I read very few graphic novels in 2015. I believe that’s because so many great novels and novellas were published last year that I simply overlooked all the amazing graphic novels. Apart from Saga‘s fifth volume, I read nothing. Until now. It’s Hugo nomination time and my graphic story ballot was terribly empty. I have a few graphic novels lined up to check out before nominating ends (Bitch Planet, Lumberjanes,…) but my first pick was already a great choice and made it onto my ballot.
by Noelle Stevenson
Published by: Harper Teen, 2015
Paperback: 266 pages
My rating: 8,5/10
First line: What? Who are you? How did you get in here?
The graphic novel debut from rising star Noelle Stevenson, based on her beloved and critically acclaimed web comic, which Slate awarded its Cartoonist Studio Prize, calling it “a deadpan epic.”
Nemeses! Dragons! Science! Symbolism! All these and more await in this brilliantly subversive, sharply irreverent epic from Noelle Stevenson. Featuring an exclusive epilogue not seen in the web comic, along with bonus conceptual sketches and revised pages throughout, this gorgeous full-color graphic novel is perfect for the legions of fans of the web comic and is sure to win Noelle many new ones.
Nimona is an impulsive young shapeshifter with a knack for villainy. Lord Ballister Blackheart is a villain with a vendetta. As sidekick and supervillain, Nimona and Lord Blackheart are about to wreak some serious havoc. Their mission: prove to the kingdom that Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin and his buddies at the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics aren’t the heroes everyone thinks they are.
But as small acts of mischief escalate into a vicious battle, Lord Blackheart realizes that Nimona’s powers are as murky and mysterious as her past. And her unpredictable wild side might be more dangerous than he is willing to admit.
Nimona was a surprise in many ways. Its beginning chapters are highly episodic as they tell how Nimona announces herself as the villain Blackheart’s new sidekick, as she turns his carefully laid plans upside down, as she disregards the implicit rules he plays by. Nimona’s modern language and her disregard for the trope-ridden world she resides in make her immediately endearing, and even the villain (who doesn’t really behave like a proper villain) Ballister Blackheart can’t help but like her.
At first, Nimona is about the daily work of super villains. It turns out, there is a lot of waiting involved, which Nimona tries to make more pleasant by, you know, playing games with her boss or killing people, whichever requires less energy. Juxtaposing a kid with a proper bad guy who could have sprung from any old fantasy novel was fun enough and their dialogue is sometimes as hilariously funny as it is adorable. But the dynamics between the two shift throughout the story.
Both Nimona and Blackheart have a past and a backstory, and while we learn both of them pretty early on, there are layers in those backstories that aren’t revealed until later in the book. So, you may read about that one heist Nimona and Blackheart pull, full of epic battles and quippy banter, but it was the bigger story arc that intrigued me. Learning about Nimona especially made it interesting. But I also immediately had a soft spot or two for Blackheart and his arch-nemesis, the golden boy hero, Lord Goldenloi (yes, really).
What looks like a straight-forward subversion of character tropes and epic fantasy turns out to be much more complicated. And then, when you believe you’ve figured everything out, it gets even more complicated. Relationships aren’t black and white, and while there are truly bad guys in this story, it’s neither Blackheart nor Goldenloin. The problems between these two characters were another major driving force in the story, and I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of them. Flashbacks, flashforwards, I’ll take anything BlackLoins related.
Nimona herself keeps things lighthearted at the same time as lending everything a dramatic effect. She inserts herself into Blackheart’s life and becomes part apprentice, part sidekick, part surrogate daughter, and part friend. No matter how many times she trashes his place, you can just tell that he loves her in his own way, and it was that growing love between them that made the ending so powerful. Everything falls into place at the end. What distinguishes Blackheart from other people – apart from being a damn good guy for a villain – is that he just accepts Nimona and her shape-shifting powers. If he wants to help her, it is to actually help her, not change who she is.
Nimona takes you on a journey of emotions. It lures you into a false sense of safety by making you laugh – a lot. Then it peels back the layers of its main characters to make you care about all of them, and just when you find yourself super invested, it rips out your heart and leaves you in the corner, a whimpering puddle of feels. But, you know, in a good way. The story is self-contained but I really, really, really want a sequel or a spin-off with more adventures of Blackheart and his wild, pink-haired sidekick.
MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Excellent!
If you’re unconvinced or you’re itching to read the book too (you should be!), you can check out the first three chapters here.