Marvel Fanfare #12 “Black Widow, Web of Intrigue” (part 3 of 4)

So I read the article over at Inverse regarding the Black Widow movie’s screenwriter, Jac Schaeffer, and I dunno. Some of what she says I agree with, such as not adhering slavishly to canon. It worked for Thor, for example; the role of Dr. Donald Blake would have seemed unwieldy. So I’m down with changing up the origin a bit, provided the core concepts are maintained. And hell, haven’t we already seen Natasha’s origin tweaked a few times over the decades?

But “sour grapes voices”, Jac? Those are the fans you’re talking about. Maybe instead of antagonizing them, you should instead reassure them that you respect them and the character. They’re the consumers, and you want them to go see the movie and buy the Blu-ray, right? And “less glamorization of weaponry”? It’s a story about a master assassin and secret agent; people in that line of work tend to, you know, use weapons. As for more complex bad guys, I think we’ve had our fair share of that so far. Thanos, Ultron, Killmonger, Zemo, and Loki are all examples of bad guys with complex motives. And sometimes you don’t need a complicated villain: the Red Skull is in my book still one of the best bad guys in the MCU.

So I’m not going to say the Black Widow movie is going to be a disaster, just that right now I’m not seeing eye-to-eye with its writer on everything, especially incendiary comments targeting the fanbase.

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Speaking of women writers, issue #12 of Marvel Fanfare starts off with an “Editori-gal”, and man, how that wouldn’t fly in today’s environment. Calling a woman a “gal”? Some would find that to be “problematic”. Humor and irreverence? What’s that? It turns out Al Milgrom is out of town and assistant editor Ann Nocenti has stepped up to cover for him.

Ann’s administrative style? Say “Yes!” to everything. I’m sure Al will be simply thrilled when he comes back. The excuse is this is Marvel’s “Assistant Editor’s Month”, which was an event where supposedly all the editors were at a convention and their assistants ran the show, meaning hilarity and chaos ensue. Some writers embraced the idea (i.e. John Byrne’s issue of The Thing had Ben Grimm fighting some dude with giant shoes, and when Ben reads the issue he takes umbrage and confronts John Byrne directly) while others did so minimally. But let’s be fair; if a title was in the middle of a storyline, would fans have wanted to see it interrupted with shenanigans?

The back half of this issue has Roger Stern stop by Ann’s office, bemoaning the lack of editors to discuss ideas with. Ann suggests he write that Captain America story he promised, and she talks Stern into dressing up as Cap for inspiration. It’s… there, I suppose. Maybe I wasn’t in the right mindset, but I didn’t really laugh. At least this issue also showcased some sweet art from the incomparable Rick Leonardi.

Perhaps it’s just the nostalgia talking because this is my first and favorite era of X-Men, but this is a tremendous piece of work and my favorite incarnation of Storm. Now, enough dawdling, on with the story!

When we last left Natasha Romanov, she had been defeated by the Assassin’s Six and lay helpless at their feet, trussed up like a steer ready for branding due to Laralie’s deadly lassoing. We now open with Natasha’s head squarely in the crosshairs of a gun scope, and Laralie screams out for the shooter to stop. It’s Deadshot Darrance, but we only know his name because Black Lotus improbably addresses him as such, and then Laralie does the same to her. It’s almost as if they’re doing this for the benefit of some outside observer who might be unaware of their names. Hmm.

