I think I love you, James Buchanan Barnes.
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Black Widow (2010) #1, p. 21
NATASHA: I think I love you, James Buchanan Barnes.

Black Widow (2010) #1–5, or The Name of the Rose, is my absolute favorite run of Black Widow comics. Marjorie Liu did an amazing job on the writing, and Daniel Acuña’s art is exquisite. I reread this run regularly, and every time I glean new insights into the story. On the surface level, The Name of the Rose is about Natasha’s friends questioning her loyalty when it comes to light that she’s been spying on them. At its core, The Name of the Rose is about love and the power of friendship.

I don’t even think it’s a stretch to say that this is one of the best aromantic stories I’ve read. There are elements that can be read as romantic love, but some aromantic people like myself have experienced and do experience romantic love. Regardless, the bulk of the story deals with platonic love and coming to terms with one’s own relationships to others.

I open with the image up top of Natasha saying she thinks she loves Bucky because I find it to be such a strong motif of the story as a whole. Natasha’s negotiating her relationship with him and coming to understand the nature of it; it could be romantic love, which this context seems to suggest she’s considering, or it could be something else entirely.

Through the rest of the story, though, we see Natasha equating love with friendship. We’re introduced to the Black Rose in the first pages of issue #1, where it’s clear that he and Natasha share a platonic relationship. Then, as the Black Rose considers a (romantic?) relationship with a woman, Natasha tells him that he’s “an easy one to love”:

Black Widow and Black Rose in conversation.
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Black Widow (2010) #4, p. 16
BLACK WIDOW: Don’t wait to make a good life. Time… passes us too quickly. And you’re too fine a man to waste on… roses in a graveyard.
BLACK ROSE: She might not feel the same way.
BLACK WIDOW: Don’t worry. You’re an easy one to love.
BLACK ROSE: Black Widow. You, with your deadliest sting.

Even when we see flashbacks to Nikolai, the man she married and says she loved, we see that she calls him a good friend. She states her love for him after affirming their relationship as one of friendship, not necessarily romance:

Natasha and Nikolai in conversation.
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Black Widow (2010) #4, p. 3
NARRATION: No matter how much it hurts.
NATASHA: Vasili was a good friend. So are you.
NIKOLAI: Because I love you.
NARRATION: When it hurts, you know you are alive.
NIKOLAI: Both of you.
[OFF-PANEL]: They’re coming! Get ready!
NARRATION: And you know that as long as you live, they live.
NIKOLAI: Whatever happens—
NATASHA: —I love you too.
NARRATION: And when you die, they die.

Later, as Natasha and Bucky’s relationship develops, we come to a point where Natasha’s in trouble and Bucky pleads to Natasha to allow him to be a friend to her. Her face in the second panel below is telling; she’s in shock, deeply appreciative of this move, and tells Bucky, “You’re a good man.”

Bucky and Natasha in conversation.
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Black Widow (2010) #4, p. 9
JAMES: And if I offered myself up would you take my help?
NATASHA: James—
JAMES: I know you don’t need me. But please, Natasha. Whatever else we are… let me be your friend.
NATASHA: You’re a good man.
JAMES: Not really, no. But you’re the only one who understands that.

Furthermore, when Natasha characterizes her past relationships, Natasha describes them as “the men who raised [her]” and “friends[,] family”, excluding any sexual or romantic terms such as “lovers”:

Black Widow in conversation with Black Rose.
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Black Widow (2010) #3, p. 11
NARRATION: I outlived all the men who raised me.
BLACK WIDOW: Thank you.
NARRATION: I stayed young while they faded, and died from bullets and disease, or old age.
BLACK ROSE: No need. You are one of the last who know me, Natasha. That is a strange bond.
BLACK WIDOW: Yes, it is.
NARRATION: You forget so much. You forget them. Friends. Family. You put aside what can’t be changed.
BLACK ROSE: Have you answered this riddle yet? The mystery of the rose?
NARRATION: Like death.
BLACK WIDOW: I know the answer. I know what the rose is. I know what the ribbon was. I know it all.

More than just love and platonic relationships, this run is also very much about agency, found families, and the conscious decision to prioritize friendship. In this exchange, Elektra speaks of losing control over her life, and Natasha echoes that she won’t let it happen again. 

I read Natasha’s statement in two ways: both as an affirmation of Elektra’s experiences, but also an echo of her own. Natasha, too, has lost agency again and again, and fights now to reclaim it: she’s being framed as a traitor, losing her friends, and she’s struggling to gain control of her life again, making her friendships all the more important to her.

Elektra and Natasha in conversation.
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Black Widow (2010) #3, p. 7
ELEKTRA: My life has been stolen from me, time and time again. I will not let it happen once more.
NATASHA: Neither will I.

