Marvel Fanfare #11 “Black Widow, Web of Intrigue” (part 2 of 4)
Before we get into this week’s recap, I just wanted to talk about the format of Marvel Fanfare back in 1982. Most if not all issues ran more than one story, and also often contained full page pin-ups from different artists. In issue #11, for example, inker Terry Austin delivered a nice image of Cloak and Dagger, while also embellishing the works of “Big” Jim Shooter (yeah, he was an artist as well as a writer and editor), Bob Wiacek, and this sweet artwork from P. Craig Russell, which was almost used as the cover of Marvel Fanfare #8.
The pic of that wizard is, uh, pretty wizard. One thing I like is Doctor Strange riding a black horse into battle. A “night mare”, if you will. Is it possible that Strange and the extra-dimensional villain Nightmare are forced to work together to counter some grave threat? Or has Strange conquered Nightmare and is using his power? If you’re not heavily into Marvel lore, it’s not a big deal, but if you do know the background, the implications are pretty cool.
Many issues also started with a comic strip page starring editor Al Milgrom called the “Editori-Al” which was done in harmless fun, although it did give Milgrom a way to touch base with the readers. For example, in issue #8 he apologized for the 25-cent increase in price and explained there was no other option. And in #11, it starts off with Shooter wanting to take Al off his editorial gig because fans don’t take his comic US-1 very serious and they think Al’s a joke. Al’s response?
I miss the days when people in comics could poke fun at themselves. These days, so many of the people in the business seem like miserable bastards looking for fights on Twitter.
Now, on with our tale. In issue #10 we received a whole lot of background on Natasha Romanoff, AKA the Black Widow, and we discovered that the man who saved her when she was a child, Ivan Petrovich, may have gone back to Mother Russia. Well, Nick Fury said he defected, but if Petrovich is Russian and went back home to the Soviet Union, can that be a called defection? Is there an antonym for defection? Anyone? So how does part 2 start? Does the Black Widow (and am I the only person who has the Alice Cooper tune going through my head every time I read her superhero name? Or am I just getting old? But honestly, an instrumental version of “The Black Widow” would be an epic theme for Natasha) plan a kidnapping? Will she infiltrate Mother Russia? What’s her plan? Well, we don’t know because we start off in medias res.
For those of you who don’t know, in media res pretty much means starting off in the middle of a narrative. It’s an effective storytelling tool when you want to spread out the action. For example, remember Kill Bill Vol. 1? Right away we’ve got a fight, a hint at a revenge tale, and the viewer wondering what the hell was up with that “Pussy Wagon” truck. Also, the three principle action scenes are spread out across the film rather than crammed into the second and third acts. In this case, our hero’s thoughts tell us she’s returned home and she’s being hunted down as a murderer. By the way, George Perez is once again onboard and co-plotting, with Ralph Macchio helping with script, and inkers Joe Sinnott and Jack Abel (amusingly calling themselves “J.J. Sinnabel”) helping out with the art. According to editor Al Milgrom, this whole story takes place before what was going down in the pages of Daredevil, where Natasha underwent quite a makeover.
This was the Black Widow I grew up with, because I was very much into Frank Miller’s Daredevil at the time. There are those who hated what Frank did with Natasha’s look, but honestly I liked it… for the most part. I missed the Widow’s stings and the equipment belt. Yes, the lines are cleaner, but less functional as a result. And it was the early ’80s, when short hair for women was in, and besides, it was more functional. God, it’s taking me a long time to get to the story this week. Right, Natasha’s in Russia and she’s being hunted because they think she’s a murderer. Natasha steps out of hiding and gives one guy a hockey-style face wash while (because apparently it’s her favorite thing to do when superheroes aren’t looking) she shoots a guy in the face with her widow’s sting. A man watches in awe as Natasha easily breaks Face Wash Guy’s neck with a kick, and notes what a shame it is to kill.
That guy actually thought he had a chance of killing the Black Widow. How cute. Do you see the orange smoke at the bottom of the top right panel? That’s from the other guy’s face. I do so respect continuity.
We now see Natasha is on some sort of mansion grounds, which are now super well-lit and I’m getting a James Bond From Russia with Love vibe here, and I can dig it. They try to light up the joint, but Natasha knocks out the lamps with some disc bombs. Someday I would love to hear Frank Miller explain why Natasha wouldn’t opt to carry electric wrist blasters and grenades. They send dogs out for her, but they get it in the face too as Natasha makes for the wall. She gets stopped by well-armed goons, and since there’s too many to face-shot, she opts to gas them instead.
Once over the wall, Natasha makes for her car, but not before leaving an explosive disc for the rest of the rides. She tears off, leaving a massive explosion in her wake reminiscent of xXx. Her car must be made of adamantium or something, because it punches through the metal gates and she’s free. Whew! Five pages in, and we’ve got a desperate escape, explosions, and a body count that the Punisher would be envious of. We now flashback a ways for the benefit of those who missed issue #10, where Natasha was briefed by Nick Fury about how it looked like Ivan Petrovich was now playing for the other team… again. Natasha was given a super deep cover as defecting Yankee scientist Laura Mathers, and she was taken to the swanky mansion compound we saw her escape from a couple pages earlier. There she met fellow defecting American scientist Michael Cocoran, who was the big brain in charge of the place. Natasha decided to get closer to him.
