First Appearance: Mystic Comics #4 (August 1940).
Golden Age Appearances: Mystic Comics #4-6, USA Comics #5, and All-Select #1.
Modern Appearance: Marvels #1.
Dates Active: 1940-present (presumably).
"Introducing the strangest, most terrifying character in action picture magazines - the Black Widow. You've heard of the black widow spider - that evil creature whose bite spells doom. Now start the adventures of another black widow - a human tool of Satan whose very touchh means death."
And for once the hype begins to approach accuracy. Timely's Black Widow is a strange and scary strip--and one of Timely's best.
The Widow's first adventure begins with a meeting in the "seance room of Madame Claire Voyant - spirit medium." Ms. Voyant is a shapely blonde in a form-fitting green dress, who is meeting with the Wagler family, which consists of a Margaret Dumont-esque mother, sneery brother, and beautiful sister.
Voyant announces "I promise to make your husband appear at nine o'clock - but you must remain quiet." James, thee brother, responds to this by telling his sister, "I think she's a fake."
"At the stroke of nine, a red glow fills the room and--"
"And," indeed. Claire has been transformed momentarily into the Widow. She's wearing her Black Widow costume and her face is transformed; her eyebrows have become much heavier and arched in a triangular shape, her hair is flowing backwards, as if blown by a wind, rather than hanging down to her shoulders, and her cheekbones are more pronounced, giving her face a too-thin, and even vaguely skull-like, appearance. Floating above Claire's right shoulder is...well, no way around it. It's Satan. Flowing red cape, red skin, horns, evil grin - no doubt about it, it's the Father of Lies. (Actually, one of the many interesting aspects of the strip is that Satan is drawn as wearing only his red cape, and nothing else; it billows around his body so as not to reveal his Naughty Bits, but it's clear that he's naked - which of course puts me in mind of the Spectre in Kingdom Come.)
The next panel shows Claire, back to normal, talking to the Widow Wagler, who indignantly says "I came here for a seance, not for a lesson in witchcraft!"
"As Claire Voyant tries to explain, a strange power takes hold of her - the power of evil! And--while under itts influence--" Claire says, "Upon the Wagler family I put the curse of Satan!" (And hovering over Claire's right shoulder is Satan, whispering in her ear.)
As the Waglers are going home, their car "suddenly goes in to a skid" and crashes. (There's nothing coincidental about it, though. Satan's head is visible, and he is drawn as if he is blowing on the Wagler's car in the panel in which it crashes.)
Mother Wagler is killed instantly and Sister Wagler dies in her brother's arms, talking of "The Curse!" James Wagler, of course, vows revenge, but unbeknownst to him, Satan is behind him (literally) goading him on.
When Claire Voyant returns to her home (saying "That curse! I can't understand what made me say it!") James Wagler appears and guns her down. She falls, and before dying vows to return. She then dies in a pool of her own blood (a more graphic moment than was usual for the most often bloodless--literally--Golden Age). Satan then appears, causing James to flee. "Satan takes Claire Voyant's body through a path of eternal fire," with Satan drawn in the traditional hero-carrying-the-unconscious-heroine pose.
In Hell Satan passes before a ziggurat, ringed in flame, at the top of which are torches and a skull, and lays Claire's body at the top of the ziggurat. He then waves his hands and says "By the almighty evil I command you to change into The Black Widow!" And the Widow, posing dramatically, rises from the flames. (This is the image I have on this page.)
Satan then takes the Black Widow on a tour of Hell, saying "You are endowed with supreme power! - Come - I will show you my kingdom of eternal pain!" Satan leads the Widow through Hell, which mostly resembles the inside of a volcano, with lots of flames and rocky outcroppings. Satan shows her a pit of red-hot magma, in which we see the pale bodies of various of the damned. Satan says, "Look! They were once full of greed, lust and thievery upon Earth!" Satan then leads her into the forest of those who committed suicide (shades of Dante): "Then the suicides - they are turned to trees of suffering."
