I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.
As the nineteen-seventies dawned, the mavens of Marvel weren’t quite sure how to fill out their publishing line. After years of surging interest for the likes of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, sales were starting to level out. Some titles that seemed sturdy just a couple years earlier were scrapped altogether, and even seemingly surefire hits, like a solo title for fan favorite skyway soarer the Silver Surfer, drastically underperformed expectations. With cancellation complete or imminent for several publications, Marvel needed new products to stock spinner racks. After several years of delirious creativity by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and other founding fathers of the House of Ideas, there were plenty of characters to choose from. The dilemma was that it was difficult to guess which ones had the appeal to command attention in the softening marketplace. So the publisher employed a strategy that served them well previously: splitting comics in half with two heroic headliners.
One of the two duplex titles launched August 1970 cover date, Amazing Adventures gave over the front end of the comic to the Inhumans, as written and drawn by the King, Jack Kirby. The rest of the pages showcased Black Widow, the alter ego of Soviet spy turned adventurer Natasha Romanoff. Black Widow got a makeover just in time for her star turn. One month before the first issue of Amazing Adventures, Black Widow swung through the pages of Spider-Man’s comic, and the wall-crawler’s artist at the time, John Romita, responded to the assignment of outfitting her with a new costume by passing along skintight hand-me-downs from nineteen-forties heroine Miss Fury.
By this point in time, Black Widow didn’t have that much history to contend with, mostly a run as a supporting character in Avengers. That relatively empty slate gave writer Gary Friedrich the latitude to do whatever came to mind, and there are times when it seems he’s trying out a little bit of everything. Dialogue implies Natasha is living a socialite life, and there’s acknowledgement of her backstory in espionage. Interestingly, though, Friedrich quickly settles on Black Widow as a hero tackling street-level problems in the grittier corners of Marvel’s New York City. She contends with crime bosses and urban decay. Part of the opening storyline involves her interactions with the Young Warriors, a group of activists clearly inspired by the Black Panther Party and the and the Young Lords, right down to the free breakfast program.
Friedrich had an ideal partner in crafting these muscular stories. John Buscema was an artist with Marvel ancestral predecessor, Timely Comics, in the late nineteen-forties and through most of the nineteen-fifties. As Marvel started to boom in the mid-nineteen-sixties, Lee lured Buscema back from the advertising racket, and he quickly became a ringer who could take on just about any assignment, with a particular knack for preserving Kirby’s cinder-block-fist-comin’-at-ya potency while tempering it just enough that others could duplicate enough of his visual design when they took over. As much as anyone, Buscema set the Marvel house style that persisted through the nineteen-seventies. And he sure knew how to draw a fight scene, a vital skill when working with a lead character who made up for a lack of superpowers with grit and roundhouses.
Friedrich and Buscema were a good team for Black Widow. They also didn’t last long. Buscema was replaced by Gene Colan by the third issue, and Friedrich was gone one issue later. They might not have lasted long with Black Widow, but they set the new model for the character, and that model stayed more or less intact for decades to follow.
Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.