Best Shots review - Black Widow: The Ties That Bind is emotionally devastating

Black Widow
(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

Natasha Romanoff finds out first-hand if it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, as Kelly Thompson and Elena Casagrande’s emotionally devastating first arc on Black Widow ends with #5. Charting a course from tragedy to marital bliss and back again, Thompson and Casagrande have crafted a tight and complete mystery in 'The Ties That Bind,' just in time to thrust under the noses of anyone whose interest in the character is piqued by the eternally-delayed movie.

Black Widow #1 - #5 credits

Written by Kelly Thompson
Art by Elena Casagrande, Jordie Bellaire, Carlos Gómez, Federico Blee, and Rafael De Latorre
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

The Black Widow has disappeared. Believing herself to be an architect in San Francisco, Natasha's got a kick-ass motorbike, a loving fiancé, and an adorable baby son. This is the prison her greatest enemies have built for her to ensure that she stays out of their way for good. But of course, what kind of punishment is that? When a bungled attempt to keep her off the board unleashes the beast, Natasha struggles to reconcile her action-packed past with the contented normal life she was just getting used to. With Hawkeye and Winter Soldier as background support and the actual villains nothing but gnats to be swatted away, Natasha's inner turmoil is at the forefront here.

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

Implanted memories have been a recurrent theme throughout Black Widow's history, so it seems a fitting foundation for the new elements that Thompson brings to the table. Natasha’s relationship with her fiancé and toddler are believable and vividly fleshed-out, even in the limited time we get to know them. These relationships are the weapons wielded by the villains of 'The Ties That Bind,' and they’re much more effective than physical threat ever could be.

Of course, Black Widow’s perfect life was brought about by her own personal Sinister Five, a bumbling group of idiots who squabble and change course even as things are working perfectly. Thompson has no problem invoking the classics of supervillainy here. Viper, Arcade, and company discuss their plot in pitch black, at an empty table below monitors. They say things like "You've killed us all, you fool!", creating a comic contrast between their incompetence and the slick and contemporary thriller playing outside their evil lair. Thompson also builds the myth of the Black Widow throughout. From beginning to end, these villains are shook. Not a moment goes by without Natasha’s adversaries proclaiming how terrified they are, and so their physical defeat comes as no surprise. But then, their inevitably murderous plan is never the focus, with the core of the arc built around Natasha’s happiness and heartaches.

On the visual side of things, Elena Casagrande's razor-sharp and crystal-clear artwork ensures that Kelly Thompson's script is communicated with absolute clarity. The art is always working in tandem with the script to give emotional beats maximum impact. In #2, there's a reaction shot of Hawkeye, framed by the silhouette of Natasha and Stevie’s profiles as they share a mother-son bonding moment, that sticks in the mind long after the issue’s been bagged, boarded, and stored.

Another highlight of #2 is the double-page spread where Natasha fights back for the first time since her new life began. Broken shards of action fill the chaotic gaps in a spider’s web, her initial surprise overridden by the impulse to defend herself with an aggressive finality. Again, in issue #3, a double-page spread – this time unrestrained and unpanelled, a fluid execution from page corner to corner. As the perfection of Natasha’s life comes crashing down, her wet-work skills return with ease. These spreads crop up every issue, often with the main beats of action contained in neat little squares. It’s elegant storytelling that flexes Casagrande’s strengths in gesture and pose. She’s always moving with the pace of the issue, and it’s at issue 3’s climax that 'The Ties That Bind' veers back into classic Black Widow fare. Casagrande puts her back in the catsuit from #4 onwards, and the arc’s climax debuts an understated new hooded get-up to match her grieving soul.

Jordie Bellaire works in flat colors here, letting Casagrande’s thick inkwork pop with a muted palette punctuated with bright reds and yellows as the façade drops and the feet begin to fly. Her approach is consistent issue by issue, helping to signpost the story’s tone at each point in time.

Artist Carlos Gómez drops in for a few flashback scenes in the middle of #4, his art peculiarly styled in that Joe Madureira-esque cauldron of early Image and manga-inspired portraits. An artistic curveball though it may be, it weirdly fits the brief: it’s in flashback, and these few pages certainly feel like a book from the past. Colorist Federico Blee buffs these flashbacks to a high sheen, everything gleaming in alternating warm and cool light.

Elsewhere on the guest artist front, Rafael De Latorre drops in for a cup of coffee mid-way through #5. His rough and angular suggestions of background and deeply textured clothing is a sharp contrast to Casagrande’s crisp style, but the villainous subject matter of his few pages help with what could have been a jarring albeit brief shift.

With this strong debut story arc, Thompson and Casagrande have changed the emotional landscape of Black Widow. Harkening back to her origin themes of false memories while validating her experiences as reality, Thompson’s Natasha has tasted a more tender and sedate life than is normally allowed to her. Casagrande’s slick storytelling, effective character acting and grade A anatomy enhances the rock-solid script, colored with striking simplicity by Jordie Bellaire. All in all, Black Widow 'The Ties That Bind' feels like a moment of real change for Natasha Romanoff. Anticipation is high as the series continues.

Black Widow #1 - #5 is available now in comic shops and digital platforms. This arc is being collected as Black Widow Vol. 1: The Ties That Bind, a softcover edition going on sale May 4.

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Oscar Maltby

Oscar Maltby has been writing about comics since 2015. He has also written comic book scripts for the British small press and short fiction for Ahoy Comics. He resides on the South Coast of England but lives in the longbox.