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Picks of comic book week: Ms. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Black Widow #4

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The weekly feast of the best comic books from March 12th, 2014!

Hey birdie birdie!
Hey birdie birdie!Midtown Comics
The Black Widow finds herself facing the series' first boss battle!
The Black Widow finds herself facing the series' first boss battle!Midtown Comics

Book of the week: Black Widow #4

In just two months, this relaunch of Marvel's Silver Age action spy by Nathan Edmondson and Phil Noto has quickly risen to the top of the heap in terms of quality at the "house of ideas". The duo have united in almost seamless harmony to produce a story which captures the voice of the titular anti-heroine, Natasha Romanova, as well as depicts her actions, dangers, and adventures in stunning lines and colors. The premise thus far has been a simple one; Natasha may be an Avenger and agent of "S.H.I.E.L.D.", but her past was so terrible that she does espionage missions on the side to fund charities in an eternal attempt to atone. So far, every issue has told a "done in one" story, but this month the creative team take a shot at an arc.

Although one presumes a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent pays more than the average gig at "Best Buy", it still doesn't pay enough for Natasha's lifestyle and charitable aims. Unfortunately, it still is her day job and often involves a lot of boring bureaucratic assignments like installing security systems at the Ukrainian embassy as a ruse to bug them for national security. Very quickly, a bored Natasha learns how deadly it can be to tempt fate as the embassy is bombed by yet another Russian super-agent, a hulking bearded monk named Molot. Immediately, an injured Black Widow is sent to the Ukraine for answers, but ends up finding herself in the middle of another of Molot's dangerous hits. He is naturally being manipulated by the same unknown force which has seemed to be behind at least one or two of Natasha's last missions, and is powerful enough to hold his own against any super-soldier, much less a spy.

As with previous issues, and as the series as a whole seems to use as a motto, the devil is in the details. Noto's art is absolutely terrific with not only pacing an action scene out which would fit in with any high octane action film, but in establishing a perfect mood to go along with it. Also on par with previous issues is Edmondson's voice for his heroine, who he depicts as "all business" but not so stiff that she becomes boring. Even experienced and deadly spies can get bored, and even they can feel overwhelmed. His Natasha also has a dry sense of humor, although nothing quite on par with her ex, Daredevil. One narrative block about how she as a "spy" seems to always find herself in very public and blunt superhero battles when that goes completely against her motif not only works as an amusing bit of text, but also hanging a lamp shade over how far many previous uses of the Widow have perhaps missed the point. Would you see James Bond shooting his guns at aliens during a full blown attack in London? Perhaps not, unless he was stuck in a superhero universe.

Thus far, each of the previous three issues have seen a reprint, which implies unexpected demand for this despite the $3.99 price tag. This is a positive sign because Edmondson and Noto are on a tear here with an overdue series starring one of Marvel's oldest independent heroines, and it is a run which offers more than meets the eye.

Honorable mentions:

Bloodshot and the H.A.R.D. Corps #20: It may seem odd to jump onto this ongoing series from Valiant Entertainment on the fly, especially since it will be canceled in July only to be replaced in an "Armor Hunters" crossover with other titles. The reason, however, is that this series is spending the spring having a more brief crossover with a favorite of this column, "Archer & Armstrong", for a four chapter saga. The gist is that Archer has gained control over most of the secret cabals who run the world from the shadows, and the cabal who employ the bionically enhanced Bloodshot and the aforementioned H.A.R.D. Corps are tasked with apprehending Archer and bringing him "under control". While Bloodshot has successfully captured the teenage psychic, the rest of his team has to fend off his burly and alcoholic, as well as immortal, best friend Armstrong. The issue is written by Christos Gage and Joshua Dysart and is drawn by Tom Raney, with colors by Gina Going. Although the front cover offers a long text slog which recaps the series for newer readers, the story itself doesn't go out of its way to introduce its cast and premise, nor does it confuse them with exposition either. The story provides just enough that any crossover readers know enough about these different characters to follow the story without being confused. Fortunately, the story involving a battle between differing secret sects offers a solid reason for conflict between title stars. Unfortunately, none of the cast of this series seem able to overcome the far more entertaining Armstrong as he bulldozes through most of the issue. Overall, this crossover may be fun for a lark, but it may not make fans of anyone new to the Corps.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #32: The supposedly "restful" arc of "Northampton" reaches its' fourth and final chapter as the Turtles' attempt to regroup from their latest war against the Foot Clan has ended in them having to fight for their lives against a gang of Foot assassins led by Koya, a mutant ninja hawk. Considering Splinter's mangled leg and Raphael's mistrust of their new ally Alopex, their battle is an uphill one even with the seeming return of Leonardo to his senses after his time as Shredder's brainwashed lackey. The issue is another which gives departing artist Ross Campbell time to shine in terms of expressions, backgrounds, and battle sequences with animal characters. The story by Kevin Eastman, Bobby Curnow and Tom Waltz as always manages a proper mixture of action and emotion, balancing character conflict with physical conflict. Considering how well known this franchise is, it would be easy to play thing safe and mindlessly repeat dynamics, yet this series never does. Koya makes for a stunning new enemy in terms of danger and design, especially as a rare female mutant character who is drawn with some sense of her species' biology - as birds are not mammals, it makes actual sense that she lacks breasts (even if having both a beak and teeth is a bit odd). In the end, both the human and mutant characters learn they can't hide from their problems any longer, as circumstances force them into a confrontation. The next arc will see the return of artist Mateus Santolouco, who will apparently rotate art chores with Campbell on this series to establish a sense of consistency. That arc will bring this relaunch into its' third year, and it easily is just as good now, if not better, than its' first.

