Michael Moccio ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Editor-in-Chief
Official Description: Join #1 New York Times bestselling author Margaret Stohl (Beautiful Creatures series; Black Widow: Forever Red) and Social Media Manager for Marvel Entertainment Adri Cowan as they discuss women tackling the superhero genre in new and interesting ways, the rise of female-followed protagonists by both male and female readers, and possible tricks writing one’s way out of in-universe, long-standing character conflicts.
The panel opened up introducing both Margaret Stohl and Adri Cowan, an Emerson alum. The panel’s being recorded to be included in a Women of Marvel podcast. “Margaret, you have three daughters! And you’re creating a character that’s so so important,” Cowan said right off the bat. “So I’d like you to talk a little about that.”
“I write for my daughters. I always have. I started with the Beautiful Creatures series,” says Stohl. “I always wanted to write for the girls and boys I knew who were very smart and could take care of themselves. We made video games for a long long time and their opinion always mattered to us. I worked on Spider-man for Activision and a Fantastic Four game for Marvel. Those are the people I write for, but anyone who thinks it’s easier to write a genre book, commercial book, or for a younger audience, they’re wrong. Teenagers will murder you for messing it up and our fandom is just the same.”
“Did having daughters affect how you shaped Black Widow as a character?” Cowan asked.
“Yes! Absolutely. I’m interested in who these characters are and what makes them tick. My fourteen year old is a Black Widow and Avengers fan,” said Stohl. “My husband is the biggest feminist I know. My eyes prickle whenever I go to conventions, feeling these are my people, and I feel the same way about Marvel. I think that a lot of times, people who like books for teens also like comic books and we read across the aisle.”
“In the comic books, she has years and years of history. What was the research like and how did you prepare?” Cowan asked.
“Well, you work at Marvel,” Sohl responded, laughing. “It’s so much to deal with for any given character! Marvel time is like dog years!”
“When I started working at Marvel, I was already a fan, but I wasn’t able to be a complete encyclopedia. When I went in, I was like ‘I’m going to read everything!’ and found out that it was impossible. Which is why I’m so excited about this book!” Cowan said. “I understand it now. There’s all this history and all these amazing stories created at different times. There are different people writing these stories, so over the years there’s so much to learn. Unless you started as a kid, it’s very hard to catch up with that.”
“When I was working on the Spider-man game, I read a ton and it was a transformative experience. It was the first time I really ingested a whole storyline start to finish. And that was crazy!” Stohl said. “In Fantastic Four, we did that the same way, which came out around the original movie. We spent so much time trying to get Jessica Alba‘s cheeks right!”
“I had to tease Natasha’s character throughout the writing, because that’s how she is,” Stohl said. “These people are totally real, and you understand that because I know they’re totally real to you too! So, it was great to pick out of all these years what parts of Natasha’s backstory and what to focus on.”
“There are some fans that are so attached to the canon. Did that frighten you at all?”
“It’s never a problem,” Stohl said, joking. “Yes, the answer is these are all true things. I was on a panel with Gene Luen Yang and I said to him that I feel like I’m in charge of Barack Obama’s autobiography and entire story! I know that authors are working throughout canon all the time, and you want to make sure you get it exactly write.”
“But sometimes, what happened to this character fifty years ago doesn’t make sense to that character now,” Cowan pointed out. “Why do you think she’s coming into the forefront now?”
“The best thing about Marvel fans is that you’re all experts,” said Stohl. “These are things that people care passionately about. And I think people care passionately about Natasha Romanov because they feel like they know her. She’s ours in some fundamental way. I love it when people argue about Black Widow, because it assumes they have an authority on her. And then you know you’re working with an insanely great universe, when people get that passionate.”
“I come from the nerd family!” said Stohl. “Our annual family vacation is the Pokemon World Championship! I have a daughter who’s been sponsored by Nintendo for Pokemon since 7. We aren’t as nerdy as it runs, but we had to take her at age 5 to head-to-head Pokemon battles.”
“If people hadn’t banded together and shown interest in Black Widow, I can safely say that a lot of these titles would not have been produced,” Cowan said on the power of social media. “Everyone has the opportunity to talk to us directly and tell us what they want.”
“We see everything!” Stohl added. “Especially the cat videos. Reach out to me, I want to see your cat! Really, though. You’re kidding yourself now if you don’t think our lives are all connected. We care what you think, we listen to you. We’re out there, sharing the fandom with you. We watch the same shows and follow the hashtags going through the episodes we’re going through. We’re all in this together! I just caught up on Thor and Thor‘s big reveal and my first instinct was to go online and see what everyone thought! Once you can harness social media for good instead of evil, it’s a collective stewardship. I think that’s changed everything!”
“It’s interesting too,” Cowan said, “because you’re talking about it as a creator, but I think about it as a brand! I have the streams open and it’s interesting because I see people talking to our brand as though we’re a person. I can’t take things personally because I’m not that person,A but you’re a creator and people forget you’re actually a human being.”
