The Marvel Universe broke down a number of barriers when it burst onto the scene in 1961's FANTASTIC FOUR #1, the main one being the one erected during the 1950’s separating super hero comics from a massive audience. Heroes like the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man jolted the genre back to life, reinventing the previously invulnerable tights-wearing set as flawed and relatable human beings—albeit with super powers and flashy monikers. But for all the progress made by Marvel in the 1960’s, one concept remained unexplored: the solo super heroine.
Women have played a part in the Marvel Universe since the early '60’s, but most of those fighting females either occupied a token slot on super hero team—the Fantastic Four's Invisible Girl, the Avengers' Wasp and later Scarlet Witch, the X-Men's Marvel Girl—or existed primarily as a love interest: Betty Ross, Jane Foster, Liz Allan, Pepper Potts, Karen Page. None of these women ever went solo early on, and they rarely cut loose like their male teammates.
With the dawn of the 1970’s, feminism—the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities—became a prominent issue in American culture. Articles appeared in big publications like “The New York Times Magazine” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” introduced the country to a leading lady that placed her career well before her love life. Marvel Comics, who had introduced both the Black Panther and Falcon during the Civil Rights Movement of the '60’s, would not let this new gender revolution pass by unnoticed.
Enter: the Black Widow.
Initially introduced in 1964's TALES OF SUSPENSE #52 as a Soviet femme fatale and a new threat to Iron Man, Natasha Romanoff would enter the '70’s with a new look, a new attitude, and in a new role as Marvel's premier headlining super heroine. One would most likely not peg Black Widow as a potential breakout character judging by her early appearances. Her initial costume—consisting of fishnet stockings, a cat's-eye mask, and a high-collared cape-let—failed to make her stick out amongst her peers. Even though she masterminded evil schemes and held her own against Iron Man, her dramatic defection from the KGB to S.H.I.E.L.D. still hinged upon her love for the avenging archer, Hawkeye. All that would change in the summer of 1970.
In AVENGERS #76, published in May 1970, Natasha bid farewell to two of the big things holding her back: her time-consuming relationship with Clint Barton and her original costume. The Widow resurfaced two months later in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #86, the cover of which heralded the heroine's dramatic—and iconic—makeover. Motivated by the death of her late husband, the Red Guardian, and her dissatisfaction with her life as a jet-setting socialite, Romanoff vowed to become a new and better version of herself. "I've got to become…the Black Widow once again," she says in a monologue written by Stan Lee. "I've got to do what I do best…to fulfill my destiny…to help me forget…the haunted past!"
Her motivation manifests itself physically in her new look, designed by John Romita. She puts on her black jumpsuit for the first time and accessorizes it with her circular chain belt and wrist gauntlets, which house her Widow's Line and Widow's Bite weapons. Black Widow immediately takes to the streets, engaging Spider-Man in a physical altercation in which she more than holds her own. It's this makeover that heralded the changing face of Marvel's female heroes.
“At the time, I think this elevated Black Widow to the level of icon,” says Nathan Edmondson, the writer behind the current BLACK WIDOW ongoing series. “The suit was like an invitation, a uniform offered to the character as she was escorted into the halls of fame—or infamy, as the case may be. Comics are a medium—and isn’t all of storytelling?—that is built upon iconography, and that means, for super heroes, a suit.”
AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #86 ends with a tease to readers to follow the all-new Black Widow into another book launching in a few months time: AMAZING ADVENTURES. That new series, launched in August 1970, pushed the ex-Iron Man villain to the forefront along with her co-stars, the Inhumans. No, the comic did not officially carry her name, but the words “Black Widow” did take up prime real estate on the cover of every issue she appeared in. By co-headlining AMAZING ADVENTURES with the Inhumans, Black Widow became the first female super hero in the Marvel Universe to fly solo in her own ongoing monthly series.
In AMAZING ADVENTURES, Black Widow became a defender of the persecuted, descending from her penthouse above the East River to mix it up with lowlifes, mobsters, and corrupt police officers on behalf of hippies and wayward teenagers. As the lead character in her own ongoing adventures, the Widow gained a level of competence and expertise rarely afforded to guest stars. She even gained a supporting cast of her own in Ivan, her confidant and driver. It's here in these issues that Black Widow goes from being a femme fatale to a force of nature by combining her new weapons with an updated and ferocious fighting style.
When her amazing adventures came to an end after eight issues, Black Widow had irreversibly transformed into the powerhouse character we now see today in comics, cartoons, and films. She immediately followed up her co-headlining act with the Inhumans for an even lengthier double act with the Man Without Fear, starting with DAREDEVIL #81. Romanoff cemented her status as a Marvel mainstay in 1973's AVENGERS #111 when she officially joined the Avengers—a team she would eventually lead.
But what's kept Black Widow at the forefront of the Marvel Universe over the past 40 years? Nathan Edmondson has a theory:
“Black Widow is an icon whose identity is so strong and intriguing in a basic, archetypal way that she has transcended multiple eras and speaks to longtime fans and new readers. She is exactly what comics are built on—iconic characters who promise to be continually worthwhile.”
With eight issues of solo heroics under her chain belt, Black Widow became the Marvel heroine with the longest stretch of solo issues—a record she would hold until the arrival of someone named Carol Danvers.
Come back later this week to relive the birth of Ms. Marvel, plus see more on the 75th anniversary of Marvel at marvel.com/75 and join the conversation on Twitter using the hash tag #Marvel75!