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How Marvel reinvented Black Widow

‘Nat is and always will be the Black Widow’

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow on a comic art background Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon | Photo: Marvel Studios | Artwork: Kelly Thompson, Elena Casagrande, Elisabetta D’Amico/Marvel Comics

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Assassin. Spy. Avenger. Those are the things the general population knows about Black Widow. But like any comic character with decades of history behind them, Natasha Romanoff is far more complex than a few words can describe.

Natasha has had a complex comic journey, but her core values — her empathy and her loyalty to her friends — have helped creators keep her relevant and beloved over the years. As Black Widow hits theaters, the writers and artists behind some of Natasha’s most prominent tales reveal what helped them shape the character’s evolution throughout her 57-year comic history.

Black Widow was created by Stan Lee, Don Rico, and Don Heck in 1964, debuting in Tales of Suspense #52 as a to-be-recurring Russian spy who served primarily as an antagonist for Iron Man. In Natasha’s earliest iterations, her persona was similar to the one that got introduced to the world in 2010’s Iron Man 2. She was a femme fatale, a sexy, slippery spy with shady motivations and little care for true allegiance.

Iron Man battles the Crymson Dynamo as Black Widow eggs the villain on. An arrow pointing to her reads “Introducing: The gorgeous new menace of ... the Black Widow!” on the cover of Tales of Suspense #52 (1964). Image: Jack Kirby, George Roussos/Marvel Comics

While Black Widow was an intriguing character, she never had a secure home in the comic world. While superheroes like Captain America, Iron Man, and Spider-Man had clear arcs and detailed stories, Natasha had a murkier trajectory. In 1970’s Amazing Adventures — the character’s first solo arc alongside The Inhumans, which only lasted eight issues — it’s revealed that Ivan Petrovich took custody of Natasha after she was orphaned, helping her train to serve her country. In a 2004 series from Richard K. Morgan, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Goran Parlov, Natasha’s history was retconned to a more streamlined state, with her origin established. She was a survivor of the Red Room, a training facility where she and other young orphans were brainwashed, educated in espionage and skills like ballet, and “enhanced” via biotechnology.

This origin is the closest one to what the Marvel Cinematic Universe chose to use as a roadmap for Natasha in the MCU: a spy indoctrinated by the Red Room who deflects to SHIELD and tries to reverse the red in her ledger, becoming a member of the Avengers and working on behalf of the greater good. Black Widow, the long-awaited solo film, arrives in theaters on July 9, 11 years after Natasha was first seen onscreen, and a year and a half after a global pandemic stopped the world in its tracks. It finally peels back the curtain on the super-spy’s life and highlights her foundations: her espionage background, her empathy, her personal relationships, and her loyalties.

But before and during all of that, a host of creators have brought the Black Widow to comics readers.

Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow stands in front of a collage of explosions and armed men on the cover of Black Widow #1 (1999). Image: J.G. Jones, Dave Kemp/Marvel Comics

Black Widow (1999)

By Devin Grayson and J.G. Jones

When writer Devin Grayson, along with artist J.G. Jones, was tasked by the Marvel Knights imprint to helm Natasha’s story in the late ’90s for a limited series called The Itsy Bitsy Spider, it was one of the first real solo outings for the character.

Aside from 1970’s Amazing Adventures (which was technically a split story with The Inhumans), a series with Daredevil (which she was eventually written out of, due to the fact that the writers who took over the series thought Daredevil worked better as a solo hero), and a solo 1990 graphic novel called Black Widow: The Coldest War, Black Widow never was given a chance to be center stage. Instead, she appeared when it seemed convenient, co-starring in other heroes’ books and showing up as everything from a freelance agent to a member of the Avengers and the Champions.

So Grayson decided to find what made her tick.

“I typically begin new projects by reading everything I can get my hands on and finding throughlines to play with. In Natasha’s case, I was taken with her background as a Soviet-trained espionage agent currently living in the States, a former ballerina, and a woman who had worked for a significant amount of time alongside and in the shadow of people who considered themselves super heroes,” Grayson tells Polygon. She says she knew “very little” about Black Widow when receiving the assignment to write her.

“It seemed to me that moving through the world with such a complicated, nuanced, and variable past would mean you needed tremendous amounts of strength and resolve to hold onto any sense of personal history and self-identity.”

That was the catalyst for the creation of Yelena Belova, a notable Black Widow who has been part of Natasha’s past since Grayson and Jones created the character in 1999’s Inhumans #5. She’s played by Florence Pugh in the film.

