Comics review: Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

(cover image courtesy Harper Collins)

One of the great delights of a being an omnivorous reader is the delight you experience when a piece of work that initially presents as one thing turns out to be quite another.

Or both, all at once.

Nimona is one of those delightful surprises, the work of Noelle Stevenson, who completed this tale of a gutsy young lady who takes upon herself to seek employment with über-villain Lord Ballister Blackheart as her senior thesis at the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2012.

Starting life as a webcomic, Nimona was published in full narrative form by Harper Collins in 2015, deservedly receiving a great deal of recognition and praise, the result you would have to suspect of how layered, clever, and yes, funny, this marvellously-engaging piece of storytelling from quirkily-comedic start to intensely-meaningful finish.

Opening the first page, you could be forgiven for thinking this is just another offbeat tale of sidekick meets villain, a postmodern play on good and evil that will involve much freewheeling hilarious dialogue and imaginative takes on old well-worn tropes, that will entertain mightily because it’s so damn good (artistically and narratively) but no really say all that much.

Which is totally okay because well-written, intelligently-wrought escapist tales are a treat and all too rare so to come across one is a rich reward in and of itself.

But as you dive deeper into Nimona, it becomes increasingly clear that there are onion-esque layers upon layers to the story, that the seed of an idea you are initially presented with has so much incredibly-satisfying growing to do, and you are going to be utterly-engaged as it does so.

The titular character, at first, may come across as some sort of hyper-energetic, take-no-prisoners, full-on manic pixie girl with attitude and some extraordinarily magical abilities – and to be fair she is all that, and a whole lot more – but as the story progresses and the pain and loss behind her endless wisecracking and ballsy confidence is revealed, you come to appreciate how complex she is as a character.

It’s a salutary lesson to never judge a character by the first page, speaking too to the inventive cleverness of Stevenson’s characterisation and plotting which takes all kinds of surprising twists, not just in the protagonist’s journey, but in her relationship with her evil but lonely boss, who in turn has surprising issues and history aplenty with the supposedly-noble Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin, star employee of the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics, which may be a whole lot less good and virtuous than it first appears.

(image courtesy Harper Collins)

See what I mean? Layers upon gloriously-compelling layers, a story that combines bright, funny storytelling with an emotionally-evocative sensibility that explores feelings of grief and loss and the way they can corrupt and isolate if they are never fully resolved.

Just as rewardingly, the story takes place in a world which is an amalgam of good old medieval tropes and science fiction mainstays, which means you get to witness a sword fight take place in a room full of big screen state-of-the-art pixels-upon-pixels TVs.

Blackheart and Goldenloin, whose names alone are worth the price of admission, often converse via video conference and the Institute’s nefarious goings-on, or suspected nefarious goings-on – go on, we live in a cynical age; of course they’re corrupt af – are as high-tech as Star Trek.

The mix works wonderfully well, helped along by Stevenson’s lushly, fun art which brings her world to life in ways big and small, matching her prosaic inventiveness every step of the way.

Nimona is the complete package – a cleverly-involved story that never once succumbs to the obvious, that defies stereotypes and cliches even as it uses them in ways that feel fresh and enormously different to anything you’ve seen before, and which manages to balance laugh out loud silliness and comedy with some really heartfelt storytelling.

If you like quirky storytelling that exists not simply to throw sight gags and brilliant wordplay at you, but which aims to say something about humanity, and the complexities of growing up, adulthood and the relationships that form as a result of the scars we acquire in each, then Nimona, due for cinema adaptation sometime in 2021, is precisely the story you should be looking for.

It dares to challenge the idea that there are only so many stories under the sun, and only so many ways to tell them, offering up characters who react much as anyone would to some pretty extraordinary twists and turns, and revelations that reveal their innate humanity, no matter what form they take.

Visual and dialogue mastery aside, and it is a masterclass in comic book storytelling, or hell, just storytelling generally, what really makes you fall in love with Nimona is how richly emotionally it all is.

They may inhabit a quirky but unnervingly grey-shaded world with magic and fantasy in multitudinous abundance, but they are very real people going through some very real things, holding some very real pain close to their chests, and it’s all allowed to express in the midst of a story that, for all its thematic seriousness, is also goofy and silly many times over.

Nimona is a delight, challenging all your ideas of what it might be at every turn, a veritable feast of unique storytelling that understands that quirky is fun and fine, but that to be truly satisfying, it must have backbone and emotional resonance woven into its DNA, and really get to your heart as well as your mind.

(image courtesy Harper Collins)

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