Invincible #109: Perhaps no longer "the best superhero comic in the universe", but series creator/writer Robert Kirkman and longtime artist Ryan Ottley continue with their opus of a superhero series which never plays things safely (for good or ill) and often finds itself in both bizarre and violent places. In this case, Mark Grayson's zeal to eliminate one of his few remaining arch enemies before the birth of his child has led to him being betrayed by his friend Robot and stranded in an alternate reality run by an evil counterpart (who has been murdered). This forces Mark to impersonate his counterpart and try to utilize the universe's resources to get back home, which means some making some unlikely alliances. To be blunt, this brief story arc is really a set up to a grander climax of Mark confronting Robot back home, as well as having "months" of time pass so his kid can be born already. Ottley's artwork is great as ever, and the issue mixes Kirkman's usual flair for imaginative storytelling. While this series may have run long enough to have hopped a shark (or some other large sea creature) at least a year or so back, this current arc at least showcases that there's plenty of life in this franchise yet.

Mighty Avengers #8: Al Ewing and new artist Valerio Schiti (and colorist Frank D'Armata) continue their run on a team of Avengers who seem to embody everything that Marvel's New York superheroes should be. They handle threats both local and galactic, they play hard and they fight hard. Ewing also has a knack for taking the complex histories of his cast of B and C-list heroes and mingling them in new ways to play to both his and their strengths. As Ava Ayala/White Tiger struggles to overcome being possessed by the tiger spirit which empowers her, older hero Blue Marvel leads She-Hulk and Monica Rambeau on a taste of the sort of adventures he usually has as an international hero dealing with threats and enemies that exist between North America and Madripoor which are often ignored. To this end are "W.E.S.P.E.", a European cartel of evil scientists akin to "A.I.M.", in general and the masked Doctor Positron in particular. He's an amusing villain who has a volcano base, a horse of giant robot wasps (as "wespe" is "wasp" in German) and his own secret - being Blue Marvel's very own son! Meanwhile, Ava comes to grips with her powers while Luke Cage and Power-Man seek to unravel the mystery her actions may have caused them to stumble upon. Schiti seems to become more comfortable with these characters with every issue, while Ewing always offers a proper blend of action, character focus, and humor in every outing.

Superior Spider-Man #29: "Goblin Nation" reaches its' fourth installment as Christos Gage teams up with longtime writer Dan Slott in an chapter which features a lot of explosions and a continued conflict between characters who range from "bad" to "worse". Giuseppe Camuncoli continues to knock his issues out of the part in terms of art, while inker John Dell and colorist Antonio Fabela bring out his best, whether it's goblins, explosions, or trips into "the Mindscape". The highlight of this issue is the same as it's been for this entire arc - the game of gamesmanship between Green Goblin and Dr. Octopus, despite Ock being in possession of Spider-Man's body and claiming "superiority" over everything. Unfortunately, Ock is learning a refresher course in how a Goblin has always been capable of shattering everything Spider-Man cares about, regardless of who is under the mask. Meanwhile, Mayor Jameson has once again deployed a new generation of "Spider-Slayers" to take control of the situation like any good despot. The low lights include Mary Jane's frequent bouts with common sense as well as this being an issue whose attempt at a shocking cliffhanger turns out to merely be imitating the exact scene shown on the cover. Regardless of a lot of this run's strong points, it is incomprehensible beyond for convenience that Spider-Man 2099 has figured out beyond any doubt that this is not the "normal" Spider-Man when MJ cannot, especially at so late an hour. Perhaps that is a symbol of the "Superior" era in essence; akin to a car which appears lovely and advanced from afar, but collapses if a tire is kicked too hard. Regardless, this arc has been some of the run's best since last year, with tension building across each passing page as it should. Many of this era's faults can be forgiven with a strong finish, and Slott seems to be forging his way towards one.

Superior Foes of Spider-Man #9: Norm Spencer and Steve Lieber continue their foray into the life, times, and escapades of some of the more "blue collar" super villains involved with Marvel Comics in general and Spider-Man in particular. As usual, this means more antics where Fred Myers/Boomerang believes he has everything sorted out while in the end he keeps making a bigger mess for himself. Having double-crossed both the Chameleon and his own gang for an attempt to steal a priceless painting from the Owl (which he since lost), Fred now finds himself in the sights of the assassin Bullseye (who isn't what he seems) in the middle of a date. All the while, the hapless Shocker continues to act as babysitter to the cybernetic head of Silvermane, whose cover may have been blown by another C-List villain, Hydro-Man. Naturally, this series is a screwball comedy which has to be read to be believed, and few reviews can do it justice for the visual gags alone. While Fred may not be most fans' ideal lead, he works so much as he believes he's far more competent than most of his peers when he really isn't; it merely seems so when the story is told from his perspective. Still, readers who were never really good at anything and often just struggled to survive in the shadows of more successful peers should relate to this series, even amid its' mania.