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Monday, July 20, 2009

THE BLACK WIDOW IS MAKING THE LEAP TO THE BIG SCREEN, SO HERE'S A WEE PRIMER FOR THE LAYMAN

Okay, I gotta admit that I wouldn't have known Scarlett Johansson if she were standing right next to me, despite having seen her in EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS a while back. I mean, I'm mostly familiar with her as a voice actor for animated projects like ROBOT CHICKEN or as the charmingly dorky-looking mermaid Princess Mindy in THE SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS MOVIE.


Princess Mindy, voiced by Scarlett Johansson.

When people told me Scarlett Johansson was a righteous cutie who had to be seen to be believed, I paid them no mind because I'm not too keen on a lot of today's seemingly factory-issued hot actresses/celebs, but then I found out that the lady looks like this:

Yowzamagowcha! That image is straight out of a mid-1970's-era PLAYBOY spread, the kind of thing that very much fit my aesthetic choice back in the days, so when I heard she'd been cast to play Natasha Romanoff, aka the Black Widow, in the upcoming IRON MAN 2, I almost had a heart attack.

Get those two dudes outta the way, goddammit!!!

I have no idea how well Johansson will pull off bringing Marvel Comics' number two super-spy — number one being Nick Fury — to life, but however it pans out I'll be there with bells on because I've been in love with the Black Widow since the very beginning of my geek's journey.


The Black Widow with Marvel's numero uno super-spy, Nick Fury.

Let's set the Wayback Machine to 1971 as a six-year-old Bunche journeyed with his parents to Reno, Nevada. Car trips generally suck out loud at any age but when you're a restless kid they really try one's patience, and I was going mad after hours in the family's leviathan of a green station wagon. When we pulled over at a gas station for a much-needed bathroom and refreshments break, I wandered into the station's general store and looked at all the fascinating items on the magazine rack. There in front of me stood a colorful display of comics featuring characters I knew from the old and horrendously-animated THE MARVEL SUPERHEROES cartoon show (don't get me started on that one; it's fodder for a whole post of its own!), and while I was excited to see the likes of Thor, Captain America and of course the Sub-Mariner, my attention was drawn to a cover featuring a guy in a garish red getup whom I'd never seen before. Curious, I picked up the comic book and flipped through it. In no time I'd decided to give it a try and asked my folks if they'd shell out a quarter to keep me quiet and happy for the remainder of our trip. The twenty-five cents parted company with my dad's wallet and in no time I was introduced to the joys of my very first comic book.

DAREDEVIL #81 (Nov. 1971): My very first comic book and my introduction to two of my all-time favorite characters.

Looking back on it now, DAREDEVIL #81 was a rather tepid affair but it introduced me to Daredevil and, much more importantly for a number of reasons, the Black Widow. The Widow appealed to me because my parents were fans of THE AVENGERS on TV, and the Black Widow in her jet black catsuit reminded me more than a little of the equally-badassed Emma Peel.

The Black Widow swims to Daredevil's rescue and unwittingly begins one of the great partnerships of superherodom.

What I didn't know at the time was that the Widow was originally conceived as a villain during the early days of Iron Man in TALES OF SUSPENSE and in her original incarnation she was pretty much just another in the line of Cold War-era commie bad guys Tony Stark did battle with during what I call his "Red-Baiting" period.

The Black Widow, as seen during her first appearance (TALES OF SUSPENSE #52, April 1964).

Very much an enemy agent from the "moose and squirrel"-accented school of femme fatale villainy, Natasha Romanoff slinked into the life of billionaire playboy Tony Stark and wreaked considerable havoc.

An early cover appearance by the Black Widow. The art's obviously by Jack Kirby, but don't ask me what's up with those magnetic emanations...

The Russkies may have been a pack of un-American, Elvis-hating commie bastards, but they certainly were not stupid. Pitting Natasha against notorious pussy-hound Tony Stark was a brilliant move and our priapic tech-genius took the bait so fast you'd swear you heard a sonic boom in his armored boxer shorts.


Tony Stark, about to discover the meaning of "From Russia With Love."

But Stark soon twigged to what was up with the Russkie redhead and in no time kicked her to the curb (there's a surprise...not!), but she was soon back with a vengeance and seducing a fresh-out-of-the-gate Hawkeye to do her dirty work.

