Pulp and Dagger

Graphic Novel Review


for May 7, 2006


Black Widow:

cover2005 - available in soft cover

Written by Richard K. Morgan. Art by Goran Parlov, Bill Sienkiewicz.
Colours: Dan Brown. Letters: Cory Petit. Editor: Jennifer Lee.

144 pages

Published by Marvel Comics

Cover price: $24.00 USA

A review copy of this was sent me last year, in my capacity as a reviewer for UGO, by the books' editor herself. Which is nothing to sneeze at given a common complaint I hear from reviewers is how rare it is for the big comic companies like Marvel and DC to send out review copies (figuring with their locked-in fan base -- why invite trouble by risking bad reviews?) So to actually have a Marvel editor send me a review copy... Well -- cool! But there was some behind-the-scenes stuff going on at UGO, a backlog of material, and my review was never used -- which I felt bad about. So I've finally decided to just post it here...a few months late, but it should still be available from bookstores and comic shops...

First introduced in the 1960s, Marvel Comics' The Black Widow -- a Russian secret agent who defected to America -- has always been torn between being a super hero and being a gritty spy. She's palled around with Iron Man, Nick Fury and Daredevil (at one point being such a fixture of Daredevil comics that her name was on the cover) as well as being a member of the super hero team The Avengers and the fleeting team, The Champions. Her solo outings have been fewer. Some runs in anthology comics (like the 1970s Amazing Adventures) as well as the occasional graphic novel (such as Gerry Conway and George Freeman's The Coldest War from 1990). But she's been enjoying a bit of a comeback in recent years with some solo mini-series (albeit one of them featured an entirely different heroine, using the same moniker).

One such mini-series was collected in a TPB as Homecoming and puts the emphasis back on the original Widow -- Natalya "Natasha" Romanova, ex-ballerina and ex-KGB spy who defected to America, and is now living in semi-retirement in Arizona. When someone tries to kill her, Natasha, naturally, becomes curious, particularly when she discovers she's not the only ex-KGB female spy people are gunning for. Teaming up with the reluctant Phil, an ex-US spy turned private eye, Natasha goes into full Modesty Blaise mode, uncovering a convoluted web of international malfeasance, with connections to both big government, and big business, eventually leading her back to post-Cold War Russia and uncovering some startling truths about herself.

Novelist turned comics writer Richard K. Morgan turns in a smart, twisty little saga that is well paced with action, gritty attitude, some wit n' humour and, above all, a convoluted plot that succeeds on the basic level of being a mystery-suspense tale, where you're genuinely curious to learn what such-and-such a clue indicates, and how the cryptic threads tie together. I'm stressing that because I feel plot -- and particularly mystery-plots -- are becoming an endangered species, most especially in comics. Too many super hero comics that I've read that are supposed to be mysteries just aren't very well thought out or well done.

In Homecoming, Morgan keeps the intrigue level high, layering things as we go, answering some questions, even as new questions arise to take their place. What good storytelling should be about.

The solution is, in a sense, mundane, which is the point...the "banality of evil" as someone once said; it's supposed to make you say: "all that death and deceit...for that?" And Morgan cheats a bit by throwing in aspects that complicate the story (a ninja attack) but don't entirely connect to each other. But at least it all makes a certain kind of sense.

Along the way, Morgan effectively explores his characters, so that Natasha, and Phil, too, seem to live and breathe, and there are decent ruminations on life and politics, on post-communist Russia, on sexism, insuring there's a thoughtfulness lurking behind all the daring escapes and running about. In fact, the underlining theme to the story is one of a world where corporate greed and the religion of "privatization" has run amok, where even the spies Natasha runs up against are mainly free agents working for the private sector. There's a subtext that the old days, where spies fought ideological battles between West and East, Democracy and Communism, were nobler, or at least cleaner times, unlike a modern world where commercial agendas dictate policy. As one character sneers about Nick Fury (another Marvel spy who appears in a few scenes): "He's a dinosaur. Another five years, he won't recognize the world he's living in."

Morgan displays the hubris of too many comics folk, though, who, wanting to "make their mark" on established properties, presents a story which re-examines a character's history, deliberately turning things on their head and saying not everything is what you thought it was. In the case of the Black Widow, a long serving character but not an especially successful one, it's a mixed bag. On one hand, it does provide some suitable shock revelations, and a personal element to the case...even as long time fans might grumble about the way it messes up continuity (her long time sidekick, Ivan, is nowhere even referred to).

