Writer Devin Grayson co-created Yelena Belova, the second Black Widow, back in the late '90s Marvel Knights era. Now, as Yelena is on the verge of reaching the big screen in Marvel Studios' Black Widow (played by Florence Pugh), Grayson returns to Yelena's comic book adventures and teams her up with another Black Widow movie character in Red Guardian and Yelena Belova: Widowmakers #1.
Newsarama caught up with Grayson ahead of Widowmakers #1's November 18 release to discuss what it's like getting back into writing her classic creation, what Yelena and Red Guardian are up against in the one-shot, and Yelena's breakout potential for the big screen.
Nrama: Devin, you're bringing together Red Guardian and Yelena Belova for Widowmakers. What brings these two characters together?
Devin Grayson: At the meta-level, that would be the upcoming Black Widow movie and an editorial mandate. In the story, it's a chance meeting.
Nrama: On that note, what's their mission in this story?
Grayson: This is a spy story, so there are a few layers to that on Yelena's part. At the most basic level, she has accepted a freelance assignment to break someone out of a former S.H.I.E.L.D. black ops site in the Antarctic.
That assignment is not actually what it seems, though, nor is her reason for accepting it. She's trying to create a new direction for her life—a meaningful mission—and the man who hires her is not—as so often happens in spy stories—entirely on the level with her about what he's actually after. Though that said, one might suppose it's even possible that she has not been entirely forthcoming with him, either…
As for Alexei, well…as the story opens, he's actually presumed dead.
Nrama: The solicitation for Widowmakers mentions Yelena and Red Guardian's past catching up with them. What can you tell us about that?
Grayson: What I can tell you about that is that solicitation copy is often written before the story has even been assigned, much less scripted. I think that's potentially useful for readers to understand.
For Yelena, especially, this story is actually more about creating a new future. Her take on the world has developed and matured since her first adventures facing off against Natasha, and her opportunities have broadened. She's gotten to a point in life where she's looking at both her skill set and the reality she's living in and trying to figure out how best to make a difference.
Their past informs the story mostly through conversations the characters have about Russia's political past and how differently each of them view that.
Nrama: Will we see any other Russian characters from Marvel lore pop up in Widowmakers?
Grayson: Not in this particular story. The remote Antarctic location kind of prohibited that.
Nrama: Speaking of Yelena, you co-created her with JG Jones back in the Marvel Knights era. How does it feel coming back to the character as she's on the cusp of being a movie star?
Grayson: I'm thrilled to see her doing so well and incredibly excited to see Florence Pugh—an actress I very much admire—bring her to life on the silver screen. There's a strange side to it, too, though, maybe analogous to parenting a grown child. Yelena's had so many adventures since JG and I created her, some brilliant and some very much not what I anticipated or hoped for her. I read recently, for example, that she worked briefly as a lingerie model and just kind of groaned, "oh, honey, nooo…" much the same way I would upon hearing my adult stepson describe a new plan I fear won't work out well for him. In both cases, you have to just let it happen and hope for the best.
Taking that analogy further, writing Widowmakers gave me a chance to kind of sit down with Yelena again and talk to her about her future: "I'm always proud of you, and you know that I'll support you doing anything you want to do. But I'd hate for you to miss the opportunity to put your special talents to good use…." It's a speech that both my real and fictional kids are probably sick of hearing.
Ultimately I think the place created for her in the MCU will have the greatest impact on how she's remembered, but I'm glad that she got the chance to come visit with her mom again prior to that.
Nrama: What potential do you see for Yelena as a continuing presence in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as one of her creators? How do you feel about what you've seen of Florence Pugh's performance?
Grayson: I've only seen the same previews you've seen, but I've loved every millisecond of them. The movie looks phenomenally well cast and I'm excited to see how it introduces and deepens these characters.
In terms of Yelena's potential: it's basically unlimited. There's absolutely no reason I can think of that she - especially as embodied by Florence Pugh - couldn't carry an entire cinematic franchise.
Nrama: You've got your fair share of creations at Marvel and DC, not to mention your creator-owned work. Which of your creations or storylines would you like to see make it to the big screen next?
