Richard K. Morgan is the author of Altered Carbon, Broken Angels and Market Forces. In 2004, he wrote the Black Widow: Homecoming limited series, which had art by Bill Sienkiewicz and Goran Parlov. Here he talks about the Widow and how he approached writing the character. You can reach him on the web at www.richardkmorgan.co.uk.
Many thanks to Mr. Morgan for the interview!
Reader discretion, as the interview does contain some PG-13 language.
Kuljit Mithra: I believe editor Jennifer Lee contacted you in regards to Marvel
work, so I'm wondering how that all came about?
Richard K. Morgan: Yeah, well it was pretty flattering, really. Jenny had read my first novel, Altered Carbon, and apparently really liked the handling of the female characters; to wit, she was impressed by the fact that these women weren't defined by their sex. They were good, bad and indifferent people, as motivated and variable in motivation as any of the male characters, and just getting on with their lives. That was the approach she wanted to import into the Black Widow. So, long story short, she e-mailed me, described Natasha, and asked me did I want to have a shot.
Mithra: What drew you to the Black Widow?
Morgan: First and foremost, I think it was the idea that I could do something thoroughly dark with the character. I've always been a big fan of Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns, and I wanted to apply some of the same gloom and bleakness. So here you have this woman who used to work for the KGB before she crossed the wire and started doing similar stuff for the Americans. Now that's not your average truth-and-justice superhero's resume. This is someone who would have to be adept at murder, torture, blackmail, deceit, you name it -- every dirty trick in the book. But at the same time she's a woman, and I'm enough of a paid up Stephen Pinker fan to believe that violent behaviour patterns come genetically harder to women than they do to men, so you're left with the question -- what would living with all that be like for a woman? It would, I think, to put it mildly, fuck her up. And fucked up is a fascinating launch point for any fictional character.
Mithra: The story mentions that Yelena Belova has become a lingerie model... what is your opinion on that incarnation of Black Widow? No interest in writing about her?
Morgan: On the contrary, I'm sure she can be made just as fascinating as Natasha. And in fact she's going to crop up in Volume 2, where she'll get the chance to defend herself from Gregor Ivanovitch's scandalous dismissiveness. (Not that she hasn't become a lingerie model -- she has, and much more besides. But, just like Natasha, she's got her reasons for what she does.) What I felt about Yelena was that she'd been ill-served in the past because of her sex, just the way Natasha had been, but perhaps owing to Yelena's more recent arrival, the treatment had been even more cavalier. She's dismissed as a silly little girl, someone who'd be far better advised listening to her mother, settling down, marrying a nice boy... despite the fact she seems eminently capable of rendering large numbers of armed men dead at the drop of a firing pin and delivering death blows with whichever hand or foot is most convenient. Sure, run along home, Yelena, get yourself pregnant and go shopping, you're clearly unsuited for this kind of work. I mean, can you imagine that shit playing with Matt Murdock? Matt, you really need to hang up that red gear, focus on your day-job and think about a family. Yeah, right! Then, to add insult to injury, we get Yelena on MAX being shown how her real problem is that she just hasn't understood her own sexuality. Sure. Let's just replay that, but with Captain America in the S&M gear instead. Anybody buying? No, I didn't think so. So what's the salient difference here? You got it -- gender. Tits and Ass.
Mithra: Can you describe your initial thoughts on what kind of story to write for Natasha, and how it eventually came to the one in the series? Did you have to do much research on her appearances etc.?
Morgan: As far as research goes, there wasn't a huge amount. I read a lot of previous Black Widow stuff, but in the end I didn't want to tie it too closely to what had gone before -- you can't do that because the baggage will be alien to new readers and it'll slow you down. But it was very clear from the start that this needed to be a story about who Natasha actually was, because as far as I could tell, thus far she'd only really been defined in relation to the male figures around her and their presence or absence in her life. And in order to tell a story with some female definition, you need to take into account the things that tend to define a female life -- things like reproductive freedom (or the barbaric lack of it that pro-lifers advocate), having a child (or not) and what that means to you, the potential power of female sexuality and how much you want it to control you, the pressure of a massive cosmetics industry designed to make you conform to narrow stereotypes of womanhood, the dangers (and gratifications) of attraction to standard models of masculinity. I tried to throw all of that into the mix and Homecoming was the result.
