It’s not often that I find myself unashamedly praising a mainstream superhero comic book, at least not outside of the safe and comfy perimeters of a superhero comic book blog. In a sea of creator-owned titles and indie comics more than worth the cover price, superhero books are mostly comfort food. While many titles out there are challenging genre convention, narrative structure, and the limitations of commercial art, superheroes, by and large, mostly stay the same. That’s okay: they’re supposed to stick with the standards, because that’s their function. The pages of the average cape book spill over with modern hero mythology, archetypes of classical fiction and folklore dusted off and repurposed every few years to have one more go around.
But sometimes you get a superhero book that does a little more, goes just a little bit further, and pulls off something great. Black Widow from Marvel Comics, helmed by writer Nathan Edmondson and artist Phil Noto, is one of those books. Fresh from the publisher’s successes with solo titles such as Hawkeye and Captain Marvel, Marvel’s applying a similar formula to this book. While Captain Marvel is a traditional hero book with a strong emotional center, about air force pilot turned crime fighter Carol Danvers, the offbeat Hawkeye, following the oft-depressing daily exploits of Avenger Clint Barton, is a little more genre-bending. Black Widow, to its advantage, follows the core principles of these titles with great effectiveness. It’s a superhero book, yes, but in name only, as this title firmly grounds itself in action, espionage, and one woman’s quest for atonement in the face of a blood and tragic past.
The title follows Natasha Romanov, known to even the most casual fans as Black Widow, a ruthless ex-KGB assassin, an efficient SHIELD agent, and a cool-as-ice Avenger. She is currently on a meteoric rise into the upper echelon of well-known Marvel properties, thanks to Scarlet Johansson’s portrayal in Iron Man 2, Avengers, and the upcoming Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier. Natasha can also be found in numerous Marvel animated shows and films, and makes notable appearances in recent video games as well. While this book could have tried to play off of the character’s recent mainstream exposure, instead Edmondson and Noto craft a tighter, more personal narrative, focusing on Natasha and her very small circle of associates. If you’re looking for a star-studded supporting cast of Avengers alum, you’re not likely to find it anytime soon. This is actually one of the best parts about the book, as it is small and self-contained, and is carried by the strong partnership between Edmondson and Noto to some visually pleasing results.
There is no shortage of action and adventure in this series, in the same vein as The Bourne Identity or Mission Impossible, with slick and exciting fight sequences, daring escapes, and plenty of spy gadgets. This is the main draw, but I find Edmondson is most successful in that he still keeps the story grounded in Natasha’s personal quest. A former killer with a checkered past, Natasha spends her off-time making up for it, one job at a time. In the first issue she makes a point of telling her manager/accountant Isaiah that she’s not doing contract work for the money, insisting that he transfers her compensation to her network of trusts. Natasha never compromises her ideals in the pursuit of her cause, and is never portrayed as anything but a compelling and capable spy, remaining a very relatable and human character throughout.
As I’ve stated in my reviews of the first two issues, the real star of this book is Noto and his stellar artwork. His soft, painterly colors create a beautiful balance with the energy and dynamism of his page layouts. Moody palettes and lighting techniques establish locales with an effectiveness I don’t often see, creating a distinctive visual tone for the series. The softened filter that Noto applies throughout gives a delicate, gauzy emphasis to key panels, contrasting the brutal efficiency of the character with her inherent femininity. Black Widow is as beautiful as she is deadly, and Noto explores that through graphic narrative without coming off as patronizing or obvious, a feat I rarely see done effectively.
While it’s still early days for this title, Black Widow is a cool book that packs a punch. It’s visually pleasing and fun to read, successfully blending genre conventions to satisfying ends. If you’re not already following this book, I highly recommend that you start.
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