Karen: Yup, there’s an unabashed plug for her new series right in the story. Who says it wasn’t the Mighty Marvel Age of Marketing?
Doug: I really don’t care for the cover of this book. Spidey doesn’t look his usual self; he’s somewhat awkward. Additionally, while the figure work on the silhouette is fine, doesn’t it look like Marvel Girl? The mini-skirt, the belt… I’m not opposed to throwing the reader off; it’s just what it looks like to me.
Doug: Stan and John give us a nice recap of Natasha’s career, but not possessing all of Marvel’s Silver Age books, I’m left to wonder when exactly she dropped off the radar. I know her appearances in the pages of the Avengers had become sporadic as the 1960’s wore on, but judging by Stan’s words she’d pretty much dropped out of sight superhero-wise. Her original costume looks so dated in the first pages of this story – it needed an update whether she was going to be a full-timer or part-timer anyway.
Sharon: I always liked her original costume, but I wonder if the costume was changed in part because Marvel felt it was too similar to DC's Black Canary, who was then enjoying a renaissance—she’d came over to the Justice League in 1969 (and she was just about to become a prominent player in the ground breaking GL/GA book). Marvel may have felt they couldn’t compete with DC’s blonde bombshell, so they went the Emma Peel bodysuit route with Natasha.
Karen: Doug, when I read this story I was also puzzled about how much time had passed since Natasha had been seen in the Marvel Universe. I could clearly remember when she broke up with Clint – which was Avengers 76, surprisingly from May 1970, only two months prior to the Spidey story. Before that I think her last previous appearance might have been in Avengers 63-65, in the storyline where Clint became Goliath. But she might have appeared elsewhere in that time period.
Sharon: Karen is correct; the Widow had last appeared in Avengers #63-64 (she did not appear in #65, the last part of that arc), and had also appeared in a Captain Marvel issue that was connected to events in Avengers #63. In these issues, she had long hair for the first time since Avengers #31, but it was still black. All of a sudden, she shows up in ASM #86 with red hair! What's more, in her flashbacks (to her earlier days) she has red hair!
Sharon: About her new look: I have always felt Romita took a visual cue from DC's Batgirl here--the red hair, the sleek black/blue bodysuit--and in future appearances, the yellow costume accoutrements (here in ASM #86, the Widow's belt, bracelets, etc. are white but in future appearances they're colored yellow). In interviews Romita has said he based the Widow's costume on a Golden Age heroine, Miss Fury; but if you take a look at Miss Fury, you'll also see a striking resemblance to the Silver Age Batgirl costume (mask, cape, etc....and plot-wise, also the fact that the Fury and Batgirl costumes were not originally intended to be superhero costumes, but rather created to be worn at masquerade parties by their alter egos).
Sharon: About Natasha’s flashbacks (recounting her history): she (or Stan) gets a lot of her career chronology wrong. She originally started out as a non-costumed, non-powered villainess when she attacked Iron Man in Tales of Suspense in a couple of issues. Several issues later (still in TOS), she met Hawkeye (his debut) and induced him to join her in her crusade against Iron Man. Still later (in TOS #64), she finally starts wearing a costume (supplied by her Communist cohorts), though she adds the finishing touch by designing a mask to look like Hawkeye's (as she puts it).
Sharon: So when she's relating her story, what does she mean by "fate had turned two enemies (she and Hawkeye) into star-crossed lovers?" They were on the same side when they met!
Sharon: Well…I guess I have to ascribe her faulty memory to the literary technique known as "unreliable narration"--she's relating the facts as she believes them or remembers them. After all, no one one's memory is 100% accurate- - right, Stan? ;)
Doug: In my opinion, Stan did a pretty lousy job of writing dialogue for the Widow. As a lifelong Russian, albeit recently living in the States, I thought her speech patterns didn’t fit with how I thought I should “hear” her speak. She seemed too comfortable with American slang and culture. Yes, I know she was a high-caliber spy and would probably be well-versed in such things, but I still thought it didn’t work.
Karen: Unfortunately I have a tendency to hear Natasha’s “voice” too much like that other Natasha, from Bullwinkle!
Sharon: Marvel tries to explain her new speech pattern in an issue of Amazing Adventures; Natasha claims her ease with American English is the result of many hours of Berlitz lessons. But her dialogue in AA, and here in ASM #86, is at odds with her more formal, sophisticated dialogue in her preceding appearances, which were mostly in Tales of Suspense and the Avengers.
Sharon: Back to ASM #86: all of a sudden she’s revealed to be living a life of luxury and wealth? This lifestyle was never hinted at in her prior appearances.
