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The Old Game

Black Widow 1
Marvel Comics, May 2016
Writers: Chris Samnee and Mark Waid
Review by DG Stewart, 4 March 2016

In 2006 acclaimed British comic book writer Grant Morrison was engaged by American comic book publisher DC Comics to write a revival of the comic “The Authority”. This arrangement boded well: Mr Morrison is a very popular writer with a quirky and eclectic imagination, and “The Authority” had a cultish following and historically strong sales. But Mr Morrison wrote the comic as a “trade paperback”. A trade paperback is an aggregation of monthly series, usually a collection of a storyline laid out in four or five monthly issues of a title, or five consecutive issues forming part of a greater storyline. As a consequence, issue 1 of Mr Morrison’s version of “The Authority” was devoid of any action, and consisted of the narrative character engaging in such tedium as brushing his teeth. (The subsequent issues was also inexcusably late.) Mr Morrison was so disheartened by scathing reviews that he did not continue with the series. Mr Morrison had made the mistake of writing for the collection, and not for the individual issues.

Mark Waid is an American comic book writer with a formidable curriculum vitae in the superhero genre. Mr Waid and co-writer Chris Samnee have been given a title featuring a Russian spy, Natasha Romanov, a character which started its existence in 1964 as a Soviet-era villain in “Tales of Suspense” featuring the Marvel character Iron Man. As a villain-turned-hero, Black Widow (the character’s code name and the title of the comic) has moral depths which are manifestly worth exploring and Mr Waid in particular is on the face of it well-equipped to do precisely that.

Which is what makes this first issue so disappointing. Mr Waid and Mr Samnee made the same mistake as that which Mr Morrison made in 2006. The title is jammed with action, most certainly: Black Widow is on the run, dramatically evading her usual colleagues in the espionage agency SHIELD. The character throws herself out of the spy organisation’s enormous flying headquarters, called the Helicarrier, and relies upon athleticism and guile to save herself and make a getaway with a valuable, unknown stolen item.

But there is very limited plot and almost no dialogue. Of the twenty pages comprising the story, only ten pages contain dialogue. And some of those ten pages, three pages contain only one word balloon. The other seven pages give little away other than that SHIELD’s director thinks that Black Widow’s thieved item is worth recovering at all costs, and that even Black Widow’s opponents are in awe of her skills. It projects the impression of lazy writing. But perhaps mode accurately it seems to be written with an eye exclusively directed towards the trade paperback version of the title, rather than focussing on delivering creative value within the vehicle of the monthly pamphlet.

It is possible that Mr Waid has eschewed an internal narrative in order to render the character, her motives and thoughts an enigma so as to render the character a mystery. The character says only two words during the entire issue, “Me too”, on the last page. Perhaps this is to demonstrate Black Widow’s single mindedness. Perhaps it is to set the theme of the comic as a visual feast of activity and violence. Or perhaps it is intended to somehow demonstrate the value of the stolen object: that the intensity of the character in fhe final stages of her theft and escape underscore its significance. If Mr Waid and Mr Samnee had a deliberate strategy in mind other than stretching out the story to fill a collected work at the expense of an individual issue, then we can only speculate as to what that might be.

But whatever the intention, it does not work. The reader is instead left baffled and deprived of something other than an extended teaser chapter. “Black Widow” suffers from a cumbersome broadbrush which renders the story a simplistic blur. It is very heavy on action, at the price of coherence and characterisation. A single issue cannot be an extended action sequence and nothing more, and yet propel a plot.