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The X-Axis by Paul O'Brien (

Black Widow #1

Somebody's been watching the Prisoner again, I'll bet. Even if they haven't, the new BLACK WIDOW series falls neatly into that show's format of enigmatic mind games carried out by weird spying organisations and generally involving surreally bizarre gimmickry. In a follow up to the 1999 miniseries that introduced Yelena Belova, the "new" Black Widow, Devin Grayson and Greg Rucka have written something far odder than that miniseries would suggest. The story plays off Yelena's conviction in the original series that she is the rightful heir to the name "Black Widow" following Natasha's defection. Last time round, this idea took the fairly straightforward form of Yelena trying to bump Natasha off to eliminate the competition for the name. This time, Natasha takes the lead in one of the strangest plots of the year. Natasha's scheme, with the full assistance of SHIELD and Daredevil, is to capture Yelena, carry out an operation to swap their minds (or possibly reshape their bodies so that they look like one another; the story's unclear), dump Yelena into Natasha's life, give her a mission to kill "Yelena" (ie, the real Natasha) and generally watch her suffer and drown. The Prisoner did this sort of routine a couple of times as well, and it's a story idea I've always had a soft spot for. It is, of course, eminently ludicrous in every respect. To enjoy these sorts of stories, you just have to accept the sheer oddity of the starting point and run with it from there. The classic way to achieve suspension of disbelief in your readers is to make sure you're only asking them to suspend their disbelief in a couple of crucial events, so to pull this off you really need to ground the rest of the story in reality. Fortunately, Grayson and Rucka manage that. It's a bit of a stretch to accept that Yelena would buy into the idea that she was under deep cover and suffering from amnesia, but once you get past the opening hurdle, things move along nicely. Yelena finds herself surrounded by other characters who insist on acting as if they're in a conventional spy story, which is exactly as it needs to be. At some point, of course, the series is going to have to get around to explaining what the hell the characters are playing at with an idea like this. Hopefully there's a very good explanation in place, since stories of this sort generally get away with it by leaving things ambiguous. When regularly used heroes like Daredevil are implicated in the scheme, there's a real pressure to come up with a reason - although I suppose there's always the possibility that they'll leave it to our imagination, which could conceivably work. The less glaring oddity about this story is that it's a first issue in which the heroes kidnap and psychologically torment a villain, which is to put it mildly a reversal of the normal set-up. Naturally, the effect is to buy our sympathy for Yelena while alienating us from the regular heroes in their scheming bastard roles. Art this time round comes from Scott Hampton, who does a combination of line work and painting. His Daredevil's a little shaky, but other than that it looks great. The painted art gives the series the sort of grounding in reality that could never have been achieved with the T&A leather style of the previous miniseries. I'm probably marking this up because it plays to some of my pet story ideas, but I really like this. It's nice to see some more offbeat material coming out of the Marvel Knights imprint.

Grade: A