One of the best things to see is when a book finds its voice and begins to move forward in leaps and bounds. Black Widow #6, the conclusion of the book’s first big arc, is also a step forward for the struggling espionage book.
I wasn’t terribly kind to the opening issues of Black Widow, which felt airless in a way that is hard to reconcile with so earthy a character as Natasha. Nathan Edmondson’s script was simple, slow, and unforgivably light on character, its stabs at developing a home life for Natasha surprisingly clumsy. The first few issues followed in this vein, telling relatively solid but largely uninteresting stories that contained moments of brilliance – Natasha’s lawyer’s brief interlude, say, in Black Widow #2 – but rarely sought to rise any higher than that.
First off: Phil Noto’s art is still gorgeous, though he excels far, far more at the espionage plots than he does with the character’s more traditional superheroic elements. His initial designs of the Hammer of God were simple, memorable, and gorgeous, but when we finally see his face, he’s bland, and looks almost identical to the issue’s main villain. But if Noto’s figure work is sometimes a bit stiffer than I’d like, he really shines as a colorist, borrowing heavily from the hyper-stylization of someone like Frazer Irving to use color – mostly very muted color – to help set the mood for a scene, rather than traditional backgrounds to merely tell us where we are in it.
The issue opens with Natasha, captured at the conclusion of Black Widow #5, being interrogated by soldiers under Damon Dran, an old enemy known as the Indestructible Man. As solid as the adventure is, however, it is the final pages that give me the most hope for the series as a whole. Dran has been captured and imprisoned by SHIELD, when a trusted agent enters his cell to feed him and winds up poisoning him. Dran dies, cryptic last words on his tongue, and all the sudden the series opens up.
What was lacking in those early issues was drama. I knew Natasha would survive the missions, and the events she was referring to were all buried deep in her past. Rather than informing the present, they were dominating it. Natasha hunting down a conspiracy within the ranks of SHIELD, on the other hand, is a broader hook, one that still allows you to explore those same issues, but which forces drama into the present while still letting us play in the past. An ongoing series needs focus, and Dran’s conspiracy gives it that focus.
And I know, not every series needs that sort of overarching crutch to excel. Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye (one of the godfathers of the current crop of Marvel single-character titles alongside Mark Waid’s similarly excellent Daredevil) had little to link its early issues, which were among some of the strongest I’ve ever read. But Fraction had a genuine innovator for a partner in artist David Aja (Noto, while talented, hasn’t quite been pushed as hard), as well as a quick wit and a talent for colorful characterization. Nathan Edmondson’s scripts are more traditional, with far less brutally efficient pacing, which left the early standalone issues feeling undercooked.
Black Widow is a solid book, and – like Batman Eternal - it’s consciously beginning to hone in on and correct its biggest flaws. It’s easy to let things sit, particularly if you have a book that’s moderately successful or if you’re prone to overplanning (as I am), but one of the most important skills in serialized storytelling is flexibility. Sometimes, a great idea in your head just doesn’t work on paper, and it’s important to know what to drop, what to change, and what absolutely must stay in order for your story as a whole to work. Black Widow was never a bad comic, but, slowly but surely, it’s becoming a genuinely goddamn good one.