It's not exactly a surprise that Chris Samnee, Mark Waid, Matt Wilson, and Joe Caramagna make one helluva superhero comic book. This is the same team that delivered the most recent volumes of Daredevil to consistent critical acclaim, making it a book regularly featured on end of year lists since its debut in 2011. Everyone expected their next project together to be excellent, but that expectation might diminish just how excellent Black Widow #1 actually is.
When the team first joined forces on Daredevil they had multiple storytelling advantages for composing a compelling comic book. Daredevil has a powerset that naturally lends itself to powerful images. This is ironic for a blind character, but his unique sense have pushed many great artists like Frank Miller and Alex Maleev to create striking representations of his radar sense, as well as his heightened sense of touch, smell, and taste. Daredevil also comes with a roster of colorful villains (e.g. The Spot) and iconic settings (e.g. Hell's Kitchen) that give storytellers plenty of fodder when imagining a new story. When tackling characters at Marvel there are few with as rich a history of critical success as Daredevil.
The same is not true of Black Widow. This is not to say she isn't a compelling character, but that her history does not lend itself as easily to great comics storytelling. Black Widow does not possess superpowers. She has more in common with a spy like James Bond than any of her fellow Avengers. There's also a lack of supporting cast, both heroes and villains. Naming iconic Black Widow rogues (whether you're aiming for harrowing A-list villains or silly C-listers) is no easy task. While Samnee, Waid, Wilson, and Caramagna had proven they could flourish with the best Marvel had to offer, beginning anew with Black Widow represented a new challenge.
That's what makes the incredible debut issue of Black Widow #1 both an incredibly enjoyable surprise and further confirmation that these four compose one of the best creative teams working in comics today.
Rather than try to redefine the character, they use the first issue of Black Widow to focus upon and define her strengths. It's a spy thriller from beginning to end, focused on a continual and varied chase sequence. In lesser hands a non-stop chase with minimal dialogue could be considered slight. Here it is an achievement and already one of the best issues of 2016, with a chase sequence better than anything seen since COPRA #13. In the midst of the non-stop action and changing scenery, this team reveals their deft skill as storytellers by crafting both a tone for the series and characterizing their titular character, Natasha Romanoff.
Fair Warning: Spoilers for Black Widow #1 Ahead
Embracing Black Widow as a spy and her new series as part of that genre means including elements of surprise. This is something Black Widow #1 does beautifully. Creating surprise is not an easy thing to do in comics as a medium. Readers control the pace of the story and reveals, unlike in film and (to a lesser extent) prose. Establishing a twist relies on a storyteller's ability to control where a reader's focus is and when page turns occur. There is one reveal in Black Widow #1 that shows just how effortlessly this creative team does both.
The issue begins with Black Widow racing throughout a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility as a PA system calls for all agents to stop her. It's a tense start to the issue's ongoing chase, but one set in a relatively mundane atmosphere. Men and women in suits sit before desktop computers, an office lunchroom includes soda machines and packed lunches, and even the ceiling is tiled with generic cardboard squares. Anyone who has worked at an office before knows this setting.
Samnee enhances the atmosphere through tight bunchings of panels. The loosest page with only three panels features exclusively horizontal panels packed with at least five figures in each one. Later pages range from 8 to 10 panels providings a sense of the close settings, even when focused on only two characters battling in a single panel. Matt Wilson focuses on cool, neutral colors leaving walls and ceilings draped in light blues and grays. Using this color scheme, only enhanced by reds and oranges to accent combat, he provides a sense of the mundane. After 4 pages in this setting, Black Widow explodes a wall in order to escape the S.H.I.E.L.D. office. What comes next is an absolute stunner.
This entire scene has occurred within a helicarrier set far above New York City. It is as fantastical setting as almost anything in superhero comics, but the surprise of seeing it here makes it feel even more stunning. The impact of a spread both emphasizes the impact of this place and provides a superb sense of scale. After spending so much time in claustrophobic panels and hallways, Samnee really lets the sky breathe and sets the tiny figure of Black Widow in comparison to the enormous Helicarrier. Wilson colors the sky with light, warm colors making it seem like the cool cover of an early Autumn afternoon. This new palette is just as shocking as the change in scale, and encourages readers to take in the scene before moving along in the chase. It is a beautiful respite from the relentless pacing of the issue that also reminds us all of an artist's ability to stun readers in comics. Whatever comes next, it's clear that nothing is as it seems.
Readers may be even more surprised to discover that Natasha does not utter a single word until the very final panel of Black Widow #1. The focus of the entire issue is on her actions and interactions with various unnamed S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. If a reader were inclined to jump to reactions, they might think this means the issue is a quick read and that it contains little in the way of plot or characterization. Those sorts of assumptions could not be more wrong though.
Everything Black Widow does helps inform her character. The presentation and sequence of scenes in Black Widow #1 are meticulously plotted to reveal ideas through action rather than narration. Just look at the moment in which she steals one agent's jetpack while sending him flying away still strapped to a parachute. The sequence itself is applaudable, but the details of it reveal a lot about who Natasha Romanoff is.
She does not simply steal a jetpack to halt her fall, but carefully maneuvers herself to make sure the victim of her theft will be safe. Given the choice not to take a human life, she takes the detour even if it is more difficult. The most notable element of the scene though is the kiss she gives the agent's visor before sending him away. It is this moment that reveals just how in her element the Black Widow is here. Not only is she capable of performing this complex action, but she relishes the challenge and teases her pursuer in a shockingly familiar manner. It is a great moment of humor in an issue that is hardly designed to be funny. At the same time Black Widow reveals herself as a skilled combatant, she is also showing off an attitude entirely unique to those sharing her profession on the page here.
This sense of humor and fun is offset by the brutal fist fight that occurs after she is stopped by one of the agents in pursuit. Samnee constructs a 14 panel page to emphasize the tight quarters rather than the outdoor settings. It is a vicious encounter unlike her rather graceful fall from the Helicarrier. In a series of three panels, Black Widow points a gun taken from the agent in pursuit at his head and pulls the trigger. The resulting "CLIK" is almost as loud as a gunshot on the page because of what it represents. While she may be capable of enjoying her job, Black Widow is not above killing to save herself. Whether the gun was jammed or unloaded, it makes no different. This one small panel reveals a great deal about the decisions Natasha Romanoff will make, even if she doesn't have to live with the consequences this time.
Black Widow #1 is packed with moments like this. Each page can be broken down and taken apart in an effort to study the craftsmanship on display. That's not something to do the first time reading it though. The craft here is not designed to be admired in bite-sized chunks, but to create an immersive experience, a chase that both thrills and informs. It accomplishes both of those objectives with grace and efficiency. Black Widow #1 is a masterclass in superhero comics that continues to reward as you move from the thrilling experience to depth of art making that experience possible.