While Hawkeye thinks with his pork-arrow, Natasha rocks it brunette-style. Sorry, baby, but you should never "fix" red hair. It just ain't right! All hail the "ginge minge!!!"

As the Cold War gave way to the Vietnam conflict in the public's consciousness, Marvel re-tooled the Black Widow into a good guy (or gal, if you prefer), giving her a truly ludicrous costume that was later dumped in favor of John Romita Sr.'s famous black catsuit with funky accessories (a cool belt and those big-assed bracelets).


The Widow's original, horribly generic costume...

...thankfully kicked to the curb by John Romita's now classic Emma Peel-inspired look.

Her spy status was upgraded in the wake of the 1960's spy craze, so the Widow found herself a trusted and respected agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., working closely with Nick Fury and Captain America and eventually earning a place among Marvel's preeminent super-team, the Avengers. During all of this she also teamed up with Daredevil, the two of them sharing billing in DD's book, and their romantic relationship served as a defining period for both characters. Looking back at it now, their daily workouts were more or less as close as Marvel could get to depicting foreplay and highly-charged sex of a uniquely athletic variety and I suspect that's one of the draws that kept the readers coming back month after month.

Natasha was certainly Marvel's sexiest female hero at the time and remained so for years — this was before Dave Cockrum breathed life into Storm — thanks in no small part to her being drawn by the likes of Gene Colan during her AMAZING ADVENTURES and DAREDEVIL days, and later Paul Gulacy in a memorable issue of BIZARRE ADVENTURES.

An early Gene Colan take on the Widow.

Colan is best remembered for his hyper-kinetic and moody work on books like DAREDEVIL and TOMB OF DRACULA, but let us not forget that the guy was a master at drawing hot redheads, the other being Beverly Switzler in HOWARD THE DUCK.

Two Gene Colan Beverly Switzler panels (with one in the middle from Frank Brunner), including the classic ship deck bikini figure.

Paul Gulacy, on the other hand, made a name for himself as the dynamic artist of Marvel's Bruce Lee-inspired SHANG CHI: MASTER OF KUNG FU, and since his style already owed a heavy debt to Jim Steranko's legendary 1960's NICK FURY: AGENT OF S.H.I.E.L.D. run, he was a natural for handling the Widow in 1981's excellent BIZARRE ADVENTURES #25.

BIZARRE ADVENTURES #25, featuring what may be the best-drawn Black Widow story ever. And not only that, but you also get Michael Golden on Lady Daemon (sadly a one-shot) and Marshall Rogers and Joe Rubenstein on Daughters of the Dragon, so track this sucker down on eBay right now!

Confusing Ralph Macchio script aside, the black & white artwork on the Black Widow story in that issue is incredible and ranks among the best stuff ever to come out of Marvel, and is easily Gulacy's magnum opus. He clearly gets the James Bondian aspect of the character and renders her as a lithe, lethal and totally efficient master of hand-to-hand combat and weapons skills. Seriously, check out some of this stuff:

A hungover Natasha receives a note at the beginning of the story.

Oooh, that's gotta hurt!

There are times when martial arts are appropriate, but some situations just call for a good ol' service rifle. Namely when you absolutely, positively gotta kill every muthafukka in the room!

A terrific portrait of Natasha that reminds me more than a little of British actress Jenny Agutter. (I think it's the eyes.)

Now that you non-geeks have some small clue who the Black Widow is and why she's so cool, I've gotta say that though I'm psyched to she's in IRON MAN 2 and looking hot as a motherfucker, I doubt Johansson will make the character work. She just doesn't fill me with the sense of capable super-spy-as-superhero that Natasha exudes and she's way too non-Russkie-looking, but I'll see the film nonetheless. Let's just hope a rushed script and a questionable "moose and squirrel" accent don't make the bigscreen version of Natasha a laughingstock. (Not that the average horndog is gonna complain either way, mind you.)

Scarlett Johansson works the catsuit.

1 comment:

Curt Purcell said...

If you want to see Scarlett's acting chops, I can't recommend LOST IN TRANSLATION highly enough. For her action chops, I guess Michael Bay's THE ISLAND will suffice. Hard to say how all of that will translate for a Black Widow role . . .