COMIC BOOKS THAT TIME FORGOT: AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #86

KC Carlson (right)

KC Carlson (right)


by KC Carlson

Amazing Spider-Man #86

Amazing Spider-Man #86


Anyone who read Amazing Spider-Man #86 back in the day (it went on sale in April 1970) will have never forgotten it, as it was the first appearance of the “new” Black Widow, in her slinky new bodysuit costume — designed by John Romita, Sr. — that immediately burned itself into the brains of both male and female fans! Despite minor modifications (belt, holsters) and artistic interpretations over the years, it basically still stands today. It also looks great on the big screen, based on the Black Widow appearances (as wonderfully portrayed by Scarlett Johansson) throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe, most recently in the current blockbuster Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

This particular issue means a lot to me personally, as well, because in April 1970, I decided to begin collecting Marvel Comics. I finally had enough money, through my dual paper routes, to afford to do this while also supporting my ongoing DC Comics habit. Issue #86 was the first issue of Amazing Spider-Man I purchased new (after getting some older issues in a trade and loving them), and I have bought every issue of ASM since, through good times and otherwise. Back then, I also rapidly managed to find all of the back issues of the series (substituting alternate reprints for the issues that were too pricey!). I read the entire run multiple times in the days when I still had unlimited free time to do such things.

ITSY-BITSY MARVEL UNIVERSE

Collecting Marvel superheroes wasn’t all that difficult in April 1970, assuming you could afford them. The standard cover price was 15¢. Marvel published only 24 titles that month — and only nine of them were superheroes (Amazing Spider-Man, Avengers, Captain America, Daredevil, Fantastic Four, Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Sub-Mariner, and Thor). The rest of the books were Westerns, horror, romance and teenage (Millie the Model), a kids book or two, and superhero and western reprints. X-Men had been recently canceled with #66, but it would be relaunched in a few months as a reprint series. Silver Surfer was also soon to be canceled, but the final issue wasn’t released until September. Roy Thomas and Gil Kane were trying to save an irregularly published Captain Marvel around this same time. In May 1970 (the month after the “new” Black Widow appearance), anthology titles Amazing Adventures (featuring the Black Widow and the Inhumans) and Astonishing Tales (with Ka-Zar and Dr. Doom stories) debuted, featuring new ten-page stories of these longtime supporting characters.

The Black Widow's looks from the past. From Amazing Spider-Man #86.

The Black Widow’s looks from the past. From Amazing Spider-Man #86.


Black Widow’s appearance in Amazing Spider-Man #86 was clever promotion for her new starring series in Amazing Adventures, and that was also the most likely impetus for jettisoning her previous costume, an inconsistently colored blue/gray/purple outfit that that was a pretty hideous variation of DC’s Black Canary costume (except with a short cape and a truly ugly cat’s-eye mask!). You get a glimpse of the old outfit in the opening pages of ASM #86, the best that it ever looked, since it’s drawn by Romita and Jim Mooney. At least that outfit was better than her earliest “costume” from when she was a Iron Man femme fatale in her Tales of Suspense days. Back then, we usually saw her in a too-tight-to-fight-in cocktail dress, high heels, fur wrap, and decked out with a pillbox hat and veil!

Tales of Suspense #52, the first appearance of the Black Widow.

Tales of Suspense #52, the first appearance of the Black Widow.



Black Widow’s real name (maybe — she is a spy after all) is Natalia Alianovna Romanova, but in these early days, before Marvel’s writers researched how Russian names actually worked, she was usually referred to as Natasha Romanoff. Her first appearance was in 1964 in the Iron Man story in Tales of Suspense #52. By ASM #86 in 1970, she was tired of much of her old life and was looking for a change, which she found when she saw Spider-Man swinging across Manhattan. Since she was still kinda evil at this point, her first thought was that if she discovered the secret of Spider-Man’s powers, and combined them with her own (which we really don’t find out about until decades later) — “then no one would be able to stop — the Black Widow!” Natasha (and Stan Lee) then thoughtfully recapped her already slightly twisted history from old Iron Man and Avengers stories, confessing to herself that she hated being the pleasure-seeking, jet-setting Madame Natasha. She needed to become the Black Widow once again — “to fulfill my destiny — to help me forget… the haunted past!” This is mostly referring to the death of her estranged husband, the Red Guardian, from a then-recent issue of The Avengers (V.1 #44). This being comic books, years later, he eventually “got better”.

BLACK WIDOW BACK-HISTORY: FACT OR FICTION?

I should take a short break here to explain that although Black Widow hadn’t had all that many appearances, compared to some of her contemporaries, she has one of the more convoluted backstories of a Marvel character. According to her most recent Marvel Handbook entry, she was born around 1928, met Wolverine at a young age, and teamed with him and Captain America in an adventure set in 1941, making these three (and Nick Fury and some of his friends) part of a very special “club” of long-lived Marvel Universe humans. The Widow has a connection to a variant of the Super-Soldier serum — which was, of course, instrumental to the origin of Cap — and this may be the fait accompli of her now-complicated backstory. In addition, Black Widow has been frequently captured, brainwashed, possibly mindwiped, and other unpleasant things over the years, possibly by authors attempting to take shortcuts to unwinding her convoluted (and possibly impossible) continuity over the decades.

Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow in Captain America: The Winter Soldier


I note that Captain America: The Winter Soldier cleverly sidesteps all these potential continuity “potholes” by clearly stating that Black Widow’s birthdate is 1984. (Specifically November 22, according to the Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki — interestingly, Scarlett Johansson’s actual birth date. Talk about being identified with a role…)

BACK TO THE SPIDEY-STORY

So, back in Amazing Spider-Man #86, after a bunch of catching up with Peter Parker’s complicated life (all we really need to know that he’s sick due to something that happened in the previous issue while Spidey was beating up the Kingpin), the Widow has completed her new skintight costume, stating “it may not be as fancy, but this new costume will be more in keeping with the swingy seventies! (reader applies facepalm here) …And with the modern image of the new Black Widow!” She goes on to demonstrate the suit’s functionality, especially the web-line, Widow’s Bite, and wrist-shooters, all the while grumbling like a super-villain about Spider-Man (a bit much, Stan?). “I must prove myself his equal… or learn the reason why!” she screams, while swinging out of the high-rise window.

The Black Widow tries on her new costume. From Amazing Spider-Man #86.

The Black Widow tries on her new costume. From Amazing Spider-Man #86.


Black Widow eventually swings by the office window of J. Jonah Jameson, where he amusingly exclaims “Spider-Man, swinging past… NO! It isn’t the wall-crawler! It’s a girl! — copping his act! That’s all this blasted town needs! Another crummy web-swinger… And a female to boot! Spider-Man probably put her up to it — to confuse everybody!” Then Spider-Man turns up, sick as a dog. He’s so ill that he can barely web across town, and he accidentally scares Aunt May by fumbling his exit from the window of her house.

He then encounters the Widow at the top of a building in Midtown, and they have a tentative aerial encounter as the Widow attacks. They knock each other around for a few beautiful Romita panels, until the Widow eventually tells him who she really is (one of the drawbacks of having a new costume). To which Spidey responds: “Look… a girl can get hurt up here! Give me your hand and I’ll help you down!” (An additional thought balloon indicates that this is a trick to stop the fight because he’s too dizzy and sick to be fighting up so high.)

Additional dialogue gems from the fight scene:

WIDOW: Okay, masked man! Now we’re even! Don’t think I’m helpless because I’m soft and cuddly!

SPIDEY: Soft and cuddly! That kick felt like a Missouri mule!

WIDOW: …Wait’ll you see the goodies that come next!

WIDOW: Look, Spider-Man… For a so-called living-legend, you’re like a king-size disappointment to me!… I’m beginning to think Woody Allen could take you!… Not that he’d want to.*

*Note: Scarlett Johansson has acted in three Woody Allen-directed films. She might actually know this!

SPIDEY: I heard enough, lady! No curvy carbon copy is gonna swipe my style! There’s only room for one Spider-Man in this town… and you’re looking at him!

The Black Widow's solo adventures begin in Amazing Adventures #1

The Black Widow’s solo adventures begin in Amazing Adventures #1


Ultimately, Spidey clogs the Widow’s “wrist gizmos” with his web fluid and crawls off to regain his bearings. His illness continues in the next issue. Black Widow comes to realize that Spider-Man’s unique abilities are innate, not gained through the training and weapons that she relies on, and she realizes that she has her “own unusual powers — my own style of combat — and my own strange destiny to fulfill!” A destiny that begins the following month in Amazing Adventures #1 featuring the Widow’s first solo series — as a helpful and hype-minded caption at the bottom of this page reminds us. Although it says that the new book is called Amazing Tales, so there was some last-minute jiggery-pokery in getting this new comic book properly titled before its launch (or Stan simply mixed up Amazing Adventures and Astonishing Tales when he typed up the Spidey script).

NOT EMMA — MARLA

Most people assume that John Romita based the popular new Black Widow’s costume on a very similar costume worn by Diana Rigg (playing the character Emma Peel) in the classic British TV show The Avengers (no relation to the Marvel superhero team). The TV show was one of the rare British imports in the mid-1960s and was quite popular. I even watched it. I loved the imagery.

John Romita finally refuted this assumption in an interview in Comic Book Artist #6 (Fall 1999):

I did the costume on the Black Widow. One of my favorite strips from when I was a kid was Miss Fury. They had done a Miss Fury book at Marvel, and when I found out they had the rights to her, I said I’d love to do a Miss Fury book sometime. I had done an updated drawing of Miss Fury, and Stan said, “Why don’t we redesign the Black Widow costume based on Miss Fury?” So I took the mask off her face, and made the Black Widow the one in the patent leather jumpsuit. That was why the Black Widow changed.

Miss Fury #3. Miss Fury's costume was Romita's inspiration for Black Widow's new costume.

Miss Fury #3. Miss Fury’s costume was Romita’s inspiration for Black Widow’s new costume.


Miss Fury was actually wealthy socialite Marla Drake, and she was originally called the Black Fury. She debuted in 1941.

Although, I kinda like Jeff Parker and Colleen Coover’s clever thoughts on the inspiration, from X-Men First Class #9 (April 2008):

From X-Men First Class #9

From X-Men First Class #9


One final thought. If you look at the cover of this issue closely, it may indicate that it was produced before the costume for the Black Widow was finalized. The silhouetted figure is wearing a miniskirt! Or were they trying to trick us into thinking that the silhouette belonged to Gwen Stacy or Mary Jane Watson? (or Aunt May?!?)

Amazing Spider-Man #86 has been reprinted in Marvel Masterworks: Spider-Man Volume 9, The Essential Spider-Man Volume 4, The Women of Marvel TPB, Black Widow: The Sting of the Widow HC, and Marvel Tales #67.

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KC CARLSON: Already used up my allotment of Scarlett Johansson references for the week. Darn. Did you know that lots of people didn’t really notice that Natasha had black hair in her previous costumes and appearances, and went redhead in Amazing Spider-Man #86 (which was similar to the early Scarlet Witch, who also initially had black hair)?

WESTFIELD COMICS is not responsible for the stupid things that KC says. Especially that thing that really irritated you.

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