The art is highly effective. It's a combo of American Bill Sienkiewicz, who provides the art for the first issue, and a later sequence, and ink finishes for the whole, and Croatian Goran Parlov who provides the majority of the pencils (and with British writer Morgan, makes this tale of international intrigue a nicely international effort). Sienkiewicz has demonstrated an eclectic style over the years, but he reigns it in some here, though still playing around with weird angles and the like. It's good stuff but, I'll admit, I liked Parlov's lay-outs better, as he uses a more evocative, realist approach to people, coupled with a nice eye for storytelling and composition. And with Sienkiewicz providing uniform finishes, the shift in styles isn't distracting, and the coarse inking lends an air of raw vibrancy to the pictures, making it edgy without distracting from the underlying realism. The colours are striking and vivid and raw, with an almost painted roughness, relying a lot on earth tones to create a messy, brooding feel.

Of course this is a female heroine in the male dominated field of comics, and with a glamorous Greg Land cover to boot. Inside, Natasha is drawn pretty enough, and Morgan works in a few gratuitous scenes that put her, however briefly, into black lace under wear, or seducing the opposition. But Parlov and Sienkiewicz aren't really going for the Good Girl Art feel, making the sexploitation just this side of restrained. And Morgan's script even tries to put some feminist spins on the story. So, yeah, the story is about a sexy heroine...but don't expect Vampirella or nuthin'.

I mentioned at the beginning that the Widow has always been torn between being super hero and super spy, and Morgan clearly roots her in the latter camp. This is a somewhat ruthless Natasha, who not only is prepared to kill and cripple people, but can even take a macabre satisfaction in it. There is a morality to her actions, but largely untethered to any super hero edict of minimum force. Morgan also drops most of her "super hero" gadgets, such as her "widow's bite" wrist lasers. Obviously, if you want the saga to seem more like a conventional, Tom Clancy/Robert Ludlum-like thriller, dropping the gadgets and costume is an understandable decision, but I also find it a little amusing. After all, it's presumably done (like dropping costumes from the X-Men movies) to make it more "realistic", less "comicbooky"...even as there's very little that's realistic about the over-the-top action (such as Natasha and Phil, armed with pistols, triumphing over nine machine gun totting guys. Yeah, that'd happen.)

Re-reading Homecoming, I still highly recommend it -- but I quibble more with some things. As mentioned, Morgan wants to shake things up by "retconning" the Widow (comicbook terminology for reinterpreting backstories for already existing characters) which, I'll admit, can smack of a little of being too self-consciousness -- the handprint of the writer being all over the scenes. And I'm also rather jaded about the whole "gritty is better" idea (as I kind of touched on here). A bunch of scenes exist just to show us what a bad ass Natasha is, as if that's supposed to make her cooler. But, really, when you're hard pressed to point to a modern hero who doesn't do "un-heroic" things -- doesn't that mean the "cool" and "edgy" hero...is the one who really is a paragon of virtue?

I also find it a tad amusing how a writer like Morgan can use his story -- quite sincerely, I think -- to tackle sexism, yet has a scene where Natasha and another woman talk obliquely about a misogynistic joke about women and snails...a joke Morgan clearly sees as ubiquitous and expects his readers to know. But -- guess what? I don't know it. As such, you kind of wonder about who Morgan hangs out with that he sees it as such a common joke. It's a little bit like watching the recent racism movie "Crash" and thinking the filmmaker is maybe revealing as much about himself as he is the world.

And in true comic book fashion...the story ends with a few threads dangling (and a promise of a sequel in the works). To be sure, all the questions are answered and a suitable climax arrived at -- it doesn't end on a cliffhanger. But I just figure if you're going to market something as a "mini-series" or a "graphic novel", you shouldn't even have a few threads dangling.

There -- that was my "critical tirade", just so you don't think I'm going soft.

In a way, reading Homecoming, I'm a bit jealous. After all, mainstream comics are largely dominated by super heroes...and I'm wondering why people like Morgan can't bring this same edge, this same sort of complex suspense plot, to a more mainstream super hero. You know, tone down the grittiness, add a dollop of "super heroes don't kill" morality, but keeping the same feel for character, for plot twists, the same dynamic, compelling art...and then throw in Batman or Spider-Man or someone. Why is it that a B-list property like the Black Widow...gets an A-list treatment and talent, while A-list properties, too often, don't?


Quibbles aside, Black Widow: Homecoming is a smart, well-paced thriller, with some witty badinage and equal measures of character exploration, action, mood, and even philosophizing. And some black lace underwear.


Reviewed by D.K. Latta

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