Nimona by Noelle Stevenson, 265pp, RL: TEEN
Noelle Stevenson created the cover art (and some bonus art for a special edition) for one of my favorite YA books, Fangirl by the brilliant Rainbow Rowell. I didn't realize she had three webcomics to her name, a powerful internet presence, and a huge, vociferous fan base. Nimona originally ran as a webcomic over two years starting in 2012 when Stevenson was still a student at Maryland Institute College of Art, unfurling at the rate of two pages a week. Stevenson is also the co-author of the excellent monthly print comic Lumberjanes, (review coming this week) which just won two Eisner Awards - for Best New Series AND Best Publication for Teens! I have no doubt Nimona will win big at next year's Eisners. Nimona has received stellar reviews since it was published at the end of May and I hope that I can do it justice here. Nimona was a phenomenal read that I drew out over days and weeks, not wanting it to end, and Nimona herself has to be my favorite character of this year. As Faith Erin Hicks, author and illustrator of the graphic novel, Friends with Boys and co-creator of the graphic novel Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong says in her review for the New York Times, "It is astonishing that 'Nimona,' . . . is Stevenson's first solo, full-length work. Her voice is clear and precise, her use of color growing in depth and assurance as the story progresses. Stevenson's dedication ("To all the monster girls") hints at affection toward girls who might see themselves in Nimona: joyful and dangerous, maybe a little monstrous on bad days, ultimately architects of their own destinies."
Nimona takes place in a happily anachronistic world that is mostly medieval with flourishes of science and technology adding to the excitement and intrigue. And, while the world Stevenson creates has a familiar, comfortable feel, it is her characters and their complexities who make this graphic novel infinitely readable. As Nimona begins, we find our hero presenting herself to Ballister Blackheart, the "biggest name in supervillainy!" Claiming the agency sent her to fill the role of sidekick, Nimona quickly admits her lie and begins begging. When she shows Blackheart she's a shapeshifter (by, hilariously, turning into a great white shark with legs and breasts) he relents. Nimona is a bold, brazen badass of a character with a playful, sometimes subversive sense of humor, a questionable sense of justice and a dark, hidden past. And, she is also, in human form, a Rubenesque teenager with pink hair and a curious buzz cut who grudgingly plays a board game (instead of a video game) with Ballister and changes her hair color from time to time. In an interview on NPR, Stevenson said that in Nimona she wanted to create a character she herself would actually want to cosplay (dress up as) rather than the typical buxom babes from comic books that she had no interest in dressing up as.
Although Nimona can change into anything and be all powerful, which could be a huge, annoying loophole, it isn't. Nimona is vulnerable, both physically and emotionally, and this is part of what makes her so appealing. And the plot! A close second to the infinitely awesome Nimona are Ballister Blackheart and his nemesis, classmate from their days at the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics, ex-friend (it's hinted at that the two might have shared romantic feelings) and hero with questionable ethics, Sir Ambrosious Goldenloin. Blackheart has a backstory that is almost as interesting as Nimoa's, with manipulation, amputation and betrayal forcing him into his role as villain. Curiously, as a villain, Blackheart has ethics and rules he lives by, the foremost being, "be prepared to accept the responsibility" if you are going to kill someone. When Blackheart plans to kidnap the king and demand a ransom with the help of his genetically modified dragons, Nimona counters with a plan to murder the king in front of everyone and have Blackheart take the crown for himself. When Blackheart says that this can't be done because there are rules, Nimona fumes, "What do you mean, there are rules? Why would you follow the rules?"
Things don't go as planned and Blackheart and Nimona uncover some strange happenings at the supposedly humanitarian Institution. As their plans change and progress, the Institution ramps up efforts to take out Nimona and stop Blackheart. The plot and Stevenson's illustrations become more complex and the lines between good and evil increasingly hazy. Yet another very cool character, Dr. Meredith Bitzmeyer, is introduced into the story along with her Anomalous Energy Enhancer that seems to sap Nimona of her shapeshifting powers for a time, along with a legend that just might point to Nimona's origins. The climactic scene of Nimona is powerful and moving and the ending definitely leaves room for more - which you will want from the first page onward. I hope that, among the many other incredible things she is working on, Stevenson has a sequel to this phenomenal graphic novel ready to go...
If you loved Nimona and want more of Noelle Stevenson's work, be sure to check out her blog: Noelle Stevenson Illustration where she features illustrations that are class assignments and some that are stress relievers. As an art school dropout, this was fascinating to me. Also, she has a great sense of humor, as you can see by her reinterpretation of Tolkien's characters: The Broship of the Ring.
Noelle Steven's is the co-author of the winner of two Eisner Awards, Lumberjanes!