#IMWAYR: Nimona by ND (Noelle) Stevenson
This week is shaping up to be INSANE. Besides my plan to attend three different Halloween parties (no comment), I am taking a creative writing course, and I have a short story that is due this Sunday—and I'm planning to write something pretty long that I haven't actually started drafting yet (I just have the outline), so I kind of need to get moving on all that. It probably won't be that bad to write—I just don't want to do it! I just want to go read books and play Animal Crossing and NOT stay up late—seriously, I stay up 20 minutes past my bedtime and then I am noticeably exhausted the next day. College, y'all—it's a thing.
I wasn't sure if this book was MG or YA when I started it, but after reading it, I am quite sure this book is better for a YA audience—besides a pretty solid amount of violence, a slight amount of cartoonish gore, and one or two slightly-inappropriate jokes, the sheer amount of raw emotion here feels like it would be more bearable to an older audience.
(Also, I searched for this book on Amazon to get the book cover, and one of the publication dates listed is January 1, 1657, which seems possibly a little bit incorrect to me.)
(A quick note [Updated on October 31, 2021]: ND Stevenson announced on his Substack that he is primarily going by he/him pronouns, so I will be using those in this review. Also, he discussed some of his thoughts on his name in this specific Substack post, but I'll just say that for now,
he seems to still professionally go by Noelle Stevenson, so I'll go with that as well he is using the name "ND Stevenson" on his social media platforms, so I'll go with that for this review [I'm keeping the name on the book cover in parentheses to avoid confusion]. Also, this is sort of implied in the note, but Stevenson has a Substack now—basically an email newsletter that he's using to share comics about his life—and it's really cool and you should subscribe if you're interested! I need to go on and do that later today.)
So if you've forgotten who ND Stevenson is, let's recall quickly. Besides being the author of the poignant and utterly unique graphic memoir The Fire Never Goes Out (which I actually posted a review of exactly one year ago today, on October 24, 2020), Stevenson was also the showrunner of one of my favorite animated TV shows, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (which I always have to say with the reminder that this is the 2018 reboot, not the original 1980s weird mess, which I have never seen and never will!). Stevenson also co-created the comics series Lumberjanes (which my sibling used to absolutely adore, but which I've never read), and he is also one half of perhaps the coolest power couple ever, being married to cartoonist Molly Knox Ostertag (author of The Witch Boy and its sequels, as well as The Girl From the Sea). It makes me so happy for reasons somewhat unknown to me that two of my favorite creators are married to one another, and actually, when I reviewed The Girl From the Sea two weeks ago and went on a whole mental rant about how fabulous Molly Knox Ostertag is, I figured I should read Nimona too so I could go on a whole mental rant about how fabulous ND Stevenson is. And that is what I am doing right now—and y'all. Y'ALL. In case the literal National Book Award Finalist medal on the cover didn't make you think this book might be worth a look, perhaps the fact that it is now the third book ever to make me tear up (following Efrén Divided and Fighting Words, which, granted, are better books, but still—getting me to tear up is no small thing) will catch your attention. Let's start this review off with the good-old publisher's description of Nimona:
Nemeses! Dragons! Science! Symbolism! All these and more await in this brilliantly subversive, sharply irreverent epic from Noelle Stevenson. Featuring an exclusive epilogue not seen in the web comic, along with bonus conceptual sketches and revised pages throughout, this gorgeous full-color graphic novel has been hailed by critics and fans alike as the arrival of a “superstar” talent (NPR.org).
Nimona is an impulsive young shapeshifter with a knack for villainy. Lord Ballister Blackheart is a villain with a vendetta. As sidekick and supervillain, Nimona and Lord Blackheart are about to wreak some serious havoc. Their mission: prove to the kingdom that Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin and his buddies at the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics aren't the heroes everyone thinks they are.
But as small acts of mischief escalate into a vicious battle, Lord Blackheart realizes that Nimona's powers are as murky and mysterious as her past. And her unpredictable wild side might be more dangerous than he is willing to admit.
If you're anything like me, you might have found that synopsis to sound pretty...generic. I mean, it sounds pretty much like any old superhero-supervillain story, except that it's from the perspective of the villain and his sidekick—which honestly still sounds like pretty much any old superhero-supervillain story. But what ND Stevenson does with Nimona is truly brilliant—he takes a premise like countless other comics and books and movies and TV shows, a premise that no one is expecting anything crazy from...and he uses that premise to hit you RIGHT IN THE FEELS with a delightful yet painful exploration of the nature of good and evil. I will say, I really can't talk about too much because the effect of Nimona doesn't work if you already know what to expect going into it—but I can definitely talk a little bit, so let's start off exploring the delightful side of Nimona before we switch to the painful side. The three most important characters of Nimona are, unsurprisingly, the three on the cover: Nimona, Lord Blackheart, and Sir Goldenloin (yes, that's his name). And you get a pretty solid sense of how these characters tick as you progress through the story. Nimona is brash, and reckless, and violent, but she's also that blend of excitement, a little naïvete, and plenty of humor that you might recognize from graphic novels like Snapdragon (or really, from social media culture in general)—she can literally stab a guard in the back and then sit with Lord Blackheart in his lair and watch a horror movie, or cheer after having tossed her soda can perfectly into the garbage. Nimona is a whimsical character, but her relationship with Lord Blackheart is what makes the book. Because Lord Blackheart isn't the toxic sort who abuses Nimona in some kind of typical villain-sidekick relationship—Lord Blackheart's heart isn't as blackened as he might want people to think, and he quickly warms up to Nimona and starts to care about her, especially considering she might be one of the only people in the world who cares about him. He's not as dramatic as Nimona, certainly, and he often has to play the role of the exhausted father figure reeling a child in from the brink of craziness. But he and Nimona form a surprisingly deep bond. And then there's Sir Goldenloin. Sir Goldenloin has a capital-H History with Lord Blackheart, and it's more complex than just hero vs. villain. And even throughout the story, it's more complex than that—you always get the sense that they might not be as opposed to each other as they think they are...and there's a few hints of something even deeper that you'll catch on to soon enough when you read Nimona (when—not if). Let's just say that as you watch Lord Blackheart and Sir Goldenloin interact, you'll be rooting for something to happen.
