I first became aware of Noelle Stevenson through Tumblr, about five years ago. At the time, she had gained an online following for the comics she drew about movies she’d watched (Thor, The Lord of the Rings, X-Men) and general fandom experiences, like this one. She was funny and relatable, but what kept me coming back were her comments on the depiction of female characters and general misogyny in the comics industry. For example, she drew this comic about her experiences with “self-appointed gatekeepers” who make many would-be comic readers feel unwelcome. Stevenson also started the Hawkey Initiative, where she pointed out the trend of unrealistic and sexist “strong female character” poses in superhero comics and suggested that they could be fixed by replacing the character with Hawkeye doing the same thing. She invited artists to send in their creations, and the results were both hilarious and deeply uncomfortable,
At twenty-five years old, Stevenson is now working as an industry professional, and in 2015 her popular web comic Nimona was published by HarperTeen.
I’m very pleased to say that there is not a single boobs-and-butt panel to be found.
In many ways, you have heard the story of Nimona before. There is a villain with a tragic backstory, a golden-haired knight, and a sidekick who keeps screwing up the plan – all the basic ingredients for a traditional fantasy story. However, Stevenson is clearly on a mission to do something different; even though she has a clear love for certain tropes and genre clichés, she picks and chooses those she likes and then reworks them into something new and different. She starts out with what seem like familiar stereotypes, but then starts peeling back the layers one by one, revealing deeply flawed people who are trying to find their place in the world. Not bad for a fun romp about sword fights and shapeshifters.
The most remarkable of these characters is, of course, Nimona herself. The minute she shows up on Ballister Blackheart’s doorstep, all scruff and snark, you cannot help but fall in love with her. Nimona is short-tempered, loud, unapologetic, blood-thirsty, and looks nothing like female characters in traditional fantasy usually do. She is short, curvy, has a number of piercings, and her head is partially shaved. Stevenson does an excellent job at exploring the darkness in her without it feeling forced or like she’s doing it for the sake of being edgy. The book is dedicated “to all the monster girls”, and that’s exactly what she has created here: a girl with sharp edges. Even though Blackheart tries to teach Nimona to be more restrained, there is never the sense that he wants to change her. She doesn’t get a makeover, and she does not have a love interest (in fact, Stevenson has said that she is “98% sure Nimona is ace”). She does not get kidnapped during the third act so her boss has to save he- oh no wait, she kind of does. But it’s not like that – not really. Like I said, Stevenson clearly enjoys playing with certain genre clichés, but always gives them a little twist to keep things fresh and interesting.
I don’t think I would have picked up this book if I had not already been familiar with Stevenson’s work, and it’s definitely not the kind of thing I usually read, but I’m glad I did. Sure, it was an entertaining read and I’m always happy to support artists I like, but mostly I’m thrilled that it exists at all. Books like this provide an exciting alternative in an industry that has some serious issues to address, and the more these voices are heard, the more possibility there is for change. As debut works go, Nimona is a lot of fun and a great showcase of Stevenson’s style as an artist. It may not have changed my life, but somewhere out there is a girl who desperately needed this book and finally got it.
If you’re interested, you can still find the first three chapters on Stevenson’s website.
(Stevenson is also the co-creator of Lumberjanes, which looks like an all-girl combination of Gravity Falls, The Goonies, and Stranger Things? Possibly amazing – please let me know if it is.)