Then, finally, Satan rounds on the Widow: "My subjects' deeds are mild in comparison to the plans I hold for you!" The Widow says, "There is one thing I must do first--" Satan responds "Yes! Go above and avenge your death in the name of Satan!" (And that is why the Golden Age Black Widow should be an Avenger. Get it? Ha!)
That night, as James is standing on the edge of a dock, grieving the death of his mother and sister ("Dead! All dead! Everyone gone!") there's an explosion of fire, and the Black Widow, her cloak billowing and surrounded by a nimbus of red flame, appears. "I warned you I'd be back. I must avenge my death - now!" "W-why can't you leave me alone?" (This is a particularly interesting exchange; James is pale and wide-eyed with fright and has his arm thrown over his face, while the Widow's face is especially pale and skull-like.)
"As the Black Widow's hand touches James' brow, a flame blazes forth and - James falls - dead!" (This covers two panels; the first has the silhouette of the Widow touching the silhouette of James, and a huge gout of flame springing forth from James' head; the second panel shows the Widow standing over the corpse of James.)
The Widow disappears in a flash of flame; the lights are noticed by a patrolman, who hurries to the scene and finds James with...well, I'll let him tell it: "Gosh! Branded into his head! A black widow spider!"
"Meanwhile, back in Hades" (you just gotta love a strip that can use a line like that and mean it) the Widow appears before Satan, who is seated on his throne, naked but for his cape, which is carefully positioned over his lap. The Widow says "I have fulfilled my mission," and Satan says "Hah! Little do persons of evil know the plans I have for the immortal Black Widow!" The Widow says "Yes, Master - tell me!" Satan says "On the upper world are mortal creatures whose hearts are blackened with wickedness and corruption. You, the Black Widow, will bring their souls to me!" (In the panel when Satan says "Hah!" it appears that Satan is stroking the Widow's hair, although the angle of the drawing is unclear.)
And that's just her first appearance.
In the Widow's second appearance she is sent to get a crime boss named Garvey Lang; she puts on a mask and goes to a costume ball, where she dances with him. He asks for a kiss, and both Lang and the Widow take off their masks--to reveal the Widow's face (skulls where her pupils should be). She touches his head, branding him with flame and killing him.
In the Widow's third appearance, the Widow is sent for two munitions magnates who start to sell munitions to the Axis powers as well as the democracies. This appearance has the Widow being temporarily affected by a chemical, the second magnate being killed when the Widow throws her cape over him, and the startling and memorable final panel of the Widow looking right at the viewer and saying "I'm not on Earth now, but as soon as I learn of evil which must be met with quick punishment, I shall travel the great distance and return to your people to treat them to -- DEATH!" (Now that is good old-fashioned nightmare fuel.)
In her fourth appearance, in USA #5, she takes on and destroys Murder, Unlimited. Her final appearance is in All-Select #1, which I do not have. She did make a cameo in the last page of Marvels #1, seeming to be in action with Cap, Bucky, the Black Marvel, and the other heroes against the Nazis. (What the Black Widow was doing teaming up with heroes is a question for another time; it's out of character for her, to say the least.)
The writer of the Black Widow was George Kapitan (writing); the art was done successively by Harry Sahle, Mike Sekowsky, Stan Drake, and Sekowsky again. Sekowsky, of course, is best known for his 65 issues on The Justice League of America. I can't find anything about George Kapitan. Sahle was a member of the Chesler shop, but other than that there's not much to go on. Which is odd, since the "Black Widow" shows a good deal of creative energy behind it, and the art is actually pretty good.
Steranko, in his History of Comics, says that the artists were "imitating Kirby," but I think this is unfair--and inaccurate. Harry Sahle's art, in Mystic #4 (the Widow's debut), has a sort of Harry Peters woodcut feel to it that is not unsuited to the mythological feel of the strip. Sahle also managed to put in a good bit of extra detail in various panels, which makes the strip worth a slow and careful reading. In Satan's first appearance, we see something curled up at his feet; it's sorta like a lizard, but it's got horns and triangular fins along its spine, and on the whole it looks like some sort of hell-beast, which is exactly the sort of thing you'd expect to see lying, cat-like, at the foot of its master, Satan.