I’m looking at Cochoran here and I’m getting a serious Terry Long vibe. For those of you who don’t know, during the ’80s in the New Teen Titans comic, Donna Troy, the first Wonder Girl (the one whose history has been utterly trashed by numerous retcons and reboot.) was dating an older man, Prof—
And I almost added another thousand words to this article in an attempt to explain who Terry Long is. Let’s just say George Perez seemed to have a thing for bearded blonde guys with perms around this time and leave it at that.
Natasha developed a relationship with Terr… I mean, Michael, all the while trying to get any clue as to Ivan’s whereabouts. Finally, after overhearing a conversation between Mike and somebody else, she caught Ivan’s name and it was time for the Black Widow to return. Only, she discovered it was all a trap; the Russkies knew all along who she was and they’d been feeding her disinformation the whole time. Mike tried to explain it was all in the name of science and got what was coming to him: he was knifed in the back, just like he knifed the good old U S of A. Mike died, professing his love for Natasha. Her response to his death was, well…
Can you guess where she shot those guys? Can you? Natasha fled and now we’re caught up to the beginning of this story. Only now, we discover that every move Natasha has made has been monitored and orchestrated by a third party, who’s somebody who planted agents in the KGB itself to kill Mike in order to set the Black Widow off. Our mystery bad guy is attended to by bikini-clad servants, and I’m liking his style already. He explains to his six handpicked bad-asses that he wants the Black Widow alive. We get an exterior shot and see the dude is tooling around in the gawd-awfulest looking submarine ever. It makes the Seaquest look good by comparison (and if you’re a fan of Seaquest DSV, you have my sympathies). We get a good look at his six baddies…
…Look, I get it, it was the ’80s and things were a little less… politically correct, and it’s a comic book, so we want the Bad Guys to look distinctive. But can somebody please explain why the African guy has to be dressed like a Zulu warrior? Dude doesn’t even get to wear shoes, man. At least let him be stylin’ in a suit when he’s not in the field. The six head out via a mini-sub and the mystery man is addressed by a mystery person who wonders why the sextet couldn’t have been a magnificent seven instead. Mystery Man says the other person just has to suck it up and be patient. Elsewhere, Natasha’s been extracted and the CIA is blaming her for the screw-up, and they claim SHIELD gave her the best cover they could. Natasha doesn’t have any answers yet but she’s not done with the case. Fury puts in his two cents and says the dagger used to kill Mike is super-rare and only made in one place: Hong Kong.
…Seriously? This is the lead they’re going with? A KGB agent kills Mike with a rare knife and… oh, okay, as Natasha preps for a little night work we get some inner monologue-ing in which she says she knows no KGB agent who would ever use a rare knife like that, so her gut tells her they weren’t really KGB. Okay, it’s a slim lead, but I get that even Natasha realizes it’s a long shot. She reaches the shop where the knife was made, only to find the shopkeeper has been killed with a blade just like the one the fake KGB guy used. Natasha wonders if she blundered into a trap. And the spear that almost punches through her skull probably counts as a “yes”.
Natasha then finds herself ambushed by the assassins. As she squares off against N’Kama, her wrist is roped by Laralie. And just as what happened against Wonder Woman in Justice League of America #200, she might be able to handle two bad guys, but Black Lotus makes it three and delivers a kick to her face, and Natasha goes down. Soon we see the impossible happen.
The Black Widow’s been caught!
Part two of this tale is fast-paced and loaded with a ton of action, and honestly that’s not a bad thing… for the most part. My principal issue here is how much they glossed over the Natasha/Mike affair. Natasha shows rage at his death, but because all we really know about their relationship is via a one-page montage it feels a little, well, abbreviated. I think that what should have happened here was maybe the story could have been drawn out to five parts. Each chapter is just seventeen pages, and a fifth installment wouldn’t have been too out of line in my opinion. We could have seen the relationship between these two fleshed out a bit more, perhaps showing Natasha’s inner conflict as she thinks about her old lovers. You know, the ones Nick paid so much attention to in part one? Then that information would have had an impact on the current relationship. Clint, Matt, Hercules—all of these relationships were with superheroes, which would have provided an interesting contrast to Mike, who’s just a normal guy. With a perm.
I know, some of you might be thinking this flies in the face of my dislike for decompressed storytelling, and that less is more. And it’s true that if it comes down to it, I’d prefer a story to be tighter and well, shorter. But in this case, I really do think Perez and Macchio should have (or should have been allowed) to give this story maybe a page or two more to flesh out this relationship. Hell, a lot can be done in just three pages. Other than that nit? This is a fantastic chapter. I’ve said it before and it bears repeating; comics are a visual medium, and we need to see spectacle and action. And that final page only whets our appetite for chapter three.