The 10 Best Black Widow Graphic Novels
Before the Iron Man and Avengers movies came out, I doubt Black Widow was all that well known to many outside comic book circles. Heck, even within comic book circles, she was not the most high-profile character. She first appeared in Tales of Suspense issue 52, back in 1964, as a Russian spy nemesis for Iron Man created by Stan Lee, Don Rico, and Don Heck.
Who Is Black Widow?
I've always liked Natasha Romanova, not so much because of her individual character, but because she is a Marvel Universe 'glue' character; she connects together many characters and teams. For example, she has been a member/associate of the Avengers, Secret Avengers, the Defenders, the Champions, S.H.I.E.L.D., and the Thunderbolts; she has been a recurring character in Iron Man, Captain America, Daredevil among others.
She's been a villain, a spy, a superheroine, an assassin, even an Avengers team leader. She's also not been, ahem, shy in her relationships with a lot of her fellow heroes. But hey, when you look so cool that Catwoman copied your costume, what are you going to do?! If she's not a character you are that familiar with, then I hope my top ten graphic novels list will give you a good introduction to her; she's worth your time.
10. Hawkeye & Mockingbird/Black Widow: Widowmaker
Writer: Jim McCann, Duane Swierczynski
Artist: David Lopez
The premise is certainly promising. The plot follows Hawkeye and Mockingbird going to Japan after a SHIELD agent is assassinated there. They then run into Black Widow, who is investigating the death of several KGB agents, and realise that spies around the world are being 'blown', then assassinated. Two of their next targets? Black Widow and Mockingbird!
The mastermind behind it all is a face that is both new and old. It may surprise you (although only if you know your recent Avengers history). The collection is rounded out with a bonus back-up, reprinting a classic '80s Hawkeye/Black Widow team-up from Solo Avengers issues 14-16. Overall, it's got a decent story, decent art, good back-up. I liked it, with a small 'l'.
9. The Champions, Volumes 1 and 2
are one of my all-time favorite superteams! I loved the weirdness of the roster—we had a demi-god (Hercules), a demon (Ghost Rider), 2 lesser X-men (Angel, Iceman) and a Russian spy, our Black Widow! What's not to like? The Champions
This is '70s Black Widow, though...she very much plays second fiddle to the rest of the team, I guess as the 'token' female member. She does get a few moments to shine...although some are in a bikini! It was good to see her get some regular appearances, though.
The quality of the stories varies wildly, but I enjoy the character interaction as much as anything they are actually doing, and towards the end of this collection Black Widow gets her moment in the spotlight. We delve into Black Widow's origins, with lots of mysterious Russian goings-on, ending up in a story guest-starring Black Goliath, Hawkeye and the Two-Gun Kid! Widow had not enjoyed much focus until now, so this series was a welcome chance to flesh out her character a little more. I defy you not to like this! shows a different, lighter side to today's Widow. Enjoy!
8. Black Widow: Kiss or Kill
Writer: Duane Swierczynski
Artist: Manuel Garcia
I really enjoyed this collection; it's a nice combination of crime thriller and superheroics. collects together Black Widow issues 6-8 and material from the Iron Man: Kiss and Kill special. This volume
In the main story, a U.S senator is seduced, then murdered. His son, a journalist, follows the trail to discover a woman who is pretending to be a high-class escort to lure powerful men into being blackmail victims. Thinking he's found her, he is about to expose Black Widow.
While Widow tries to find out who is framing her, she is attacked by superpowered assassins (Crimson Dynamo!), as well as having her own double-cross backfire when the CIA comes after her. Twists and turns, fights, espionage, sex scandals... an excellent book.
The back-up is also pretty good, guest-starring Iron Man, as the pair track down some stolen Stark tech. Widow gets some good lines, and it's an enjoyable romp. At 96 pages, it's not the biggest collection ever, but it's a cracking read. Recommended.