“Even back in 1999, I realized that we were moving further away from the Soviet-era politics that created Black Widow, and so probably really ought to reckon with Natasha’s age,” Grayson says. “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider is a story about Nat facing a birthday and thoughts of her own mortality. Natasha’s a woman with a past — she has a lot of experience and knowledge. As a culture, we tend to celebrate youthful determination, but I feel like Natasha embodies qualities that are arguably even more laudable: discrimination, commitment, and survival. I created Yelena in part to highlight those contrasting aspects of Natasha’s character.”

Although Black Widow tends to be synonymous with Natasha due to her prominence, the title is technically a mantle — like Captain America, it’s a name that’s been given to anyone who is skilled enough to embrace it. In Natasha’s case, Black Widow is more than just a mantle: It’s a classification for the dozens of super-spies trained in the Red Room.

To tell Natasha’s story in the clearest way possible, Grayson decided to focus on that legacy of what it means to be a Widow.

The Itsy-Bitsy Spider introduces Yelena as a young Russian spy who interrupts Natasha mid-mission, claiming to be the new Black Widow,” Grayson explains. “Yelena is young and ambitious and loyal to the Russian government, and she’s beaten Nat’s marks while training at the Red Room in Moscow. Both Widows end up tasked with getting samples of a newly developed biotoxin out of the Middle East, but the conflict in the story is between the two of them and what it takes to wear the mantle of the Widow.”

Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff points her wrist blaster at the camera, in front of a collage of Russian military symbols, Iron Man and Wolverine.  Image: Daniel Acuña/Marvel Comics

Name of the Rose (2011)

By Marjorie Liu and Daniel Acuña

Following Grayson and Jones’ outing, Natasha continued to make frequent appearances in various team books, but a solo series was still elusive until 2004 when Black Widow: Homecoming — Morgan’s retcon of Natasha’s past — was published. By the time Marjorie Liu and Daniel Acuña teamed up to create Name of the Rose in 2011, however, Natasha was on the precipice of becoming a household name outside of the comic book industry.

Scarlett Johansson had just brought the super-spy to life in Iron Man 2, and Marvel decided to capitalize on the interest of one of the first female live-action Avengers by giving her two miniseries: Black Widow and the Marvel Girls by Paul Tobin, Salvador Espin, Veronica Gandini and Takeshi Miyazawa, and Black Widow: Deadly Origin by Paul Cornell, Tom Raney, and John Paul Leon. Both series skewed heavily toward the espionage side of Natasha’s history, a narrative choice that made sense at the time, given that in Iron Man 2, Natasha doesn’t show much of her superhero side, and instead poses for most of the movie as a sultry undercover agent. So when Liu and Acuña came together to break down their story of Natasha, they leaned into what the world was seeing.

Name of the Rose functions as a thriller that relies on Natasha’s deep past to unearth the secrets of why she’s on the run, pursued by a ruthless killer who is targeting her with very specific personal tactics and who will stop at nothing to end her life. Acuña, who drew all five issues of the series, tells Polygon he wanted to “show Natasha as a strong, imposing character, a femme fatale,” while also trying “to make the story feel like a classic noir movie.”

“In the stories I drew, Natasha has to face the demons of her past in a story filled with violence and emotion. By the end of it, we get to a cathartic moment and a new start for her,” Acuña tells Polygon.

While Name of the Rose is the kind of story that feels like something you’d find in the ’70s or ’80’s, it did its job of opening up who Natasha really was, providing a grounding that helped the world understand a character who was still shrouded in so much mystery. And despite the fact that the book was almost a direct result of the character debuting in Iron Man 2, Acuña maintains he didn’t set out trying to copy Scarlett Johansson in his art.

“I just tried to do my own version of Natasha, but many people told me she reminded them of Scarlett, so watching her must have influenced me in an unconscious way,” Acuña admits. “And frankly, I am not surprised that happened, because she is perfect as Natasha/Black Widow.”

Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff fires a pistol as she leaps her a motorcycle through a glass window emblazoned with the SHIELD symbol on the cover of Black Widow #1 (2016). Image: Chris Samnee, Matthew Wilson/Marvel Comics

Black Widow (2016)

By Mark Waid and Chris Samnee

By 2016, times had changed — both in comics, and in the pop culture sphere. Black Widow was becoming a more prominent name across the Marvel Universe; in the movies, she was opening herself up to her teammates in Avengers, helping save the world in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and showing her vulnerability and hints of her Red Room past in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

In the world of comics, Natasha was finally being given a spotlight more regularly. Phil Noto and Nathan Edmonson debuted their own Black Widow series in 2014 as part of Marvel Now!, a 2012 branding initiative that re-launched several series with brand-new creative teams and fresh new stories. Noto and Edmonson’s run helped steer Natasha back toward what Grayson had initially fleshed out in her Itsy Bitsy Spider series: a return to the quieter, more introspective Natasha who, although she had global adventures, reckoned with her past and her legacy both as a superhero and a human being.