As we continue on in the story, Natasha becomes more and more isolated: the Avengers appear to question her loyalty, and enemies come from all sides to attack Natasha. Finally, the villain of the story reveals himself and his reasoning behind targeting her. Key to this bit of dialogue is the part where Imus calls Natasha the heart of the Avengers.

That line is so critical: All throughout The Name of the Rose it’s not a stretch to read Natasha as aromantic, as focusing on platonic love, and to call an aromantic person the heart of a group is subversive in itself. So frequently are we thought of as heartless and being incapable of love, yet this one line destroys that notion.

Natasha and Imus in conversation.
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Black Widow (2010) #4, p. 18
NATASHA: But you showed them, didn’t you? Just like you think you’ll show me. The Avengers, whoever else you target.
IMUS: If you hadn’t been foolish enough to keep files on your friends, we wouldn’t be here right now. I had no intention of coming after you, or the Avengers. I had more… pressing concerns. Until I discovered that sweet little secret hiding in your belly. And after that… the rose. Ivan’s memories were so sweet. So shocking. When I harvested his brain after his death, I never imagined what I would find. So I thought, Why the hell not? If I destroy you, I destroy the heart of the Avengers.

Prior to the final battle, Natasha muses on the nature of relationships and how all relationships must end. She reaches a low point where she cuts herself off from people and says, “In the end, all we have is ourselves.”

In the end, all we have is ourselves.
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Black Widow (2010) #5, p. 2
NARRATION: In the end, all we have is ourselves.

But in fighting Imus, in her friends reasserting their support for her, in rejecting Imus’s focus on sexuality as a means to achieve companionship, Natasha reaffirms her love for her friends and the strength of her relationships. It’s telling that, when Natasha muses on Tolstoy’s quote “All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love[,]” she takes examples as diverse as camaraderie between soldiers, familial love, and platonic/romantic love.

Natasha's monologue.
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Black Widow (2010) #5, p. 22
NARRATION: I discovered the writer, Leo Tolstoy, in a muddy ditch that held more blood than rain. One of the soldiers loved his words—and then, so did I. “All, everything that I understand,” he wrote, “I understand only because I love.”
NATASHA: Thank you for handling all the details, James. You know how I hate paperwork.
NARRATION: That was so many years ago. But words on a page didn’t teach me that lesson. I learned it on my own.
NATASHA: I’ll be home soon. By the end of the week, I think.
NARRATION: I learned it in trenches with bullets flying overhead; pressed back to back with grizzled starving men who would have laid down their lives for mine.
NATASHA: I have… unfinished business… with Lady Bullseye to take care of. Yes, I’ll tell you about it. One day.
NARRATION: I learned it from a ribbon tied around my ring finger. I learned it from a kick inside my belly.
LADY BULLSEYE: *gasp*
NARRATION: I learned it from death, and hardship, and brief acts of inexplicable kindness.
NATASHA: I know. I’ll be careful.
NARRATION: I learned love from sacrifice. I learned love from living. And no matter where I’ve gone, or what I’ve done—all the dark things I do not regret, but will never speak of—that is the one part of me that I have always kept safe.
NATASHA: I love you, James.
NARRATION: Imus was such a fool.

Also interesting to note is that, in these final pages, Natasha says to Bucky that she loves him, this time without hedging. Yet, because this statement is embedded in her musing about different kinds of love, it’s actually more ambiguous than the hedged version: Does she love him romantically? Platonically? But not knowing is what makes the line all the more satisfying: it’s a complex kind of love, something that maybe can’t be parsed out so easily into one category or another.

And this last page will always, always get to me, especially in the context of reading Natasha Romanova as aromantic. I’ve said in my post “All Is Full of Love” that, if anything, I’ve found myself loving more now that I’ve come to understand myself as aromantic. That Natasha emphasizes the importance of loving despite heartbreak, that Natasha so heavily emphasizes platonic relationships as love, really resonates with me.

...what matters is that we loved... and lived.
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Black Widow (2010) #5, p. 24
NARRATION: Hearts always break. And so we bend with our hearts. And we sway. But in the end… what matters is that we loved… and lived.

It’s so easy to close off your heart after trauma and negative experiences, to refuse to open up and be vulnerable to people, to isolate yourself and convince yourself that you’ll always be alone, or that you’re not worthy of love. My heart has been broken again and again, not only through romantic love, but through platonic love, and familial love. But through it all, I still find it within myself to open my heart once more.

And that’s what The Name of the Rose teaches me: We’re never alone and must find it in ourselves to make the connections that give our lives meaning, but those connections need not be romantic. Platonic love, familial love; all these are just as valid. The Name of the Rose is a deep and complex treatise on love, one that I appreciate even more when I read Natasha Romanova as aromantic.