The Iron Maiden (and I’m shocked nobody calls her this on this page) suggests that offing Natasha is not a bad idea, probably because we found out last issue she’s holding a grudge against the Black Widow, the reasons of which I’m sure will become apparent later on. I mean, you don’t just introduce a character with a chip on their shoulder and then fail to explain why said chip exists, right? That’s Writing 101. While the assassins are bitching amongst themselves, Natasha realizes this is a golden opportunity: Her arms are bound but her legs are free. Black Lotus gets it first, followed by Laralie. The three men cool Natasha down, with Darrance drawing a bead on Natasha. But she’s got an answer for that:

With the “African” down (and fair is fair, nobody said his name in Natasha’s presence), she redirects her attention to the Sumo. He eats a foot and sells it like the Ultimate Warrior, then proceeds to tear the shop apart in trying to crush Natasha. But Natasha is nimble and keeps one step ahead—only, the next step is into Black Lotus’ fist. The Iron Maiden wisely hangs back, but Darrance unwisely decides it’s time to just put a bullet in Natasha and end things. Natasha sees him pull a piece and aim.

Uh… whoops? Natasha rolls across the floor and plants a boot upside Darrance’s head, while mocking his name of “Deadshot”. I can’t help but wonder if Ralph Macchio and George Perez were poking fun at the lameness of what was at the time a C-list Batman villain. The shop’s strewn with dead or unconscious assassins, and now it’s just Natasha and the Iron Maiden. The Maiden now lays down some exposition, explaining how she’s Melina Vostokoff, and she had gone freelance after Natasha defected. Melina’s upset that Natasha’s exploits overshadowed hers… and I’m not sure why that would be. The two are in different fields; Natasha’s a spy and superhero and Melina kills people for a living. If a hitperson is getting press, that’s sort of counterproductive, ain’t it? And I’m not really digging her mask here:

It would be cool if her expression didn’t change, like if she were wearing a real mask. But obviously it does, and that implies the Iron Maiden is like a female Colossus. And yeah, discovering Melina Vostokoff was really Colossus’ long lost sister would have been pretty sweet. But really, what we have here is Vostokoff is wearing a suit of armor, and I guess Perez is drawing her lips moving out of force of habit. And after reading Melina’s backstory, I’m now wondering if possibly it would have been more interesting if she wanted Natasha to suffer by not telling her what she wants to know. They could have left the identity of the Iron Maiden a mystery with dialogue like this:

The Black Widow: Who are you?!
The Iron Maiden: You will die in ignorance, a blind fool, wondering who of all the hundreds of people you harmed over the years has come back to end you…

Well, whatever. The Maiden frees Natasha to make it a fair fight, and the Widow shoots her with a sting. For the first time in this adventure she doesn’t go for the face, and I have no clue why. Seriously, she could at least blind the Maiden and score an advantage. The Maiden grabs Natasha’s wrists and the Widow finds out all her kicky-punchy doesn’t do squat against somebody armored like Iron Man. The Maiden feeds Natasha an Iron Elbow and starts to put an epic choke-down on our hero, when suddenly…

It’s SHIELD agent James Woo to the rescue! Man, I am such a big fan of this character ever since I read those Agents of Atlas comics a few years back. They were gloriously retro, introducing me to characters from a bygone time I barely knew before. The premise was that Woo and his team posed as villains to stop real bad guys. Sadly, the series never caught on, maybe because people just wanted to buy the fifth Avengers or X-Men title. And no, I’m not bitter. Really. I’m really looking forward to what they do with Woo in the MCU…

…oh, right. They turned him into comic relief in Ant Man & The Wasp. Damn you, Kevin Feige. It’s like that old saying: die a hero, or live long enough to become the villain. But enough kvetching; back to the comic.

The Iron Maiden takes a powder and James (and thank God they’re not calling him Jimmy) explains to Natasha that Fury told him to render any aid that was necessary. James is a take-charge kind of guy, and he says he’s gotta go after the Iron Maiden before she gets too big a lead, but Natasha reveals she put a tracker on Melina during the fight. That… showed a remarkable amount of foresight. What was Natasha’s plan? To let the Maiden escape and then follow her to the big boss? If so, that was pretty cocky on her part.

