Diversity Aboveground; Black Widow: Forever Red

The Protagonist

In the last few years, Marvel has published several books written for the Young Adult market. The latest release is Black Widow: Forever Red by Margaret Stohl. With the popularity of Black Widow and the way she’s been turned into a rallying cry for how female superheroes are treated, how is her portrayal? Does it measure up to the previous releases? Is it worth reading for those unfamiliar with the comics?

All three of Marvel’s Young Adult novels revolve around female protagonists and are written by female authors. The previous releases in 2013 were The She-Hulk Diaries by Marta Acosta and Rogue Touch by Christine Woodward (an alias for Nina de Gramont). On the same day that Black Widow: Forever Red was released, Marvel announced a sequel and a book about Captain Marvel authored by Shannon and Dan Hale for 2016. There was even a preview story with Black Widow and the other characters in the Mockingbird solo comic.

However, that enthusiasm doesn’t seem to be expressed by the availability of merchandise. When Disney published Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Sword of Summer the week before Black Widow: Forever Red was released, copies could be found everywhere from grocery stores to toy stores to regular bookstores. With Stohl’s book, it was much more difficult. Target has a back order of 2-4 four weeks. Walmart only has it online. It’s not available at the usual grocery store, toy store and drug store locations. Comic book stores reported not receiving it in their shipments. The prevalence of e-books might make this sound like a minor issue but the majority of Millennials prefer print books. Only 20% of 13-17 year olds and 23% of 18-29 year olds buy ebooks regularly. Of course, 55% of Young Adult readers are actually adults but why make your customers work to get your product?

Red Widow and Black Widow

Comic Book Preview Story from Mockingbird #1

Still, it could be a matter of rewrites at the last minute. If the book was still being tweaked that close to publishing deadline, it could explain the numerous number of mistakes. The book even manages to misspell a character from Star Wars. Guess we shouldn’t expect a Patton Oswalt-style crossover any time soon?

The She-Hulk Diaries and Rogue Touch had mediocre reviews and sales. On a 1-5 scale, their average review on Goodreads is 3.4 for She-Hulk and 2.85. Black Widow: Forever Red has mixed reviews; 3.72 with 12% of readers reporting that they didn’t like it.

Writing books aimed towards juveniles or young adults in an established licensed property can be tricky. The most popular characters usually have restrictions on what they can and cannot do or say. It’s almost a given you will not be allowed to kill them off. For most previous Disney fandoms, including Star Wars, this has often meant that original characters will be established that may work with the original characters but are generally left on their own under the same rules or universe as the licensed property. For She-Hulk, she remained the center of her own story in a style patterned off Bridget Jones or Georgia Nicolson with journal entries accompanied by prose. Rogue’s book suffered from her love interest being treated as an equal protagonist.

Red Widow

But how do you make a book revolve around Black Widow; one of the most aloof of the superheroes? She-Hulk describes her in her novel as having “detached efficiency” and Natasha Romanoff describes herself in Black Widow: Forever Red as “I’m not exactly the big-sister type”. The answer appears to be simple: you don’t. Yes, the book is a kind of bait and switch scam. The real protagonist of Black Widow: Forever Red is a teenage girl named Ava Orlova. Even her forced love interest, Alex Manor, seems to have more characterization and narrative than Natasha. Most of the insight into Natasha comes from other characters including a psychoanalysis by none other than Tony Stark? Since when does he understand people that well? It was Romanoff that mentally evaluated Stark for the Avengers Initiative.

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Black Widow: Forever Red appears to use some Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) canon. There’s even a small reference to Bruce Banner while there’s a lot more insight into his character through his cousin’s book, The She-Hulk Diaries. Still, there is usage of the 616 comics universe which is where things get weird. Natasha works closely with Coulson with no mention of his death or T.A.H.I.T.I. although a similar plot-line is given to Natasha. None of Coulson’s television crew is mentioned despite having their own 616 comic series. The Red Room; its history and tactics is an important part of the novel which should mean references that would correlate with what viewers learned on Agent Carter but that’s lacking, too. Even a reference to being handcuffed to the bed is about punishment used by the Red Room and not a deliberate training tool as the television series suggested. Hawkeye is nothing more than a name mentioned once or twice. Anyone new from Avengers: Age of Ultron or Ant-Man is ignored.

The most gorgeous of the covers belongs to Black Widow: Forever Red, shown as the banner for this week’s column. It uses the full color palette with multiple textures and metallic finishes. The young woman is shadowed, either to represent the mysterious nature of Natasha Romanoff or to disguise the fact that it’s actually Ava Orlova on the cover. Rogue Touch has a nice close-up of Rogue especially her hair. The worst cover belongs to The She-Hulk Diaries. The color scheme is purple and green matching the early days of her character but the only item featured is a tube of green lipstick. How is that supposed to reveal anything about Jennifer Walters? The natural assumption would be that she likes to be creative with her make-up, not that her skin is often green. It’s also a symbol of traditional femininity as though to repel men or those who don’t want a book that’s too “girly”.