So I just said all of that, about Nimona and Lord Blackheart and Sir Goldenloin and what they're like. And I'm sure all that sounds like fun—sidekick and supervillain are actually not that evil and fight against the "good" guy who shares a complicated past with them, and everything's fine! But now we need to move on from the delightful side of Nimona to the painful side, and that means re-examining everything we just said. Here in particular, I'm going to have to wildly dance around the actual points so that I don't spoil everything. But let's try to explore this anyway. When Nimona arrives and slowly garners the favor of Lord Blackheart, you're so excited that you forget a few things. Like why Nimona is alone. Like why Nimona decided the best place to end up is as the sidekick to a literal villain. Like why Nimona seems to take a little too much pleasure in killing people. It's so easy to think these details don't matter in this story. But they do. The ending of Nimona reminds me of the way Tillie Walden ends Are You Listening? and On a Sunbeam—that is, Stevenson pushes his characters to the absolute brink so that they drop their facades and figure out what they truly need. And amidst the chaos—which I really cannot tell you a single specific thing about—we realize a few things. One: There are no heroes in Nimona. Every single character in this book has done horrible things, and it's pretty much a futile exercise to try and weigh the good and bad of each character and figure out who deserves empathy. All you can really do is remember that even people who do bad things can still have suffered themselves, and they shouldn't be excluded from our compassion. And that brings me to... Two: Sometimes, the greatest evil anyone can commit is making someone else feel evil. Everyone is a villain in Nimona, but let's just say there's one side in the conflict that uses people like puppets, making them do the dirty work inside or outside the system, and then crushing their souls either way as the people at the top just grab their popcorn and watch the train wreck they've created. And then... Three: People have a trust in the world that can only be broken and re-formed so many times. If you make someone feel like no one is on their side, if you prove to them again, and again, and again that people only want to commit evils against them, then eventually, you push that person past a breaking point. And that person not only loses all faith in the world, but they lose all faith in every other person in that world, even those who genuinely want to help them. If someone finally lets their defenses down, and then you traumatize them again...well, eventually, that person will never let their defenses down again. Ever. And then I don't know if that person can ever be helped. Ever. And I don't even think they're wrong to act that way, because experience has taught them that there is no help for them. No one should ever have to face this kind of extreme horror show, but characters in Nimona do, and let's just say that I spent my evening last night after finishing the book giving certain characters a mental hug...but also knowing it probably wouldn't do them any good, because they're done taking "help" from other people. I think the most poignant takeaway from Nimona is that people are only so resilient—eventually, they break.
Good grief, that was grim as all get-out (I had fun with the alliteration there). So that probably doesn't make you super-excited about reading Nimona (although it probably gives you a sense of why I was tearing up last night, at least). But I will say a few more things as part of this review. First of all, the ending of Nimona...well, to avoid spoilers, I'll say it's not as bad as it could be. There's a kind of hope to it—it's a weird hope, a lonely hope, and a hope for some characters more than others. But it is a hope. And the ending also leaves some characters without the ridiculous facades they built up around themselves—like I was saying earlier, Stevenson pushes these characters to the brink, and some of them really do come back stronger, and even happier. So I won't say the ending is super-happy-fun-times or anything, but I will say that it doesn't leave you completely destroyed—I suspect it had to leave those National Book Award judges with a little hope left so they could get up the next morning and designate this book as a finalist (which it absolutely deserved, in my opinion). And I will say, as one final point, that ND Stevenson does a truly amazing job telling this story—I suspect that's somewhat obvious considering the amount of emotion he managed to convey, but what maybe isn't as obvious is his expressive, unique artwork, or his well-orchestrated fight scenes (where you can actually tell what is going on), or the fascinating setting he created (part medieval fantasy world, part gritty urban superhero world, part regular modern-conveniences world). Even some of the side characters are utterly delightful, like Dr. Meredith Blitzmeyer, who needed WAY more screen time and who I will argue is the same exact character as Madame Razz from She-Ra, change my mind (or even Dr. Meescham from Kate DiCamillo's Flora & Ulysses, now that I think of it).
I didn't get to say nearly all of my Nimona thoughts in this review—and I definitely didn't have time to be adequately enraged that Disney, after already having the AUDACITY to publicly congratulate themselves on several pitiful attempts at LGBTQ+ representation in their movies (like here and here), then CANCELED the Nimona animated movie adaptation that was 75% complete and would have featured actual non-pitiful LGBTQ+ representation (details here). But I hope what I did have time to do is make clear how startlingly insightful Nimona is. ND Stevenson has taken the all-too-familiar framework of a superhero-supervillain story and used it as the basis for a story that unflinchingly explores the nature of good and evil through richly developed characters that worm their way into your very soul. I can't say Nimona is the happiest read, but I can say that it is an immensely worthwhile read, that it is all the proof I need to declare ND Stevenson as one of my favorite creators, and that it is a reminder of the kinds of depth and nuance even a familiar, archetypal story can hold within.
My rating is: Stunning!
My rating for the graphic novel-averse is: 1!