I like to read. In fact, I’m in two book clubs. I like non-fiction in particular, but I’m open to most topics. However, comic books and graphic novels are not something I’m well-versed in, but this past book club meeting we did a side-by-side comparison of 2 female-centric origin stories: X-23 and Black Widow Deadly Origin. We read the 4 books for Black Widow and the 6 books for X-23 then did a compare/contrast session on the two characters and their stories.
It was clear that we all liked one over the other, but I’m glad that we read both. Having the comparison made it much easier to see why you did or didn’t like various elements and I thought it was great subject matter for the blog.
Becca, frequent OAM event attendee, was the host and she agreed to discuss the books with me for your reading pleasure.
Let’s start off with the more well-known character, Natasha Romanov a.k.a Black Widow.
So it begins…
Bryce: I can’t really even describe to you how the book starts off! It bounces around so much through time and space, that you never really know what’s happening! Okay, uhh, here’s the jist. Natasha Romanov is a Russian spy and she was brought up, kinda, by a man named Ivan who is also Russian and works in some sort of spy capacity. The story hops around from her childhood to present-day, to past missions, then back to present-day and we keep hearing about how the “icepick protocol” has been initiated and everyone Natasha loves will die.
We meet several other familiar marvel characters like Wolverine, Captain America, and Daredevil within all her various storylines. We discover that she has been infected with nanites, which she has spread to people with whom she’s been in close contact (the medium through which they spread is a little unclear, so just roll with it). The Icepick Protocol has activated the nanites which take over a person’s mind and makes them kill the person near them. Okay, everyone with me? The nanites are spreading from Natasha to a loved one and then to another person very close to them as well. When the nanites are activated, the other random person kills the individual that Black Widow loves thinking their loved one is, in fact, Black Widow herself.
The basic plot of the whole series is Natasha has to revisit everyone she cares about or they will die at the hands of someone near by. As a result of all these visitations, one thing is made clear…
Black Widow is a ho.
When she goes back to visit all these people we discover she has a sexual history with The Winter Soldier, Hawkeye, maybe Iron Man, Daredevil, and Hercules. She was also married at one point! I had no idea that was coming, but she was married to a Russian super hero named Red Guardian before coming to America.
Becca: I should begin by stating that I was bothered her sexual history was such a major part of her origin story. However, I hesitate to use the word “ho.” Yes, she slept with quite a few men, but should we place that label on her? Does she receive any payment in the form of money or secrets? What if she cared for each of these men she was involved with?
Bryce: This is a good point. Slut-shaming is not constructive and she didn’t get paid. BUT, it is obvious that she has “teamed up” with many a male superhero, if you know what I’m saying *wink.* Because it ended up being inconsequential to the end of story, in my opinion, she comes off as a bit of a ho. All these guys that she’s worked with in the past are still in love with her and we don’t really know why, given the fact that she pits them against each other (and her motivations for doing that are unclear as well). I got the impression that she didn’t love any of these guys the way that they loved her. Also, it’s not like it’s part of her mission or anything either, using her sexuality to get secret launch codes or something like that (which I assume a spy would be like “hey, any means necessary, amiright?”).
If you take that part out, it doesn’t change the story, which is why it bugged me. It’s not like she had to have sex with all these dudes to convince me (the reader) that she cared about them! These are all fellow spies, soldiers, and superheros that she’s gone into battle with, of COURSE she cares about them. When her sexual promiscuity is just tossed out there, it makes me roll my eyes and think “A man wrote this.” (which is true btw)
Becca: I personally found the premise comical – What’s that? Her former lovers are in danger?! She must revisit ALL OF THEM?! Well shiiiiit she’s got some work to do!
I wouldn’t go as far as to shame her for her former lovers, because as an agent, she gets the job done. Had Black Widow not been involved with multiple men, that plot line would not exist. The writers chose to make this a vital plot line of her origin story, but I still fail to see why. What does it prove?
