Margaret Stohl talks 'Black Widow: Forever Red'
The Beautiful Creatures author opens up about writing the young adult novel for one of Marvel's most beloved superheroes.
Black Widow isn’t just a sidekick—and Margaret Stohl’s got just the book to prove it. The best-selling author of the Beautiful Creatures franchise (who worked in the video game industry before turning her talent to the book world) is the creative mind behind Black Widow: Forever Red, the new young adult novel from Marvel Press featuring spy and superhero Natasha Romanoff.
The project was first announced at this year’s New York Comic Con, during the popular Women of Marvel panel which Stohl participated in along with several editors and innovators from the comic industry. To say Stohl’s book has been a long time coming would be an understatment: For years, fans have been clamoring for more focus on Black Widow, and the character’s continued presence in Marvel’s live action films have only increased that desire. Despite numerous solo comics and inclusion in everything from animated features and graphic novels, Black Widow has never truly had her time in the spotlight. That’s all about to change.
This weekend, at a highly anticipated Women in Marvel BookCon panel (moderated by Marvel Entertainment’s social media manager Adri Cowan), fans and book lovers will get to hear Stohl talk candidly about Black Widow: Forever Red, due out in October. EW spoke exclusively to Stohl about her writing process, how she got involved in Natasha Romanoff’s story, and why women (super spies or not) are more than ready to take over the world.
EW: I’m familiar with your background, but I’d love to know more about how you became involved in the project and with Marvel—and what specifically drew you to it. Was it the character itself, or something bigger?
MARGARET STOHL: I worked in videogames for 16 years before writing my first book in 2009. From then on, the Beautiful Creatures novels have been published in fifty countries, and I’ve been able to meet thousands of fans of both the books and the movie, and see what we all have in common. We love what we love, and shared fandoms bring people of all ages and backgrounds into one great tribe.
Those are my people, and I find them at Comic Con, just as I do at one of my YA book festivals. To be able to work both in the YA space and the Marvel space is a chance to bring all the things I love together into one project—and what a gift that has been! I get to write about one of the most complicated and layered and, as I’ve said, kick-ass Marvel characters of all time, gender aside. It has been more than a thrill. It’s epic.
The privilege, and the challenges, of taking on Black Widow have never been lost on me. I worked on the first Spiderman game, as well as Fantastic Four, and I had always wanted to be able to tell more of a character driven comic book story than was possible to fit into a game narrative. So I felt very lucky to have that chance, especially with such a beloved character!
One of the reasons I love Black Widow is because she’s always had to fight for what she wants, but she never backs down from a challenge—she just fights harder. You previously worked in the gaming industry, which is mostly male-dominated, and I feel like there’s some correlation between Natasha’s story and your own experiences.
I worked as a writer, lead designer, and creative director in the game industry. And yes, as I said in that Marvel panel, sometimes the women’s restroom felt like my private office, there were so few of us.
That said, I’ve known great guys in the industry, some of the greatest, who were loyal and kind and funny and respectful of me. I valued them and I wanted to be a part of their community. I always wanted to be invited to lunch with my team. So when something made me uncomfortable, more often than not I sucked it up and said nothing. And that’s on me. I put up with things that I would never put up with now. That was the price I paid because I wanted to be in the room, and we need girls to be in those rooms. But we also need to have those conversations, and I wish I could go back in time and tell myself the same things I tell my daughters. Speak up in the moment, however you can, whenever you can. We owe each other that.
With women dominating the comic industry in so many ways and the demand for more female characters, it seems like the world might be ready to take a story about someone like Black Widow. Do you think that’s just the timing, or the industry changes, especially given how high-profile Scarlett Johansson’s character has become in the films over the years?
The industry changes every day. I see the Women of Marvel—and really, Scarlett Jo—as superheroes themselves. I’m their fangirl. They’re the Natasha Romanoffs of the comic book world. Look at what Sana Amanat and G. Willow Wilson are doing with Ms. Marvel, or Kelly Sue DeConnick with Captain Marvel. Watch Sana’s TED talk on youtube. They’re fighting the hard fights and changing the status quo right in front of us, one page at a time, and don’t think that’s lost on my own avenger daughter. I love where the comic book industry is going because our progress here is so organic; it came about because women like Kelly and Sana and G. Willow, along with girls and women of all backgrounds, read and love and buy comics. I absolutely give Marvel credit for getting that.
I also agree that the world is ready for the Black Widow’s story. Natasha Romanoff is a beloved character, and people care about her. It’s a credit to everyone involved.
One of the things I love about this book is that it’s going to be a focus on Natasha and her life. While I love the relationships she’s had in the comics and movies, I’m so excited that we’re going to get to explore her in a way we haven’t really been able to see yet. Was that something you hoped to take advantage of when you were crafting this story?
Yes. Comic books are so character-driven that there is just a mountain of material, especially with any character who has been evolving for years. Black Widow is particularly fascinating to me. I’ve never thought that the most interesting things about Natasha were her romantic relationships. What is most compelling to me is her psyche, however messed up. Her iron will and her unrelenting strength. The price she’s had to pay in two countries. And of course, her backstory and her secrets. Getting inside her mind was a trip.
What was your writing process like? In some sense, you’re writing for an existing character that’s had many incarnations, but you obviously also have the opportunity to make her your own. So I’d imagine there’s an interesting creative line there.
Writers are always building and rebuilding worlds and characters, whether they previously exist in some form or not. I like reading between the lines and expanding the known universe of a character. I like a challenge—and this was a big one. It’s about decision making—what are you going to use, what part of the story are you going to tell—and it’s actually no easier than coming up with your own characters. Most of the time, it’s trickier. But writing sequels to my own books is a similar process. Even when you know what you have to deliver, you have to sort of try to block out the expectations of the fans and let the story come to life in your head, just as you would when you write anything. You have to write it first for yourself.
I was afraid to write Natasha Romanoff’s POV at the beginning. It took me a while to be able to go inside her mind. I was too respectful and she was too private. Then we got used to each other and everything took off. I did feel the burden and the thrill of working with Natasha’s canon, and of adding to it in my own way. Gene Luen Yang, who did Avatar and is now writing DC’s Superman comic, teased me about it on a panel at YALLWEST, a teen book festival that I co-founded. He said, “Hello, relax, there’s always retconning,” but when you’re writing, even though you know canons evolve, that doesn’t lessen the weight of it in your head. Marvel and Disney seem to know that those are the kinds of people who should be working on their properties, the people who feel that sense of responsibility, who take it seriously. And we do.
I was at the Women of Marvel NYCC panel in October when the book was announced and social media pretty much exploded. This character is beloved by so many fans (myself included), what was your first reaction when you found out you would be responsible for her story?
Oh my god, what a moment! It was so great to be able to share news of the book with Natasha’s fans. Getting to write the first Black Widow novel has probably been the greatest honor of my life, honestly. Just being on the Women of Marvel panel at New York Comic Con was the second greatest. Comic book fans everywhere understand that. I come from a serious #nerdfamily—my husband builds robots to chase our cats, and our family vacation is to the Pokemon trading card game world championships ever year. You get the picture.
I was in Italy when my agent, Sarah Burnes, got the call from Emily Meehan, the Editorial Director at Disney Publishing; I was so shocked I have this crystal-clear adrenaline photograph of that day in my mind. I can remember where I was standing on the patio, freaking out. And it’s basically felt like that for a year now. I’m lucky that Emily is a genius, as is Sana Amanat, our editor at Marvel. Natasha could not have asked for better allies.
You have daughters, and on Twitter you’re constantly talking about how important it is that girls stand up for themselves and find female heroes in shows like Agent Carter. What do they think of you championing Natasha’s character and writing this book about such a strong woman?
My youngest daughter, Kate, is a natural avenger, and a big Black Widow fan. I dedicated the book to her, because Natasha Romanoff would love her. Kate’s dean at school told me we should buy her a cape, and it’s true. She is never afraid to say what she thinks, and it’s my job to support and encourage those instincts. I do that for all three of my daughters. If we care about the girls in our lives, we need to empower them to speak up and demand more, demand better. We need to reinforce that they do not have to put up with things that make them feel uncomfortable or sexualized or stereotyped or small. We need to give them, and ourselves, permission to have difficult conversations, to not automatically agree with the teachers and classmates and coworkers and adults in our lives, to not say yes when we mean no. We can choose how we say it, and when, and even who we say it to. But in whatever way we can, we need to say something, no matter what. Cornel West said, “Justice is what love looks like in public,” and I think Natasha would get that.
