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”:
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:
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.”
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”:
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.