Sharon: The new way of speaking, the new haircolor and costume, and the new angst - -all of a sudden she was preoccupied with her dead husband and worried about a “curse”- - meant she was for all intents and purposes a brand new character…sort of like what DC did a couple of years earlier when they depowered Wonder Woman and her look and manner and personality changed. As mentioned, Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel was hot then, so in the late 1960s a bunch of female characters emerged, who had no real inborn “super” powers and who--like Peel-- relied on superb athletic skills, karate, jiu-jitsu, judo, intelligence, etc. –Batgirl, Diana Prince, Black Canary (sure, she had a silly canary cry but her real forte were her fighting skills), Thorn (of Rose and the Thorn), and- -the Black Widow. A year or two later Marvel would finally create some more female leading characters who were not part of team --the Cat, Shanna, etc., but Natasha could be said to be Marvel’s first in that direction.
Karen: I have to say that I didn’t enjoy the art in this issue as much as some others, mainly because of the heavy Mooney style. I do think the Widow’s sleek costume is fantastic – simple yet sexy and cool. Here’s a question: is this the first time she was shown with red hair? I think it works for the new costume, although I have to admit I liked her dark hair with her old costume.
Sharon: Yes, ASM #86 is the first time she had the red hair. I too prefer her black hair, but I guess the powers that be felt her black hair wouldn't contrast enough with her new black-blue bodysuit.
Sharon: The credits call Romita and Mooney the "illustrators", but it's a similar set up as we saw in the earlier Medusa issue--Romita did the layouts/breakdowns (and final touch ups where necessary) and Mooney did the finished pencils--and he also the inks. You can really see Mooney's influence in the faces, especially in the innocent, childlike, rounded “Moon” eyes (his trademark)...though to me Natasha's sharper features look to have been fully handled by Romita. In Write Now! #18, regarding his Spider-Man tenure, Mooney states he "mostly did finishes. I penciled some of them, too" and that Romita sometimes did the "tight penciling, sometimes it was the loose penciling, sometimes it was just the breakdowns." And according to an interview he gave in Comic Book Artist #7, Spidey was Mooney’s first Marvel’s assignment (he’d asked Stan for work, fearing his days at DC were numbered with the emergence of Neal Adams’ realistic style—very different from Mooney’s more simplistic style). Mooney stayed on ASM for a couple of years or so. Interesting that Mooney, who was known for his work on teenagers (such as DC’s Supergirl), would come over to Marvel and work on a strip with a largely young cast--a good fit for him!Karen: Did anyone else notice that in the flashback, the Crimson Dynamo looks more like the Titanium Man?
Sharon: The Crimson Dynamo predated Titanium Man, so I would say TM was based on CD! Both were created (visually) by Don Heck, he must have liked that bulky design.
Doug: The battle is again predictable. It’s a pretty typical plot device. What’s interesting to me is that the Widow sought out Spider-Man to prove herself (and come on – as big as Manhattan is and he swings by her just like that??), and although we get to see her in action, we never really know the extent of her abilities (how does she cling to walls?). Perhaps this was editorial’s way of getting the reader to pick up her solo mag. You know, in both the Medusa tale and this one, Spider-Man never really exerts himself against his female antagonizers – no harm done, not even a punch thrown. In fact, the Widow leaves disappointed because Spidey does virtually nothing but flex a little muscle.
Karen: There’s more than a little sexism on display. Even after she attacks him, Spidey offers to “help her down” from the building, since it’s a dangerous place for a girl to be! I know, it was a different time…
Doug: Again, this book could be a precursor to Marvel Team-Up. As the Medusa issue served to launch her solo adventure and test the waters for an Inhumans feature, this issue did the same for a Widow solo series. Perhaps one could argue that forthcoming books like Marvel Spotlight would serve as the launching pad for such series, but one cannot deny the fact that Spider-Man was Marvel’s biggest marketing tool as the Bronze Age dawned, and his selling power could only help burgeoning characters/books.
Karen: Spidey was definitely used to sell books in the 70s; Hulk too. It seems like they were showing up in other character’s books all the time. I would almost bet that every new series started had an appearance by one or the other of them within the first 5 issues published!
Sharon: I was not a regular reader of Spider-Man back then, but I was a fan of the Widow’s from her Avengers appearances (I was a regular reader of the Avengers), so I bought this issue solely because of her. I recall being disappointed—as mentioned, she came across like an entirely new character and not the cool, cerebral Natasha who’d appeared in the Avengers. After a while I grew to like this new Natasha, but I will always have a fondness for the old version, fishnets and all.