James leads Natasha to his car and while he’s driving, Natasha picks up a signal, which leads them to an alley and an open sewer entrance. Woo insists on going first and explains that he’s in charge and he ain’t got time for rockstar superhero types. In the sewer, Woo leads with his flashlight and Natasha is about to warn him to be careful just as the wall explodes. Woo is stunned, just as the Iron Maiden comes out of the hole she just made and says she’s disappointed in Natasha, who’s always been “an agent alone”. Um… Daredevil’s partner, founding member of the Champions, Avenger in good standing? Since when has Natasha not been a team player?

The Maiden starts monologuing about how somebody who earned the highest of accolades is about to die in the sewers. I give this speech a solid 7/10. Natasha goes full bore with the stingers… and again doesn’t go for the face. Natasha can’t put a dent in the Maiden’s armor, and it’s all she can do to avoid getting her head split open by those ironclad mitts. It looks like she’s about to eat a chunk of tossed debris when it gets blown out of the air by Woo. It’s now a standoff, until Natasha whispers to Woo to shoot the floor. Woo gets it, he fires, and…

And Melina is sucked down into another level of the sewer, cursing Natasha’s name all the while. Natasha explains to Woo she figured out that the Maiden’s armor had to have at least one weakness, and it turned out to be its weight. Woo is impressed and apologizes for getting in Natasha’s face before, and she says it’s all good. Woo then suggests they check out that opening, because it’s likely Melina hadn’t picked out this sewer at random, and had been heading someplace specific. But if that’s the case, then that would imply all the assassins would have been going to the same place. Just how, exactly, was the sumo wrestler going to get through that sewer opening? Unless maybe the Iron Maiden planned to screw over her teammates all along, which, considering the nature of that team-up, seems not only plausible but likely.

The pair wander in the dark, with Woo’s flashlight lost and Natasha’s wrist penlight damaged by Melina. Stingers, tracker, penlight, swing-line… Her bracelets are like two tiny utility belts. The pair spot a glimmer of light, and then Woo disappears without a sound. Someone attacks Natasha, and it’s obvious she can see the Widow even in pitch blackness. Natasha’s stingers aren’t working and all she can do it swing blindly, hoping for a lucky break. The breaks come, but from the mystery assailant. Natasha is knocked out cold from repeated hits. The lights come on and a man looks her over and says she’ll be fine, and then he compliments her mystery attacker.

Good God almighty, that is the ugliest costume I have ever seen. It’s like George Perez picked out bits and pieces at random and threw them together. For God’s sake, man, pick a theme and roll with it. This looks like an outfit made via committee, designed to make nobody happy. Anyway, that’s how our penultimate chapter ends, with the Black Widow defeated by… Snapdragon! Well, at least her name is pretty cool.

This issue was top notch in regards to action. Perez and Macchio deliver non-stop punchin’ and kickin’, and they make Natasha look legitimately bad-ass. On top of that, Natasha is portrayed as being intelligent as well as tough. If I have any nit to pick, it’s the fact that she had no good reason not to shoot the Iron Maiden in the face; at the very least, a sting would have blinded Melina. Of the three issues so far, I’d say this one was the strongest; it flowed best and had the most cinematic feel. As for the downsides, I would say Snapdragon is the biggest. The infrared mask she used to defeat Natasha was clever, but her costume is a distractingly hot mess. The other problem is the Assassins Six. To my knowledge, none of these jokers ever show up again in the pages of Marvel Comics. Natasha’s victory is tainted by the fact she went up against such weaksauce opponents. I also found Melina’s issues with Natasha to be pretty lame as well. Natasha was more famous so she has to die? That’s like wanting to kill someone because they have more followers on Twitter. Although now that I think about it, from what I’ve seen on Twitter, maybe that’s not so implausible.

Another problem is the art. I’ve never been a fan of Al Milgrom as an artist, and his inks here do Perez a disservice. Okay, some pages look fine, but that last one revealing Snapdragon looks kind of rushed. I’ve seen worse, but where Perez is concerned, I expect better. That’s all for this week, stop by in seven days’ time to see the final chapter of “Web of Intrigue”!

Tag: Black Widow: Web of Intrigue

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