Feb 1, 2021
Marvel Fanfare #10 “Black Widow, Web of Intrigue” (part 1 of 4)
So the San Diego Comic-Con has come and gone, and the first thing that struck me was how nobody I’m following on Twitter, none of my Facebook friends, and none of the “news media” hyped up anything related to actual comic books. I mean, really, you’d think a “comic-con” would generate comic book news, right? That’s just… sad.
But one thing we did discover was the release date of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “Phase IV” films and we are finally—finally—getting the Black Widow movie we’ve been clamoring for since at least Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The date this movie drops is May 1, 2020, and I… don’t care. It shocks me to admit this, but I’m kind of burnt out on comic book movies now. I’ve been exposed to superheroes on TV, online, and in movies, and I’ve received an embarrassment of riches here, and at this point I find myself more eagerly awaiting Top Gun: Maverick, a movie that until the trailer dropped last week I had zero interest in seeing. The guy who made that trailer? Give him a movie, because he knows how to put asses in seats.
But back to Black Widow. Years ago, I was surprised at how badly I wanted to see a solo film featuring this character, because she was never exactly what you would call high on my list of favorite Marvel characters. I ascribe my desire to see this movie to the Russo Brothers’ skills and Scarlett Johansson’s ability to make the character believable and likable. But I do confess that the combination of Johansson’s controversial (to some) statements in the news lately combined with Marvel’s Phase IV announcement made me wonder if there were any classic Black Widow stories that I had forgotten about. And lo and behold, a dive into the short boxes caused me to rediscover Marvel Fanfare, issues #10-13. For those of you unfamiliar, Marvel Fanfare was a prestige format bi-monthly series that ran stories from different writer/artist teams focusing on different characters. In this case, the talents of artist George Perez and Ralph Macchio (the other one) gave us a four-part story for Black Widow that would be come to known as “Web of Intrigue”.
We open up with a familiar eye-patch wearing, cigar-smoking, politically incorrect veteran of the Second World War stalking the halls of the “computerized fortress” (because in the ’80s, computers were these magical, alien devices scarcely understood by most people. Add “computer” to a thing and it instantly became better) of SHIELD’s Manhattan base.
It’s Nick Fury and he ain’t happy. Nick’s old WWII boss, General Sam Sawyer, has been put in charge of a special project, which means he gets to order Nick around. You’d think by now Nick would insist on a promotion to general to help avoid situations like this… or maybe the powers that be like keeping Nick down just so they can keep him in line. Hmm. Sawyer’s called a meeting involving Nick and CIA representatives and he explains that despite Nick’s objections, the best
man person for the job is Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow. And just to be sure he’s right, Sawyer’s arranged a little test.
We cut to the Waldorf Towers complex in Midtown, where a collection of mysterious armed men in covert gear sneak down from helicopters to the roof. They break into an apartment where a woman exits the shower, but their stealthy approach doesn’t go unnoticed and the woman whips a mirror at them, smashing one of them in the face. She hits the lights and the crew fumbles around in the dark, not sure if they want to switch to infrared visuals or if somebody can turn on the lights. I hope these are guys Sawyer hired from want ads in the Times, and not actual SHIELD agents. They opt for plan B and the lights come on, but one of them is ambushed, receiving a blaster in the face from a black-clad hand sporting a familiar, distinctive bracelet. The rest of the squad run into the next room…
Um, yeah. That guy is either 1) a robot, 2) having his latent mutant power kick in, or 3) seriously dead. In the Marvel Universe it could be any of those, but since this is a “grounded” spy story I’m thinking it’s option 3. Maybe that “test” should have been a written exam? But please take a moment to admire the art here. There is, of course, George Perez and inker Brett Breeding unapologetically giving us a strong and sexy woman, something of a lost art at Marvel these days. But look at the detail: the debris on the floor, the flowers in the painting, the leaves of the plant, and the stone monk figurine. The texture of the furniture, the pattern on the curtain, the rug, the lamp. Damn it, the bad guys are even showing up in a mirror in the background! This is George Perez, ladies and gentlemen, a man who recently announced his retirement and the industry is worse for it.
Black Widow isn’t happy that jackasses have broken into her apartment and she wants answers, and if they aren’t forthcoming she’s gonna have to get tough. Back at SHIELD HQ, Nick’s been tasked with explaining why he doesn’t think Natasha’s the right one for the mission. The CIA wants “Nick” to tell them more, and Fury must be getting soft because instead of feeding the man his cigarette for not calling him “Colonel”, he begins to deliver Romanoff’s backstory, beginning years ago during the siege of Stalingrad in WWII. A man named Ivan Petrovich was staggering through the ruins, looking for his family, when someone called down for him to catch their kid.
The kid in question was Natasha, and… wait. Siege of Stalingrad? WWII? That makes Natasha… 45? Damn, she sure looks good for her age. Nick goes on to explain that Natasha was put in school and excelled in every subject, and was also a gifted athlete who mastered dance, gymnastics, and martial arts. She met a man named Alexi and they fell in love and got married, and he became one of Russia’s greatest test pilots, but the Soviets faked his death so they could make him Russia’s answer to Captain America. Natasha, reeling from the news, swore she’d step up and help the Soviet State however she could. They turned her into a master spy, the Black Widow.
