Lately, what with Shathra in Amazing Spider-Man, Tara in Peter Parker: Spider-Man and Scorpia in Spider-Man/Black Cat, it looks like the web-slinger has got himself a huge helping of female opponents to battle. But it was not always so. In fact, in the forty-year history of Spider-Man, women sparring partners have been few and far between. In the first 100 issues of Amazing, for instance, (back in the chivalrous 1960s and early 70s), Spidey only tangles with three women and two of those fights (with Medusa and the Black Widow) are misunderstandings with super-heroes. (The third woman and only actual villain is Princess Python and she is a member of a mostly male group.) And so, to acknowledge the changing attitudes among Spider-writers and to honor the few female opponents of the past, I am declaring 2003 to be the Year of the Woman in Lookbacks. Let's begin with the character deemed to be Spidey's opposite number (at least until all those "Spider-Women" started showing up), the character Spidey himself declares is a "female copy of myself" on this issue's cover... the aforementioned Black Widow!
The Black Widow has, over the years, gone through some changes. She started as a villainous femme fatale; a Russian spy with no super-powers who used her fancy clothes and female wiles to seduce Iron Man and make men do her bidding. She eventually teams up with Hawkeye (when Hawkeye was still a villain), initially using him as she uses all men but later falling in love with him. She gets super-abilities and a costume, goes straight, hangs with the Avengers, and breaks up with Hawkeye. (But, ulp, I'd better shut up. She'll tell you all about this herself when we get to page 3 and page 4.) This issue inaugurated another change... a new solo series and a brand-new costume.
|Pencils:||John Romita, Sr.|
|Cover Art:||John Romita, Sr.|
Those of you who were with us for the Schemer Lookback, will recall that Spidey ended up trapped in a net while the Kingpin went catatonic upon learning that the Schemer was his son in disguise. When the web-swinger broke free of the net, no one in the room seemed to notice, so Spidey slipped out a window and left the Fisk family to their own devices. Now, at the start of this issue, he is still making his way home. As he web-swings past a smoke stack, he tries to clear his head. "I'm still reeling from that blow I took when I had to fight the Kingpin!" he thinks. (And he must be reeling more than he thinks since he didn't absorb any blows from the Kingpin in the previous issue.) So intent is Spidey on this non-existent blow that he doesn't even notice Natasha Romanov, known as the Black Widow, who is clinging to the smoke stack around on the other side. In the lower right-hand corner of this splash page, a caption placed inside a red ribbon promises "a sensational new costumed adventurer" but I think it really means an old adventurer in a sensational new costume. Because the Widow is still dressed in the same slightly purple, one-piece bathing suit with fishnet stockings and fishnet bodice, small cape like something worn to the opera and useless mask that looks like it was stolen from Nightwing costume that she has worn since hanging out with Hawkeye and the Avengers. Seeing the web-slinger gives the Widow ideas. She decides that Spidey is "the perfect answer to everything I need". She uses her own web line and ability to cling to walls to make her way across town back to her apartment. And she reasons, "If I could learn the secret of Spider-Man's powers and then combine them with my own, then no one would be able to stop the Black Widow!"
Once back at her apartment, she removes her costume and throws it across the room. (Sorry, guys, she keeps a sheet or a towel or something strategically placed so she might as well be wearing a parka for all the good it will do you.) Her problem is that she is haunted by memories that won't let her rest except in the "forgetfulness that action and danger can bring". Except, of course, once the action and danger are over, the memories come rushing back in again. Like now, for instance.
Natasha thinks back to that stuff I was mentioning in the introduction... back before she wore any costume other than a slinky outfit and a mink stole, back when she was coerced into being a Russian spy since her husband was being held hostage by the Politburo (a retcon that was employed to turn the Widow from a villain to a hero). She was initially teamed up with the Crimson Dynamo, battled Iron Man, got that sort-of purple costume and got into a romance with Hawkeye. The heartbreak that followed from this relationship prodded Natasha to serve with "the Avengers and the dedicated agents of Nick Fury's SHIELD". She ends up taking a SHIELD assignment that ends in the death of the Soviet hero known as the Red Guardian and then discovers that the Red Guardian was her long-lost husband. Tormented by this turn of events, Natasha must "flee from everything, from everyone who was a link to my tragic, guilt-ridden past". And so, since that time, she has been living "a life of ease and luxury as the wealthy, pleasure-seeking Madame Natasha", becoming "a leader of the jet set" and hating every minute of it. And so, at last she knows that she must become the Black Widow once again "to fulfill my destiny" and "to help me forget the haunted past". Now clad in a green dress, she steps over to a drawing table and shines a light on a costume design perched there. "In order to erase every last vestige of that past" she says, "I'll begin by designing a new costume for myself. And then, I'll search for Spider-Man!"