But at heart, Natasha was still a spy. And although she was an Avenger, the world still knew her as a spy. That’s why Marvel turned to writer Mark Waid and artist Chris Samnee — the creative team best known for their work on Daredevil, to put together a new story in the hopes it would marry her espionage background and the ties to SHIELD she’d become known for on the big screen.

“Our story opens with Natasha scrambling to escape the SHIELD helicarrier, being pursued by agents instructed to shoot to kill, and only gets more frantic from there,” Waid explains. “A new villain named the Weeping Lion and his partner, Recluse, have exposed all of the dark secrets Natasha’s accumulated over her years as a spy, and now it’s a race to get them locked back down before they can help create a whole new status quo in the Marvel Universe.”

While Waid and Samnee focused on Natasha’s spy past, they also drew heavily from her Red Room history, leaning into the storyline that the movies had started to focus on. Waid explains that Samnee, who helped plot the book, “worked with me to delve particularly deeply into Natasha’s unexplored childhood and the methods the Red Room used to create her — and others like her.”

At the time the story was conceived, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was still growing steadily, teetering on the brink of exploding into the juggernaut it is today. And like Acuna before him, Waid felt that influence, however intentional, when putting together his book.

“As with Robert Downey, Jr.’s portrayal of Tony Stark, Scarlett Johansson’s portrayal of the Widow became a template impossible to ignore during the crafting of our series, all for the better,” Waid says. “It was very, very difficult not to hear her voice as we wrote.”

Black Widow leaps through the air firing her wrist blaster on a red hourglass background on the cover of Black Widow #1 (2020). Image: Adam Hughes/Marvel Comics

Black Widow (2020)

By Kelly Thompson and Elena Casagrande

There’s only a span of five years between Waid and Samnee’s Black Widow story and the current one Kelly Thompson started in 2020. But by the time Thompson took the reins, the character was almost on another level entirely. She had finally earned a place in the comic world as a character who creators felt they could pitch solo stories for on a regular basis, she was being included in everything from video games to books to merchandise, and most importantly, she was on her way to finally stepping into the spotlight as the main character of her own film — even though she died in the Infinity Saga’s swan song, Avengers: Endgame.

For Thompson, telling Natasha’s story became more personal — and became about going back to the basics, opening up a character who was still mysterious, but who had shown the world enough to be recognized for her more nuanced character beats.

“We set out to tell a really emotional story for Natasha that would fundamentally change her in a permanent way, which is hard to do because comics are very fluid and changing,” Thompson says about her run. “In our story, after a very traditional opening of Natasha showing off as the always badass Black Widow, we flash forward and find Nat living a seemingly idyllic life in San Francisco as an architect. But all is not what it seems, for Nat is and always will be the Black Widow, and that quickly seeps into her idyllic life, sort of taking a wrecking ball to it.”

In the MCU, Natasha is formidable and relatable because she’s simply a human — she trained in the Red Room, but doesn’t have any superpowers or flashy weapons. In the comics, there’s a small emphasis on her enhanced biology. When Thompson was considering what parts of the character’s story to bring to her own, she chose to move away from the big global conspiracies that dominated Natasha’s past, and focus on that humanity. In many ways, Thompson’s story is the perfect culmination of the many decades of Natasha’s evolving background. Winter Soldier, Hawkeye, and Yelena — all characters who have been entwined in her past over the years — show up in the run, and she infuses elements from some of her own favorite stories through the years, referencing Ed Brubaker’s Winter Soldier, Name of The Rose, and Waid and Samnee’s 2016 run.

“All of those had a serious impact in choosing what I thought should drive our story —emotional, gutting, smart spy meets superhero stuff, all visually stunning,” Thompson says. “I knew with Elena and Jordie on the art for our book, the visuals would be no problem, so I just had to focus on building the best story for them that I could.”

On one hand, Thompson’s innovative run — which was just nominated for an Eisner — can be seen as the epitome of Natasha’s evolving background. On the other hand, it can also be seen a showcase of the best and most important parts of Natasha Romanoff — the parts so many creators have adapted as their own over the years to give Natasha a story that is exciting and interesting. The series was greenlit before the pandemic upended the entire world, which meant that Thompson was “super aware” of the film, since the comic was originally supposed to coincide with the movie’s original May 1, 2020 opening date. But if Natasha’s solo film hadn’t happened at all, it wouldn’t have mattered.

“It was important that this be the best Black Widow story I could write — but I would have approached it the same way if she’d never been in any movies,” Thompson says about Natasha’s growing popularity. “I just love the character so much and want to do right by her. I hope I am.”