I’m incredibly pleased to say that it’s not hard these days to find superhero comics with female leads.

There’s been a big push towards this from Marvel for several years now, and they haven’t faltered or lost hope when the occasional title doesn’t do well commercially. DC and Image are doing their best to catch up too.

Without further ado, from my stash this week we have the following:

Black Widow #16

Yeah, number 16! Let that sink in, this has been going on for well over a year! I picked this up 16 months ago because I liked the look of Phil Noto’s art, sort of Sienkiewicz without the craziness, and I liked the idea of Black Widow getting her own series, despite not having her own movie. I’m otherwise completely unfamiliar with Nathan Edmondson. The only other Phil Noto work I own is a Superman/Supergirl trade, which I wasn’t especially fond of, but I’d seen some kick-ass work of his online.

It’s one of those titles that’s consistently decent, but usually the last thing I read from my buy pile. The art is great. Its like a 1970’s Bond movie poster come to life, with rock-solid depictions of various real world locations. His characters are realistic and reasonably expressive, and he’s stuck to this monthly schedule 16 times now without missing a beat. That’s more issues than Paul Smith did on X-Men in total, its no mean feat.

I sat down to re-read them all for the first time yesterday, and confirmed my suspicions that the storyline is kind of pedestrian. Natasha and her supporting cast take on jobs to defeat fairly generic bad guys around the world. SHIELD get involved, and Chaos, an agency that has managed to hide itself from even SHIELD, rears its ugly head and provides a link between the episodic missions-of-the-day. These missions have their own twists or hiccups, but nothing really memorable. Natasha broods a lot about being a loner, having red in her ledger etc., and is a pretty dull central character. There’s some banter between her and her financial manager Isaiah, but very little humour. Tori Raven, Natasha’s informant, gets the best lines, and is pretty much the sole sense of levity in the book.

The Marvel Universe intervenes here and there. SHIELD, Hawkeye, Daredevil, all the usual suspects have appeared. Up until today, the best issue by far was #11, where Nat teams up with X-23 (Girl Wolverine if you dont know), whose ability to get shot and regenerate stood out like a sore thumb amongst the super-spy action. A really really good sore thumb! However, #16 has really grabbed me. Half of this issue is devoted to Natasha’s past. No surprises, it was violent, rough, and the first time she killed someone he had it coming, and she was very young. Framing these flashbacks, she’s in the company of the head of Chaos, with no idea how she got there, and he’s some kind of psychic. For the first time reading this series, I’m really really intrigued as to what the hell is going on! The lack of an identifiable antagonist has hurt my engagement so far, this could soon change.

Lovely consistent art and high quality all round. Very few surprises. If you’re looking for a spy comic, I recommend Pete Milligan’s run on the Human Target from ten years ago over this. If you’re a fan of the Black Widow herself, then this is not bad.

Story: 3/5 and rising.  Art: 4.5/5

Storm #9

To be honest, I’m still getting this out of some vague sense of political activism and character loyalty. It’s not that great.

I like Greg Pak, the writer, and have done so ever since I read Incredible Hercules by him and Fred van Luente. His run on Action Comics with Aaron Kuder has been alright, and I was quite excited by his pitch for Storm. While Cyclops and Wolverine, Charles and Magneto all try to kill each other, Storm goes off on her own to make the world a better place. Artist Victor Ibanez had a gritty but polished realism that really suited this mission statement, and drew Ororo in a great realistic style.

Unfortunately, he’s long gone, and has been replaced by a string of filler in artists who aren’t really up to the task. Stiff acting and expressions, grubby inking, skimpy backgrounds – it manages to tell the story, and that’s it. This latest issue has two pencillers and two inkers, and feels horribly rushed. I’ve heard that sales are low on this series, and the powers that be are maybe unwilling to throw an expensive artist at it now, but I can’t help but dream of how good this title could be if Aaron Kuder jumped ship from Action Comics to Storm.

The worse thing I can say about the stories is that they’ve felt a bit episodic. The powerhouse of the 80’s X-Men deserves something a bit more operatic in my opinion. Other than that, they’ve been pretty good. Elements from the classic Claremont years, when Storm was at her peak, appear regularly. Forge, Callisto and  Yukio all pop up. There have been more than a few memorable moments, my favourite being Storm grieving for Wolverine. You remember how she has to keep her emotions in check to avoid disturbing the local weather? Well, Hank has to fly her into space so she can let go, and the world is treated to a rather spectacular Aurora Borealis as a result! (#4, with Ibanez art)

Storm is still based in the X-Mansion, so there’s plenty of supporting cast, first and foremost the Beast, who reluctantly plays stuffy old foil to Ororo’s free spirit again and again. This is good, because I don’t think Storm on her own could ever really rival her glory days with the other X-Men, and Pak is wise enough not to isolate her from them. It reminds me of discussions on the best Superman stories – I’ve always held Morrison’s JLA to be the best because you see Supes at the heart of a complicated messy DC Universe. Similarly, Ororo is at her best at the heart of a larger complex X-Universe, and those are the stories that work best in this series.

I wish the art was better. If you love Storm the character, grab Essential X-Men #2 and #4, and see her drawn by John Byrne and Paul Smith (with filler issues by Walt Simonson) before getting this series.

Story: 3.5/5 Art: 2/5


Red One #1

I’ve saved the best till last. Image are publishing a translation of French writer Xavier Dorison’s cold war story about a Russian agent posing as a superhero in a cold war America where all the superheroes are fictional. It’s an interesting premise, and with absolutely gorgeous art by Terry and Rachel Dodson, I was sold!

The Dodson’s probably draw the most adorable people in comics today! Their characters have a lovely sexy, pleased-with-themsleves warmth to them that makes you just want to reach through the page and pinch their rosy cheeks! Even the bad guys look adorable!

Our hero Vera Yelnikov, bears more than a little similarity to the Black Widow. She’s a Russian commando who’s received some special training from a very early age, and is consequently almost superhumanly competent at fighting, feats of strength and acrobatics, motorbike riding etc. Unlike grumpy old Natasha “red in my ledger” Romanov, Vera is full of the joys of life when she’s off -duty, bringing fruit to the gastronomically challenged locals, living in a commune and partying with a few friends and joining the mile high club off camera  for the hell of it at one point.

Being French, the comic is unashamedly sexy in a way few American comics are. I hope it won’t spoil the final page when I tell you that Vera’s costume is the wrong size, and thus doesn’t zip up fully. It doesn’t feel dumb or exploitative though. Sex is a major theme of this story. We’re looking at the US through Eastern European eyes here, and it appears to be a land of religiously motivated anti-sex prudes. Vera’s mission is to swing the pendulum a little bit back further towards the free-love end by eliminating a serial killer who’s targetting adult film stars, and gaining a bit too much popular support amongst the religious right. It’s an interesting and fresh take on Cold War politics, looking at ways in which the West could be perceived as the restrictive regime and the aggressor.

There’s a lot of story packed into here. We often get 8 or more panels per page, and some dialog balloons have shrunken text to fit it all in. It’s worth it though – it doesn’t drag, and looks like it will be a whole lot of fun.

Story: 4/5 Art: 5/5

See you in some weeks, subscribers to stories of superwomen! Dr Mike 2000, 29 Mar 2015