is essentially the moment that we get the Black Widow everyone is now familiar with.

Cover of Amazing Adventures Vol 2 #1

1970 also sees Natasha given her first shot at a solo series in the pages of Amazing Adventures – a comic she shared with the Inhumans. Marvel had decided to revisit its former ‘shared title’ format (e.g. Strange Tales, Tales To Astonish, Tales Of Suspense) to try out characters who probably couldn’t carry a title on their own. Lasting eight issues before Natasha’s pages were axed in favour of the Inhumans filling the book, it’s a curious run that is very much of its time, with Natasha concerning herself with hippies, and counterculture storylines about social housing issues and villains called The Astrologer (who, well, just commits crimes based on horoscopes) as she seeks to carve out a name for herself as a street level superheroine. 

Twee as these stories may be, issue #1 does introduce her mentor, Ivan Petrovich, many years her senior, and apparently devoted to her. Always dressed in a chauffeur’s uniform, there is something of a Willie Garvin to Modesty Blaise relationship between Ivan and Natasha. The story we are soon told is that Ivan fought in the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942, and it was there that he was given a young Natasha to protect by a woman who may have been her mother. The older man, Ivan, protected and looked after this child in his role as a doting surrogate father. 

Decades later much of this would be rather badly retconned in modern Marvel comics, turning Ivan into a conniving villain who had manipulated Natasha from day one, but throughout the 1970s Ivan was a familiar figure, looking after and aiding Natasha in her various adventures.

Cover of Daredevil Vol 1 #94

Natasha is far better served when she relocates to San Francisco and hooks up as a love interest and crime-fighting partner with Daredevil in issues #81 to #124 of that title, for which she received joint cover billing across issues #92 to #107. This period was a high point for Natasha in the Bronze Age, and stood out as a rare example of a genuine relationship of equals in the pages of comics. Normally a love interest was there to complicate a superhero’s life, and be routinely captured and threatened by villains. 

Daredevil and the Black Widow, however, were perfectly suited, supremely competent, and worked together very well, at least until Steve Gerber took on the scripting reins and decided he didn’t want her in the book. From that point on she was living on borrowed time and the on-page relationship with Matt Murdock began to show cracks until they split acrimoniously in the mid-seventies. By that time Natasha had squandered the last of her former wealth as an estranged Romanoff and was pretty much living out of a vintage Rolls Royce car that was her sole remaining possession.

Cover of Champions Vol 1 #1

Natasha didn’t remain out of comics for very long as she became a founding member of the poorly mismatched superhero team called The Champions on the West Coast of America. It’s hard to imagine how a team that consisted of Hercules, Ghost Rider, Black Widow and two members of the original X-Men (Angel and Iceman) was ever envisaged as a natural fit, but The Champions ran for fifteen issues of sub-standard Bronze Age fisticuffs before being cancelled. Only some classic John Byrne art in the later issues made it at all worthy of note.

As the Bronze Age tailed off, Natasha would routinely guest star in various books, and enjoy a brief Perez-drawn miniseries in the pages of Marvel Fanfare, but it’s fair to say the eighties and most of the nineties saw her relegated to a background character.

Sexy spy, super villain and then superhero, Natasha has been through a lot of changes in the trial and error search to see which incarnation of the red-headed Romanoff the comics buying public would finally support.


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