Natasha was born in 1928, so she is actually over 80 years old! As a subject of the Soviet government 'Red Room' program, she was bio- and psycho-technologically enhanced, increasing her lifespan and maintaining her youthful looks.
7. Daredevil, Volume 10: The Widow
Writer: Brain Bendis
Artist: Alex Maleev
This collection collects Daredevil Vol. 2 issues 61-66, plus the fantastic bonus Daredevil Vol. 1 issue 81.
As I stated elsewhere on this lens, Black Widow's defining relationship will always be with Matt Murdock, Daredevil. In this story arc, Natasha pays a visit back to see him, at a time when Daredevil is near breaking point, both in his failing marriage and his struggle to keep control of Hell's Kitchen as the new Kingpin.
Bendis was born to write this relationship, as he captures the underlying unease between the two former lovers. Natasha is all charm on the surface, secrets below it—pitch-perfect characterization. Of course, Natasha is not just there to see an old friend and is hiding secrets of her own (a nice tangle of SHIELD, powerful enemies, conspiracies, etc.). The main reward of the story, though, is the dialogue between two damaged individuals who, though they strive to be better, always feel as though they are not good enough. Bendis' writing and Maleev's moody, gorgeous art creates the perfect tone.
The back-up tale is a great '70s one, recalling the first meeting between Matt and Natasha and the beginning of their crimefighting and personal relationship in San Francisco. It's a great read.
6. Black Widow: Deadly Origin
Writer: Paul Cornell
Artist: Tom Raney, John Paul Leon
This collects 4-issue mini-series. It is a perfect introduction to the character, both for new fans and for those who know just the basics about Natasha. It does a great job of weaving an interesting narrative around a journey through Natasha's convoluted past. A nice touch is that the flashbacks are handled by a different artist than the present day, giving a clear 'then and now' tone. Black Widow: Deadly Origin
The murder of her oldest friend and the search for the reasons behind his death send Natasha on a journey through her past as a Russian spy, Nazi freedom fighter, mercenary, superhero, SHIELD agent and, finally, the choices that led her to where she is now. That life is now threatened by a part of her previous brainwashing/programming via the Icepick Protocol, which has just been activated and is designed to turn her friends into enemies and destroy everyone close to her.
We get some good cameos (Nick Fury, Wolverine, Winter Soldier, Red Guardian, Iron Man, Hawkeye, Daredevil) from men she has had relationships with, and a nice espionage thriller to boot. It's a case of revisiting the past to go forward, for Natasha and the reader. Recommended. There are also a couple of nice extras, a good Black Widow history piece, cover art, and sketches.
Black Widow's relationship with Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier has spanned over 60 years!
5. Black Widow: Web of Intrigue (Marvel Premiere Classic)
With 3 separate publications bundled together, this is , and a good value for all three. It collects together Marvel Fanfare (1983) issues 10-13, Bizarre Adventures issue 25, and Black Widow: The Coldest War one-shot. Let's take a look. a nice little collection
The four Marvel Fanfare issues are the cream of the collection. Web of Intrigue is a nice story arc, with a good career recap (up to that point), and a more superhero-slanted story than the later espionage ones, but none the worse for that. We still have Nick Fury, we have assassins, SHIELD, a kidnapped friend, a trip to Russia, and a criminal mastermind. Ralph Macchio writes a solid Marvel yarn, George Perez provides excellent art (a little cheesecake on Natasha herself, but hey, it was the '80s!). I love nostalgia, and I loved this.
The Bizarre Adventures tale is also by Macchio, with black and white art by the great Paul Gulacy. Natasha is sent in to break up an illegal weapons ring on behalf of SHIELD, in a more old school espionage thriller that plays to the Black Widow's strengths. Not bad at all. Ralph Macchio writes the introduction to this collection, appropriately enough.
