Richard K. Morgan talks Marvel's "Black Widow"

Cover by Greg Land

Natasha Romanov is alluring and lethal. She can charm a man and snap his neck before he completes a pick up line. Romanov, AKA The Black Widow, has been a spy, a villain, and a superhero. In the new six-issue mini-series from Marvel Knights, writer Richard K Morgan takes the Widow back to her roots, the gray hued world of espionage. CBR News spoke with Morgan via e-mail about his work on "Black Widow."

Morgan has written two noir tinged science fiction novels, "Altered Carbon" and "Broken Angels." His novels feature Takeshi Kovacs, a man who has been a private eye and a soldier. "Black Widow" is Morgan's first comic work. "I was head-hunted by Jenny Lee at Marvel," Morgan told CBR News. "She'd just read 'Altered Carbon' and liked the way I'd handled my female characters, principally the way in which they weren't defined by their sex. She wanted to see if I'd be interested in importing that approach into a Marvel series. She ran a few characters past me, and as soon as I heard about the Black Widow, I was hooked."

Before being recruited for "Black Widow," Morgan had been a comic fan, but not a typical one. "I have quite a substantial collection of graphic novels, but I don't buy the monthlies," Morgan explained. "Mostly that's to do with length and instant gratification - I want to be able to immerse myself in a story for hours rather than minutes, and I hate having to wait for the next installment of anything. Past favorites include Miller's 'Dark Knight,' Moore's 'From Hell' and 'League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,' Ennis and Dillon's 'Preacher' and Joe Sacco's 'Palestine.' Currently, I'm hooked on Mike Carey's 'Lucifer' series and Marjane Satrapi's 'Persepolis.''

The Marvel Universe was unfamiliar territory for Morgan and he had not heard of the Black Widow until Lee pitched him on the character. She helped him remedy that. "Jenny was great - she sent me stacks of back issues and story lines, so that I could immerse myself in what had gone before. I spent about a month eating, sleeping and breathing Natasha in her various incarnations before I put pen to paper."

During his research, Morgan read many Black Widow stories, but the one that stood out the most for him was "Daredevil/Black Widow: Abattoir," a graphic novel by Jim Starlin and Joe Chiodo. "It was very raw, and somewhat different than most of the other stuff I was wading through," said Morgan. "It made me sit up and take notice late one night when I'd already been reading BW stories for three or four hours. There was a dark menace to the artwork that extended even to the sequences with that arch goody-goody Daredevil. And of course it was thematically interesting, dealing as it did with child sex abuse and its consequences."

Morgan's research enabled him to determine the core elements that defined the Widow. "Alienation, isolation and loss. The Widow is essentially alone, she's walked away from her homeland and all that that implies, she has lost all the standard emotional support systems we take for granted - parents, family, partner etc - and the profession she's engaged in is a profoundly dehumanizing one. To my mind that makes her as dangerous a character as you could ever build. And fascinating into the bargain, because with that kind of emotional instability underlying a brutal, trained-in spy competence, there's just no telling which way she'll jump at any given moment or how far she'll go."

In the mini-series, the solitary Black Widow is forced to seek help from a friend. In the first issue readers are introduced to Phil Dexter, a character whose name Morgan borrowed from a short story called "The Giaconda Caper" by science fiction writer Bob Shaw. "I needed a companion for the Widow, someone from her past, and I didn't like the look of any of the available talent - mostly too squeaky clean for the story I wanted to tell," Morgan explained. "So it seemed best to build someone from scratch. I wanted a character who would have access to confidential data and clandestine facilities, but at the same time it needed to be someone who wasn't actually working for SHIELD or any other related agency - in other words I wanted the capacity without the accountability. This led pretty inevitably to the idea of an ex-SHIELD agent, and given my own noir-and-sleaze enthusiasms, an ex-SHIELD agent who left under a cloud. What would such a man do in the outside world? Obvious! He'd be a seedy, down-at-heel private eye. He'd be full of attitude, but if you could just get him on your side he'd be incredibly useful. Enter Phil."

In issue two of the mini-series, Morgan reveals a big change - The Black Widow no longer uses her trademark wrist blasters. "In my mind they symbolized everything that needed to change about the character - they were a hideous welding of cod-femininity (bracelets, jewelry) and kitsch James Bond weaponry," Morgan said. "I didn't want my Black Widow to be some cute sub-Bond girl who only lights up when the [male] hero happens by, I wanted her to cast her own shadow, and I wanted it to be a dark one. Put it this way - which Batman do you prefer the Adam West TV incarnation or Frank Miller's 'Dark Knight?' Exactly. No contest. I wanted to apply the same logic to what I was doing with Black Widow, and that meant the girly shit had to go."

There were a variety of influences on "Black Widow," with Frank Miller's "Dark Night Returns" a notable one. "I loved the way Miller rewired the whole Batman ethos back to its darkest and most brutal roots. Superhero characters, by their very nature, exist at the margins of the human spectrum, and I think it's vital not to lose sight of that edginess. I've also and especially recently been reading a lot of Alan Moore, where again you can find the dissection of the superhero ethos played out repeatedly in 'Watchmen,' 'League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,' 'Top Ten' and so on. Moore does it with more wry humor and less full-on noir fury than Miller's take, but it's an equally valuable critique. Oh, and finally, I think, I'm indebted to Ennis and Dillon for the 'Preacher' series, which is non-pareil for no-holds-barred to-the-hilt passion and rage. I love that tone almost as much as Miller's noir."

Morgan admits that switching from prose novels to comic scripts was a learning experience. "When you're used to turning in 400 page novels, trying to get a story down in twenty two pages of five to seven panels each is a serious challenge. In fact, the first issue I roughed out later turned out to have enough material for all of BW #1 and #2 and then some. But I had a fine mentor in Jenny Lee - she helped me up the learning curve with infinite patience and has given me lots of support throughout."

One reason why Morgan enjoyed writing his first comic book project was his working relationship with Lee. "Jenny is sharp and smart and knowledgeable about the trade, but at the same time she's wide open to new ideas and fresh perspectives," said Morgan. "She's a real blue sky practitioner. She was the one who had the vision to come and get me for this gig in the first place, and then she was infinitely patient when I turned out to be a total comic novice and needed time to get up to speed. She's been there at every turn as the voice of experience in a field I know next to nothing about, but at the same time she really listened to what I wanted to do with the character and the storyline, and then ran with it at Olympic standard. I couldn't wish for a better guiding light."

Morgan and Lee are currently discussing a return to the Widow's world of intrigue and subterfuge. " I'm talking to Jenny Lee about either an on-going monthly or a second mini-series, but nothing's finalized as yet," Morgan said. "I'd love to do either. I'm immersed in the character now and there's huge mileage left in both Natasha's internal dynamics and the global plot she's webbed up in."

"Black Widow" issues one and two are available now. Issue three is solicited for a November 24th release. Those who like their espionage epics in collected editions can pick up the graphic novel collecting the entire "Black Widow" mini-series in April 2005.

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