A Rose for Valentine’s

Happy Valentine’s Day to all and on my geek side of the world, there’s no better way to celebrate it than with a rose. But not just any rose – indeed, one of the Marvel Universe’s most popular and remarkable characters – the Black Widow.

Black Widow was introduced to mainstream audiences in the Iron Man 2 movie, where the character was played by talented thespian Scarlett Johansson. Undoubtedly hoping to capitalise on her silver screen debut, Marvel chose, for the first time since her initial appearance was back in 1964, to let the long-term Avenger star in her own ongoing series. In April last year, soon after the release of Iron Man 2, the first issue, under the capable hands of writer Marjorie Liu and artist Daniel Acuña, flew off the shelves.

Unfortunately, the creative team committed to only the first story arc, but those amazing five issues are now collected in trade paperback format. Thanks to Wunderkind PR, Marjorie and HarperCollins in conjuction with Newsarama, my Christmas presents included a copy of the TPB. In return, here’s a Valentine’s Day review of Black Widow: The Name of the Rose.

What’s immediately clear right from the beginning is that though the main character is an undisputable superhero and a former chairperson of the Avengers, this is essentially a spy story. Natasha Romanova is as deadly as her codename suggests, but goes about her business with notable subtlety, preferring the darkness to shadow her movements rather than engage in broad daylight. Even when she is challenged out in the open, she elects to fight efficiently, abandoning the protracted, hard-hitting battles that other superbeings often find themselves in.

A shadowy figure from Natasha’s chequered past returns to haunt her, slowly wearing her down by framing her as a traitor to her friends and the country she serves. Caught between friend and foe, the Black Widow realises that all the past and present relationships she’s had are now being put to the test. When push comes to shove, Natasha must use all her years of training and experience to hunt down her mysterious enemy, even if it means pushing away her friends and acting alone.

Marjorie Liu’s knack for writing strong characters is immediately apparent here and Natasha is every bit a spy, a superhero and a woman. With Marjorie’s ability to maintain a consistent voice for Natasha, these three aspects of her character are never exclusive and at no point does it feel like one is overshadowing another. The pace of the story engages the reader, who never feels at any point that the scenes are being force-fed, or just out of place in the grander scheme of things. Each step of the journey allows Natasha to showcase her strength, her skill and her femininity – whether it be through her thoughts, her words or her actions.

As the writer of a new ongoing series, Marjorie also doesn’t skimp on establishing the backstory of the Black Widow, but does so without the use of overbearing exposition, choosing instead to just focus on the points of her origins relevant to the story. In many ways, this wipes clean the slate for Natasha, while still acknowledging the crucial history of the character, especially in her relationships with the others who show up.

In particular, her ongoing romance with Bucky permeates throughout the story, but doesn’t overwhelm, especially when we discover more about Natasha’s history, finding out about arguably the first man she’s ever truly loved. It is in moments like these that it’s nice to perceive the Black Widow simply as a strong woman who is aware of her need for companionship and sees it for the advantage that it is, and not a weakness.

The well-paced writing is complemented perfectly by the art. Marjorie has referred to artist Daniel Acuña as a genius, and it’s hard to disagree with that assessment. Acuña brings with him a heady mix of both the surreal and a down-to-earth art style – both anchoring the story in the gritty reality of a spy story without shortchanging the auspices of Marvel’s superheroes. His renditions of Black Widow and Elektra are spot on, while Iron Man and Hawkeye don’t look out of place in their costumes. Perhaps my only gripe would be his portrayal of Bucky’s Captain America suit, which just doesn’t appear as heroic or iconic as I would’ve liked.

The Name of the Rose also starts with a prologue of sorts, a story by Kelly Sue DeConnick entitled Coppélia from the Enter the Heroic Age anthology comic. While not connected to Marjorie’s story, it further emphasises the powerful role of Natasha Romanova outside of her superheroics, without divorcing her from her Avengers connections.

All in all, a gripping story and fantastic artwork make this trade paperback a must buy. Marjorie Liu has really pulled out all the stops here, and Black Widow: The Name of the Rose is an excellent Valentine’s Day gift for any comic book fan.

Peter Lin

His teenage years spent nursing a giant man-crush on Steve Rogers, the first Captain America, Peter naturally found himself drawn to many other heroes who depicted strong, manly qualities, including the honour-bound warrior Worf, first Klingon in Starfleet, and the muscular rock hard abs of The Thing.

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