By Bryan Hill
I was incredibly, completely, absolutely flat broke during my undergraduate film studies at NYU. Broke like skipping meals to afford rides on the Subway. Broke like working two college jobs, with all of it going to tuition and it never being enough. Broke like having to choose between living in a pest-infested room in Harlem, or not finishing college at all because I couldn’t afford to pay for the dormitories. I was angry, but my anger was a cloak that hid my shame, shame based on a fear that if I was indeed good enough to tell stories, somehow this would have been easier.
It seemed adversity was the universe telling me I was overestimating my ability as a storyteller. I was reaching for a life I wasn’t meant to have, a life I didn’t have the aptitude to have or the right to want.
I felt like an imposter.
In that last semester I interned for an Emmy award winning producer who had her own production company. She was kind, if more than a little intimidating, but she bought me lunch and that would often be the only meal I had on the days I worked there.
One day she asked me to write a script for a television series, something about film students done in a “WB style” (the name of the network before it became the “CW”), hormones and loathing and art school. I wrote it, worked very hard on it, and I turned it into her a month after the request. She read it and told me:
“You can’t be a writer, Bryan. I’ve read scripts and I just don’t see anything in your work that’s worth supporting. It’s not too late for you. You should do something else.”
That evening I was angry, very angry, but anger isn’t truth. Anger is just the mask of fear. I was afraid she was right. She saw my work with her experienced eye and knew I was the imposter. The universe had told her what I feared was the truth: I wasn’t good enough and I would never be good enough. My dream was a cruel trick of fate, the life I would never have, the plateau I would never reach.
Obviously, I didn’t follow her advice, but I never forgot those words. That feeling of being an imposter, of being something false. The fear that the weak presentation of your chosen self will break in the face of any real challenge, it’s not something many comic book heroes feel. They tend to be creatures like The Batman, born from self determination, or they’re the survivors of legacy like Superman, born to be something greater. Most superheroes don’t feel like imposters.
Natasha Romanova, The Black Widow, does.
If Batman was the hero of my childhood, in many ways Natasha Romanova speaks to what I felt as a young adult. She was raised an assassin, compelled to do horrible things, but unlike Bucky Barnes she can’t say she was under mind control. She did those things willingly. She made the decision to be a hero, but her life as a villain never left her. She fears, as I feared, that she is a lie. She stands with Steve Rogers and Nick Fury and knows that with a small twist of fate she would be the person her friends would destroy.
A lot of us feel like that. We have no right to be here. Or there. We feel our best intentions might not be enough and our essence, our very selves, might fail our hope for our lives. What I learn from her stories is that the enemy of fear is empathy.
And the first empathy must come from yourself, to yourself.
From Natasha I learn that ability and aptitude are not frozen states. They’re not defined by birth, or history, or expectation. Your ability is defined by action, by what you do in all the moments you have a choice to act. She is a hero because now she makes the choices a hero makes. She is a hero because she uses her darkest experience to head back into the shadow and stop it from taking more people, from making more people what she used to be.
Storytelling works the same way. If you have a story inside of you, that gives you the right to tell it. If it’s not good enough, then make the heroic choice to keep working on it, to keep telling it, to keep telling more stories like it. If you write a story, then you’re a writer. If you’re not a good writer, then keep writing and you will be a better one. What I’ve learned from Natasha is that the result of the choice isn’t as important as the act of making the choice.
Imposters never make that choice. An imposter is unable to make that choice. When we choose to act, to chase our dream of self, it doesn’t matter if we get there. We become, not when we arrive, but when we take the step towards our goals.
I’ve learned from Black Widow that shame is a self-inflicted torment, and our greatest villain sneers at us with our face, mocks us with our own voice, and walks with us forever.
But that villain walks behind us, seducing us with anger, desperate to pull us into the center of our fears. When we act, as Natasha acts, we move just far enough that the mocking words can’t stop us and that villain loses the power to determine our fate.
Too often, we are children raised to define ourselves by our limitations. We are told not to trust the world in which we live. We are told to believe in the flaws of others, and not the potential of what they can become. Cynicism is taught as truth, and heroism is discarded as impossible. We are told we should fear the world and ourselves, and the only virtue worth having is using our ability to strike out before we are struck.
Natasha was taught this, raised to see the beauty of ballet as only another path to violence and that violence was the only sane response to the world. She chose to reject all of that. She chooses to stand with the ones who also reject that.
She is not an imposter. She is an Avenger. She is a hero. Not because she was raised to be. Not because anyone believed she could be. Not even because she believes she is. She’s a hero because she does what a hero does, with complete commitment, and when she returns to her life alone, and hears the voices that tell her she will never be good enough, she cannot silence them.
She just knows that she’s not going to allow them to win.
That night, with those words from that producer dancing pirouettes in my mind I feared I was told the truth of my fate. I feared that I would never be more than her judgement, that I never was. I feared that fighting the adversity I fought to finish my education was a waste of my time, of money, and the sane thing would be to do something else. That night, I didn’t do anything else but what I knew how to do.
I took out a legal pad. I found a pen. I embraced those feelings.
And I wrote a story about them.
“BLACK WIDOW – The Name of the Rose” by Marjorie M. Liu and Daniel Acuna
“BLACK WIDOW – The Finely Woven Thread” by Nathan Edmundson and Phil Noto
“BLACK WIDOW (2016-Present)” by Chris Samnee and Mark Waid.
Bryan Edward Hill is the story editor of Top Cow, and the writer of POSTAL. His book ROMULUS (co-created with artist Nelson Blake II) is due from Image/Top Cow this fall. He invites discussions on twitter: @bryanedwardhill