50 years ago this month! Today: Natasha’s curse, gaslighting, and “you”
Amazing Adventures #8 (September 1971)
Story by Gene Colan and Roy Thomas (cover by Neal Adams? or John Buscema?)
Art by Don Heck and Bill Everett, with letters by Jean Izzo
The Beach Boys, the Mothers of Invention, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Ten Years After, The Who, all released albums this month in 1971.
Number One songs included “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” by the Bee Gees, and “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” by Marvin Gaye.
With this kind of music and a split title featuring the Inhumans and the Black Widow, Amazing Adventures #8, what a time to be alive!
Yes, and what a time to contemplate waste and mortality, failed projects and haunted pasts. The Inhumans half of the book has a lot going on, facing the inescapable reasoning of the Black Panthers’ demands for racial justice. But this is Daily Black Widow, so Black Bolt and the Black Panthers may require their own post another time.
As for the Black Widow, she and Ivan have been hunted down by the Watchlord, a villain who seems to have astonishing telekinetic abilities that he acquired, in some eerily green-tinged foreshadowing of Natasha’s partnership with Daredevil, which will begin in Daredevil #81: as World War II nears an end, invading Soviet troops killed the young future German supervillain’s father, who he insists was not a Nazi!, and then seeks refuge with a priest, “–a godly man–” our villain must specify, who hides the newly orphaned boy among some crates, which, he learns later, contained radioactive Nazi materials!
Much like Matt Murdock (father murdered for not throwing a boxing match), super-senses acquired from accidental exposure to radioactive materials, and constantly trying to seem like a good guy when in fact he is a sexist, misogynist jackass, as we will learn over and over during his forty-odd issue run with the Black Widow. Ahem.
But what if the real trauma here, and the Watchlord’s powers a kind of reaction formation, really have to do with the priest’s causing harm to him while hiding the truth from others? What if we allow abuse in the Catholic church into this picture as the unspoken trauma? He makes an excuse for his father, then a second one for the priest. There’s a lot to make of this in terms of a father’s death fulfilled and a reaction to it that justifies its happening, without fault to the father, in the mind of the son. The same semiotic gesture happens with the priest, who is blameless in the story Watchlord gives us. And whatever the source (the church? Nazi apologists? white men? is there much of a difference?), Roy Thomas seems to let him build this gaslit version of his trauma without critique or hint at its problems.
But there’s a pattern established that forces a question: if the Nazis murdered his father despite his non-political nature, why would they be looking for the boy child such that he would flee into the arms of a priest? I think there is a traumatic experience here hiding in plain sight–and it’s not the radioactive exposure.
The priest unwittingly, it seems, anyway, exposes the boy to Nazi radiation while seeming to hide him from the Nazis, with the result that the poor boy can now manipulate the world around him, defending himself and lashing out at perceived enemies (like Ivan and Natasha–just for being Russian, apparently, not for being superheroes or jetsetters or anything like that, which is a plot point repeated in other BW stories). An interesting form of condensation and displacement to punish the perpetrators of his trauma: Russians, any Russians!! instead of his father or, well, a father.
The final panel of the final issue of the Black Widow’s first run as a solo hero, reminds us of how Natasha seems unable to create condensed, displaced representations of her trauma like the Watchlord. She sees herself as essentially responsible for the death of so many people who come into her life–friends, lovers, enemies, random people sometimes. Or at least how her male writers inscribe her trauma on her character:
But what if the real trauma here, and the Watchlord’s powers a kind of reaction formation, really have to do with the priest’s causing harm to him while hiding the truth from others? What if we allow abuse in the Catholic church into this picture as the unspoken trauma? He makes an excuse for his father, then a second one for the priest. There’s a lot to make of this in terms of a father’s death fulfilled and a reaction to it that justifies its happening, without fault to the father, in the mind of the son. The same semiotic gesture happens with the priest, who is blameless in the story Watchlord gives us.
Natasha wonders about this curse many times. But in the Amazing Adventures storylines, most of the fatalities are accidents in the commission of some pretty dangerous acts. The fact that they are committing these acts usually in an attempt to harm or kill the Black Widow makes Natasha’s trauma an important early pop culture case of misogynist gaslighting. Making the victim seem to be at fault is a classic white masculinist control trope, and I think 1971 is a great year in which to notice this in an issue that actually hit stands a month or two before Woodstock, just weeks before Jim Morrison’s death in Paris on July 3.
Not convinced? For me, the tell is the narration boxes. For whatever reason, Roy Thomas decides to narrate in the second person, addressing Natasha herself, but, because of the ambiguous quality of “you,” especially in reading, the second person also functions as parabasis. I, the reader, and Natasha, are both the you, as I suppose you are also the you, were you to read this issue. That double address heightens the sense that Thomas is in control of Natasha, knows what is happening to her before she does, and seems, in telling us in the same time of his knowledge and control over her, to revel in it, if in a beleaguered, don’t be that way–I feel sorry for you, with what I have to put you through to crank out these bimonthly shorts, honey; good thing my friends are here to back me up in defining how all of this goes down, kind of way.
I, for one, am not sorry that the Watchlord is crushed by a landslide caused by the boulder with which he attempted to flatten Natasha–again, just because she’s Russian. And for one main reason: what a dumb name. There are plenty of others that might appear to you, also.
Very flawed, pretty much one-shot villains were the driver of the Natasha half of Amazing Adventures for too long after a superior inaugural story about social justice, dirty politics, and the ethics of civil disobedience. Indeed, AA #8 proves to be Natasha’s last issue.
As she has throughout this run, and in the Avengers issues that preceded it, Natasha constantly doubts her abilities, and often screws up. This early in her career, she is still finding her way from having some collateral damage to being a precise, deadly killer in her role as an independent superhero.
But that also makes it feel like the gaslit version. She always triumphs over the villain, helps solve the puzzle, whatever, and there is usually a death. Is Roy Thomas not telling us some “alternative facts” that Natasha is deadly efficient, preferring to gaslight us as he is her, making her seem less competent, even negligent, in her accidental victories?
Knowing that Natasha, as portrayed visually, is about to pass from Don Heck and Bill Everett to Gene Colan under the Daredevil title later in the fall of 1971, I find it hard not to judge the art in this issue as inferior to Colan’s more expressionistic renderings of the Widow in DD. Heck and Everett seem, on these pages at least, also to be stuck between decades: struggling with evolving out of a relatively traditional figural, and especially facial, representational approach to a perhaps trippier but at least broader range of approaches to line drawing and inks.
Check out some of the images I refer to, plus some choice ads from this 1971 gem: