Thanks to The Avengers and Scarlett Johansson, Black Widow has become a female superhero — with super sex appeal, too. The character has been around in comic culture for over 50 years, but now, young adult author Margaret Stohl brings the Russian heroine to the page in her new YA novel Black Widow: Forever Red.
Stohl is no slouch when it comes to nerd culture. She worked in the video game industry, and she refers to her husband and kids as the “nerd family.” She was approached to take on Marvel’s Black Widow literary project, and well, she may have lost her cool for a second.
Stohl said, “I freaked out. I got the call while I was in Italy at a writers’ colony. I just froze where I was and screamed a little. Then I called my husband, and he freaked out. He didn’t even believe me at first.”
The excitement remained for Stohl, but so did the sudden realization that taking on the personality of Black Widow was going to be anything but easy. “It’s a really hard job,” she said, “because you have to be true to the fans. You have to be true to 50 years of Black Widow. It’s a long history — one of the longest for a woman hero. It’s the kind of job you wouldn’t want unless you really, really wanted it.”
She had some help. While writing, she read only spy novels and watched only spy films. Advising on Forever Red were a UN employee, a Ukrainian national, a video game designer and artists of the comic realm.
The hardest part wasn’t getting the story right, though. The hardest part was getting into Black Widow’s head — a character that gives away close to nothing in the Avenger films and would rather beat you up than tell you a secret. Somehow, Stohl managed to make her vulnerable, which is part of the amazing charm of Marvel’s first foray into YA.
Stohl said, “We’ve never been in Black Widow’s head before — not really. That was its own tricky dance. When you’re writing from someone’s perspective, you’re in their mind, so how do you not share what’s going on in their mind? We danced around each other for so long, where I was almost too respectful of her internal privacy, partially because of the way she’s played in the movie. Eventually, the character let me in; I let her in, and we just went for it.”
In Forever Red, Black Widow has to face up to the horrors and mistakes of her past to protect two suspiciously gifted teens. Not only does she become vulnerable, but she becomes downright protective and emotional — not to say she doesn’t still kick ass.
Black Widow is Stohl’s favorite superhero, possibly because she knows her best, but also because she’s a femme fatale in a world dominated by male superheroes. An interesting turn in Forever Red is that, in this case, the women are the powerhouses (Natasha and Ava, her protégé), and the teenage boy, Alex, is the one they fight to protect. It’s a gender swap that we rarely see in the Marvel universe. Stohl said she was “fascinated by that reversal. It’s always the girlfriend in trouble. It’s interesting when the love interest is a boy who needs protecting.”
Still, according to Stohl, the man-to-woman ratio isn’t quite equal — yet — in the superhero genre. “We’re doing well,” she said, “but I’ll take more. Marvel has responded to the changing demographic of their readers. We now have more women readers of comics than men. I’m impressed with the progress, but it’s not perfect.”
And neither is the Black Widow we see portrayed in Forever Red. She is vulnerable, violent, angry and even a bit regretful. As Stohl said, “We all have a little villain in us… or certainly things we’re not proud of.”
Introduced in Forever Red is a program called the Blank Slate Project, in which a person could erase certain bad memories of things they’ve done. Stohl would erase the time her daughter fell off a jungle gym and had to be rushed to the hospital. Still, she called the bad things in life a “refiner’s fire”: metal becoming stronger from heat being applied.
She said, “A lot of crappy things are going to happen to us in our lives. It’s all part of a great river, and you are who you are because of the things you’ve been through. The key is finding a way to live with the good and the bad.”