Mike Sekowsky's art in the Widow's second and fourth appearances is more detailed, and with a crisper line, than his Silver Age work. Unfortunately, the effect is too superhero-y (almost Kirby-esque--this must have been what Steranko was thinking of when he wrote that description) and even cartoony, and not really very suitable to the Black Widow. Part of this is the colors, which are too bright, and part of this is the inking, which isn't dark and gloomy and sinister enough for the Black Widow. Plus Satan is given white skin, which is just not right; admittedly, the devil might be a white man, but as the embodiment of evil he more appropriately deserves the color red--because, as we all know, red is the color of Luxembourg, and Luxembourg is the focus of evil in the modern world.
Stan Drake's art in the Widow's third appearance is outstanding. I don't know anything about Stan Drake, but based on his art he should have been given at least one regular, headlining strip, if not another. His style bears a strong resemblance to Lou Fine's. Drake does anatomy well, has lovely inks, does facial expressions as well as you're likely to find, does movement and action well, gives the strip the sinister tone it deserves--in short, makes "Black Widow" a Good Read. So for Steranko to dismiss the artists as "imitating Kirby" is really quite unjust; he may have only read Sekowsky's work, but that's his loss.
George Kapitan's writing is not quite up the standard that Drake sets, but it's still serviceable. Kapitan wrote decent enough dialogue and plot. What he's good at here is....well, see below.
As with the Thin Man, the Black Widow strip has a number of notable and interesting bonuses. Actually, the Widow is a veritable cornucopia of interesting bonuses, so much so that it's worth reading in and of itself, and not just for the fripperies which catch my eye with most of these strips.
One is the morality at work in the strip. Take the Widow's first appearance, for example. Satan possesses Claire Voyant, making her curse them; then Satan causes the Waglers' car to crash, killing two of the Waglers. Satan then goads James Wagler on, and he kills Claire in revenge. Then Satan sends Claire back to kill James Wagler. This isn't the traditional Christian/Catholic dogma of the Devil as Tempter; this is the Devil as a force against which humans have no control. Theologically speaking, this puts us on some interesting ground, since in this view humans are literally Satan's playthings, with God's presence and influence on temporal affairs being entirely absent.
A second item of interest is the sexuality of the strip, or, more precisely, the strip's art. Sexuality, of course, was not something that was primarily featured at all in the Golden Age; the mores of the era wouldn't allow more than a chaste kiss, if that, to be featured in a strip (Matt Baker's Phantom Lady, of course, being an exception, and one deserving an essay just on its own). What sexuality there was, was sublimated. Sometimes the sexuality was sublimated into the unconsciously homoerotic; some of the artistic attention lavished on the male forms during these years provides for some interesting interpretations of the artists' intentions. Sometimes sexuality was sublimated into the (un?)consciously humorous; while Will Eisner's amusing treatments of some of the femmes fatale of The Spirit were deliberate, one has to wonder whether the writers of the strip "The Red Torpedo" really knew what they were doing when they had the Red Torpedo pilot his torpedo sub into the underwater caves of Queen Klitora. Something that audacious could only have been a deliberate attempt at sneaking something slyly salacious past the censors, but such an attempt wasn't really in-character for the creators, so far as I know, so the other answer is that they didn't know what they were doing, and it's just an unconsciously hilarious happenstance. Sometimes sexuality was sublimated into the forbidden, as with the constant bondage to which Wonder Woman, Phantom Lady, and Billy Batson were subjected. And sometimes sexuality was sublimated into the treatment of the female body.
