Wow. That...was really bad.
Black Widow and the Marvel Girls is basically what you get when you say to superb Marvel Adventures staple Paul Tobin and excellent Exiles artist Salvador Espin:
"The second Iron Man movie is coming out, and we need an all-ages Marvel title to spotlight the Black Widow. Oh, but can you have her murder a platoon of people and give her the personality of a box of rocks?"
Tobin identifies the Widow's victims as terrorists. This designation of course instantly demotes them to killable, even in Obamerica. However, I cannot for the life of me believe that any parent, regardless of his or her political philosophy, would think that this depiction of wholesale slaughter is appropriate viewing for the same audience that might ask their moms or dads for a Spider-Man electric toothbrush, hawked on the back of the book.
Black Widow and the Marvel Girls is the most messed up thing I've seen from Marvel. Other advertisements include such kid friendly products as exercise games from Vtech, super-hero cakes and that awful X-Babies saccharine. Black Widow and the Marvel Girls is rated A for all-ages, but I wouldn't let a nine or ten year-old near this book. Eleven or twelve is iffy. It's as though the Underoos people were sponsoring an Eli Roth film during the Kids WB hour.
The story, such as it is, pits the Black Widow against a gauntlet of guards that she proceeds to strangle with her Widow's Line and mow down with her Widow's Bite, once though no longer, non-lethal. They're all dead! Hussah! Let's go to Chuckie Cheese, kids! The Black Widow's real target is the big Russian muckity-muck who was in charge of the espionage program that created her. Because of her ties to the Grand Commie Poobah, Natasha starts having flashbacks to her time in the program.
I'll get back to the flashbacks. Even were I to ignore Marvel's lack of thought when rating this book, I'd still have to say it's a worthless piece of offal from a writer that I know can do about a million times better. Salvador Espin's art is technically well done, but he has contributed livelier work where the heroes look like they are actually having--shhhhhh--fun. Tobin and Espin present Natasha as a killing machine with the emotive range of a fichus. That may be what was called of them, but it's nothing I want to see.
The section of the plot in which Black Widow tears through the guards like an icy buzzsaw to reach the Head Honcho's panic room is similar to the first fifteen minutes of the critically-reviled film Elektra. Now, I make no bones about it. I like Elektra. I own the DVD. I bring up Elektra for a reason. There's less killing, more displays of stealth and greater cinematographic panache in the opening reel of Elektra. The title character, played by Alias' Jennifer Garner, although on screen for only a few minutes, conveys more depth and humanity than the Black Widow does in this entire book. That should not be.
The flashbacks owe a debt to the Resident Evil films. In the most recent sequel, the Umbrella Corporation keeps sending Alice clones, complete with red dresses, into the same lethal edifice that the original penetrated. The facility's defenses kill the clones one by one. It was a neat little nod to the extra lives a games-player earns and worked within the context of the story, also foreshadowing the superb finale, in which Alice portrayed by kickass actress Milla Jovovich achieves total victory.
In Black Widow and the Marvel Girls, young Natasha Romanoff stands awkwardly among a group of battle trained red dressed little girl soldiers. She's the ugly duckling of the flock. The scientists and guards who run this happy boot camp brutalize her, force her to crawl through electrified barbed wire, which visibly shocks the hell out of her, and, in general, rob her of her childhood. Remember, this book was approved for all ages. Enter the Enchantress. Why? She's bored, and she takes an interest in the nascent Black Widow. She promises Natasha to help her escape the gulag, but not before imparting some important words of wisdom surrounded by images of bikini-clad women showing off their impressive cleavage:
"Natasha, you're pretty, and pretty girls always have a choice. That's the other type of magic."
Pretty much Sara Palin's motto. The Enchantress naturally betrays Natasha, and states: "I lied, Natasha. Never rely on beauty. It lies." Now, here's the thing. Young Natasha does not actually use her feminine wiles to seduce any of her Gulag guards. I guess statutory rape baiting is the line that a Marvel all ages book will not cross. Every other line, sure, but not that one. So, why bring it up in the first place!
The Black Widow could have snuck into the safehouse. Her costume allows her to stick to walls. She could have crawled upside down, along the ceiling, without killing one of the guards. She could have obtained evidence that her former overseer was a terrorist. She could have arrested him instead of executing him. The flashbacks could have evoked her miserable existence without explicitly showing her electrocution. Tobin still could have employed the Enchantress as the young Natasha's enabler and betrayer without the mindless thoughts on beauty and Espin's homage to the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. The violence wasn't necessary. The death wasn't necessary. The scenes of torture weren't necessary. None of this was necessary! None of it!
The Black Widow is an old Marvel character with a resonant history. She could have just remained a one-note stereotype Cold War styled Russian agent and disappeared into comic book limbo with the Unicorn. Marvel writers instead transformed her into a likeable, multi-faceted super-hero, a one-time leader of the Avengers no less. If you're a young fan of this character, I recommend that you pick up some of her fun, exciting seventies adventures from The Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel Team-Up and Marvel Two-In-One. Marvel will soon be collecting her own series, which she shared with The Inhumans, for some reason. Also, ask your local comic book merchant for Marvel Adventures Avengers #21 her exquisitely entertaining proper all-ages debut story. Older fans will appreciate Black Widow and Black Widow: The Things They Say About Her by Richard K. Morgan and Bill Sienkiewicz. All ages should avoid Black Widow and the Marvel Girls as if it were swine flu.
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