Lastly, we have the Coldest War one-shot, which I am a little mixed on. The art by George Freeman takes some getting used to, and that may detract from what is a perfectly fine story, dealing with the end of the Cold War; Gerry Conway crafts an espionage thriller of its day, set during the last days of Mikhail Gorbachev's "Perestroika" ("openness") government. The KGB attempt to manipulate Natasha by using the bait of her husband Alexei Shostokoff, who has been dead for years. Or has he? In the spirit of spy thrillers, nothing is as it seems and nobody can be trusted.
The collection is a good value, with 3 very different 'takes' on the character. It's worth picking up.
4. Black Widow: The Name of the Rose
Writer: Marjorie Liu
Artist: Daniel Acuna
The great strength to a writer of Black Widow is the character's backstory and her connection to so much of the Marvel Universe. In , Marjorie Liu does a great job of telling a fantastic story while weaving in appearances from a lot of recognizable faces. The guest appearances are never just thrown in; they all have a purpose that shows both good writing and good editorial practice. The Name of the Rose
Liu captures Natasha's inner voice well; it's easy to forget just how damaged of a person she is. She has been brainwashed, fed false memories, manipulated and experimented upon, and Liu delves into this. How can you have friends when you don't know if your memories of them are true?
As well as the excellent character writing, we get a strong Bond-like tale of gadgets, treachery, exotic locales, and fisticuffs! SHIELD is again after her, this time for keeping secret files on other heroes, so again she's cut off and alone.
Acuna's art is great, complementing the writing. It flows well and looks lovely. If you like your girls strong and sassy, and you like a bit of Bond, this is the book for you. Highly recommended.
Black Widow is not Natasha Romanova's name; it is actually the name of the covert Black Widow program that was designed to create Russia's version of America's super-soldier program. There have been/are other Black Widows.
3. Black Widow: The Sting of the Widow
- Tales of Suspense issue 52: Black Widow's first appearance, as a Russian spy out to get Tony Stark/Iron Man. The character was a pretty basic cypher, and it's amazing to see how layered she is now in comparison!
- Amazing Spider-Man issue 86: This saw the first appearance of her traditional jumpsuit costume, probably inspired by the spy shows of the day (Emma Peel in the Avengers, for example). It was also a 'build-up buzz' appearance for her solo series soon to start. Its an OK story—Natasha does some soul searching, has a fight with Spidey, etc. Standard Marvel, but good fun.
- Amazing Adventures issues 1-8: Black Widow's first solo series, again probably to try to jump on the then-fad for spy stories. She was dropped after 8 issues, so I guess the fanbase wasn't there then. They are pretty standard stuff for the day: street-level type villains, and the stories have nice John Buscema and Gene Colan art too.
- Daredevil issue 81: This is the issue where Black Widow begins the defining relationship of her career, with Daredevil, going on to co-star in his title for several years. They made a great team. In this intro, she saves Daredevil's life and helps him take down the Owl. Vintage Marvel.
This is a nice book to get some 'history' on Black Widow, before she became the super slinky espionage queen she is today; its more traditional superheroine fare, a little rougher round the edges, but not bad, not bad at all.
So to recap: elemental forces. The world's latest tech. And assassins..But that's not the worst of it. My ex-husband is here.
2. Black Widow, Vol. 1: Homecoming
Writer: Richard K. Morgan
Artist: Bill Sienkiewicz
Novelist Richard Morgan seems to take the Bourne films as his inspiration, and ratchets up a fantastic espionage thriller, albeit a very violent one. This is probably as true a depiction of the reality of someone like Black Widow as has been published, and the behavior of Nick Fury (pretty controversial at the time) is also spot on. He's the world's top spymaster... would you trust him?!
I won't give too much away, but in essence, Natasha has gotten tired of the spy game and is out of it, until someone tries to kill her. Tracking a series of killings connected to the attempt on her, she returns to Russia to learn why she was targeted...and discovers some very unpleasant home truths.