Which is how it was with the Black Widow. Throughout the strip the Widow is drawn in a very sexualized, even sensuous manner. As Claire Voyant she is wearing a tight dress that shows rather more cleavage than was the wont for the time, and is set in sexually alluring poses. Then, as the Black Widow, she is given a costume that is quite...eye-catching. Her shorts are cut high over the thigh, and her boots (which, at the top, have a flaming yellow fringe, which is a very nice touch) reach about half-way up her calves; not an uncommon combination, for Golden Age heroines usually showed a lot of leg. The Widow's arms are not exposed, nor does she expose any cleavage. But her breasts...well, it's like this.
Superheroines' breasts were almost always only half-sketched in on GA costumes; one saw the upper curve, but everything roughly below the nipple was concealed by the cloth of the costume, which in proper Golden Age fashion was tucked into the belt. (A quick look at Image and Image-style comics instantly shows how much times have changed, of course.)
The Widow's costume isn't like that. It's form-fitting, so that the undersides, and fullness, of her breasts are almost always visible. (It helps that she's always lit from below, too.) Too, on her torso is the illustration of an enormous spider (a black widow, I suppose). The two front legs of the spider jut upward, practically reaching each breast. The two rear legs jut towards where her legs meet.
I bring the spider's legs up because of their effect on the viewer; one's eyes are naturally drawn in the direction of the spider's legs. The net effect is to continually make the viewer aware of the Black Widow's body, and to both overtly and almost subliminally emphasize her sexuality; that is, the reader is made very aware of it in a few panels, and has it subtly reinforced in his/her mind in many other panels.
Which of course leads into the next aspect of the strip that I find interesting: the link between sex/sexuality and death. It's a recurring theme in "The Black Widow"--a subtext, even. The Widow fairly screams sex, sometimes; she's drawn very alluringly, as well as in ways that emphasize her breasts and lips. But she's also drawn with a very thin face and sunken cheeks, and with heavy black inks around her eyes, so that it seems as if her eyes have receded into her skull. And while she is made to look sexy, her appearance always spells death. It's as if the Black Racer was a blonde woman wearing a bikini. The obvious comparison is to Death, in Sandman, but where Death (despite her goth-chick clothing) was completely non-threatening, and was a warm and compassionate person, the Black Widow is sinister and frightening. Finally, there's Satan. Both Sahle and Drake drew him naked but for his cape, which billowed around him so as not to frighten the children. Because his body is naked except for the cape, one can't help but look at him. Because he's naked, and the Black Widow nearly so, the reader is left with a subconscious formula: nakedness/sex = evil/death. Think about Mephisto, in the classic Lee/Buscema Silver Surfer; he was always naked, or nearly so, and always seemed to have (at least, to me) a really sleazy and threatening sexuality, which, when contrasted to the seemingly sexless Surfer and the seemingly chaste Shalla Bal, left a vividly negative message about sex. It's the same with the Black Widow.
Another notable aspect is the Widow's contempt for ordinary people. In her second appearance she is shot at by a thug, who runs away when he finds that his bullets can't hurt her. Her response is "Foolish mortal!" I already mentioned her Fourth-Wall-breaking farewell, in which she threatens the kids of America with her return. It's almost as if she doesn't harvest the souls of evil-doers because they hurt good people; she does it because she can - that she acts out of hatred, rather than compassion. Which, I need hardly add, is a very rare motivation for a Golden Age "heroine" to have.
Finally, still another item of interest is the literary references in the strip. As I mentioned, her origin appearance had the wood of the suicides, something first seen in Dante's Inferno. Her second appearance, where she unmasked during the ball, to the horror of her crime lord victim, and killed him, is, I think, quite deliberately evocative of the end of Poe's "Masque of the Red Death." Having the Black Widow's name, while she was alive, as "Claire Voyant," isn't literary, exactly, but it's something of a more sophisticated pun than was the norm for the Golden Age.
As you can see, I think quite highly of "The Black Widow." It's got a lot going for it, both in terms of story and art. There's a reason that aficionados of Timely's comics speak highly of "The Black Widow"; it's memorable, evocative, and one of the company's best.