The Black Widow, other spiders and more! Books read

BLACK WIDOW: Sting of the Widow (by multiple creators) starts with Natasha’s 1964 debut in Tales of Suspensethen leaps forward to 1970 when a Spider-Man crossover served to introduce readers into her new series ——which as you can see debuted the leather jumpsuit that’s defined her look ever since. Credit goes to Spidey artist John Romita, who modeled the new look not on Emma Peel (a popular assumption) but the Golden Age hero Miss Fury.

The new take on Natasha is that having broken up with Hawkeye she’s trying to bury her past by living as a glamorous jet-setter (no explanation on the source of her considerable wealth) only to decide she needs action and danger more. While she’s relied on her weapons and her allies (Hawkeye, Crimson Guardian and others) in the past, this establishes her as a deadly martial artist. Which is, again, very Emma Peel though it also reminds me of Wonder Woman’s depowered years.

After a fairly stupid Hero vs. Hero fight with Spider-Man, she launches into her new series with Gary Friedrich scripting and Gene Colan as the primary artist. An activist group, the Young Warriors is taking over an inner city building owned by a corrupt NYC politician and Natasha winds up helping them, though pushing them to handle things through the system as much as possible (like a lot of “relevant” stories back then, it wants to be radical, but not too radical). It also has seriously dimwitted villains, as in they tie up the Black Widow but still leave her with her “widow’s sting” ray-blasting bracelets.

After guest writer Mimi Gold wraps up the story, Roy Thomas takes over as new scripter (Don Heck unfortunately replaces Colan on the art). Thomas’ story arc involves youth but less controversy — it’s a group of street kids and runaways who’ve been manipulated by a seemingly benevolent father figure into turning criminal (that one goes back to Oliver Twist). Natasha also has to deal with her growing worry that everyone close to her dies, which comes off a little overwrought. The main significance is that her chauffeur Ivan is elevated to a much larger role. He’s the one who’s watched over her since he found her as a toddler in WW II; he has the brute strength to be a formidable fighter; and he spouts cliches out of 1930s films because that’s where he learned English. He’d remain Natasha’s trusty sidekick all the way through the Bronze Age.

The book wraps up with Natasha guest-starring in Daredevil after her series went belly-up. This proved more successful as they became lovers and crimefighting partners for the next four years, with Black Widow getting cover credit alongside DD for some of that time.

Overall the material is readable. Not classic, and better for art than story, but I enjoyed it.

THE BOOK OF SPIDERS AND SCORPIONS by Rod Preston-Mafham is a very good overview of spiders (if you’re a scorpion-phile they get much less attention) covering biology, anatomy, classification, predation, web-slinging, life cycle, mating rituals, and weaponry (everything from a spider that spits sticky gumto one that can spit poison eight inches). I thought this would be a lot more basic than it was, but I’m very pleased with it.

THE X-FACTOR by Andre Norton has an alien freak (too big, clumsy and slow-witted for his elegant race) steal a spaceship to get away, crash on an alien planet and confront telepathic cats, imperiled archeologists, space pirates and the half-buried city of Xcothan. This is pretty good — Xcothan comes off eerie enough I’d incorporate it into my D&D campaign if I still had one — but so little explanation of anything it feels like it should have been Part One instead of a standalone. The ending is similar to several short stories in which a lonely disabled protagonist gets to live in a magical fantasy world, but at novel length it didn’t work as a payoff (though it felt less full of disability cliches than some of the shorts).

#SFWApro. Covers top to bottom by Jack Kirby, John Buscema and Gil Kane. All rights remain with current holders.

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