Shang-chi Black Widow
Unlike many superheroes who’ve had spy careers pressed upon them, Natasha/Natalia Romanoff/Romanova – somewhere late in the day, Marvel learned how Russian names really work – actually started out as one. Initially a villainous Russian agent in Stan Lee’s Iron Man, and then a superheroine who never quite shed her espionage background, she bounced between superhero antics and undercover missions for SHIELD, Secret Avengers and others. Now one of Marvel’s premier heroines – thanks in no small part to Scarlet Johannson’s turn in Iron Man 2, The Avengers, et al – it’s to be hoped that her latest ongoing series has, at last, staying power. First seen in Tales Of Suspense #52 (April 1964), Natasha really came into focus after she defected to the US, and especially with the redesigned John Romita version of her costume, first seen in Amazing Spider-Man #86. Lightly enhanced by the Soviets in Captain America-like fashion, she’s fought off her late ’90s replacement – a blonde second generation Black Widow – to reign as comics’ top female agent. After talking about all his buddies, we finally get to the star. The only MI6 operative to ever go into action wearing only red silk pyjamas (even TV’s Jason King wouldn’t have risked it), Shang-Chi was the extraordinary martial arts hero of Master Of Kung Fu, Marvel’s most consistently excellent comic of the ’70s, and possibly the best spy story ever put out by a major American comic book company.
Written largely by Doug Moench, with art from a number of inventive, detail-orientated star pencillers – notably Paul Gulacy and the excellent, tragic Gene Day – it told of a small band of agents in hot pursuit of our hero’s father, the evil Chinese criminal mastermind Fu Manchu. Shang-Chi was an incredible fighter but a peaceful soul at heart, and it’s this conflict – plus the machinations of a vast supporting cast – that drove the book. Packed with heart, intelligence, crazy page layouts and the most dramatic fights, it was a series like no other – rights issues concerning Fu Manchu make reprints impossible, sadly.