Thursday, September 25, 2008

Marvel Team-Up Prototypes: Girl Trouble, Part 2

Spider-Man 86-new Black Widow
Spider-Man #86 (1970) 

Amazing Spider-Man #86 (July 1970)
Stan Lee/John Romita/Jim Mooney
“Beware… the Black Widow!”

Doug: So, after two years’ time, how would Spidey handle a battle with another femme fatale? About the same, as far as my assessment goes. Like ASM #62 was a test-market for a Medusa or Inhumans series, this issue really serves as a vehicle to launch Madame Natasha in a solo series (inaccurately billed as “Amazing Tales” at the end of the story) of her own.

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.

Sharon: It sure doesn’t look like Natasha…perhaps when he did the cover, Romita hadn’t yet settled on a costume design for the Widow?

Karen: That shadow actually reminds me of the non-powered Wonder Woman outfit.

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: In real time (release dates of the comics), the events occurred like this: March 1970: Avengers #76 (cover date May 1970) and ASM #85 (cover date June 1970) were released (the Avengers book was then dated two months ahead of the actual release date, though most of Marvel’s monthly books- - including ASM- - were commonly dated three months ahead.). April 1970: Avengers 77 (cover date June 1970) and ASM #86 (cover date July 1970) were released, and in late April Amazing Adventures #1 (cover date August 1970, it’s a bi-monthly mag) was released.

Sharon: So, in little over than two months’ “real time” (March-April 1970): Natasha breaks up with Clint (Avengers #76); fights Spidey (ASM #86); and stars in her own feature (in Amazing Adventures #1). Now obviously, we don’t know how much “Marvel time” elapsed between Avengers #76 and ASM #86, but wow—she must have taken some pretty potent hair growing vitamins in the interim!

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.

Doug: Jazzy Johnny’s art is again stellar, and as I commented in the previous blog, his females are beautiful. If I have one complaint, he really under-exaggerates the Widow’s waist. Wow – is she thin!! It’s been well documented that Romita designed her new costume and it works just great for her. It’s certainly functional for the type of fighter she is and the simplicity of it is a real update from the more elaborate original costume. The scenes involving the supporting cast are rendered with care – they’re not just throwaways. But then, Spider-Man is perhaps the comic magazine with the most well-developed supporting cast, and I think Stan took a lot of pride in keeping them at the fore month to month.

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!

Doug: By the way, this story is also reprinted in the 1977 trade paperback The Superhero Women by Stan Lee.

Karen: On a nostalgic note, I recall getting this comic from a neighborhood kid (I traded him some Hot Wheels I think!) a few years after it was published. Since I also got a bunch of Avengers and Fantastic Fours, this issue kind of dropped to the bottom of the reading pile!

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.


Skydragon said...

Great! I was looking forward for part 2! And it's as interesting as part 1 was.

I first met the Widow in the Avengers, in fairly recent times, so I had the opposite reaction as you did, and it was seeing her first costume that stunned me. Especially the hair color, I always thought she was a natural red, but now I'm not certain. Anybody knows?

Anyway, the first time I saw her first costume, it reminded me of Mata Hari, the famous spy, in that it seems to be more intended for seduction than for stealth and fight. On the contrary, this one is more out of James Bond / Diabolik (in fact it's the same as his partner in crime Eva Kant... I should check which came first).
For those who don't know who Diabolik is (shame on you :p)

This makes me think that in changing the costume, Stan changed his idea of how a spy should be, moving from the type seducing his foes to learn their secrets, to the type hiding in air conducts. Again, possible James Bond influnce there.

Going back to the story, I was disappointed by the battle itself. Spidey was depowered as far as I can remember (he had a bug or something) and everything seemed aimed to have the Widow take the upper hand while not winning in the end. The speed with which she left also seemed aimed to avoid her utter defeat, something Stan often did with Namor in the early Avengers issues (it's also mentioned in the AA's notes, to preserve his weight as villain, he is never defeated openly in the first few years).

The sexism is there, but not as much as it had been in earlier books (not to mention in the FF or the XM). True, Peter is somewhat chauvinistic, but all in all I wouldn't there's too much of it.

Skydragon said...

Checked, Diabolik is from 1962, so definitely earlier than this book. Besides, in 1968 his movie came out, and it was very succesfull in America (anyone has seen it?), so I would definitely count Eva Kant as a possible visual inspiration.

Dr. Pym said...

I have to agree with Sharon and Karen (I smell a band name!) in that I like Natasha more in that odd fishnet with mask costume that she used to wore, starting with Tales to Astonish 60. Unfortunately, I have not read this one in a long time, so I have not too much of a recollection, so no comments from me. I'm sure you're all SO upset by that. :P

In all seriousness, another great entertaining post! Wonder whom will be involved in part 3? Great job everyone!

Karen said...

Hi guys - thanks again for your comments. I have to say, this Spider-man series that we have done has been my favorite set of reviews so far. It's just been a lot of fun.

Skydragon, I saw "Danger:Daibolik!" at the wonderful Parkway Theater in Oakland, CA a few years ago. I love old 60s movies like that - Casino Royale is another one that comes to mind. They had a crazy energy to them. Very similar to these 60's and 70's Marvels we've been reading.

As for Natasha's costume: I was somewhat garbled in my comments. I actually like the black suit and red hair combo best artistically. It's simple but oh so sleek and cool. I think the red hair probably works better with it than her black hair, purely as a stronger contrast. It's kind of amazing, she still wears essentially the same outfit 30+ years later. A tribute to Romita Sr's design.

Dr. Pym said...

Oh don't get me wrong Karen, I like her later costumes too, but I like that odd fishnet costume the best, personally...

And I just want to add, that is the most ADORABLE little Cap costume I have ever seen! Do they have anymore of those?

Keep up the entertaining stuff, everyone!

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