Books, read harder 2017

Read Harder: on Superspies

I’m doing the 2017 Read Harder challenge from Book Riot. For each book I read in  the challenge, I aim to write a short blog post about it

Read: Black Widow: The Finely Woven Thread Nathan Edmonson (words), Phil Noto (art)

Task: Read a superhero comic with a female lead

Completed task 1/24

Superheroes occupy an interesting place in most tellings- they do a lot of their work in the open and outside the law. In comics, this relationship with the law is an interesting one- it goes from being actively hunted (the Punisher ) to tacit endorsement (Batman and his bat signal- in a recent storyline, Batman was even a police sanctioned superhero). This makes superheroes sit strangely with other parts of the government as well, and it’s here that super-spies like Black Widow have to sit.

It is an odd position.

‘Real’ spies, of course, aren’t like Black Widow. They aren’t James Bond,  they’re George Smiley. Maybe. We don’t know. We don’t know names, and they won’t tell us. Hell, if you work for ASIO here you can’t even tell us. That makes a spy who, in-universe, people know by name and appearance as an Avenger especially weird. Black Widow is a more or less household name in the Marvel universe, and splits her time between being… an Avenger fighting crazy aliens and monsters and robots, and also doing super spy work for hire. Can’t they call someone else? Why would you use a spy everyone knows on sight? 

Super spies in comics have a long history, and Black Widow is a surprisingly long runner- she debuted in 1964 as an Iron Man baddie, before switching sides and being redesigned into her current appearance more or less in the early 70s. That’s a very different era for a spy. Being an ex KGB agent now helping western superheroes is very different to now, where her origin is a bit murkier. There’s less clean ideological difference, no Cold War to resonate with the character. It means Black Widow as a character is unmoored from the giant conflict. In this collection, she’s working to atone for her past actions, but what they were and who they were for isn’t as clear cut.

She works for international spy agency SHIELD and as a freelancer, but even that’s an odd thing. SHIELD has always had a bit of a strange relationship with espionage and governments. Who precisely does SHIELD work for? Kinda…everyone? Who funds them? Also…uh…kinda everyone? It’s like U.N.C.L.E. I guess. It’s all very weird. Even the Marvel movies hasn’t quite articulated it right, with SHIELD working for an ill defined national council but based in Washington.

I kinda prefer the spy agencies in the DC universe, who have a clear purpose and work for a clear government. A.R.G.U.S, the agency thst crops up most often as the agency responsible for the Suicide Squad, has a pretty clear role as an American intelligence agency and a clear remit.

So super spies have no basis really in reality, but they definitely have a basis in spy cinema. Look at this page from Black Widow 

You can almost see Harry Lime in the background. It’s here perhaps, that Black Widow needs to sit as a concept. In a heightened Marvel reality, maybe the only spies that can exist are ones that we know. Ones that can tangle with Iron Man and turn up on pages with shield wielding super soldiers. Perhaps, in a universe where you can seemingly run into international terror organisations on your morning commute, the spies need to be visible as a deterrent. They need to be Bond, James Bond.
Or perhaps Widow, Black Widow


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