Becca: Would it be my first choice to make sexual encounters her introduction and connection to some of the Marvel superheroes we know? Of course not! She is allowed to sleep with whomever she wants. I would hope that she would have the decency to not use these men purely for pleasure if feelings are involved on their end. Be a respectable person, Black Widow.
Do her multiple lovers–who obviously still care for her–say something about her character? Does she use men? People get up in arms when a man uses a woman, are women not capable of doing the same? But I would not go as far as calling her a “ho” because of this. I will not let her be defined by the number of lovers she has had.
On a related note, I am curious if she was partnered up with other men professionally whom she did NOT sleep with.We obviously won’t meet them since that’s not her mission. If we knew more about her past employers, partners and missions, we could determine if she did “bang everything she saw” or if she got to pick and choose.
Bryce: But it IS her mission. She’s not just visiting her former lovers, she’s visiting the people that she cares about. I think it was a missed opportunity to show complexity. Humans love for lots of different reasons, but sex seemed to be the only focus of her past relationships. I was hoping for a variety of people and connections from her past. There was a brief snippet about a former teacher and a kid who delivered her newspaper that were killed by the Icepick Protocol, but other than that, the majority of the story is centered around other super heroes. And then there’s Ivan.
Ivan and Black Widow have known each other a long time and he got her hooked up with the people who trained her to become a super spy, but then he dies and then get injected with a serum, so he’s not dead? I don’t really even know the timeline, but he eventually becomes a super villain and we discover it was HIM who infected her with nanites and activated the Icepick Protocol.
Becca: Her connections to the Soviet Union are, by far, more interesting to her origin story. Who was this Ivan dude? Father-figure? Robotic rapist? And when exactly did he die? When was he resurrected? Just… confusion… so much confusion.
Bryce: I 100% agree! If that was developed as more of a through line, I wouldn’t have been so turned around all the time. It could have anchored the overall plot, instead it wandered all over the place.
Becca: If the Ivan/Black Widow storyline were more fleshed out I would have been flying through these books. Since I assume we are on the fence on where her loyalties lie, an in-depth look into her work as a Soviet agent would be much more enticing to read versus the ex-boyfriend round-up.
But I pose the question: why is it automatically assumed a man wrote this?
Bryce: Well, it was written by a man.
Becca: Are men not capable of writing strong women? Granted, these writers know their audience, but that’s not an excuse in my book. I’m positive men would find badass women (regardless of their sexual past) sexy in their own right. Let’s start making that the norm in comic books, shall we?
Bryce: Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think men are INCAPABLE of writing strong women. Joss Whedon, for example, is great at strong female characters. James Cameron, too. What I’m saying is that male writers have a proclivity for reducing women to their sexuality. Their characters’ power is often derived from the use of their sexuality instead of their wits or strength or skills. For it to be SO prevalent in Black Widow’s story made me feel like it was written by men for men, well…boys really. She HAS skills and she can kick ass, but that part gets overshadowed by all the sexual history.
But I think you’re right that men find badass women sexy. A woman that can take of of bid’ness and not need rescuing is mega-sexy, if you ask me. Or if they need recuing, it’s because of a legitimate threat (team work is a good thing!) and not because they were being a damsel (ugh. damsels in distress are a HUGE pet peeve of mine!!)
Looking back on it, I would have LOVED to see more of her training. A “Red Room” is mentioned a couple times, but we don’t learn what it’s purpose is or see her in it. That would have been cool, witnessing the evolution of her young self becoming her wily adult version.
Okay, final thoughts. For having the word “origin” in the title, it’s not really an origin story. There are flashbacks but you don’t see her going from point A TO point B. Some of the story is around point A, but you don’t really see her transition from one stage to the next. The timeline is unconventional, which works for a Tarantino film, but with this story, it’s hard to get a sense of her development or even know where the hell you are in the story. The whole thing is choppy and if there was more time spent on the dynamic between Black Widow and Ivan instead of Black Widow and all these other superheroes, the story could have been much more compelling.
Bryce & Becca