Published by: Marvel Comics
Written by: Devin Grayson & Greg Rucka
Art by: Scott Hampton, JG Jones & Igor Kordey
Year: 1999 – 2002
Collects: Black Widow (1999) #1-3, Black Widow (2001) #1-3 & Black Widow: Pale Little Spider #1-3
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has finally returned to cinemas with the long-overdue release of Black Widow.
Set between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, the film finally allows Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff to take on a starring role in a solo movie, as it explores both her tragic backstory, as well as introducing her own unique supporting cast.
One of these new characters in particular seems poised to take Natasha’s place moving forward. Cast as Natasha’s ‘sister’ in the film, the character has a much more antagonistic role in the comics…
Real Name: Yelena Fyodorovna Belova
Affiliation: The GRU
First Appearance: Inhumans #5 (January 1999)
As the infamous Black Widow, Natasha Romanoff was one of Russia’s top agents… until she defected to the West and joined up with S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers. But the programme that created her – the Red Room – lived beyond her betrayal, and in the years that followed her defection; others would rise to try and take her place.
Among them was Yelena Belova, a young Russian operative whose physical test scores exceeded Natasha’s own. Yet, in spite of that, Yelena always felt like she was stuck in Natasha’s shadow, even as her peers and colleagues assured her that she had more than earned the title of Black Widow.
Nonetheless, Yelena was determined to prove herself as Natasha’s superior, and became the senior Black Widow’s rival as they butted heads on various missions. But with no ill will towards Yelena, Natasha took it upon herself to try and mentor Yelena in what it truly meant to operate in a world of superpowers and espionage, hoping that the young Widow would break free of her programming and make her own life choices.
Once driven by an overwhelming sense of patriotism and purpose, Yelena has put her rivalry with Natasha on the backburner, and now has learned to do things her own way. Sometimes and enemy, sometimes an ally; Yelena may not be as famous as her predecessor, but she can be every bit as deadly.
Marvel Knights: Black Widow – The Complete Collection details the early interactions between Yelena and Natasha, before concluding with Yelena’s own solo miniseries.
The book is made up of a trilogy of stories, The Itsy Bitsy Spider, Breakdown and Pale Little Spider.
As the name of the book suggests, each story is part of the Marvel Knights line, books set within the main universe of Marvel Comics, but less concerned with continuity and more focused on delivering limited series with higher production values.
While characters like Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four have had their own MK series, the majority of books encouraged more experimentation with lower profile characters like the Inhumans, Daredevil, Punisher and Black Panther (oh, how times have changed).
They also had a propensity towards telling more mature stories. Something that is obviously well suited to a character such as Black Widow.
While deployed in the Middle East, super-spy Avenger Black Widow comes face to face with her newest rival, Black Widow!
In Itsy Bitsy Spider, Natasha Romanoff is tasked with halting the production of a new bio-weapon, but encounters a spanner in the works when her successor from the Red Room, Yelena Belova, shows up to prove herself as the ultimate Black Widow.
In Breakdown, Black Widow, Nick Fury and Daredevil orchestrate a strange new operation that leads to Natasha and Yelena swapping faces. But why has Natasha dropped Yelena into her life, and what does she plan to do in Yelena’s place?
Finally, in Pale Little Spider, Yelena’s mentor shows up dead in a BDSM club. Desperate for revenge, Yelena must find out who the murderer is, and what secrets led her mentor to die in such a place. Can she overcome her preconceived notions of the world in order to truly become the Black Widow?
I had initially just planned to read Itsy Bitsy Spider as my coverage of Black Widow, unaware of how long it was and what it was actually about. All I knew, was that it was one of the earlier interactions between Nat and Yelena.
But while the story was fine, it left me feeling like I should do a little more reading.
Clocking in at only a breezy three issues, the story doesn’t take long to get through, and to be honest, doesn’t have a whole lot of substance. It’s not a bad book, but there’s very little to it beyond ‘Black Widow goes to the Middle East and meets another Black Widow’.
The story does kind of highlight how the two differ, and is certainly an action packed little piece with some solid art. But as I said, there’s not much to it.
Fortunately, the follow-up, now with co-writer Greg Rucka on board, does get into the heads of the characters a little more. The story presents more intrigue, as you question why Natasha has gone through such a radical procedure (surgically swapping faces with Yelena). Further, it gives Yelena a bit more focus, as she learns more about the truth of spy-craft, as well as the woman whose shadow she feels she occupies. With Itsy Bitsy Spider functioning as set up, this story works a lot better.
The art is certainly a change of pace; less comic-book-y, for sure. But th ethereal style really lends itself to the more psychological tone of the story, and is often quite beautiful.
Certainly an enjoyable, yet morose, little caper that highlights both Black Widow’s morality as well as the depths she’ll go to to complete her mission. The goofy comic book premise doesn’t hurt either.
Pale Little Spider stands out the most, dye to how different it is. Focused solely on Yelena, this story is perhaps the best at fleshing her out as a character.
While using a sex dungeon as a setting does seem a bit on the nose for a character such as Black Widow (the skin-tight leather and impractical exposed midriff wasn’t sexual enough?), the story that comes with it does well to exemplify who Yelena is, and how she compares to her nemesis Natasha.
I have to say the art on this one isn’t my favourite though. It’s rather grimy, which may be intentional due to the nature of the story, but compared to the clean drawings of the prior two arcs, it does seem like a bit of step down.
Individually, none of these are really stand out stories. Breakdown is probably my favourite, although there is arguably room for improvement. But together, they make up a nice collection of Black Widow stories that highlight the contrast between Nat and Yelena’s relationship in the movies and in the books.
For that reason, all-in-all, I give it a…
Thanks for reading! What do you think of Yelena as a character? Let me know in the comments below!
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