Swords, Sorcery and Subversions: Noelle Stevenson’s ‘Nimona’
Noelle Stevenson's Nimona is not your typical fantasy comic heroine. I say that not because of her style, which includes a partially shaved head, with dyed hair and piercings; and not because of the way she dresses, which is in practical chain mail and leather adventuring gear; and not because of her build, which is short and stocky, in sharp contrast to the tall willowy male characters.
No, Nimona is not your typical fantasy comic heroine because Nimona is not a hero period. She's a villain.
At least, that's what she keeps telling the reader, and herself, and anyone who will listen in Stevenson's Nimona, the Lumberjanes co-creator's webcomic, which has recently been collected and published as an extremely charming, remarkably cerebral graphic novel.
In the first, two-page "chapter," in which the book's webcomic roots are at their most evident, Nimona introduces herself to Ballister Blackheart, "the biggest name in supervillainy," as his new sidekick. The raven-haired, scarred, goateed Blackheart, complete with a mechanical arm, has no interest. Nimona changes his mind by turning into a bipedal, talking shark with boobs: You see, she's a shapeshifter, and thus able to turn into pretty much any animal or monster.
As is appropriate for a story starring a character who can change shape, nothing is really as it seems in Nimona. There's another, deeper-level form of subversion Stevenson is working on, beyond the more obvious genre subversions and comedic reversals of the expected tone.
While Blackheart is supposedly a villain, he and Nimona are always butting heads over his adherence to weird pop culture "rules" of villainy, and he's constantly shocked by her willingness to be, you know, evil.
For example, he shows her his current evil plan, in which he plans to invade the city with genetically modified dragons, kidnap the king and issue a ransom demand. Nimona takes a red pencil to it, and offers her own suggestions: "More chaos in general"; set everything on fire, kill the king, crown Blackheart the new king, and, when the hero shows up, they can kill him too.
This essential conflict between the two characters is what drives the book, and while it is originally presented as a source of comedy and meta-textual commentary, it gradually becomes evident that Blackheart isn't merely reluctant to do things like straight up kill his archenemy, the golden-haired pretty-boy knight Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin, just because he's old-fashioned. Rather, he'd rather not kill Goldenloin --- or anyone, really --- because Blackhearts's not that bad a guy. You know, for a bad guy.
Stevenson uses the conventions of popular fantasy, science-fiction and superhero narratives to explore the way in which society imposes labels and roles on us all, and how, through a combination of pressure, inertia and lack of vision, we end up playing those roles, whether or not they are reflective of our true selves.
At the risk of giving too much away (and you can skip ahead to the next paragraph if that's a concern), it doesn't take too many chapters before it becomes clear that that Blackheart is the real hero and Goldenloin the real villain...or, rather, his backers and sponsors in The Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics are the real villains, and Goldenloin is pretty much their willing dupe, despite the fact that he and Blackheart have so much in common that under different circumstances they'd be BFFs.
Which isn't to say that Nimona is a terribly serious read, just that its got layers, a few of which are awfully deep. That's just one more way in which the book is subversive. It's still a comedy, and it is of course presented from start to finish in Stevenson's highly-appealing, super-stylized, rather abstracted cartoony art. ("Cartoony" in the sense of newspaper cartoon, not in the animated sense.)
The world of Nimona looks an awful lot like your typical medieval fantasy, Lord of The Rings, Dungeons & Dragons, sword-and-sorcery kind of place, with everyone dressing like it's the dark ages, fighting with swords and spears and attending markets. But they have all of the technological and cultural signifiers of our daily lives, including cable news channels, press conferences, refrigerators, cellphones, the ability to order pizza, and so on.
Some of the elements of this hybrid setting ---- not sword and sorcery so much as sword, sorcery, science and sarcasm --- is there merely for the purpose of telling jokes. As the story nears its climax, however, and the proceedings become more serious, it becomes clear that there's more to it than that, and the society Stevenson has built also has things like guns, WMDs, and political propaganda.
By the point we start seeing inside the bowels of the kingdom's media-military-industrial complex, which keeps the peasants down and makes villainy seem the lesser of its evils, Stevenson has lured us pretty deeply into an honestly dramatic, character-driven story with real stakes and real emotional investment in who wins or loses and how.
It's a neat trick for a comic that starts with a mischievous monster girl making fun of a supervillain for his nerdy devotion to science, and progresses to scenes of medieval bank robberies and board games, and finally enters action horror territory, with a giant monster of pure evil attacking the city in scenes broadly evocative of real world tragedies.
Nimona isn't your typical fantasy comic heroine, so I suppose it shouldn't come as any surprise that her story isn't typical either.