Review – Black Widow: Forever Red by Margaret Stohl

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I vividly remember being in the audience at the Women of Marvel panel at New York Comic Con last October as the announcement was made that there was a Black Widow YA novel by Margaret Stohl in the works. I was super excited that Natasha was getting more stories in a new format. Flash forward to a few weeks ago, when I got a package from Marvel with an advance press version of the book to review for GGG. When I was cheering with the rest of the audience after the announcement, I never thought that I would get to read the story early. Let me tell you this: I was not wrong to be excited for this book.

Forever Red focuses on two female protagonists: everyone’s favorite Russian spy Natasha Romanov and a new character, teenager Ava Orlova. Ava has a lot in common with the Black Widow: both women are red-headed Russian loners and orphans who escaped Ivan Petrovich and his infamous Red Room. After saving young Ava from Ivan’s grasp one fateful night, Natasha Romanov called Ava “sistra” and told her that if she ever needed help, just ask and the Black Widow would find her. Years later, the story opens on teenage Ava who is living a scavenger’s life with a stray cat in a YMCA basement in NYC. In the years since their meeting in Russia, Ava had needed help – and had reached out to the Black Widow multiple times. Help never came.

For months, Ava has been dreaming about a boy named Alex. She does not know who the boy is or if he even exists – until she suddenly sees him in person at a fencing competition. Alex does not recognize Ava, but the connection between them is undeniable. As if finally meeting the boy from her dreams was not enough of a shock, that same day is the day that long-lost sistra Natasha Romanov finally reappears in Ava’s life.

I really enjoyed this book. For the first few chapters, I was unsure where Stohl was going with the story of Ava, Alex, and Natasha and was worried that it would fall into typical YA tropes – girl meets boy, etc, etc – but my fear was unnecessary. Every time I thought I knew what would happen to the trio, Stohl added another twist. The plot is interesting and unpredictable and keeps you hooked. The story reads like a spy novel, but even better because it featured a character that I know and love. By the time you reach Part Three of the novel, it is impossible to put Forever Red down.

The book is a good introduction to Ava, who had her first appearance as the Red Widow in the Marvel comic universe in Mockingbird: S.H.I.E.L.D. 50th Anniversary #1, which was released last month. I’m definitely interested in seeing more of Ava in comic book form and watching her relationship with Natasha develop past the events of Forever Red.

I want to talk about female representation and why this book is important. Anyone who has heard me talk about comics knows that I have serious problems with the lack of female characters and with the often problematic ways that existing female characters are represented in comic media. I often feel that the companies creating the comics I love don’t care about me as a female reader. Despite the rising numbers of female readership, the existence of female fandom is ignored and even ridiculed.

When Marvel announced this title at last year’s New York Comic Con, I felt the opposite. Forever Red was clearly Marvel responding to their legions of female fans, saying ‘We hear you. Here’s something just for you.’ They branched out into a new format that they know that young fans love in order to give them something they had been asking for: More Black Widow! More female titles! I, and thousands of other female fans, finally felt our existence acknowledged with the announcement of Forever Red.

I doubt we will ever get that Black Widow movie we have been asking for for years. But who is to say that seeing her represented in a different type of media is any less important? Black Widow is the first character to get the YA treatment from Marvel, and although that is most likely because young girls are the largest audience of YA novels, it doesn’t change the fact that they are finally giving Natasha her long-awaited spotlight.

This book is also important because it could be a gateway for many young people to get interested in comics. If a young girl likes Forever Red, they’ll want to read more about Ava and Natasha. They’ll visit their local comic book store and maybe pick up the first trade of Edmondson and Noto’s recent run of Black Widow, or read about Ava in the recent Mockingjay one-shot. Maybe if we see more young girls getting involved in comics, the publishers will finally start to acknowledge their non-white/male/straight audiences and adapt the media they are producing as such.

It just takes one YA novel for someone to start reading comics, and maybe they will be the author, editor, or artist to diversify the comic book genre in the future and make it a more open community. I wouldn’t be surprised if Black Widow: Forever Red was that novel.

Black Widow: Forever Red will be released on October 13, 2015.

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