“That’s one of the problems of the internet. It can be a sad sad place,” Stohl said. “I always say that to my friends when they’re releasing things. The point is, you have to love what you’re doing more.”
“Do you think any of that feedback impacted how you wrote the Black Widow book?” Cowan asked.
“I think seeing every movie and following the comics has made me a different person if I hadn’t already been in the fandom. But no, I try to block everyone out,” says Stohl. “As they say in Dune, the beginning is a delicate time. I also had to get inside Natasha Romanov’s head, which is a herculean challenge because she doesn’t like anyone in her head.”
“I’m so excited about your book because you’re going to be reaching a whole new audience who can appreciate a hero that they can relate to,” said Cowan. “They’ll see damaged people do great things!”
“I think that’s one of the best things about Black Widow, because you can show her as ‘damaged’ but she’s incredibly strong and someone we can all aspire to be,” said Stohl.
“When I first started,” Cowan said, “I had a fear of two million people are going to see what I’m posting. You learn a lot when you have a lot to risk when you put something out that should be very very simple. But the Marvel audience and Marvel fans are so passionate and hungry for news and developments, that it makes everything you put out important. You have to be very thoughtful about how you phrase things and what you share. It’s more about making sure that everything is awesome when we release a new book or get a new issue out. That’s what’s most important.”
The panel then turned it over to audience Q&A.
Fan Question: What are your feelings on the romantic side of Natasha shown in Age of Ultron?
Stohl: “Justice is what love looks like in public.” So I’m kinda obsessed with Natasha in what makes her an Avenger. So, I’m interested in not so much who Natasha is with, I’m more interested in the nature of her heart. What I love about comic books is how character-driven they are. I’m all about her heart.
Whether you’re writing the narrative or curating the brand, I think there’s a lot of pressure for female narratives to be overtly feminist (as they should). Do you think that people are pushing you away from addressing larger issues of justice?
Stohl: I think it’s cool be a female creator in what was originally a male-dominated industry. At the same time, I’m interested in non-gender specific issues (if you can assert that those even exist). You don’t necessarily want to be only able to work on female-driven projects as a woman. No one questioned my right to work on Spider-man believe it or not, and that was twenty years ago. You don’t want your own opportunities limited, but it’s not like a boy can only read about a boy superhero or a girl can only read about a girl superhero.
As a former Cast Member (Disney) dealing with Natasha being underrepresented in stores, do you think that this will open up for more female Marvel characters to get their own novels and/or merchandise?
Stohl: Yes! The best thing you can do if you want someone to get a series is to make it known. And you guys are great at that. My Twitter feed explodes about what people want to see from Natasha Romanov. That’s how Agent Carter sticks around for another season–thank goodness! That’s how all of this happens! I really do love the stuff that’s going on with television. We’re all doing everything we can to make sure that happens.
What do you think the next step is for furthering representation?
Stohl: I think it’s off the hook! I think there’s going to be so much more. This isn’t a general treatment of licensed material. Disney and Marvel know how to cherry pick and program and really make this grow and work. There’s a lot of thought behind this.
So we’ve been talking a lot about how there are some wonderful female characters, but there’s a lot of backlash with how little merchandising there’s been. What do you think about that?
Stohl: Backlash is real. Culture moves both quickly and slowly. I know that this book is a product of your interest in Black Widow’s character. You’re how this book happened.
The fact that Black Widow isn’t getting her own movie breaks my heart! Does doing this book pave a way to help Black Widow get her own movie?
Stohl: My only comment on that is that like any of you, I’ll be first in line for that movie. It’s the same answer of that progress is progress and noise is noise and I love hearing everything from you all online.
What can I do to help promote the characters?
Cowan: Start a blog! Literally, the first advice I give is start a blog and start writing about what you care about. It doesn’t matter if people read it. It’s something you use to make your craft better. And if employers ask for experience, you can say you have your own blog! Being authentic means getting all the information and get all the information and all the sides of whatever’s happening. Be really knowledgeable and passionate about it. Do it now!
What are some advantages and disadvantages of writing Black Widow in the novel format?
Stohl: It’s fabulous and a huge challenge. It’s not a few seconds here or there and it’s not a sketch. Writing in the point of view of Natasha Romanov–the single character in all of Marvel who least wants anyone to know what’s going on in her head–is tricky. They’re all different. I love visuals. I love fan art. I spend a lot of time looking at art about the fandoms I love, but I think it’s a different thing rendering out a full novel. That’s why we’ve had to be so careful and work so close with both Disney and Marvel. The answer is it is different and there’s a lot more you have to do when it comes to a book.
Do you read any of the fanfiction?
Stohl: We spend a lot of time in the universe. That’s all I can say.
Cowan: I’ll see it, but I’ll see what happens on Tumblr and some of it is… naughty.