Without giving too much away, what can you tease about the story you have to tell for Natasha in Forever Red?
Black Widow Forever Red tells the story of Natasha Romanoff and the two teens who find an unlikely way into her life—particularly Ana Orlova, a seventeen-year-old Russian girl now living in Brooklyn. The novel takes us from New York to Eastern Europe, and we get to see more of Natasha’s backstory than we ever have before.
Read an exclusive excerpt from BLACK WIDOW: FOREVER RED by Margaret Stohl:
Natasha Romanoff hated pierogies—but more than that, she hated lies.
Lying she was fine with. Lying was a necessity, a tool of her tradecraft. It was being lied to that she hated, even if it was how she had been raised.
Everything Ivan used to say was a lie.
Ivan Somodorov, Ivan the Strange. She hadn’t thought about him in a long time, not until tonight.
And right now, as Natasha clung to the side of a rusting Ukrainian warehouse on the edge of a waterlogged industrial dock, even the moon looked like just another one of Ivan’s lies.
Welcome home, Natashka.
It was the dumpling moon that brought it all back now.
She climbed higher as she remembered the words, but even Natasha Romanoff, newly minted agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., former daughter of Mother Russia, couldn’t escape Ivan Somodorov. Not any more than she could escape the snipers positioned on every neighboring rooftop or the barbed wire on the perimeter fence.
“See that moon?” Ivan had said when she was younger. “See that pale pierogi, hanging so low and heavy in the sky it wants to fall back into the boiling pot of salted water on your baba’s stove?” Natasha had nodded, though as an orphan of the war she remembered little about her baba—or for that matter, even her parents. “With a moon like that, your targets can see you as easily as you see them. Not a good night for hunting, or a clean kill. Not a good night for disappearing.”
It was Ivan she remembered.
Ivan who had taught her how to use a Russian sniper rifle and to never use anything but a German pistol, preferably an HK or a Glock—no matter how you felt about the Germans. How to change out the barrel and action of an assault weapon in seconds and to modify her trigger so it broke like glass. How to cover her tracks, how to hide from the SVR and the FSB and the FSO—all the legitimate organizations that the KGB had become when it was the KGB no more. Those were her bosses’ bosses, the groups they worked for but never with. The groups they vowed to follow, but who disavowed them. The groups with the names that could be mentioned in the headlines of the Gazeta, unlike her own.
Unlike the Red Room. Unlike Ivan’s crew and in particular, his favorites, Devushki Ivana. Ivan’s girls.
Natasha took a breath and swung, springing through the moonlit night from side to side, making her way farther up the corrugated wall of the decaying warehouse. The rough metal siding bit into her palms. It was a miracle that she was still hanging on.
A miracle and years of training.
Natasha closed her eyes and tightened her grip. Truthfully, she didn’t need her adhesive suit.
Even if I wanted to let go, I haven’t been trained for that.
“I will teach you more than how to kill,” Ivan had said. “I will make you into the weapon itself. You will become as automatic and unfeeling as a Kalashnikov, but twice as dangerous. Only then will I teach you how to take a life—how and when and where.”
“And why?” Natasha had asked.
She had been young, then, or she would have known better. Child Natasha had been all eyes and shadows and angles. Alone and defenseless, half the time she felt like a thrashing rabbit caught in a winter trap.
He had laughed outright. “Not why, my Natashka. Never why. Why is for guitar players and Americans.” Then he’d smiled. “We all have a time to die, and when it’s mine, when they send you to sink a round of bullets into my head, just make sure not to do it on a pierogi moon.” She’d nodded, but she couldn’t tell if he was serious or not. “That’s all I ask. A clean kill. A soldier’s death. Do not shame me.”
It was his favorite line. He’d said it maybe a thousand times.
And now, as Natasha stared up at the boiled-dumpling moon, she decided it was the one she’d repeat back to him tonight. When she finally killed him, just as he’d predicted she would.
He’s not a martyr, she reminded herself. We aren’t saints. When we die, nobody mourns. That’s the only way this ends, for all of us.
Even if there were a hundred fat moons in the sky tonight, Natasha refused to feel any shame or any sorrow for Ivan Somodorov. She didn’t want to feel anything at all, not for anyone, but least of all for him.
Because he felt nothing for you.