I've long been a fan of Natalia / Natasha Romanova / Romanoff, the Black Widow. She's a sexy Russian spy who would clearly have given James Bond a run for his money, complete with a chequered history AND a black leather catsuit. She's been an effective - and, at times, provocative - guest star, team-player and co-star in a wide range of books, yet rarely has she dazzled in a solo capacity. I'm not sure why that is, there would appear to be bags of untapped potential here... she's obviously just been waiting for the right writer.
Step forward Paul Cornell, who in just four issues gives us the best Black Widow story I've ever read, deconstructing the slinky, stinging sexpot as both a character and a concept without resorting to unnecessary reinvention. The story opens with an amusing spy spoof featuring cross, double cross and triple cross aboard a stolen space shuttle. Natasha escapes and returns home to a panicked phone call from her former partner Ivan who reveals "the Icepick Protocol has been activated!" (Frederick Forsyth would be proud) before being gunned down in the street.
What follows is a race against time in which Natasha must save the lives of her former partners (including Hawkeye, Daredevil and Hercules) who have been infected by deadly nanite technology as a direct result of their previous dalliances with the Widow. (It's almost as though their brains are being post-coitally eaten alive... in case you missed the metaphor.) Meanwhile the story flashes back to reveal key events in Natasha's history, contextualising them against the fall of the Soviet Union in the latter half of the 20th Century. Cornell demonstrates masterfully tight plotting here, compressing years of storytelling into four issues, while also leaving plenty of room for action (including a big showdown with the unsurprising enemy behind the plot to destroy all Natasha's former boyfriends). Put it this way - if Brian Bendis had written this story, it would have taken three years to tell.
Cornell's script is witty and exciting - it's the best comic I've read from him yet (shame on Marvel for letting him slip through their fingers to the Distinguished Competition). He's helped along by strong work from artists Tom Raney (on the present day adventure) and John Paul Leon (who brings rich atmosphere and smart design to the flashbacks).
Black Widow: Deadly Origin was part of Rob's Big Graphic Novels Haul of 2011 (which I'm sure he'll explain in more detail when he gets around to reviewing some of the books he netted). As a result it cost me just £3.00, which is an absolute bargain for such an entertaining read - it'd be well worth the £6.91 it's currently selling for at The Book Depository.