Speaking of Spidey, he has just made it back to his apartment and not a moment too soon. He is feeling tired and groggy and wonders if he's not coming down with an illness. All he wants to do is get inside and "hit the sack" but when he peers in the window, he sees Gwen Stacy, George Stacy, and Harry Osborn all sitting there. You may recall from the previous issue Gwen and her dad were getting so pushy with nosey questions for Pete that he hid in his bedroom, changed to Spidey, webswung into a window and pretended that he had some sort of financial deal with Parker to take pictures. He hung around on a wall outside until the intimidated Stacys left the apartment but then made the mistake of going out to search for the Schemer without ever going back inside again. Soon after, the Stacys returned and found Peter gone, which is why Gwen is so distraught now and why Harry is explaining that "I never know where [Pete] goes, Gwen, but he always comes back okay." Hanging upside-down outside, Spidey "can't bear to see Gwendy so upset". He knows that he has to get inside to comfort her soon. Besides he now feels "too shaky to stay out here much longer". Wobbling, the web-slinger wall-crawls over to his bedroom window, shoots some webbing inside, snags his clothes and shoes, heads for "the shadowy side of the building" and climbs to the roof to change. He is so unsettled that he almost slips on his way up and, once changed and in the elevator, his head throbs so much he can barely think. (And what little thinking he does is in the nature of, "I wonder how long they've been in the room?" and "How much do they suspect?" and so on.)
Taking the bull by the horns, Pete heads right into the apartment and cheerily calls out, "Hi group! Don't tell me I missed a party!" Gwen is so happy to see him that she runs right up and gives him a big hug. Harry casually reminds the Stacys that "I told you he'd be back!" But Captain Stacy is not so easily assured. Peter notices that the Captain is looking at him strangely. Then Gwen's dad asks him, "What happened to your face?" This is not a set-up for one of those old insults we used to say to each other in grade school. ("It looks like someone set it on fire and then put it out with a waffle iron", that sort of thing.) No, this is a serious question and once George asks it, then Gwen notices too. She takes Peter's face in her hands and cries out, "You've been hurt!" Sure enough, Pete has bruises all over his face from his fight with the Kingpin (which, you'll recall, never actually took place unless he's referring to the fight he had with the Kingpin in ASM #84 in which case he should have had the bruises when Gwen and George came to visit in ASM #85). And then it gets even more complicated.
Because of the act Peter put on when he tried to scare the Stacys as Spidey, Gwen is convinced that the web-slinger beat up her boyfriend. As Pete looks at himself in the mirror, Gwen pushes the point and our hero doesn't know what to say. "If I agree, she'll end up hating Spider-Man" he thinks, "but... can't tell her Peter Parker was battling the Kingpin". George asks him if he's in any trouble and Pete blows up at that. "Why does everyone keep hounding me?" he yells. Gwen grabs him by the shoulder and asks him if that's all he can say "to people who worry about you, who want to help you? Is that how you feel about a girl who loves you?"
Pete grabs Gwen by the wrist and asks her to forgive him. "I wouldn't hurt you for anything in the world" he says. If that's the case, then Gwen wants him to "Promise you'll never have anything to do with Spider-Man again!" and when Peter hesitates, she heads right for the door. Harry grabs his jacket and offers to drive the Stacys home. But Captain Stacy pauses for a moment to dispense more of that gender-equality wisdom he seems to love to give out. "Gwen is a female," he tells Pete, "and like all females she thinks with her heart!" He reminds Peter that Gwen "feels you're keeping something from her", that "that's hard to take for a girl in love", and having done his part to really mess with Pete's head, goes down to get that ride home from Harry.
Peter looks out the window and watches the car drive off. He wonders how much Captain Stacy actually suspects about him and he wishes the dizziness would pass so he could think clearly. This dizziness worries him more and more. "I've been in fights before, been injured before but never felt like this!" he says. And he starts to wonder if he's been "in one fight too many" and that his spider-powers are finally deserting him. He goes to his bedroom and picks up a textbook but he knows he is too dull and lethargic to study. And then he decides that it may be a blessing to be so groggy. "Anything's better than facing the fact that I might be losing Gwen!"
