Marvel Fanfare #13 “Black Widow, Web of Intrigue” (part 4 of 4)
As we take a look at the final installment of this four-part story, I want to take a moment to mention the cover art. For me, the cover should imply the action that will take place in the comic, and be a teaser of things to come. I hate bait and switch covers (i.e. the cover of Batman #76, which suggests a big throwdown with Bane that never actually happens) as well as generic ones that have the character doing something like a selfie or posing. Granted, issue #10 was striking and had some great Perez art, but it still fell in the latter category. Issue #11 had a nice montage cover, and issue #12’s teaser for the sewer fight between Natasha and the Iron Maiden (fantastic character. I’m sure she’ll show up again someday. Really) was good. But of the four, I’d say Marvel Fanfare #13 has the best cover:
Illustrated by the incomparable Art Adams, it is dynamic. I especially love how you can see Natasha in the reflection of Snapdragon’s visor and staff.
We crack open the comic to find Al Milgrom returning back to the office after being away for almost a month with the other mighty Marvel editors. As he takes the elevator up to the tenth floor, Al talks about how great it was to get away and bond with his peers outside the office as well as spend time with the family. He exits the elevator to find the place in a state of chaos.
I look at this panel and wonder what it was like to work at Marvel in the early ’80s, before all the corporate nonsense. Did you know nostalgia is comprised of the Greek words “homecoming” and “ache”. Is that why thinking about how good comics used to be compared to now hurts so much? Nowadays, the only thing that hurts is my wallet every time I blow $3 on a comic. Yeah, normally they’re $3.99, but my local store provides a 25% discount. You can bet your butt I wouldn’t buy ‘em if I had to pay full price.
In the back of this issue, we have a pretty sweet story starring the Warriors Three, written by Alan Zelenetz and illustrated by the amazing Charles Vess. It’s amazing how much entertainment a writer and artist can pack in just thirteen pages.
But (finally!) onto the final chapter of “Web of Intrigue”. An airship cuts through the skies over the South China seas, but then becomes a boat before approaching a small island near Hong Kong. A massive, camouflaged James Bond-ian hangar cracks open to admit the ship into the bowels of a high-tech base. It’s here that we find our heroine, Natasha Romanov, aka the Black Widow, in the hands of her cap—
Jesus Christ, Snapdragon’s costume looks even worse this week. She’s wearing heels, people. Heels! And is that a sword stuck in her garter? I find it hard to believe this is George Perez’s work; it feels like it’s come down a long way from part one. Natasha delivers a massive infodump by way of thought bubbles to bring readers who missed parts 1-3 up to speed, while Snapdragon monologues to whoever is inclined to listen. I’m willing to bet that’s nobody. The blonde guy notes to Natasha that Snapdragon loves to talk, but she still kicked the Widow’s ass and I love how her response is to note that the dude is breathing down her neck.
She’s led through the vast complex to the principal villain. Is it Yellow Claw? The Mandarin? Kingpin? Doctor Doom? I know, I bet it’s General Sam Sawyer from part one, the guy behind Natasha going on this mission in the first place! We get the big reveal and it’s none other than… Damon Dran? Who the hell is—oh! Okay, Natasha’s providing another thought balloon infodump. Dran was some D-list villain that Natasha and Daredevil fought back in the day. He was an industrialist who was convinced the nukes were gonna fly. He enacted something called “Project Four” and the Black Widow and Daredevil stopped it, and apparently it was supposed to turn him into a “god” but instead it turned him into a lipless wonder. Is it just me or does he remind anybody else of Fire Marshall Bill?
Dran surrounds himself with honeys, but I’m sure they love him for his personality and not his massive bankroll. Really. Dran explains his master plan is already in motion. An agent disguised via plastic surgery to look exactly like Natasha will wake up Jimmy Woo where he was left in the sewers. The faux Widow will then point out a corpse pinned to the wall, who’s a poor patsy that passes for their attacker in the dark. “Natasha” will then be taken back to the SHIELD Helicarrier to report to Nick Fury, where she will then lead the airship to the island where it’ll be blown out of the sky. Natasha will take the heat for the destruction of the Helicarrier and the hundreds of deaths and then she’ll be let go, a fugitive with nowhere to run because the Russians still think she’s responsible for the dust-up at the compound. As plans go, it’s not bad, except for the “letting her go” bit. Really, why not kill her once she sees the Helicarrier blown out of the sky? I get that Dran wants her to suffer, but she’s friends with Daredevil, the Champions, and the Avengers. Do you really want a friend of Captain America to run around protesting her innocence?
Natasha loses her cool and kicks Dran upside the head, but Snapdragon downs her with a staff to the gut. Natasha has been KO’d and gets dragged off to the cells, not knowing her guard is a brainwashed Ivan Petrovich, the very man whose supposed defection started all of this.
Elsewhere, James Woo flies a SHIELD hovercraft up to the Helicarrier, with the Black Widow impostor as a passenger. Faux Widow gloats that her disguise is perfect and that it’s fooled Woo completely. I wouldn’t be too smug, lady, at least not until you’re around somebody who knows Natasha better. Someone like Nick Fury, who’s watching the hovercraft land and threatening to tear a strip off of Natasha’s hide for the whole mess this mission has become. And hey, speaking of tearing a strip off…
Yeah, it turns out Natasha had a secret set of escape tools, principally a bow and arrow. That seems really… specific to the task at hand, which is getting to a door twelve feet up. Then again, how many James Bond movies did we see where he had the exact gadget necessary to get him out of trouble? Maybe SHIELD’s version of Q can see the future. Hey, the organization has a telepathic division, so it’s not that big of a stretch.
