Sunday, October 02, 2016

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Influence happens faster than you expect. There are webcartoonists out there influenced by slightly more established webcartoonists who in turn were influence by the first-Obama-term clutch of webcartoonists, and you haven't heard of any of them. (Nor have I, probably.)

Take Kate Beaton. I vaguely thought she was too new to have a "school," but that's not correct. Noelle Stevenson's first major project, Nimona, is clearly influenced by Beaton's characteristic style and tone. In fact, I'd say that if you like Beaton's cartoons about Joan of Arc or the Black Prince, you should make a beeline to Nimona, whose heroine is in a similar mode.

Stevenson is telling a longer story, though, and Beaton is also only one touchpoint -- influence can give an initial impetus, but creating two hundred and fifty pages of comics requires new, original ideas for every page, so influences become a flavor and a tone rather than anything larger.

Nimona the character is something of an enigma, a massively powerful shapeshifter who spends most of her time as an impulsive, sarcastic teenage girl. She turns up on the doorstep of Lord Ballister Blackheart, the greatest villain in this unnamed and vaguely medieval kingdom, demanding to put her massive enthusiasm to work in his cause. So they rob banks, and disrupt other things, and come up against Ballister's nemesis and oldest friend, Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin, champion of the supposedly-wonderful Institution.

The worldbuilding here is somewhat slapdash and random, most likely because Nimona was originally a webcomic. When a creator works in public, often important elements happen accidentally, and get baked in to the work before all of the consequences are clear. So this kingdom is basically in the middle of nowhere, with no borders or neighbors, but does not span the world. And it's medievlaoid, except for the high technology the Institution inconsistently uses. And there's a King, but he's only mentioned in passing, and no other accouterments of government come up at all.

So this is the story of Ballister against the Institution, and, as required in stories like this, the "villain" has a very strong moral code, was driven into villainy by a fiendish action by the "hero," and is actually the most moral person in the story. (You've seen this in a dozen animated movies; you know the drill by now.)

Events build, as they must, and the actual villain is of course the never-given-a-real-name head of the Institution, who also has no visible motivation for her villainy. (She's head of an Institution, I suppose: what more do you need?) And Nimona is more than she seems, as she must be, and that more may actually be as dangerous as the Institution head claims. And, to finish checking off the boxes, Ambrosius and Ballister must switch places, and clash, and finally reconcile. (And, Stevenson strongly hints but doesn't actually say, more than reconcile.)

Nimona the book is a zippy graphic novel full of snappy dialogue, with a crackerjack central character. It's reminiscent of a lot of other stories, that's true. But it's Stevenson's first book, so that's to be expected. And she does a great job working in this mode: she tells this story strongly and entertainingly. Nimona was published for teens, but its audience is wider than that. Most importantly, from the evidence of this book, Stevenson will be back, and even better next time.

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