Things have been pretty great for Black Widow in the last couple of years. Scarlett Johansson’s portrayal of Natasha Romanoff in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has given the character a lot of exposure and nowadays is a household name for a lot of people, so with her own film coming out in 2020, there’s more than reasonable excitement for the character these days.
Now, when we focus on the comics, that’s a pretty different story. Black Widow has never been one of the biggest characters in the Marvel Universe in terms of great stories and solo runs, but she has still enjoyed a few quality stories throughout the years. So if you want to know which are the best Black Widow comics to read to understand who the character is before the movie comes, here we present you some stories you can’t miss:
This Iron Man-centric story of the mid-60s by Stan Lee and artist Don Heck was the first time we see Natasha, so it’s recommendable to start with the origin. And while the character changed a lot throughout the years, it’s interesting to see how Black Widow was in her humble beginnings.
In the story, Tony Stark has managed to reform one of his foes, Professor Vanko, who went by the name of the Crimson Dynamo. But his superhero identity is taken by a Soviet communist named Boris, who has teamed up with the Black Widow to take Iron Man down.
It’s always interesting to look back on the comics that were made decades ago because it shows you how much the industry, the medium, the characters and even culture has changed throughout the years. It certainly applies to Black Widow, who has not developed her femme fatale characteristics in this debut issue and actually relies on her seduction skills to fool her enemies, which is an attribute that she kept as time went on.
Stan Lee’s time as a writer in Marvel is sometimes overlooked, especially during his Iron Man run, which is a personal favorite of mine, so this could be a pretty good start point when trying to get to know Natasha a lot more. You can also have a glimpse of her times as a villain, when she was serving the Soviet communists.
Fast forward a decade and Black Widow is a reformed heroine, fighting alongside the good guys and being a more familiar version of what you might expect about her. And while this Champions run has its flaws and it’s far from perfect, it’s a great comic in terms of character development for Natasha.
Created by Tony Isabella and Don Heck, the Champions were a superhero team that consisted in Iceman, Angel, Hercules, Ghost Rider and Black Widow as the leader. The team never fully settles in for the reader and they usually fight multiple villains from the Marvel Universe, but it’s interesting to see so many characters that are so different from one another working together and, as I have said before, it’s a time in Black Widow’s history where she starts taking a more prominent role in terms of leadership, which is interesting, to say the least.
You can also enjoy solid art from one of the most important artists in the history of comics, Gil Kane. At this time of his career he perhaps wasn’t on the same heights that when he was working on Green Lantern, but it’s still solid as heck and shows classic comic book art at its best.
You can find this whole run, plus some adittional material from Iron Man Annual 4, Hulk Annual 7 and more, in the Champions Classic: The complete collection trade paperback, a veeeery good value for the money. You can find it on Amazon by clicking here.
This may come as a surprise to the people that only know Black Widow from the MCU, but she and Daredevil have been pretty close in the comics for the vast majority of their history while being lovers from time to time. In fact, there was a time in the 70s where the Man Without Fear’s title was shared with Black Widow’s name in the cover.
Issue #81 is where everything begins. Daredevil was fighting one of his classic villains, The Owl, and was left hurt in a damaged helicopter, resulting in him plummeting to the depths of the ocean at the beginning of the issue. Black Widow spots him from a pier near his fall and jumps to his rescue, resulting in the start of a remarkable relationship between these two vigilantes, with all the ups and downs that you can expected from superhero comics.
Gerry Conway is a very solid writer and his more than forty years of career are a testament to that, so you’re going to get a solid story here, but I would say that the big selling point of this issue is Gene Colan’s phenomenal art. The term underrated is thrown very often, but it’s definitely the case here, with Colan producing some of the finest art of the 70s in this issue.
Bob Layton as artist and Tom DeFalco as writer… you can’t go wrong with this one.
As we all know by this point, the relationship between Hawkeye and Black Widow is one of the most important aspects of their characters, so every time they work together there is a special chemistry and synergy between these two, which is clearly shown in this Solo Avengers title, where Clint Barton was the main character and he used to team up with different Marvel characters.
In this issue, both characters, plus guests stars such as Silver Sable and the Sandman, are in an airport and they are hijacked by multiple villains. This is a very entertaining read because it has a lot of artwork and it shows both Hawkeye and Black Widow having a central role at a time where it was very difficult for these characters to have any kind of spotlight, so I definitely recommend this for you.
Back in those days, you couldn’t get any higher in the comic book industry than with the main X-Men title, so Black Widow having an issue dedicated to her backstory and her relationship with both Captain America and Wolverine was a big deal. Also, this Uncanny X-Men #268 is just a lot of fun.
