Nimona is a fantasy graphic novel by Noelle Stevenson and now a part of my list of essential fantasy reading (note: there is no actual list, it’s in my head…though I may have to start one now). Nimona started life as a webcomic. You can still read the first three chapters online at Noelle’s website, Gingerhaze. The remaining chapters have been taken down to, you know, get you to buy the book. Which I highly recommend. If you were listening to this post instead of reading it, I’d tell you to shield your ears. SQUEEEEEEEEAHHHhhhaaahahahaaaaaaMWAHAHAAAAAAAA! I love this book so much!
1—The Other Side of a Well-Known Story
Not any story in particular—Nimona is very much its own—but of so many stories. I know this story and I know these characters. The golden Hero, the Villain he routinely defeats but never kills. The back and forth, the banter, the weekly adventure…which we aren’t ever shown in the book itself because it’s unnecessary. That ground is so well trodden, the barest few hints are all that’s needed to walk me down it again. I can practically describe the narrative landscape in my sleep. But this story starts when that routine is disrupted by the appearance of a violent and chipper young shapeshifter into Lord Blackheart’s lair. And from there we get to see villainous side of it, not to mention a few others.
2—No One is What They Appear
Lord Ballister Blackheart is a villain…with more morals than the official heroes of the kingdom. Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin (yes, really), the greatest of those heroes…is ambitious and self-serving, but not as merciless as his boss at the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics. And Nimona…is a shark! Sorry, running gag. But Nimona is both the most straightforward and most mysterious character, and I know it says Beware of Spoilers at the top of the page, but I’m not spoiling this one. You’ll have to read the book—seriously, go the read the book, it’s awesome.
3—Essential as in the Essence Of
Details are sparse in this graphic novel. Only the most essential are needed and only the most essential are there. For the most part, the story focuses on the present moment and lets the reader fill in all those empty spaces. Except they’re not really empty—they’re filled with the shadows of the stories that have come before. As I said, Nimona walks well-worn ground. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the fantasy and/or hero genres knows these tropes. I’m not even going to try to link to any specific TVTropes page because there are too many.
Yet for me, these ghost spaces lent my reading of Nimona a familiarity…and a hunger. I know these stories, I know these tropes, I know these archetypes in my bones. And yet I want to know more about this story, these characters, this world. But I don’t need to. Nimona not only works, but becomes more powerful because it half exists in the shadows. And this is a powerful story. Fun and quirky, but savage—pared down to the bone. And it’s to the bone that this story resonates.
I had to go back and reread Nimona the day after I finished it, and in that second reading I realized this is a story of betrayal. Of betrayal and its consequences. I wouldn’t have thought that, reading the first page. Nor the first chapter, or the first several chapters. But betrayal is at the heart of every decision and action our two villain protagonists make. It is the lens through which they view their lives, because it has shaped their lives.
This is not a tale of forgiveness, though there is some forgiveness in it. This is a story of vengeance. And though it broke my heart, I love Nimona for not following the well worn paths it utilizes.
5—Thoughts on the Shapeshifter Archetype
I’ve written of the essence of things, of archetypes. I want now to speak of the shapeshifter archetype. It would be easy, in a way, to call this Ballister’s story—he’s set, stable, familiar…and we get a more detailed backstory from him (Nimona doesn’t like to talk about hers).
Nimona is not stable. She’s a shapeshifter, flowing from one form to the next. She is trespasser upon the unknown, crosser of boundaries. It would be easy to call her just a catalyst—a different form of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. But this is her story and she does not exist for the sake of another.
The story begins because of Nimona’s choice to enter the fray, to play on Ballister’s side. The story begins with her entry upon and destruction of the rules of that game. It is Nimona, the sidekick, who goads and pushes her boss. It’s Nimona who seeks out and retrieves the information that allows Ballister to finally make a difference in his world. But Nimona isn’t a spirit guide sent to help the hero…er, villain, find his way in life. Though Nimona cares for Blackheart and protects him, she acts for her own reason and goals. And in this way, the shapeshifter—the trickster—trespasses upon and crosses the boundaries of her ‘place’ in the narrative. Nimona brings change, leaving chaos in her wake that for yet further change. This is the heart and the life of the shapeshifter—she shall not be caged.
There is so much more I could say about this book—the simple art style, pared, like the narrative, down to the essential while still being fun. That the foe-yay subtext wasn’t left subtext. The names—ok, seriously, I have to stop now or I’ll go on for, like, ever.
Bottom line, if you like fantasy at all, you have to read this book. So go do that.