The Tightly Tangled Web
[Edmonson, Noto, Cowles; Marvel Now!]
I rejoined the comic book world after a long hiatus about ten years ago, but have found myself less interested in the superhero worlds of the Big Two, again, as they reinvent and re-reinvent themselves to capture a certain type of market that apparently does not involve me. I was drawn back by certain stories and characters that went to the darker side of comics, and of superheroes, like The Watchmen. The Dark Knight Returns, and Daredevil’s long descent into madness. And though I liked The Dark Avengers series, and to a certain extent, Marvel’s Civil War, I prefer the more ‘street level’ superheroes—the ones that aren’t off fighting aliens.
I also find myself interested in stories which take place in superhero-populated worlds, but where the powers exist more on the periphery, like Ed Brubaker’s Incognito and Sleeper, and Brian Michael Bendis’ Alias and Powers. Stories that delve more into character. One critique of science fiction is that the ‘science’ is more important than the characters. So too with superhero comics, where the powers become more important. I like the idea of a powers-filled world, I think it adds a mythic level to the storytelling, but for example, in the Greek myths, the really interesting stories are the ones about the demi-gods, the half-human or human ones, the ones who aren’t all powerful, and so have to use their brains, like Theseus and Odysseus. The more bombastic (Guardians of the Galaxy) and powerful (Superman) the less interesting.
But, with most superhero stuff going exactly for the bombastic, and at the same time cute (talking raccoons in space) I’ve tended to just mentally shrug and go on to reading nonfiction graphic novels, or good ole regular books with just words. There are exceptions though, at least in the Marvel Universe, with heroes who aren’t gods and don’t have superpowers. Like the Hawkeye series, especially the ones written by Matt Fraction, which everyone already knows about (and bro, if you don’t, bro, check it out).
Another former minor character that’s having some interesting things done with her is Black Widow, no doubt in large part to the popularity of the Scarlett Johannson character in The Avengers and Captain America movies, and that’s fine, though I always liked Black Widow, and she always could have made a great solo character. That’s me griping, but whatever, we have her now, and Marvel (the comic book part of the company, at least) has figured out what to do with her: She is/was a spy, so have her do spy stuff. That is, espionage.
Both the Hawkeye and Black Widow series benefit from occasional glimpses of the characters in their larger roles as Avengers, but the pleasure comes from seeing them ‘behind the scenes’. Hawkeye’s stories were more about his personal life. Black Widow’s though, are more about her black ops work for SHIELD, though she also seems to be doing jobs on the side for herself. Which is not all entirely clear, and that’s the great thing about this series, because one background thread (pardon the pun) of Black Widow Volume 2: The Tightly Tangles Web is how, or whether, Black Widow is overstepping laws, especially international laws. And by drawing attention to herself, the public—and we readers—start to question the whole idea of heroes like The Avengers (and SHIELD): Are they imposing a sort of American exceptionalism on the rest of the world? Are we ok with that? Are we ok with that in real life?
It’s this higher level of smartness that I like—instead of accepting superheroes, and the generally black-and-white, good-versus-evil world, as a given, writer Nathan Edmonson is asking us to think about what a ‘hero’ is, or what our expectations are, and using the idea of superheroes as a metaphor for America’s own, very real, powers.
Along the way Natasha meets, and sometimes teams, up with friends (and former lovers). Daredevil of course makes an obligatory and early appearance, and Hawkeye in a flashback to when Black Widow was working for the bad guys. Two surprise cameos are The Punisher and X-23, neither of which really seems necessary to the main story, though this volume includes an issue from the Punisher series, allowing us to see the same sequence of events from both characters’ POVs—on different missions which just happen to overlap. Which actually feels real, and gives us some perspective on each: they’re two characters who are supposedly heroes, but who operate outside of the law. And kill. I’ve never liked The Punisher, but now I’m actually intrigued to see how he’s been revamped to fight South American drug cartels. I could maybe get behind killing those bastards.
X-23, much as I love her as a character, seems brought in just for kicks, or to remind readers Black Widow is still in a superpowers world. But Laura (X-23) borders on taking the story away from the regular human level to the superhuman level (that is, her healing power erase any suspense that their mission will fail). And I didn’t even know the two women knew each other that well. Here, it’s like they’re old buddies. Still, what the two women have in common is that they’re angry, and having Laura around serves to remind us of how angry Natasha is. Which is interesting: Black Widow in this series, though modeled after the movie character, is more flawed, has weaknesses, and is more human. The (maybe unintentionally) funniest part of this volume is The Punisher giving her advice: “I don’t know what you’re up against, but take it from me / don’t let your emotions lead the way.”
The best part of The Tightly Tangled Web is the art. Instead of a ‘slick’ or sterile computerized graphics look, artist Phil Noto goes for the opposite, keeping pencil lines instead of ink (or else they’re really thin ink lines) and the coloring a little blurry, sometimes blurring over the lines, for an overall sketch-ish look. Gritty, like Black Widow herself. And crossing lines like she does too. Literally sketchy like she and her world. This is what comic art should be, or do: setting the mood and ‘showing’ much about the character(s) and her world without anything being said, or told to us. Check out some extra sketchbook drawings of Black Widow at the end which, if I weren’t in my 40s and still had hopes for acquiring a girlfriend, I’d want to frame and hang on the walls of my man cave.
What the quality of this, and previous, Black Widow series also tells me, and should tell the idiots at Marvel Studios and/or Disney, is that Black Widow can carry her own movie. There’s an audience, and there are good stories galore in the comics world they could use. You wouldn’t even need an Avengers-sized budget either, nothing more than any James Bond movie requires. And does anyone doubt, after Lucy, that Scarlett Johannson can carry her own movie?