The plot can be a bit complicated for new readers, but I will make it simple: around this time, Wolverine was living in the dangerous location of Madripoor with Psylocke and Jubilee and he is visited by Natasha, who tells him that the Hand, a ninja organization that has existed for centuries, is looking for her. Meanwhile, we have flashbacks of World War II, where Logan is teaming up with Captain America to save young Natasha from the Hand.
This was Chris Claremont writing at the peak of his skills and this issue is one of my absolute favorites, being one of those self-contained storylines that are both entertaining and capable of filling you with a lot of story. No page is left wasted. And if we add the beautiful art of Jim Lee, back when he was hitting the best years of his career, you have a winning formula. Just look at the cover! Cap, Natasha and Logan have never looked better.
More than an X-Men story, this is a crossover between three phenomenal Marvel characters and it’s definitely worth your time.
Once the Marvel Cinematic Universe started to gain more prominence at the beginning of the 2010s, Black Widow started to have more starting roles in the comics and this was starting to show with Kiss or Kill by writer Duane Swierczynski and artist Manuel Garcia.
A senator has been murdered and his son, who is a journalist, decides to start doing a research about it, which results in him finding out about a sexy Soviet agent that could be responsible for the murder. This person turns out to be the Black Widow, but she is not really responsible and has to find out who has been framing her.
This is an interesting miniseries because it has a good combination of a murder mystery and a spy thriller, which actually fits Natasha as a character. The pace is pretty solid and the plot flows in a very natural manner. I have to give a lot of credit to Manual Garcia; he has proven to be a very solid and it shows in this miniseries, showing Natasha at her best.
A really strong story and a good, classic Black Widow tale. It plays to her strengths.
I’m not a fan of Brian Michael Bendis, but his work on Daredevil was the best of his career and it was one of Marvel’s greatest runs in this century, so it’s almost logical that the Black Widow-centric storyline, The Widow, would work like a charm. And luckily for us, it does.
It was during this time in Bendis’ run that Matt Murdock was the new Kingpin of Crime in Hell’s Kitchen and he was struggling with keeping all sides in check, almost on the verge of a mental breakdown. Natasha shows up and we see many glimpses of their ill-fated relationship, with our femme fatale trying to help him to get back on track.
As much as I dislike many of Bendis’ usual tropes as a writer, I have to say that this story is really good and it’s a great tribute to the relationship between these two characters. The dynamics between Matt and Natasha have always been complicated and Bendis does a great job here by showcasing that in great fashion.
We also have here one of Bendis’ favorite artists, Alex Maleev, whose gritty and dark style really fits with the narrative and the story unfolding here, elevating it to far greater heights.
The only reason this story doesn’t rank higher is because this is more of a Daredevil story than one of Black Widow, but it’s definitely one of the best on this list.
You may go for the single issues for this one, you can buy the single trade papaerback, but this stories are soooo good that my recommendation is to break the bank account and go for the Daredevil by Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev Omnibus Vol 2., that launches on Amazon by Feb 2020. I know, it’s expensive, but with comic books prices at what they are these days, you’ll be spending your money ongood material, and with excelent bookshelf quality. Aaaand if you really what to give yourself a christmas present, go also for the Vol.1. You can thank me later…
One personal gripe of mine when it comes to modernized origin stories is that they try to make everything more complex and make too much emphasis on the “modern” aspects of the world we live in a desperate attempt to stay current. What I’m trying to say is that retold origin stories ever really work on a deeper level… and then you have cases like this one.
If you want to read a modernized and yet much more complete version of Black Widow’s beginnings, then Deadly Origin is definitely the best choice for you in that regard and I think it makes sense that updating Natasha’s origins works a lot better than with characters such as Captain America o Spider-Man: there is still a lot to explore about her and the tale of a young girl turned into a weapon by the Soviets is a very interesting one.
This story not only tells how Natasha became the Black Widow, but it also connects it to her present through a potential threat through the people close to her, such as Nick Fury or Daredevil. We also get major insight to Natasha’s life growing up with Ivan, a man that was a father figure to her and raised her through all those harsh times.
In my view, Deadly Origin is the best story of Natasha’s beginnings, swiftly connecting her past to her present, showing all the different struggles that she had to overcome and how the Soviet days of training hardened her to become the extremely capable secret agent that she is these days. Paul Cornell writes as if he knew the character his entire life and truly delivers on the writing side of things.