Back at the Widow's pad, Natasha has tossed her old costume onto the bed and donned her new black leather body suit. (And you thought it was nothing more than a design on her drawing table. No! It's all tailored to fit every curve and ready to wear.) "It may not be as fancy" she says as she pins back her hair, "but this new costume will be more in keeping with the swingy seventies!" (You're wondering right now if you read that right. You did. "The Swingy Seventies!") She adds a chain belt around her waist to hold her "spare web-line" and "the powerlets for my widow's bite". Then she snaps on her "modified wrist-shooters" which look very much like Spidey's web-shooters. And, eschewing a mask, she's ready to go (and looking extremely good if I say so myself). She sizes herself up in the mirror, then fires her webline at an overhanging pipe in her workout room, swings across the room past some shelves and her pommel horse and fires a widow's bite right at the center of a big target. As she does this, she notes that her powers are "just like a female imitation of the original wall-crawling, web-shooting Spider-Man". This seems to annoy her ("The Black Widow has no intention of living in the shadow of another.") and she vows to go after Spider-Man "and see what makes him tick".
After hitting the target, Natasha turns to three two-by-fours stacked up on top of each other. She rears back and karate-chops them, snapping all three of them in two. Then, she heads outside, web-swinging over the streets, still yammering on about how she must find Spider-Man and "prove myself his equal or learn the reason why!"
Her web-swinging just happens to take her past the window of Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson. He sees the movement out of the corner of his eye and thinks, at first, that Spider-Man is swinging by. Then he looks closer and realizes it is "a girl copping his act!" He sticks his head out his window to watch the Widow pass by. "Spider-Man probably put her up to it" he concludes, "to confuse everybody!"
Natasha, meanwhile, is really getting off on swinging around the city. With a big smile on her face, she notes, "How glorious it feels to swing thru the air, free as a bird". But enough of that. She comes to rest on the very edge of a rooftop and waits for Spider-Man to pass by.
For the moment, Spider-Man is going nowhere. Rather, Peter Parker has settled his head down on his desk. He has tried to study but the more he tries the groggier he gets. He doesn't know what is wrong with him "but whatever it is, it's getting worse". Still fearful that he is losing his spider-powers, he decides he must test them out to determine whether they are fading or not. (Sound thinking, Pete! The first thing I do when I'm worried, for example, whether I'm too tired to drive is to go out and drive! Doesn't everybody?) So, he gets into his Spidey outfit and jumps out the window!
He web-swings along, figuring that "a good workout ought to clear my head" if it isn't anything serious. (And we know that his head is not clearing because Romita has drawn those little flickering cottonballs that denote fuzziness around Spidey's head in almost every panel.) He does a fancy acrobatic routine, somersaulting and leaping across three lampposts that overhang and illuminate a billboard. But when he is done, the dizziness settles in again and he must attach some webbing to a wall to keep himself from falling. And wouldn't you know it? He ends up hanging upside-down right outside of Jonah Jameson's window. (What are the odds of that?) Once again, JJJ rushes to his window to complain about a web-swinger. He shakes his fist at Spidey and calls him a "creep". "Aw, go join the Silent Majority," says Spidey as he webs away, "Anything to shut you up!" (For those who don't know: The Silent Majority was a term used by Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew and their gang to describe the supposed majority of the country that agreed with them as opposed to those vocal long-haired hippie protesters and their ilk.)
Spidey's next plan is to "swing past Aunt May's"; thinking that visiting her will stop him worrying about himself. And, over at May's place in Forest Hills, Anna Watson is bringing her friend a snack of hot milk and cookies to help her sleep. May sits back in her armchair and seems so distraught about the fact that she can't sleep that I just have to wonder how late it is, anyway? I mean, Peter doesn't think it's too late to visit and J. Jonah Jameson is still at his office! Chill out, Aunt May. So what if you can't sleep? It must be about four in the afternoon!
Anyway, May figures that her insomnia comes from "the fact that I haven't heard from Peter lately" and of course she is worrying. And now, Spidey arrives on the scene, also going along with the gag that it is late at night. ("She's sure to be asleep at this hour" he thinks.) He plans to call on Anna Watson to see if it's okay to rouse May but instead of putting this plan into effect, he hangs upside-down outside and peers in a window. (That's his third "hang upside-down outside a window" routine in this issue, if you're counting.) May sees him there and freaks out, yelling "At the window! There's a face!" Anna puts her hand on May's shoulder and assures her friend that it is all her imagination. May decides Anna must be right. After all, the face is gone from the window. "But" she says, "it seemed so life-like!"
