Agent of S.T.Y.L.E. – Black Widow Keeps It Classy
by Alan Kistler | 12:30 pm, January 16th, 2014
She started off as an Iron Man villain but then became so much more. Natalia Romanova was born around 1928, had her life saved by Wolverine and Captain America before she hit puberty, and then became a recruit of the secret Black Widow program. Along with other young girls, she was trained in the mysterious Red Room facility to become an assassin and spy, her body chemically treated to increase her resiliency and vitality, which also resulted in a retarded aging rate. But during the modern age of superheroes she rethought her life and changed her allegiances. Since then she’s been a superhero, a SHIELD operative, and even leader of the Avengers.
Got it? Good. Now let’s chat about the many looks she’s sported over the years.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
Before we talk about Natasha, I think it’s important to mention that she was actually not the first comic book hero called Black Widow. During the Golden Age of Comics (1930s-1950), there was another lady who claimed that name.
Claire Voyant (yes, that was actually her name) appeared in 1940 as the Black Widow. She has nothing to do with the character Claire Voyant who appeared in comic strips from 1943 to 1948. This Claire, AKA the Black Widow, wore a pretty typical Golden Age outfit: what seems to be a one-piece swimsuit with a symbol on it, accompanied by boots and cape. She was what we’d call an anti-hero, in that she fought evil with morally questionable methods and motives. She hunted down evildoers and killed them without mercy because she was a “human tool of Satan.”
You see, Claire used to be a medium. Possessed by the Devil, she cursed a family, which ended in their deaths. She was then killed herself by one of the family members and wound up in Hell. Then the Devil decided to have her return to Earth as the Black Widow, with the power to kill with a touch (which also left them with a Black Widow brand). After avenging her own death, it was her job to send evil people to Hell before they might repent and change their ways, because the Devil’s a jerk like that.
In more modern comics some have depicted Claire as an ally of other Golden Age heroes of Timely Comics (which became Marvel), but she never actually met any during the old days. The recent comic book series The Twelve has given her an altered origin where she made a deal with the Devil to get supernatural powers so she could avenge the death of her sister. This comic also depicted Claire as a reluctant instrument of vengeance who cried over her victims, even if they were evil. She had the original basic outfit but later was seen in an armor-like suit decorated by webbing. The webbing breast cups are… odd to me.
NATASHA, SUPER SPY
When Natalia “Natasha” Romanova was first introduced in Tales of Suspense #52 (1964), she was acting as a spy for the USSR. She attempted to kill pioneering technologist Tony Stark and steal the secrets of his technology. During these early stories she had no costume, really, just a veil and some web-style netting over her cleavage. Because her name is Black Widow, get it? GET IT? Oh, and it turned out she actually was a widow. Until we learned her husband faked his death. It was a whole thing.
It wasn’t too long before Natasha’s superiors decided, “Lady, you need a costume.” So they gave her this Black Canary style outfit in Tales of Suspense #64 (1965). This costume rocked out fishnets to emulate webbing, had boots and gloves made to cling to surfaces, and came with a pair of weaponized bracelets. By this time Natasha had corrupted young circus performer Clint Barton AKA Hawkeye, convincing him to aid her schemes. To show her devotion, her mask emulated his own.
The bracelets, by the way, would wind up becoming Natasha’s iconic weapons and appeared in many of her outfits, although their outward design would change. Along with shooting grappling lines, her “web,” they also came to release gas weapons and electrical bolts, her “Widow’s bite.”
It’s a costume that exists on the razor edge between super-villain chic and a very specific type of evening wear. The fishnets don’t look enough like webbing, so other than the cute letter “B” clasp on her cape there’s nothing to really let you know that this woman should be associated with spiders or black widows.
Modern artists have occasionally gone back to this costume in flashback stories, often dismissing the cape and adding heels to her boots. Let’s face it, even without the cape and its cute monogrammed claps, the costume is still just a wee bit silly, even for the Silver Age of comics.
And yet… I think it would be hilarious to see Scarlett Johansson don a version of it in some movie scene where the Black Widow is undercover at a masquerade ball. Come on, you know it would be fun! Hawkeye could show up at the same party wearing that ridiculous Wolverine-lite purple mask and we’d all giggle while non-comic readers didn’t understand the joke.
THE CLASSIC 70′s STYLE
Natasha eventually came to regret her life. Like Hawkeye, she left behind her villainous ways and became an ally to Iron Man. She even joined up with Nick Fury and his intelligence network/counter-terrorism team S.H.I.E.L.D.. Then, in Amazing Spider-Man #86 (1970), she saw the amazing web-slinger swing by and thought he had a pretty rocking costume. What’s more, she thought she needed a new look herself to symbolize that she was truly a new person. She quickly got to work and designed a simple black bodysuit, adding two sleeker silver bracelets and a silver disc belt.
Thirty-eight years later in 2008, X-Men: First Class vol. 2 # 8 by Jeff Parker said the Black Widow actually got the idea of wearing a black bodysuit from admiring Jean Grey’s old black and gold X-Men uniform. Redheads unite!
Now, some folks will tell you that this Black Widow jumpsuit was a natural redesign because the UK show The Avengers was popular and everyone was trying to copy Emma Peel, an operative known for wearing catsuits from time to time. But that’s just coincidental timing. ArtistJohn Romita Sr. didn’t base this design on Emma Peel at all.