The She-Hulk Diaries by Marta Acosta

The worst part about The She-Hulk Diaries having just a lipstick on its cover, as though embracing traditional ideals, is that its extremely supportive of modern women. It carefully includes almost every kind of woman from happily married to single mother to those who have earned law degrees to those frowned upon for happily working with cosmetology. The novel also raises important issues like double standards.

Remember when Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans referred to Black Widow as a “slut” earlier this year?

In the 2013 book, the Avengers’ secretary explains:

I think Shulky is AMAZING, but she doesn’t seem to care that the guys here…I totally love them all, but they’re going to judge any female as a slut if she’s as sexually active as they are.

Yep, that sounds about right. Walters does pursue romance but it’s not her sole goal in life. Her other priorities are landing a job at a good law firm and a nice apartment with private access for her superhero needs. She’s shown to be an intelligent, determined woman who graduated from Harvard Law School. It’s well balanced between all aspects of her life.

Jennifer Walters as She-Hulk

On the other hand, Ava Orlova is a teenager who hasn’t developed that kind of self confidence yet. She’s also quick to let her hormones do the talking.

She pulled her face up next to his and kissed him along his jawline…After that, there really wasn’t much thinking.

Ava had just met her lover less than four days before. This is the sort of old fashioned thinking that even Frozen pointed out was wrong. Yes, there is a double standard here. Jennifer Walters could sleep with a strange man that night and it would be fine because she’s a thirty year old and mature. Ava Orlova is a teenager and immature. The forced relationship is one of the worst Young Adult novel standards. Is it because the protagonist is female? Would people be unwilling to read the book unless there are multiple make-out sessions? Percy Jackson and Harry Potter never had romances that were a main focus of their book or felt like two characters were put into a romance together simply because they were the same age.

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Jessica Drew and Natasha Romanova

The other problem with the portrayal of females in Black Widow: Forever Red is that with two strong female leads, it should easily pass the Bechdel-Wallace test. In the 400 page novel, only a handful of conversations are between two females and not involving males. Most of the winning dialogue is between Ava and her best friend, Oksana. It would be assumed that Ava would talk with Natasha but Ava has decided she hates Natasha over not living up to her childhood ideals. This seemed forced as well and disappointing since even eliminating the unnecessary male character would have meant Ava and Natasha have actual conversations with each other instead of just about each other, but apparently, the relationship expected from them should show up in the sequel. Unlike She-Hulk, who had countless females friends that she talked to and worked with, Natasha is lacking in female companionship. Her close associates are all men. Is that a side effect of the Red Room training? Does she feel males would be less likely to talk about feelings and things that make her uncomfortable? Or is it that S.H.I.E.L.D. is a “boys club” just as much as the Avengers? It’s not explored in this volume but perhaps the sequel will delve into it. Even the 616 universe has Natasha with plenty of female friends, including going to the Russian Baths with Jessica Drew. However, 616 and MCU Natasha are quite a bit older than this Natasha who appears to be early to mid 20s.

All the Marvel young adult novels need to work on the use of other minorities. There are no confirmed LGBTQA characters in any of the books. Less than a handful of characters in each book represent races other than Caucasian. The She-Hulk Diaries does get brownie points for an interracial couple.

Even though all of the novels are imperfect in some way, it’s still progress that Marvel has published three Young Adult novels about female protagonists with plans for many more. Black Widow: Forever Red would probably be more enjoyable to the casual Marvel reader who loved Stohl’s previous novels like Beautiful Creatures. The She-Hulk Diaries keeps closest to canon and is the most integrated into the Marvel universe while keeping an often comedic tone, perfect for more serious fans who also enjoy comedy mixed with political discussions on whether clones should have equal rights. Just the existence of these books proves to the general public about what the Avengers secretary said that She-Hulk told her.

“You know what she said to me once? ‘Male is not the default gender for superhero.’”

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Supergirl

Did you catch Supergirl this week?

Over 13 million people did, making it largest watched debut for a comic book series since Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. It’s projected to to be seen by 19 million before the week is over and that would surpass the 1993 episode on ABC.

The other exciting news is that Supergirl was stereotyped as a “girls’ show”. However, ages 18-34 is the only group where women comprised the majority of viewers. In every other age group, it was mainly men who watched the premiere.

It should help prove that when a fandom is treated with respect with the remake being updated for modern tastes that it can be a success unlike Jem which has become the worst opening weekend for a film released by a major studio ever. It will be blamed on being a female protagonist but the fandom refused to see it after it was changed too much and the teenagers unfamiliar with the original were turned off by the darker tone, similar to Grace Unplugged.

Have fun at the Free Comic Book Day this Saturday and pick up something from one of the independent publishers like Tail Wands, Power Up, I hate Fairyland or Plutona.

Next week…

Should James Bond change? How so?

Also, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. deserves a larger audience with its digital release.

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