Back at Natasha’s penthouse, things get heated as the invaders decide Romanoff is bluffing.
She ain’t. I love how she keeps going for the face. You see, there are two different Black Widows; the first is a “superhero”, and the other is a ruthless and efficient killer who has no problem leaving a trail of bodies in her wake. Guess which one these guys got to contend with tonight? Natasha is winning handily, giving out electric “widow stings” left and right, when the bad guys step up their game. Their helicopter begins raining down death, forcing Natasha to the edge of the roof. A concussion blast stuns her, sending her tumbling off the roof. We begin chapter two with a new art team, Bob Layton and Luke McDonnell, and while I’m a huge fan of Layton’s work on Iron Man and he’s a master of capturing the hi-tech feel of that hero, he ain’t George Perez. So the art’s decent, but it’s a definite step down. I guess George had to meet those New Teen Titans deadlines over at DC. Natasha, knowing she has only a few moments to act, orients herself. She spots a water tower and instantly comes up with a plan to save herself:
Natasha heads back to her penthouse and finds a guy who’s still breathing. She grabs him and insists he start talking. Fortunately, we cut back to Fury and Company before we see what she does to the man in case he doesn’t. Nick explains that back in the day, Natasha was a straight-up spy, manipulating a young and naïve superhero by the name of Hawkeye into helping her steal from Tony Stark. Only, she wound up falling in love with Clint Barton and almost defecting, until the Russkies played their trump card:
They threatened to torture Natasha’s parents if she didn’t keep working for them… and didn’t start wearing a really lame costume. Man, look at that. Some outfits are iconic, like Spider-Man’s. Others looked bad ten minutes after they hit print. Natasha teamed up with two guys with even lamer costumes, probably to make her look better by comparison. Natasha tried to be a good Soviet agent, but seeing Hawkeye getting his ass handed to him made her switch sides again and become a good guy. No word on what happened to her folks, though. Presumably they got tortured to death? Eh, they were old anyway, and they were bound to keel over from alcohol poisoning sooner or later. Natasha became an agent of SHIELD, and on a mission ran into the Red Guardian, who turned out to be her long presumed dead husband Alexi. Who then became really dead when he helped her escape during a mission. Natasha ultimately dumped both SHIELD and Hawkeye and decided to become a fashion model. But fashion modeling is boring and she updated her look, dyeing her hair red and adopting a new outfit, then picking a fight with Spider-Man to test it out. Then she hooked up with Daredevil for a while, and then headed out west to California.
Then she and Daredevil broke up and she wound up with the Champions, and got involved with Hercules. Nick sure does like focusing on Natasha’s love life. I wonder if he was giving a briefing on Captain America, would he be detailing all of Steve Rogers’ love interests? Or Iron Man? I get the feeling Nick’s either being prudish, or jealous. But before Nick can talk of Natasha’s next sexual conquest, he’s interrupted by the woman herself. Natasha’s got blood in her eye and she wants answers, wanting to know who sent “SHIELD goons” to her home. Those guys were SHIELD? Guess Nick’s gonna have to explain to their widows that they died in “training accidents”. And he better update the training program, because those guys suck. Sawyer admits he sent the squad to Natasha’s place to test her and she instantly kills him. Well, that didn’t happen, but it would have made the story a lot more fun. Instead, Sawyer insists Nick show Romanoff a photo. As Nick pulls it from his wallet he explains to Natasha how the man was either kidnapped or defected back to the Soviets. The man? Natasha’s mentor, Ivan Petrovich.
Chapter one of this story is really, really heavy on exposition, but truth be told, I don’t think that was a bad thing. Bear in mind that in the decades before the internet, the only way a person would have known about this stuff would have been in back issues and reprints. If you hadn’t been collecting Marvel for twenty years, then you would barely be aware of most of a hero’s backstory. This is why to many comic nerds The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe became so important. For the first time we could read the background of characters like the Black Widow or… Aquarian. But honestly, while those were fun to read those volumes are also, well, dry and analytical. Comics are a visual medium, and there’s nothing that can replace pictures with words.
This story also pointed out the real flaw in placing real world events in comics in that it firmly established Natasha’s age. Sure, it’s fine for her to be 45 at this point, which implies with the sliding time scale she was a cougar manipulating a young Clint Barton. But what happens when we jump ahead ten years to 1993 and Natasha is 55? No amount of athleticism in the world can offset the inevitability of old age. Which, I suppose, is why Black Widow’s origin was updated and they gave her low-key super powers to help explain how she’s still so young and fit despite her age. Or she’s a clone. She might be a clone now. Hell, I lose track of modern comics. There’s a reason why I look at the old stuff.
So, does Natasha take the assignment? Is Ivan truly rejoining the Reds? Tune in next time to find out!