The Black Widow was to star in solo adventures in Amazing Adventures, so Marvel told Romita to design a new costume to debut in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man to help her publicity. He had been a fan of the Golden Age character Miss Fury, who wore a black bodysuit and cowl, and asked if it would be cool to redesign Black Widow along these lines. As you can see, he got the go-ahead. It wasn’t until later, when people asked, that he realized a similarity to Emma Peel’s attire.
Weirdly, after completing her new and very stylish bodysuit, Natasha then decided she needed to prove she wasn’t just a female imitation of Spider-Man. She challenged him to a fight, hoping also to see firsthand why he was formidable and how she could be different or better. Seems like all she would’ve had to do was just not mention that Spidey gave her the idea for the suit, their designs aren’t similar beyond being skin-tight. But she got this idea in her head and so the two had a scuffle.
This wasn’t the only strange encounter she had with the web-slinger. Years later the Black Widow got amnesia and adopted the identity “Nancy Rushman.” In this identity she met up with Spidey, who helped her regain her identity. Along the way “Nancy” and Spidey developed feelings for each other, but the possibility of romance came to an abrupt end when Natasha’s real personality returned. Although she remembered how she’d felt as Nancy, she no longer connected to it and she and Spidey parted as friends. Trivia buffs will notice that the “Rushman” alias was used by Black Widow in Iron Man 2.
Back to talking about the costume. This suit here is the first incarnation of what’s become the classic Black Widow look. For her life as a spy, counter-terrorist, and general badass adventurer, it definitely makes for a practical outfit. We even discovered later that, while it was formfitting, it was still loose enough for her to hide extra weapons beneath a fake layer of skin on her back. That’s right. Batman isn’t the only superhero who takes contingency plans to a ridiculous level. By the way, this idea of hiding weapons beneath fake skin came from stories of Modesty Blaise, the famous and influential adventurer of comics and prose.
Later on, Black Widow switched the silver for gold and her belt sometimes had a red hourglass decorating its buckle. I think this is a strong change that really makes the outfit work. The gold provides a better contrast against the bodysuit’s color. I think it’s also better to color the suit as almost solid black rather than grayish or black with too much blue highlighting. Obviously that’s a personal preference, so you may feel differently. Nothing wrong with that.
Some artists dropped the belt entirely, giving her a look closer to Miss Fury. While the outfit still works without it, I definitely prefer it there. Black Widow carries tools with her, and she needs somewhere to put them. They can’t ALL hide behind fake skin on her back!… Can they? How compact are these tools? Why don’t all S.H.I.E.L.D. agents use that method?
HERE COME THE 80′s AND 90′s
The 1980′s brought a subtle makeover for Natasha. She got a short cropped 80′s-style haircut and exchanged her black bodysuit for a gray one. This uniform was decorated by two spider symbols, a large one on the back and another over her heart. The spider symbols are a nice touch, but I’m not sure about the gray, and I still miss the belt. There’s also the weird addition of the disco collar, which looks strange enough on certain superhero capes and just seems out of place when it’s attached to a bodysuit.
As we entered the 90′s, Natasha was subject to a few more changes, depending on the artist. At times she had no visible bracelets. Sometimes she had no major collar, opting instead for more of a turtleneck style. These changes make it look as if she were wearing a second skin rather than a uniform or costume (and I realize you can say that about a lot of superhero costumes, but that’s another conversation entirely).
Then there were the few times she threw on an Avengers leather jacket over her costume, because during the 90s we got into this attitude that superhero costumes were silly unless you threw a jacket over it. It gets sillier when some heroes then made the strange choice to roll up the jacket sleeves, just in case they were too hot wearing both a jacket AND a skintight uniform.
As the 90′s went on Natasha got to grow her hair out again and adopted a minimalist spider design outfit. Rather than an obvious spider symbol, this suit had spider legs implied by lines on her stomach and down her thighs. She got her belt back but this time put it around her thigh instead of her waist, which was a big style for superheroes at the time. Sometimes her belt and widow’s sting bracelets were red, sometimes they were gold. The suit isn’t bad, but it doesn’t sing to me as her 70′s suit does.
RETRO IS IN
Retro is in these days. As the 21st century arrived, Natasha looked at her 70′s suit and thought, “My God, I looked good.” Ok, maybe she didn’t actually say that in any comic book scene, but I think we can all imagine her saying it while looking over the Avengers’ Instagram album or through one of Peter Parker’s photo collections.
Wait, why doesn’t Peter Parker publish photo collections more often? I know he got screwed that one time he published his book Webs, but surely he could get a better agent and make some money with another book now, yes? We’ve gone on a tangent! Back to Black Widow.
For the past several years Natasha’s been rocking out variations of her classic black bodysuit, sometimes with gold, sometimes with silver. Sometimes the visual differences are strong (yet still pretty simple) based on it being a specialty outfit for a certain type of mission. How much she zips the costume up seems to depend more on the artist than the actual temperature and weather she’s experiencing.
A few times in the pages of The Mighty Avengers she wore variations of her 80′s bodysuit and haircut. These were isolated incidents. For the most part fans and creators have embraced her 70′s style, and it is this version of the outfit that has been translated by TV and film to different degrees. It just looks damn good.
We shall discuss those media interpretations, as well as the other characters who have called themselves Black Widow, in another column soon. Until then, this is Alan Kistler, Agent of S.T.Y.L.E., signing off.
Alan Sizzler Kistler (@SizzlerKistler) is an actor/writer who identifies as a feminist and time traveler-in-training. He is the author of Doctor Who: A History.