Nimona

by Noelle Stevenson

Cover image

Publisher: HarperTeen
Copyright: 2015
ISBN: 0-06-227822-3
Format: Graphic novel
Pages: 266

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Ballister Blackheart is a supervillain, the most notorious supervillain in the kingdom. He used to be a knight, in training at the Institute alongside his friend Goldenloin. But then he defeated Goldenloin in a joust and Goldenloin blew his arm off with a hidden weapon. Now, he plots against the Institute and their hero Sir Goldenloin, although he still follows certain rules.

Nimona, on the other hand, is not convinced by rules. She shows up unexpectedly at Ballister's lair, declaring herself to be his sidekick, winning him over to the idea when she shows that she's also a shapeshifter. And Ballister certainly can't argue with her effectiveness, but her unconstrained enthusiasm for nefarious schemes is rather disconcerting. Ballister, Goldenloin, and the Institute have spent years in a careful dance with unspoken rules that preserved a status quo. Nimona doesn't care about the status quo at all.

Nimona is the collected form of a web comic published between 2012 and 2014. It has the growth curve of a lot of web comics: the first few chapters are lightweight and tend more towards gags, the art starts off fairly rough, and there is more humor than plot. But by chapter four, Stevenson is focusing primarily on the fascinating relationship between Ballister and Nimona, and there are signs that Nimona's gleeful enthusiasm for villainy is hiding something more painful. Meanwhile, the Institute, Goldenloin's employer, quickly takes a turn for the sinister. They're less an organization of superheroes than a shadow government with some dubious goals, and Ballister starts looking less like a supervillain and more like a political revolutionary.

Nimona has some ideas about revolution, most of them rather violent.

At the start of this collection, I wasn't sure how much I'd like it. It's mildly amusing in a gag sort of way while playing with cliches and muddling together fantasy, science fiction, faux-medieval politics, sinister organizations, and superheros. But the story deepens as it continues. Ballister starts off caring about Nimona because he's a fundamentally decent person, but she becomes a much-needed friend. Nimona's villain-worship, to coin a phrase, turns into something more nuanced. And while that's happening, the Institute becomes increasingly sinister, and increasingly dangerous. By the second half of the collection, despite the somewhat excessive number of fight scenes, it was very hard to put down.

Sadly, I didn't think that Stevenson landed the ending. It's not egregiously bad, and the last page partly salvages it, but it wasn't the emotionally satisfying catharsis that I was looking for. The story got surprisingly dark, and I wanted a bit more of a burst of optimism and happiness at the end.

I thought the art was good but not great. The art gets more detailed and more nuanced as the story deepens, but Stevenson stays with a flat, stylized appearance to her characters. The emotional weight comes mostly from the dialogue and from Nimona's expressive transformations rather than the thin and simple faces. But there's a lot of energy in the art, a lot of drama when appropriate, and some great transitions from human scale to the scale of powerful monsters.

That said, I do have one major complaint: the lettering. It's hand-lettered (so far as I can tell) in a way that adds a distinctive style, but the lettering is also small, wavers a bit, and is sometimes quite hard to read. Standard comic lettering is, among other things, highly readable in small sizes; Stevenson's more individual lettering is not, and I occasionally struggled with it.

Overall, this isn't in my top tier of graphic novels, but it was an enjoyable afternoon's reading that hooked me thoroughly and that I was never tempted to put down. I think it's a relatively fast read, since there are a lot of fight scenes and not a lot of detail that invites lingering over the page. I wish the lettering were more uniform and I wasn't entirely happy with the ending, but if slowly-developing unexpected friendship, high drama, and an irrepressible shapeshifter who is more in need of a friend than she appears sounds like something you'd like, give this a try.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2019-05-28

Last modified and spun 2019-05-29