Mithra: Fans may not have realized that you've modified some elements from the Widow's past... were these things that you've always wondered about the character and wanted to flesh out? Namely the long line of Black Widows, Natasha's false memories of being a ballerina, how Black Widows can't get pregnant, her age etc.
Morgan: Well, the sterility and the ballerina fantasy were both drawn out of the female character mix I mentioned above -- but I suppose to some extent that in turn means they were aspects of Natasha's past that caught my attention. Certainly, the ballerina myth was, and just had to be called out -- have you ever seen the damage professional ballerinas do to their feet? As in so many other fairy tale lies we sell to little girls, it's the unpleasant truth behind the superficially appealing image. So that had to be exposed. The pregnancy/sterility issue was a little different -- that was more a necessary function of character. Natasha is in her late thirties (or equivalent) in this arc and it seemed natural that she should be feeling the tick of her biological clock -- because almost all women do. What those women, including Natasha, choose to do about it is probably the most important decision of their lives, and I wanted that shadow to be apparent in the story. We don't know if Natasha wants children or not - her fellow Widow, Stefanya, certainly did, and set about overcoming the obstacles with typical Widow determination -- but that isn't really the issue. The thing is, I know a lot of women who don't necessarily want children, but I don't know any who would want their option to reproduce taken away.
The other thing, the idea of a whole line of Black Widows instead of just one, well that just seemed to me an obvious extension of Soviet collectivist thinking -- there's no way a society organised along those lines is going to have the same individualist bias that informs the superhero ethos. So a single mighty superspy just didn't ring true culturally. A programme that churned them out like tanks, on the other hand -- well, for me, that fitted in perfectly with the idea of old style industrial Socialism.
Mithra: Obviously writing for comics is different than writing a novel... was this your first comic series? Do you write a full script, or general descriptions?
Morgan: Yes, this was the first time I'd done comic work (although I had written screenplays before and a certain amount of that is transferable). But obviously there's no way Marvel were going to pay me just to produce outlines -- instead what Jenny Lee did was basically train me up until I was producing what they needed. It didn't take long -- I'm a quick study and as I said a lot of the screenwriting technique does transfer across. But still, it was good of Jenny not to even flinch when she realised how much of a comics virgin I was.
Mithra: Did you have much collaboration with Bill Sienkiewicz and Goran Parlov?
Morgan: Not an awful lot, no. We've exchanged a few e-mails, and there were a couple of points where things needed re-jigging slightly either because I hadn't made myself clear enough, or Bill had ideas of his own that needed writing around. In a sense, it's a shame because you miss out on that whole team effort thing, but on the other hand I think what it showed was that Jenny had brought together a creative team who really chimed from the word go. Bill's work is very dark, which suits my writing temperament perfectly, and Goran is a superlative dynamic structure man -- so it all just kind of gelled.
Mithra: Were there any aspects of the story that were difficult to write?
Morgan: Not really -- once I had clear in my mind the elements I wanted to explore, it pretty much wrote itself. The only real struggle for me has been the brevity needed to fit a story (and each story segment) into such a tight frame. Twenty two pages at five to six panels a page isn.t a lot of space when you're used to spinning out four hundred pages of prose per novel.
Mithra: I was wondering where does your Widow story take place in comparison to the Widow storyline that recently ran in the main Daredevil title?
Morgan: Well, I haven't read that one in fact. But I think it's safe to say that Homecoming post-dates pretty much every other appearance of the Widow. She's retired when it starts, and all that stuff is part of a past she's trying very hard to put behind her.
Mithra: And finally, the final panel of the series mentions that the story will continue in Volume 2... any word on when/if that will happen? How was the overall experience for you on Volume 1?
Morgan: Well, we're working on the storyline for Volume 2 right now, but as to when it launches, that's still up in the air. Both July and September have been mentioned, but nothing's definite yet -- watch this space! Meanwhile, I've had a lot of fun with Volume 1, it's been a great experience, not least because it's such a different form of writing, but also because it doesn't involve the loneliness you get as a novelist. There's been a lot of to-ing and fro-ing of ideas between me and Jenny, and that's been fun. Plus the whole thing of collaborating with these big industry figures has been exhilarating. So I'm definitely up for another round!
Black and White
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