Thanks to Marvel‘s blockbuster cinematic universe, Natasha Romanov is one of the world’s best known comic book heroes. Longtime fans will of course remember a time when she, like pretty much every other female character in comics, was relegated to little more than a sexy sidekick–a trap the movies may likewise be falling into. But over the years, the comics have managed to build Black Widow into a nuanced, complex, and infinitely strong character, far beyond her pulp origins. This is thanks in no small part due to Marjorie Liu, the first woman and woman of color to ever write a solo Black Widow title.
To celebrate a new art book from Insight Editions, Marvel’s The Black Widow: Creating the Avenging Super Spy, which is dedicated to Natasha’s journey, Nerdist got to chat with Marjorie about creating comics and crafting strong female protagonists. We also got a sneak peek at some exclusive spreads for the book.
For Liu, taking on such a monumental character was nerve wracking. “At first I turned down the book because I wasn’t certain I could do the character justice,” she told Nerdist. But only an hour later, Liu was struck by inspiration. “I knew in that moment I could write her, that I had her voice, her history. Finding the voice of a character, no matter who it is–from Black Widow to Han Solo–is the first and most important hurdle for me to cross in any work of fiction.”
Liu has smashed through the Big Two’s glass ceiling more than once as not only the first woman and woman of color to write Black Widow, but also one of the first to write an X-Men team book, to write X-23, and to write a Star Wars comic at Marvel. So the importance of using that platform to not only tell great stories but also create positive representation was not lost on her.
“I was thinking of all the women who would come after me, and I wanted to do a great job, because in the back of my mind I was thinking that if I wasn’t three times better than a man, some jerk might say, ‘See, women can’t write these books,’ and it would be forever until we saw another woman writing these characters,” Liu said. “And whether or not that’s true, it was a hard idea to shake. As well as the very real truth that even if I did write my ass off, it still might be forever until another woman was given a similar opportunity.”
Liu is clear on where she stands as a creator and this is an integral part of her work, whether it’s for Marvel or her wonderful creator-owned book Monstress. “I’m a writer, and a feminist of color, and I’ve written complex, powerful, women for my entire career,” she said. “I’m just one voice, but there are many others like me. Women have been writing strong women characters for a long time–hello, Maxine Hong Kingston!–it’s just taken mainstream comics a really long while to catch up. And it’s still not quite there.”
As for whether she feels like she has had a personal influence on Black Widow, Liu sees comics as a collaborative process, one in which she explained, “Individual writers can certainly make a difference, but they are working within a system, an institution, that still holds tremendous power over whose voices are heard and whose voices are rewarded. And up until very, very recently, those voices have all belonged to white men. That’s still predominantly the case. I look around and see, overall, so little positive, diverse, female representation across all mediums that I have to ask: who bears this so-called responsibility? I don’t think our institutions feel much responsibility–because if they did, we wouldn’t still be having this conversation.”
When telling Natasha’s journey, Liu saw it as one of empowerment. “Natasha began her life, canonically speaking, as a young woman who had been taught only to obey orders, to never question, to never make choices for herself,” Liu said. “Until, one day, she makes a choice. For herself. And the consequences of that could have led her in a million different directions, but she chose to rise up, to take back her life, to become a woman who no one could ever control again. And I love that about her.”
Natasha might be a former assassin who can take on any of your favorite Avengers with ease, but Liu knew that she was much much more than that too. “It was important for readers to be reminded that her true strength rests not in her physical prowess, but in her raw intelligence and resilience, her ruthlessness and her compassion,” Liu said. “This is a woman of incredible will-power, who never gives up, no matter what–whose moral compass always errs on the right side, even if that side is a little gray. Tony Stark might invent some cool machines, but Natasha is the true genius when it comes to survival and keeping those around her safe.”
Black Widow is, at her core, a strong woman who has overcome so much, and this was something that was a priority for Marjorie when it came to writing her story. “Natasha is the very definition of strong and independent,” Liu said. “To write her otherwise, to think of her in any other way, would have been a betrayal of the character. I loved writing her voice. I loved hearing her voice inside my head–feeling that strength and resolve, and imagining through her that somehow, in some way, that could be me. I loved writing her heart, too, pouring her heart onto the page, and leaning into the great depths of this complex, amazing woman.”
Summing up her love for Black Widow, Liu said, “It was a privilege to write Natasha. For young women searching comics for inspiration and role models, I can think of no one better.”
Images: Insight Editions
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