As one who grew up during the era of Doug, Rugrats, and Ren & Stimpy era of Nickelodeon’s Nicktoons, I do not care much for modern American animation styles. Adventure Time, Rick and Morty, Craig of the Creek, and Stephen Universeare shows that look like I could have drawn them. These series must be noteworthy for their writing rather than their animation styles.
Nimona’s cover features similarly simplistic artwork, and I might have ignored Noelle Stevenson’s graphic novel if it had not been featured on a number of “must-read” lists. I was hoping for one of those situations where the cover art is not representative of the larger work, yet here, objects in the mirror are precisely as they appear. Well, I do reserve favor for the exception that is the big reveal of Nimona’s true form. But I am placing the cart before the horse.
The titular character actually serves as something of a foil. She makes her grand appearance by breaking into the lair of the evil Ballister Blackheart, insisting on becoming the sidekick he never knew he needed. Their back-and-forth exchanges persist for several panels, the very fact that Blackheart entertains a debate as to whether or not he needs a sidekick suggests that he is not that bad. Thus, from the very beginning of Nimona, Stevenson’s writing entraps me with curiosity concerning this misfit duo.
Stevenson’s writing manifests plainly through Blackheart, who schemes to undermine the functionality of the region’s governing body, the Institution, in which he was once a member and is now a pariah. He vows to expose the Institution for what it really is. And what is that exactly? The writing appears to take umbridge with normative hegemony; “the Institution” is a plain-faced facimilie.
Nimona began as a webcomic in 2012, and was published as a graphic novel in 2015. Yet several of its thematic elements maintain an Orwellian incredulousness. For example, Blackbeard is the bad guy because the Institution demands the existence of one. A flashback depicts a jousting tournament to determine the Institution’s champion, ending with Blackbeard victorious; a seemingly accidental explosion from the broken lance of his foe, (Sir) Ambrosius Goldenloin, destroys Blackbeard’s arm, rendering him handicapped but far from cripple. Stevenson’s aesthetic embellishment pronounces the contrasts between the two knights: Goldenloin is a comely blonde while Blackbeard is a dark-haired gruff with a prosthetic limb. Goldenloin, then, becomes the Institution’s champion, its ideal, and Blackbeard its forsaken. To maintain the illusion that the Institution has the populace’s best interests at heart, it turns against Blackbeard, projecting him as anathema to the status-quo.
However, Blackbeard’s preference for evasive, non-lethal methods to subdue the Institution’s minions betrays his ascription as villain. Blackbeard is a radical friend of science and direct action rather than passive aggression and ideological dogma, but he is intentional about preserving life. Stevenson characterizes him as the dark horse individual advocating for large-scale societal change.
Nimona, on the other hand, is an agent of chaos, though no less a product of institutional forces than Blackbeard is. A shapeshifter whose origins are as variable as her next metamorphosis, she cheerfully transitions into carnivorous animals to slaughter the Institution’s henchmen. She is literally and figuratively monstrous, as near-death experiences trigger her most vicious final form, though it would appear that Nimona only unleashes herself in that way when provoked by those who want to control how she uses her body. Blackbeard would rather not be perceived as the villain; Nimona obliges with relish.
Here lies the crux of Stevenson’s writing. Nimona’s intense othering experience is tantamount to the text’s queerness. The contrast between the lithe Blackbeard and the titular character’s girth is an intentional one; unlike Marvel’s Mystique, who is notorious for blue skin and sexiness, Nimona chooses her main form to be a shaven-headed plus-sized model with bangs–enough for a person of undetermined age to undermine conventional standards of beauty while signifying that she wants to be identifiable as fem(ale). After the text reveals that she had lied to Blackbeard concerning her origins, she is asked how she became a shapeshifter; her reply that she had always been that way reverberates the sentiments of the queer community.
I do not believe that Stevenson intended Nimona as a metaphor in defense of people who declare themselves dispositioned to queerness from birth. Neverheless, the peculiar intimacy between Blackbeard and Goldenlion is left to the imagination, while Nimona herself has no love interests. In fact, her story concerns how she is unloved–ironically a shapeshifter who struggles to fit in.
Ultimately, violence is how Nimona responds to…violence. Otherwise, she might mind her own business as a shapeshifter in the wild. Instead, she was once shunned, and later, used as sort of specimen. Human failure to understand or embrace difference breeds fear, and the wages of these fears is a negative feedback loop that is only broken due to do the intervention of a once-knighted terrorist-vigilante.
Not bad for a webcomic turned full publication.