Natasha fashions what’s left of her costume into a makeshift bikini, because this is a PG book and they saved that sort of stuff for Epic magazine and Bizarre Adventures. Natasha activates the plastic explosive in the arrowhead using an electric charge under her fingernail, and considering this is a universe of thunder gods and suits of armor kept in briefcases, this is totally fine with me. She blows that door off its hinges and comes face to face with Ivan, who’s completely brainwashed. He’s – even – got – the – stilted – dialogue – going – on. Natasha knocks him out cold and has to leave him behind because she has to warn Nick about Faux Widow. Grabbing the rifle, she dashes off, not knowing Dran’s got pervo-vision going on by way of a hidden camera. Dran sends Snapdragon off to put the hurt on Natasha.
Black Widow finds the main complex but doesn’t spot a phone, so her plan is to pretty much waltz through the place, knockin’ suckers out along the way. Me, I’d stick the business end of my rifle in a dude’s eyeball and politely ask, but I’m not a world class super-spy, so what do I know? And then Snapdragon shows up, and it’s time for round two.
Y’know, I bet Snaps wears those heels because she’s so good that she wants to give her opponent an edge. It takes a lot of courage to combine pumps with that ensemble. The fight is a brutal one between the two combatants, and while Snapdragon is armed, Natasha is pissed. She’s been manipulated, had her lover killed, and her mentor has been brainwashed. She proceeds to kick Snapdragon’s ass. Snap loses her cool and lunges at Natasha, but she forgets about the hole she blasted in the catwalk.
Just get your feet under you, Snap; those heels will break your fall, you’ll see! Aaaand there goes another in a long line of D-list villains in this story. Natasha gets caught by the guy in the green jacket. If his name ever got mentioned I missed it, which goes to show just how memorable these bad guys are. Meanwhile, the Helicarrier has reached the island and Fury—who we now know doesn’t know Natasha as well as we thought—is totally fooled by Faux Widow. She looks on, thinking about how awesomesauce it’ll be to kill Nick and escape in the confusion. Meanwhile back on the island, Natasha’s slow to get up. Was she seriously hurt by Snapdragon? Is she planning a clever ruse? No, she just sees what’s behind the guards.
It turns out maybe Natasha smacking Ivan around knocked some sense into him. On board the Helicarrier, Faux Widow preps her shot, but then a call comes in from Natasha, warning Nick about the cheap knock-off Widow. She even brings up the bite wound she suffered at the hands of the dogs in Russia, and how Faux Widow wouldn’t have those. The jig is up, and Nick dodges the killing shot. But Nick doesn’t miss. He turns to the rest of the crew and explains that he had the ship on red alert all along because something didn’t smell right, and now he’s going to blow the place to hell—but not before warning Natasha first. The Helicarrier points its awesome weaponry down and starts turning the island into a parking lot.
Meanwhile, Dran is shocked that his master plan just got dropped down the crapper, and stares in shock as his swanky Bond villain lair pad gets torched. He dies for reals this time, and there goes another in a long line of minor villains. The dawn finds a SHIELD skimmer scanning the seas for survivors, and it ultimately spots Natasha and Ivan clinging to debris, with Natasha swearing to Ivan that his “little Tsarina” will be at his side every step of the way for his deprogramming.
The final chapter of “Web of Intrigue” moves fast, and just about each page is loaded with tons of action. Natasha is portrayed as being smart and bad-ass. The entire story comes across like a James Bond story dialed up to eleven, with colorful henchmen, a secret island, and an over the top master villain. Dran’s plan to discredit Natasha is a bit reminiscent of From Russia with Love where SPECTRE’s goal is to not only get a Soviet decoding machine, but to destroy James Bond’s reputation in the process. And hey, if you’re gonna borrow, borrow from the best, right?
All that being said, I do feel the story is a little lacking. The final chapter’s art isn’t up to the same level as prior installments. It feels a little rushed and I don’t think Beatty and Breeding’s inks compliment George Perez’s work at all. I also feel that the use of a host of disposable and lesser known villains brought the quality of the story down. On top of that, why introduce General Sawyer and not utilize him throughout the story? What if Sawyer had been the master villain? What if Sawyer had been working with Dran and wanted Fury dead so he could take over SHIELD, or replace SHIELD with his own intelligence agency? What if Sawyer had been captured months earlier and replaced with a fake the way Dran did with Natasha, and she finds out Sawyer is a fellow captive in Dran’s stronghold? Perez introduced a character who seemed primed to act as Nick Fury’s antagonist and nothing of note was done with him after the first chapter.
What else? Well, I’ve seen the SHIELD Helicarrier over the years, and this…
…might be the worst version ever. It’s so… inelegant. Okay, I know, with all this bitchin’ and moanin’ it might sound like I didn’t enjoy “Web of Intrigue”. But the truth is, despite the flaws, I found it an entertaining yarn. I don’t think we saw anything like it until years later when Matt Fraction gave us the Hawkeye solo series, where we got to see what Clint was up to when he wasn’t Avenging, or the solo Black Widow series illustrated by Phil Noto. I think that in the superhero landscape, with its four-color majesty, there should always be room for gritty comics like this.