Marvel's most famous femme fatale/superspy due to her appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Widow is a character shrouded in mystery, but many stories have done their best to answer the question 'just who is Natasha Romanoff?'
With the Black Widow feature film on its way, we thought it was about time to dig into the stories that have made Black Widow one of comic books' most enduring characters.
1. The Itsy-Bitsy Spider
'The Itsy-Bitsy Spider' has all the makings of a great spy story and a great superhero story, making you wish that Devin Grayson had gotten to do more with the character than two short limited series.
The beauty of this arc (besides the effective but never overbearing realism of J.G. Jones art) is how tight of a grip Grayson has on the themes of the character and the world she inhabits. In the face of inhabiting a secret identity most of the time, her dark past, and now another member of the Red Room seeking to take the Black Widow moniker for herself, who is Natasha Romanoff? That the question that Grayson seeks to answer at the crossroads of existential crisis and unreality.
And she does so with aplomb. When 'The Itsy-Bitsy Spider' isn't delivering on thrilling action sequences, it takes the time to ruminate on the character at the center of the story in meaningful ways even if Natasha isn't a woman of all that many words. From the dark reflection trope present in Natasha's face-off with Yelena to the real world groundedness of the plot, it's clear to see how this would stand the test of time and become a major inspiration for the upcoming film.
2. The Name of the Rose
How do you stand with gods and against all forms of monsters when you don't have any powers? In 'The Name of the Rose', Natasha Romanoff answers that exact question.
Unpowered characters in superhero universes often require an added degree of suspension of disbelief, but Marjorie Liu and Daniel Acuna's opening arc will likely have you wondering why Black Widow even needs the Avengers. Liu takes a neo-noir approach to the character as her life is turned upside down when the secret that she's been keeping tabs on all of her friends and enemies makes her an enemy of the state.
What's great about this story is that despite it being a uniquely Black Widow story, it blends seamlessly into the Marvel Universe, showing where Natasha stands not just with Bucky Barnes, Logan, and Tony Stark, but with characters like Elektra as well.
There is no shortage of stories that force a hero back into action for one last job, and Homecoming is that story for Black Widow.
Richard Morgan, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Goran Parlov craft a story that leads Natasha to investigate her past to discover who is killing graduates of the Red Room program that made her. And for what it's worth, Morgan makes some attempt to examine what it means for Natasha to be a woman in the male-dominated world of espionage and superheroes.
Bill Sienkiewicz's moody stylization is always a treat, but he is reined in a little bit here as he shares the spotlight with more traditional superhero artists in Goran Parlov. Still, the two match up nicely for a consistent read.
A follow-up to a later story on this list, 'Breakdown' follows Natasha Romanoff and Yelena Bolova in something of a Face/Off scenario that Rucka and Grayson wisely wait until the final chapter to fully reveal.
Scott Hampton's painterly artwork lends to the sort of dreaminess of the story, helping the writers keep the secret of the plot hidden from readers for as long as possible. The tangled web that the two Black Widows weave is an interesting one and the whole creative team uses it to great effect.
5. Web of Intrigue
'Web of Intrigue' might be the oddest inclusion on this list but not every character has been blessed with a four-issue arc penciled by George Perez, found in the Marvel Fanfare anthology series.
The story itself is fairly standard fare for what we've seen from spy characters in superhero comic books over the years. Black Widow is tasked with tracking down Ivan Petrovic, a former father figure to Natasha, and we learn more secrets of her past.
Ralph Macchio certainly overdoes it with some of his captioning, especially considering he's blocking out Perez' stellar work, but it's not hard to see a solid blueprint for future Black Widow stories. Perez, for his part, is practically infallible, and one of Macchio's captions perfectly describes his linework as he notes that Widow moves "with a grace that belies her deadly intent."
At her core, Black Widow is a problem solver, and 'Encircle' finds her in a particularly prickly predicament: her friends on the Secret Avengers have just died and all she has to do is try to get them back in a personal time travel device.
This issue is mostly played for laughs, linking Natasha up with the Marvel Universe favorite time travel abuser Beast at the start to layout her best possibility for success. Ultimately, she's successful but the fun of the issue is watching Natasha use her wits as well as her strength to solve a complicated time caper.
7. Deadly Origin
When you've been in the spy game as long as Black Widow has, you're likely going to deal with some villain or another attempting to kill everyone you love on a pretty regular basis. That's the simple setup for Black Widow: Deadly Origin, but it betrays the real draw of the book: Tom Raney and John Paul Leon.
The two artists split up the book between past (Leon) and present (Raney). Despite having fairly different styles, they both work well with Paul Cornell's script to show how Natasha has changed over time.
Leon's strong linework makes the past feel immutable and unchanging in stark contrast to Raney's looser lines that brim with potential. Almost as if to say: the past may have happened but the present is what Black Widow makes it.
8. The Finely Woven Thread
Long-running stories often have the difficulty of needing to reconcile different iterations of a character over time, and 'The Finely Woven Thread' does just that for Black Widow.
Nathan Edmondson and Phil Noto establish a new foundation for Natasha. Her past still weighs heavily on who she is as a person, but the most important thing is always the task at hand. The creative team communicates this with a series of one and done adventures to open this arc that emphasizes Natasha's strengths. Black Widow is more than just a pretty face with a tragic past - she's someone who can get the job done and get it done right.
Phil Noto's work here is breathless and Black Widow's costume adds a level of contrast to his pages that can sometimes be missing. The result is a comic where the protagonist never blends into the background unless she wants to, and that adds to the espionage feel of the book.
9. S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Most Wanted
It's hard not to love everything that Chris Samnee does, and 'S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Most Wanted' sees the superstar artist, along with his Daredevil cohort Mark Waid, try to bring even greater depth to Natasha Romanoff's history.
Black Widow is forced to go rogue and she's got S.H.I.E.L.D. on her tail while learning of the existence of the Dark Room, a reincarnation of the Red Room that seeks to privatize the deadly assassin and highly skilled mercenary sector. Like so many great superhero stories, it's exciting to see how Natasha is able to rise to the challenge even without a familiar support system around her.
And did I mention that Chris Samnee's work is excellent? It's old news to mention the Alex Toth influence on his work, but it is fully on display here and it is an absolute joy to see.
The MCU has touched on Black Widow and Hawkeye's globetrotting past but 'Widowmaker' explicitly sheds some light on that relationship at least as it stands in the comic books.
Someone is assassinating other assassins and they are using one of Hawkeye's old codename, Ronin, to do it. This story is much more in line with the lighter tone of Jim McCann's series than Duane Swierczynski's general oeuvre.
But artist David Lopez does a good job selling the mix of superhero and spy action across the book so it doesn't feel like a guest-starring role for Natasha despite the healthy dose of Hawkeye and his girlfriend, Mockingbird.