That's not to disparage my other babies, though. I've seen a few of my work-for-hire characters on TV now - like Damien Darhk, played by the fantastic Neal McDonough over on the CW shows - and it's always a blast.
Nrama: What are the key things you're keeping in mind when you set up a mystery in a one-shot like this? How do you dig in deep with these characters in a limited amount of pages?
Grayson: Well, that's exactly it - you have a very limited amount of space, so you need to really focus. I generally try to find something specific about the character that I want to communicate; push them into a situation that demands a response from them readers haven't seen yet, for example, or set a difficult question in front of them and give them just enough room to explore potential answers.
In this case, it felt like Yelena was kind of between missions - or in some ways even identities - when this story picks up, so the question I wanted to exam was what would someone with her background and skillset do if she could do anything?
Her skillset is pretty evident to anyone familiar with her or indeed even Natasha (though of course you want to highlight it through action sequences), and having Alexei involved gave me a way to gesture toward the shape of her background simply by contrasting it to his. So that left plenty of room for exciting, spy-worthy action while she articulates her new mission to a new friend.
Nrama: Michele Bandini drew Widowmakers #1. What did he bring to this one-shot? What's your favorite thing he drew?
Grayson: Michele's amazing. I'm big on character expressions and distinct locations, and he absolutely nails that, as well as creating these gorgeous, adrenalized action sequences with crystal-clear story-telling, dynamic camera angles, and engaging layouts. He produced so many moments I love, but I think my favorite may be the ending splash—there's just so much emotion and story in it; you've got this one static image with juxtaposed narration and it's almost a story within itself. You can't look at it without thinking about everything that happened before and what might be coming next. The first time I saw it inked it gave me chills.
Nrama: Will we see more of Yelena Belova and Red Guardian in the foreseeable future?
Grayson: Why, yes, I believe you will!
There's no official word on that from Marvel yet, but some of my best friends are spies, and they assure me there's something in the works.
Nrama: You've been working steadily at Marvel for the last couple years, getting back into Big Two superheroes. What can we expect from you next?
Grayson: I'm glad it looks like that way and I do enjoy great working relationships with editors at most of our industry's publishing companies, but actually, the majority of my energy is going into creator-owned work. I'd love to do an ongoing series with Marvel, but at the moment I'm working on an original graphic novel for Berger Books - a contemporary fairytale about the climate crisis with an absolutely amazing rising-star European artist.
I genuinely enjoy working with licensed characters—there's something about the challenge of taking a well-established character and telling new stories with them that I find satisfying—but that's not always the best place to tell deeply personal or political stories. Lately I've felt skeptical about the sociological value of superhero mythologies and so have been working on stories mostly outside that framework.
Nrama: Bottom line, what do readers need to know going into Widowmakers?
Grayson: Hopefully you could go in cold and enjoy a thrilling spy tale, but it might be helpful to understand who Alexei and Yelena are and where they were each last seen.
Alexei, also known as Red Guardian, was once essentially the Captain America of the Soviet Union. So someone like Yelena, growing up in post-Soviet Russia, would have been very likely to have looked up to him at one point as a national hero. But in more recent history, Alexei was caught masquerading as "Ronin" and attempting to build his own empire, super-villain-style. His ex-wife Natasha stopped him, shot him, and had him arrested. Since the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D., no one seems quite sure where he ended up.
Like Natasha, Yelena was trained in the Red Room - Russia's clandestine training program for female assassins - and in fact was sent by them (or so she claims) to defeat Natasha and take over the Black Widow mantle.
That didn't work out quite the way she planned and over the years she and Natasha made peace, occasionally working together; Nat even called Yelena in for help in the recent Web of Black Widow series. With the destruction of the Red Room, Yelena's become something of a free agent. She's neither a full-fledged hero nor a full villain, but a young woman with a formidable someone who tends to operate in gray spaces.
I hope you enjoy the story!
Excited for Yelena Belova's movie debut? Here's what we know about Marvel Studios' Black Widow - including when it's expected to be released.