So, Spidey has botched that. First of all, he scared his dear old Aunt "out of her wits". Second, he doesn't dare stop in to visit now. So he heads back to Manhattan and, wouldn't you know it, passes right by the waiting Black Widow. His spider-sense warns him of the approaching danger but he is too sluggish to do anything about it, so the Widow's bite fired by Natasha hits him full on. He lets go of his web and starts to fall. This confuses the Widow. As she clings to the side of a wall (How does Natasha manage to cling to walls like Spidey does, anyway?) she tells herself that she didn't hit Spidey that hard and that he shouldn't be falling... unless he is playing possum. And so he is. He has chosen to fall "to get out of range till I know who's attacking me". Since the Widow is actually a good guy, she can't take the chance that Spidey is faking it. She shoots out her webbing to catch him by his right ankle before he goes splat. She ties the other end of the webline to a girder (the battle is taking place on some half-finished building) and crawls down the wall to where Spidey dangles helplessly.
The webhead, meanwhile, is biding his time, using his spider-sense to determine when his opponent is within striking distance. When that happens, he kicks out, striking the Black Widow, snapping her web-line, and settling on the wall. The surprised Widow suddenly finds herself hanging in the air, with only her handholds on a girder keeping her from falling. Spidey takes a look at her and declares her, "A female! One that I never saw before!" Natasha introduces herself as the Black Widow. Spidey has heard of her. "You used to be with the Avengers" he says, "but not in that get-up!" (And what a get-up it is, Spidey! Grrrowwwllll!) The web-slinger asks Natasha why she attacked him and she replies (Oh, oh! He's not really going to fall for this, is he?), "Come closer and find out!" Leaning down to lend a hand, our chivalrous knight in reds and blues says, "Look, a girl can get hurt up here!" and offers to help her down. This puts him in range of the Widow. (Yes, he did really fall for it, folks!) She kicks her legs and vaults up like doing a dismount off the high bar, and nails Spidey in the arm with her feet. "Don't think I'm helpless," she says, "Just because I'm soft and cuddly." The web-slinger's head is spinning again and he knows he can't stay around much longer but he recovers from the kick and springs up to the wooden floor being built amidst the girders. "Soft and cuddly?" he replies as he faces the Widow, "That kick felt like a Missouri mule." Natasha counters by thwacking the webster square on with another widow's bite. Spidey goes down hard and the Black Widow is thoroughly disappointed with her victory. "The whole purpose of all this is for me to learn about his powers!" she thinks, "But it's beginning to look like he doesn't have any!" Spidey is thinking the same thing. His spider-speed has failed him and he is easy pickings for his opponent. He knows he must rest to "store up [his] strength" so he lies still and lets the Widow tie him up with her web-line. And she is pretty contemptuous about the whole thing while she does it, too. "I'm beginning to think Woody Allen could take you!" she says, using one of Stan's many Woody Allen references, "Not that he'd want to!" Even that cutting insult doesn't settle her down. She stays so ticked off at Spidey's inept defense of himself that she just has to blurt out her whole scheme. "You're supposed to be the most dangerous opponent of all! That's why I tackled you!" she says, "I wanted to learn what I could from you! I thought I'd discover the secret of your power! Power... what a laugh! You're the biggest washout since the flood!"
But, then, with one flex of his arms, Spider-Man breaks Natasha's web-line. "No curvy carbon copy is gonna swipe my style!" he proclaims, then, hiding his grogginess, he fires web fluid at the Widow's wrists, blocking up her web-line shooters. Deciding just from that one move that the web-slinger has been toying with her (and not looking back to see Spidey still lying on the floor holding his aching head), the Black Widow runs for her life. "I don't even come close to being his match", she declares for no reason at all that I can see. All of her powers come from training and weapons "but the way he moves and fights and uses his strength, it's like he was born that way!" (If you say so, Natasha!) And so, she web-swings home to her penthouse, removes her belt, and puts on a red robe. Then she stands out on her balcony and looks down at the city. It turns out it's fine with her if Spider-Man keeps his secrets to himself. "I have my own unusual powers, my own style of combat, and my own strange destiny to fulfill!" she says, which brings us up to the point of this entire issue... namely the caption at the bottom of this page proclaiming, "And, if you've guessed this was our sneaky way of whetting your appetite for the appearance of Black Widow in her own monthly strip (Amazing Tales, on sale early in May) you were right, perceptive one!" and signed "Sly Stan".
Back at the construction site, Spidey is still trying to get up off his knees. Now shaking so hard that parallel lines emanate from his head and shoulders, now so weak that he must hang onto his webbing for dear life even as the cotton balls still float around his head, he slowly and tenuously makes his way back home... unsteadily crawling on ledges on his hands and knees, holding his head as he clings to a wall, and finally falling headfirst through a window into his living room. He can only hope that Harry is asleep so that he doesn't catch Spider-Man in his apartment since the web-slinger doesn't have the strength to "make it back out again". (Actually, I think Harry is still taking the Stacys home. After all, how long did all this take, really? An hour or so? And what time is it anyway? Is J. Jonah Jameson working in the middle of the night? Or are there time warps affecting everyone in this issue?)