As usual, I would like to point out the quality of Tom Raney’s art here; it gives you a very grim vibe and it truly captures the coldness and darkness of Natasha’s past, making it a perfect companion to Cornell’s brilliant writing. Every page works so well here and I would have loved to read a whole run with this team because they truly nailed it with this miniseries.
I’m always a little bit worried when a novelist gets into the comic book business. Not because they don’t have the skill or the knowledge to make great stories in the medium, but rather because they seem to not take it seriously and view comics as an inferior art form, often writing with a certain lack of respect. But there are times when someone like acclaimed sci-fi author, Richard K. Morgan, comes along and pulls off this beauty.
In this story we see Natasha hanging her Black Widow suit in the closet and leaving her espionage life behind her; now all she wants is a normal life and to move on. But once many assassinations start to take place and she discovers that they are linked to a lot of people from her country, she has to put on the suit again and go back to a Russia that is very different to the one she grew up in.
Richard K. Morgan does a fantastic job in showing what makes Natasha tick as a character and gives her a more multi-dimensional approach, giving her a sense of wanting much more than just the vigilante life and to strive for a normal and peaceful existence, which is something that the movies, especially Avengers: Age of Ultron, took inspiration from.
We can also add to this wonderful story the artwork of Bill Sienkiewicz. The man has been an instrumental figure in the way artists have been growing and developing since the 1980s in terms of influence, so you can imagine how good his work is, if you’re not familiar with him. Here he is not as experimental as he was during his New Mutants days, taking the more Neal Adams-influenced style that he had when he was doing Moon Knight in the 80s, and it gives a certain level of quality to the comic as a whole.
Definitely worth your time if you want to know more Black Widow and enjoy a classic espionage story.
Back in 2010, where the character started to gain a lot of popularity, Marvel wanted to put Natasha on the spotlight and they did just that with The Name of the Rose, another miniseries where we got a great adventure written by Marjorie Liu.
Natasha has gone through a lot of obstacles throughout the years, overcoming great odds and defeating some of the most dangerous enemies of the entire Marvel Universe, but someone in this story has tried to kill her and almost succeeded, leaving her massively injured and on the brink of falling apart. Now she has to find out who was the person that wanted to kill her and why.
I think it’s fair to say at this point that the best Black Widow stories are the ones where the espionage elements are mixed with some mystery, thus making for a very interesting combination that keeps reader curious as they carry on reading. Liu does exactly that and The Name of the Rose shows some of the best moments in Natasha’s history and one of the strongest miniseries in Marvel’s recent catalog.
Daniel Acuña does a serviceable job in the art department, although his style is not a personal preference of mine; it doesn’t do it for me because I prefer someone who doesn’t rely so much on the digital side of things–I have to admit that’s a big gripe that I have with many new artists because they have become so dependent on the new digital tendencies. But I digress.
The Name of the Rose is one of the strongest Black Widow stories that you’re going to find out there and it’s worth every single penny you pay for it. Get it.
Devin Grayson is one of those writers that has been sadly forgotten by the mainstream comic book industry and that is truly a shame given that she has produced some very interesting works throughout her career, with her Nightwing run a personal favorite of mine. But it was with Black Widow where she really came into her own and delivered the best story in the character’s long existence, 1999’s The Itsy-Bitsy Spider.
Here we are introduced to Yelena Belova, a young Russian who has gone through the ranks as an assassin and wants to claim the mantle of the Black Widow. Both women are pitted against one another in a battle to determine who is superior and who deserves the mantle.
One of my favorite aspects about this story is that it shows how far Natasha has gone since her early days serving Soviet Communists and how much of a difference there is compared to the young, almost naïve Yelena. It’s a true testament to the character’s development throughout the years and also an interesting analysis of what it means to be the Black Widow.
J.G. Jones is the artist in this story and I have to say that I’m a sucker of his work. Art in comics during the late 90s was certainly a poor period in terms of quality with too much emphasis on the cartoonish side of things, but Jones here has managed to pull off some really interesting stuff and it fits quite well with the mood that Grayson has set up.
You can’t go wrong with The Itsy-Bitsy Spider, if I’m perfectly honest with you. This was a time where Marvel was starting to rebuild itself after a long period of inconsistency in the 90s and this miniseries is definitely one of the highlights of that particular period.
This is one book that won’t get you dissapointed to get to know the Black Widow before the movie.
Overall, Black Widow is a very interesting and yet underrated character in the comics, with a lot of different stories that explore a side of the Marvel Universe that perhaps doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves. Regardless, all these stories are a great starting point to get to know who the Black Widow really is, and you should check them out.
As always… keep reading good comics!