This is a review for the Adult-oriented collection of stories written by Greg Rucka and Devin Grayson (it’s 3 collected 3-issue mini-series).
To start, I love Greg Rucka. Queen & Country is one of the best comic series, period, one of the best spy things ever* (Bond just can’t compete), and he’s also one of the best men writing women in comics, to boot. His Wonder Woman explored the character more thoughtfully than most runs could ever dream. So my expectations for this collection of Black Widow stories was almost certainly too high… Conversely, I think I’ve read some of Devin Grayson’s work, but not enough to remember specifics. I also couldn’t remember if they were a man or a woman, and the prospect of Black Widow being steered by two men was potentially problematic. Two things to get us off on the right foot: she’s a lady, and she’s good. Now, to the spoiler averse, if you’re curious, you can get this for free from Comixology Unlimited, and as part of Kindle Unlimited (or read the first two series from Marvel Unlimited here and here).
Devin’s story was first, and if I’m reading it right, was the introduction of Yelena Belova; it’s also the strongest story in the group. The character gets crafted here as a hungry Russian replacement for the Black Widow identity; Natasha was their spy, originally, so it would make sense they’d want to reclaim the mantle. Yelena’s got the right combination of need to prove herself and confidence that she can to make her interesting. Or at least interesting enough. I think the movie goes a step further, making her an interesting character, both by dint of making her Natasha’s pseudo-sister, and by giving her an adorable personality (and Florence Pugh is a very watchable actress; she even makes the grating but great Midsommar work).
By contrast, comic book Yelena is pretty no-nonsense, in the way you’d likely assume from her being a spy. The story of her and Natasha racing to track down a toxin either to destroy it before it can be used or secure it for the Russians is compelling enough to propel the story, and the interactions between the two Widows is fun in a Bond playing off one of his male co-stars sort of way.
Of course, the first story in the book being the best means it’s all downhill from there, which isn’t necessarily a problem, depending on how steep the hill is. And here, it’s not bad, but the content of what goes into that not bad will limit the audience somewhat.
The second story, apparently handled jointly by Grayson and Rucka, is about Natasha kidnapping Yelena and, Face/Off style, having them surgically altered to look like one another. She goes a step further, and sets Yelena, who now looks like Natasha, to kill the real Natasha, who she is told is Yelena (and looks it). The point, apparently, is that Natasha is trying, through manipulating Yelena, to get her to see that this job will turn you inside out. Sure, there’s a subplot about regaining some Russian nukes that only Yelena could access… but the main attraction is Face/Off meets Gaslighting.
I get the point of it, but there really isn’t a point where a connection gets made that explains why Natasha’s so personally involved in the mission; she’s played coldly, handled at arm’s length. Most of what we learn of her interiority comes from Daredevil and Nick Fury talking about her. So by definition, they can’t tell us why her, why now; does Natasha see herself in Yelena, and hope to spare her the anguishing growing pains that brought her to her heroic life? Are there particularly grubby former comrades involved in this op she hopes to spare Yelena from? Is it the existence of the Red Room, which Natasha would like to stick it to by freeing Yelena from its grasp? I feel like Natasha’s motive needed to be made crystal clear, because of how far over the line she’s willing to reach on this one. It’s also the second time in as many stories where Yelena is convinced Natasha’s been gunned down in front of her (albeit this time she pulled the trigger). At some point, you’d think she’d learn to check Natasha for a pulse, is what I’m saying.
The third story is the one that actually comes from the Marvel Max line, meaning more swearing, and occasionally very little sex (there are two partially obscured nipples in the third issue belonging to a character we don’t know- this functions both as a parental content warning and a beacon for all of my sad, lonely fellow perverts- it’s also probably the reason this is the one story not available on Marvel Comics Unlimited). This has kind of a grindhouse feel to it, as Yelena (this story doesn’t feature Natasha at all) investigates the death of her mentor/trainer in an underground sex club.
This story’s probably the weakest of the three, but it’s not a long drop, and does function as kind of an epilogue to the other two. Yelena discovers, upon investigating, that her mentor had an unhealthy obsession with her, that what she saw as their professional relationship had, to him, taken on a sexual edge, and that he channeled this urge into a high-end dominatrix who could play the role of the young Widow. I won’t spoil the proceedings, but the epilogue makes clear that the entire operation was performed by the GRU to make Yelena aggressively assert herself as the new Black Widow.
It’s kind of skeevy, all told- moreso because it means the book is 2 for 3 manipulating Yelena in ways that feel awfully close to a (metaphorical) assault; the story even seems to understand this, as Yelena asks Natasha in the middle story how she could rape her (mind) that way. That one feels worse, because Natasha is played as being cruel to be kind, as doing it for her own good, in a way that… makes me uncomfortable.
And I think I might not have been, if the medium-term plan was to get Yelena out of that situation. If Widow had been right, if she’d put Yelena through a pretty gross series of violations and gaslighting and it worked. But the implication is, at least in the short run, she failed. Yelena remains a Russian operative, and then gets further violated in the third story. I know from reading Bendis’ New Avengers run that Yelena eventually resurfaces running a rogue S.H.I.E.L.D. team, and also that that story does her incredibly dirty. It seems more recently her character has been given a second chance at being a legacy character (if you’re not familiar with the term, boy do I have an article coming for you), perhaps due to her prominent place in the Black Widow movie, or the fact that (spoiler) she’s likely going to take up the mantel herself after Natasha’s death in Endgame (can a character fridge herself? I’m legitimately uncertain). But if what you’re after right now is more Yelena, flawed as it is this might be as good as it gets, at least until some more recent arcs get wrapped up.