Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Nimona by Noelle StevensonNimona by Noelle Stevenson
Illustrated by Noelle Stevenson
Published by HarperTeen on May 12, 2015
ISBN: 9780062278234
Length: 272 pages
Genres: Comics & Graphic Novels, Fiction, Fantasy, Young Adult, Humor

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Formats Available: Paperback, eBook, Hardcover, Audiobook
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Heads up! This book comes with a content warning (details in the review).

Our rating:


I have to confess straight away that I am far from a comic book aficionado. I’ve only gotten into comics in the last couple of years; traditional comic books are usually too intimidating for me (so. much. material.), and often focus on stories that don’t interest me or include me (so. many. superhero. dudes). I am also definitely not an art critic. The closest I get to artistic critique is I like the drawings. But stories — good, striking, irreverent, stories? Those I know.

And that’s what this comic offers: a damn good, irreverent story, told through solid characters and striking illustrations.

Noelle Stevenson presents a world that is basically a cross between a renaissance faire with magic and, like, the MythBusters (if half of the MythBusters were evil monsters and the other half morally ambiguous types just trying to do their best, and you don’t know who’s who until it’s time to save the faire from fiery destruction). 

Nimona, the title character, shows up at villain Ballister Blackheart’s lair unexpectedly and declares herself his sidekick in his campaign to fight the power (or more accurately, the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics, led by the mysterious Director). Hilarious hijinks ensue, and thus begins a surprisingly sweet and moving commentary on found families, power, who gets labeled a monster and who doesn’t, and—to a lesser extent than I’d like—forgiveness. (More on that later.)

Aside from a somewhat abrupt-feeling beginning, the story is well-paced and the balance between action and character development is nearly perfect. We get steady (and enticingly unreliable) peeks into Nimona’s origin story, and although Ballister’s backstory is more straightforward, it’s no less heart-wrenching. 

All the characters (save perhaps the Director) are fully-fleshed out, written with nuance and obvious care for their strengths and their weaknesses. Ballister’s a bad guy, but he’s not particularly good at being a bad guy. His devotion to science and rules and a sincere (if selective) moral code keeps him from committing the truly evil deeds required to overthrow a corrupt king and the shady Institution, even when violently overthrowing them might be better for everyone in the long-term.

Ambrosius Goldenloin (which, hats off to Stevenson for that inspired name) is a good guy, but he’s pretty bad at being a good guy. For one, it’s established early on that he has a deep capacity for self-deception, which is worrying in someone who’s supposedly a hero. He’s also too quick to trust orders when they come from people in positions of power, and much too slow to question even when those orders challenge his limited, privileged morality. 

But I was especially drawn (heh) to Nimona, to whom I could devote pages and pages of analysis but will limit myself to a few paragraphs out of respect for all of you. 

The beauty of Nimona’s story is that it’s very onion-like. You can peel away layers of meaning and still find more waiting for you.

Nimona is a shapeshifter, literally able to mold herself into anything she wants, and yet she’s unable to find a form that would allow her to be accepted by her biological family or society. For me, there were obvious allusions to the experience of queerness, of not knowing what you are; of knowing exactly what you are and not being able to share it with anyone; of being more than can be fit into the tiny steel trap of other people’s understanding; and of just wanting the acceptance and love of a family but having to make a mother and father out of rejection.

But Nimona also called to mind the consequences of abuse and trauma, of what can happen when the people who should be helpers commit harm instead, and that surviving horror sometimes means embracing the monstrous parts of ourselves.

There’s so much substance packed into Stevenson’s depiction of Nimona and her relationship with Blackheart. Both narratively and visually, Stevenson conveys complex emotions, from the hilarious to the heartfelt to the heartbreaking. 

There’s a lovely, familial affection between Blackheart and Nimona as they become a team: Nimona draping herself casually over Blackheart’s shoulder as they plot against the Institution, Blackheart literally cradling and carrying Nimona during her moment of greatest vulnerability. The depth of concern they have for each other is clear, allowed to build naturally, and illustrated beautifully.

Stevenson’s gift for balance becomes especially apparent during the book’s climax and resolution, during which she does a brilliant job of intertwining dialogue and art to incredibly poignant effect. Blackheart and Nimona’s story left me feeling many, many things, all of which felt earned, and that’s exactly what I want out of storytelling.


I’m guessing you saw the rating above, and were waiting for that but. I can practically hear you asking: if I loved the book so much, why am I giving it 3.5 stars? Reader, I am very conflicted about this, I’m not afraid to admit. 

Here’s the thing: the relationship between Blackheart and Goldenloin is a prominent part of the book, and it’s heavily implied to be romantic. There are aspects of this relationship that I find…difficult.

I’m putting this part of the review behind a cut, because it requires a pretty heavy discussion of spoilers to explain fully.

View Spoiler »

For those who skipped the spoiler: essentially, Goldenloin made a very bad choice with severe consequences for Blackheart when he and Blackheart were both still at the Institution, and it’s something Goldenloin refuses to acknowledge for most of the book but he has to account for toward the end of the story.

Honestly, though, by the time I got to Goldenloin’s revelation, it felt heavily reduced by the fact he’s only able to come to it because he finds himself as powerless as he once made Blackheart. It’s hard to root for that in a love story.

But on the other hand, I like Goldenloin. Yes, he’s milquetoasty. Yes, he’s much too willing to go along with the Director’s orders even in the face of increasingly overwhelming evidence that she’s not the force of good she claims to be. 

Given the Institution is all he’s ever known, however, those things are understandable. In fact, he’s a pretty solid example of the kind of person any of us could be when forced to question and confront the people we’ve built our lives around (and who know just how to manipulate us into forgetting what concerns us). That he’s able to eventually rally himself to rebel against the Institution, even late in the game, is something I count in his favor.

Goldenloin has faults, sure, that’s because he’s a layered character. I recognize that there’s quite a bit of emotional nuance here that can’t be ignored.

See? Conflicted.

However. I just can’t forget in all the talk of layered characters and emotional nuance that if this was a mixed-gender relationship and Blackheart was a woman who had been seriously injured by a jealous man who couldn’t even admit that he’d hurt her until he’d lost his privilege and power and had nowhere else to go? I’d be wanting Blackheart to get the hell out of there. I would not be finding their relationship layered or nuanced. I’d just be rooting for it to be over.

If I get right down to it, I wouldn’t find this dynamic romantic if it were between a man and a woman, and so I just can’t excuse it because it’s between two men instead. 

If Blackheart and Goldenloin’s relationship were a smaller part of Nimona, if the nature of it were less troubling to me, if Goldenloin had worked toward making real amends for the harm he caused, if they had actually had a conversation in which Blackheart explicitly forgave Goldenloin at the end, then I think my rating would be much different. Alas, those things aren’t true, and my rating has to stay at 3.5 stars.

Open Questions:

  • What is the Agency? “Evil” equivalent of the Institution? Nimona pretends she was sent by the Agency when she first appears in Blackheart’s lair and then it’s never mentioned again. Do I smell a sequel?
  • Why does Blackheart agree to take Nimona on as a sidekick so quickly? They obviously bond fast, and I can accept that he was just lonely or he’s a sucker for hard cases, but there’s very little to support that or any other hint at his motivations for letting a random person who shows up without warning essentially move in with him.
  • How old is Nimona really? Does she age herself up, or is she the little girl we see in the flashbacks and at the end of the story?

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