Black Widow, volumes 1 & 2: SHIELD's Most Wanted & No More Secrets
After mentioning these in the Marvel movie thread the other day, I finally finished reading volume two. It's worth reviewing both at once, because really they're two halves of a single overarching story that takes place across twelve issues, collected across these two six-issue TPBs (and surely ripe for a single OHC at some point).
If you've read Waid & Samnee's Daredevil, then you might think you know what to expect - and to an extent, the pair deliver. There's an elegance and flow to this book that definitely feels familiar from their extended run on the Man Without Fear, and the flamboyance of that swashbuckling run feels like it informs the opening issue of this series, in which Black Widow breaks free from her SHIELD captors in an extended action sequence that lasts the entire issue.
As you can see from that page, this is a book where Waid clearly knows he can rely on his artist to carry important beats of the story without letting words get in the way, and much of the action throughout the twelve issues is pleasingly 'silent'. I love the last few panels of this page:
Even when Waid does step in, he's careful to be pretty economical with dialogue during these action sequences, which really helps them to move on at a decent clip. There's a lot of humour there too, even in the midst of fairly serious scenes. It's the equivalent to watching a great Bond movie, where the action and the character's attitude all come together to provide a really fun, dynamic and fast-moving reading experience.
And all that within the first issue!
Things do calm down a little bit after that barnstorming opening: we get a few more details on exactly why Natasha is out of favour with SHIELD, and Waid begins to tease out an intriguing plot that lasts for the entire series before it's fully resolved. Without giving too much away, it touches heavily on Black Widow's past with the Red Room, and also brings her into contact with quite a few other important players in the Marvel Universe (including Tony Stark, Nick Fury and the Winter Soldier) without ever feeling as though the focus is pulled off Natasha herself.
It's a difficult balancing act at times, but Waid achieves it by making sure that we constantly see things from Black Widow's point of view, being surprised by the story's twists at the same time as she's surprised by them, and always showing us her perspective on the story so that we can understand the choices she makes.
Waid also keeps things fresh by moving through a wide variety of locales and situations, making the most of the wider comics universe that the book inhabits. While some writers of super-spy characters might shy away from some of the more outlandish aspects of superhero comics in favour of a more grounded tone, Waid embraces them, leading to some fairly crazy moments that you wouldn't necessarily think would fit in a Black Widow story, but which work perfectly (including a trip to the moon to see Nick in his current, post-Original Sin role).
Where the book diverges from Daredevil is that its tone is regularly fairly dark and unforgiving: there's brutality here, both psychological and physical, and the book isn't afraid to show us that in uncompromising detail. Samnee's art - which makes liberal use of large dark/black areas - is perfectly suited to this, and even though he's got a fairly clean and cartoonish style, there are parts of the story that feel very gritty and hard-edged.
Even when the action is a little less personal, Samnee manages to maintain a sense of pressure and harsh conflict, with angled panels and (deliberately) chaotic layouts helping to emphasise the panic of scenes like this one in which Black Widow is targeted in a parking garage:
The entire book is a great showcase for both creators' talents, and if I have any real problem with it, it's that it's over too soon. There's a sense of the final few issues rushing to wrap up several of the plot strands - perhaps because the book was intended to run longer and was then cancelled? I don't know the history of it - and as a result, one or two aspects of the story feel like they don't quite get the conclusion that they needed to really land.
But that's a pretty minor complaint. Overall, this is a really fun ride of a book, and one which provides a pretty excellent storyboard if Marvel Studios ever do get around to planning a solo Black Widow movie. With the perfect mix of espionage, intrigue, action and superheroics that we get here, it would make for a perfect film outing for Natasha.