Sunday, 16 April 2017

Style Substitutes Substance: A Review of Waid and Samnee's 'Black Widow' (2016-7 comic)

I don’t mean style over substance as an insult. In Waid and Samnee’s twelve-issue, single-arc run on Black Widow, plot threads only just hold together, characters have rote motivations, and the themes extend to characters saying ‘secret’ a lot. On their own, these elements are merely competent. Here, they are redeemed, because they fuel the book’s style.

Black Widow runs from SHIELD. A masked terrorist named Weeping Lion blackmails her into digging up her own past. He wants information on the Red Room, a school for child assassins. The Red Room has resurrected, ready to educate a new generation of assassins.

Style over substance is not a bad thing. Raymond Chandler’s novels testify to this. At its best, Black Widow’s style substitutes for substance. This redemptive style owes more to Samnee’s art than Waid’s writing. Or it owes to Waid only so far as his writing gives a reason for Samnee’s art.

The first issue is an implied manifesto, one professing illustrative flash over narrative depth. Twenty decompressed, mostly wordless pages show a chase through the SHIELD helicarrier. Samnee choreographs these pages as well as John Wick or The Raid. (When a SHIELD agent complains that Black Widow ‘turns a 40,000 foot fall into a ballet’, the reader is willing to forgive Waid and Samnee for patting themselves on the back.) At the end of these exhilarating twenty pages, what have we learnt? Black Widow has burnt bridges with SHIELD, and is after a MacGuffin. A different series might have gotten this out of the way in the first ten, no, three pages. A different series might also establish some character depth or themes in its first issue. While I can say what this issue, what this series, lacks, I cannot call it bad. Why keep a chase scene to three pages when twenty are more exhilarating? Why bother with more than the barest character beats, when more would stall the action?

Someone flicking through Black Widow’s cover gallery may question my claim that it has no thematic depth. The cover of issue seven proclaims, ‘No More Secrets.’ Surely, Black Widow at least tries to say something about secrets or truth. Beyond characters saying ‘secret’, and a reference to Snowden, no, no, this work has nothing to say. Secrets amount to, at most, plot points. I call this is a good thing. I wouldn’t want this series bogged down by pseudo-philosophizing.

I compared Black Widow to Chandler’s novels, and that’s true in less positive ways. Chandler had little care for narrative lucidity. If the plot gets boring, have a man bang on the door with a gun – it’ll be fine, so long as we finish the case we started in the first act. Readers comprehend the plot as a whole, but when asked to recount the scene-by-scene cause-and-effect, comprehension evaporates. Issue to issue, month to month, reading this series irritated me more than it pleased me. The fog of memory thickened a foggy narrative. Read in one sitting, this loose plot is not so much a problem. Narrative momentum and a general sense of what’s going on prevent the reader falling into impassable confusion.

Only in two places does this loose plotting grow into a blemish. Two times, late in the series, Waid introduces hitherto unheard of characters (no spoilers). I know the benefit of a shared universe is you don’t have to waste time with introductions. If Spider-Man pops in to help Thor, the reader doesn’t need a dossier. It becomes a problem when Spider-Man pops in during the story’s third-quarter to perform a vital plot function. What’s worse, in Black Widow, the worst offending character is unnecessary. Oh, yes, they perform a vital function, but that function could easily have been given to an established character. Or a computer.

The overall narrative concerns Black Widow’s alma mater, an all-girls boarding-school for child assassins. Decades later, the school reopens with a different name, but the same M.O.: brainwash and train young girls to become the most effective and the least suspected killers. To keep Black Widow a breezy action book, Waid does not examine child soldiers or brainwashing. Here, it’s a bit of spy-fi camp that adds to Black Widow’s pathos, but adds no pathos to Black Widow.

Our main antagonist has a rote but effective motivation. Black Widow’s always inferior classmate vows to exceed and destroy Black Widow. Which is fine.

Black Widow is an exercise in style. It’s a spy-fi action romp with a few ideas that could have been themes, but which, thankfully, it leaves as plot points. Black Widow is best read all at once, without looking for depth.

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