After resting a bit on the floor, Peter manages to take off his mask and gloves and wanders into his bedroom. He doesn't know what to do. If he goes to a doctor, his blood will be taken and his secret revealed. But his biggest fear is that his blood is "turning normal" and losing his spider-powers. He decides he must test the blood for himself. He gets some of his blood into a test tube, then puts a drop on a slide. He slips the slide into his microscope and then hesitates to look. "Why can't I do it? Why am I stalling this way?" he wonders as sweat beads on his face, "After all these years, when I've secretly wished I could be normal like everyone else... Now there's a chance of my wish coming true. Is that what I'm really afraid of?" Standing up, with his hands on the back of his chair, Peter Parker glares at his microscope and can't bring himself to look.
That's where Stan leaves it at the end of this issue except to give the reader a teaser in the final caption. It reads, "Next: Unmasked at Last!" We'll get to that in a minute. But first a look at the letter section. Vito Marangi Jr. of Brooklyn, New York, has some ideas for some future issues. "First: what ever happened to Liz Allen... Perhaps you can slyly ease her into Spidey's life again... Second: the return of (get this) PATCH! I know, I know, Foswell is dead. But maybe some distant supporting character can get into the act. Just imagine it! The biggest mystery in comics, since the Green Goblin crises!" (Well, Vito, Gerry Conway brought Liz back in ASM #132, May 1974 but a new Patch still hasn't shown up. I think it's a great idea even now.) Joe Sykora of Sun Valley, California also has old Green Goblin mysteries on his mind when he poses this question: "Remember Norman Osborne? As the Green Goblin, he was one of Spidey's best villains. Well, Spider-Man is supposed to be the only one who knows that Norman Osborne was the Green Goblin. But, in Spider-Man #26, the Crime Master said, "You'll do nothing! Not as long as I have the proof of your real identity locked in a safe deposit vault! If I'm ever found dead, the police will open the vault and learn who..." All right, explain how his identity is still a mystery? Crime-Master died in #27." (Stan has no answer for this and it's a plot point that still could be used today. JMS? Paul? Anyone?) Finally, Keith Sterne of Biloxi, Mississippi thinks, "Spider-Man is too mushy lately... Next ish, let's have a little violence, all right?" (Uh, sure Keith. Whatever you say, buddy. Whatever you say.)
In the following issue (ASM #87, August 1970), Spidey is indeed "unmasked at last" when, thinking his career is finished, Peter Parker walks into Gwen's birthday party and tells her, her father, Harry, and MJ that he is the Amazing Spider-Man. Eventually, in costume, he admits himself into the hospital where he learns that he has "the worst case of flu [the doctor has] seen in years!" When he recovers, he realizes he must pull a fast one to regain his secret identity. Approaching window washer Hobie Brown (a.k.a The Prowler) in his street clothes with his face covered up by webbing, Pete passes his costume over and asks his friend to pose as Spider-Man in front of the gang while Peter is there as well. Everyone is fooled by the act except Captain Stacy who dies three issues later and, in dying, reveals to the web-slinger that he is aware of his secret.
As for the Black Widow, she gets her own series the next month in, not Amazing Tales, but Amazing Adventures #1, August 1970, sharing the book with the Inhumans. Her stint is not a successful one, as her strip only lasts for eight issues. But that doesn't mean she fades away into obscurity. On the contrary, less than a year later she teams up with Daredevil in issue #81 of his book (November 1971). The retitled Daredevil and the Black Widow lasts until Natasha leaves in #124 (July 1975). From there, she becomes a founding member of the Champions (in #1, October 1975) and has been appearing in teams (including, most recently, Marvel Knights) and solo ever since.
If you count up the panels, you'll see that the Black Widow appears just as much in this issue as Spider-Man. She looks great in the new leather outfit, there's no doubt about that, but most people pick up Spider-Man to read about Spider-Man, not to check out a full issue advertisement for the Widow's new series. (And considering her strip only lasted eight issues, I would guess that the promo didn't do her much good.) There's some nice stuff with Gwen asking Pete to promise to avoid Spider-Man and with Peter concerned that he is losing his powers but essentially we're in a holding pattern until the "unmasked" bit next issue. If you ask me, it's a great issue to begin a Year of the Woman retrospective but not much in the way of a Spidey story.