Its violent, edgy, political storytelling with outstanding Bill Sienkiewicz art over layouts by Goran Parlov, making this one of the best recent books out there full stop, not just in the Black Widow canon. It's a great read, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Natasha has had relationships with Winter Soldier (Bucky Barnes), Wolverine, Hawkeye, Iron Man, Daredevil, Hercules, and Red Guardian, as well as rumoured relationships with several others. No wonder she can call in favors!
1. Black Widow: The Itsy-Bitsy Spider
Writer: Devin Grayson, Greg Rucka
Artist: JG Jones, Scott Hampton
The first story arc, Itsy Bitsy Spider, is one of the best Black Widow stories written, bar none. It was Devin Grayson, with this story, that essentially redefined Black Widow into her spy/espionage corner of the Marvel Universe. Against a broader mission, we meet Yelena Belova, the new Black Widow who regards Natasha as a traitor to Russia and wants to defeat her.
It would have been easy for Grayson to pitch this as good versus bad, but she doesn't. The moral lines are blurred; Natasha, being more experienced, can be more brutal than the younger, naïve agent. Yelena is not bad, just a blind patriot. The other interesting angle is that they represent generations—Natasha is old school, get the job done cleanly, minimal mess, efficient. Yelena is all 'ends justify the means', shoot, hit, kill anything that requires it. It's storytelling at a damn high level, both script and gorgeous art.
The second story arc saw Greg Rucka return to this well with Breakdown, a storyline that he seems to have written after watching the film Face/Off, and after reading the first story here. Yelena is back, still convinced of her importance to her masters, and Natasha wants to show her the error of her ways. With a bit of disguise work, Natasha becomes Yelena, Yelena becomes Natasha, and Natasha shows her they are just interchangeable pawns to the men upstairs. There's also a hunt for nuclear weapons going on, and some guys called Nick Fury and Daredevil happen by as well.
Not as good as the first story, which is exceptional, but still very good. Scott Hampton's art is a little more abstract, which is not to all tastes but suits Rucka's storytelling here. It's a really good collection, great for Black Widow fans, but should be on the shelf of any comic fan. Highly recommended.
Other Recommended Reading
These didn't make the cut, but I wanted to let people know where else they could get their Black Widow fix!
1. Black Widow & The Marvel Girls (Paul Tobin)
This didn't make the list as I thought it a bit of a cash-in, teaming Black Widow up with other Marvel heroines (Storm, She-Hulk, the Enchantress, and Spider-Woman). It's also all-ages, so tonally a little different from other choices. It's nice enough, though, and it has very nice art.
2. Black Widow Vol. 2: The Things They Say About Her (Richard K. Morgan)
This was close to being on the list; I just felt Vol. 1 was the better book, so that went on the list. This is worth picking up, though it's not for the faint of heart!
3. Punisher, Black Widow: Spinning Doomsday's Web (Dan Chichester)
It's a little obscure now as it's from the early '90s, but if you find a copy, snap it up. Decent story, decent art, and one of Black Widow's earliest stand-alone stories.
4. Daredevil Black Widow: Abattoir (Jim Starlin)
An absolute gem of a graphic novel, again from the early '90s, and I would highly recommend if you track it down. Again, a little obscure and a team-up, so I left it off the main list.
5. Black Widow: Pale Little Spider (Rucka/Kordey)
This was a MAX title, so it's very adult content, be warned! It focused on the new Black Widow, Yelena Belova, so it fell a little outside my lens. Decent story, nice art and covers.
Black Widow had significant runs in Daredevil (issues 81-124), where she was a fully fledged co-star, and The Avengers (111-112, 173-181,329-402), where she was the chairperson from issue 348 onwards. More recently, she has been a significant character in The Mighty Avengers, The Secret Avengers, and Ed Brubaker's Captain America, where she has rekindled her relationship with Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier. Black Widow was also part of the Ultimates, the alt-universe title, albeit a different type of 'hero' (read it, it's good).
Most of these are collected in trade collections, so do look them up—there is some great reading to be had.