Interview with Noelle Stevenson - 2015 National Book Award Finalist, Young People's Literature
(HarperTeen/HarperCollins Children's Books)
I’d heard about Noelle Stevenson from a former student who knows the best corners of the internet. “She’s big on Tumblr,” she said. A quick search revealed a rabid fan following who had created an extensive collection of art, cosplay portraits, and photos of Nimona opened up next to their mugs of tea. When I finished the book, I immediately realized I was among those fans.
Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona opens with the titular narrator applying for the position of sidekick to Ballister Blackheart, your standard supervillain with a mechanical arm. When he brushes Nimona aside, she transforms into a shark, because, you know, she is a shape-shifter with infinite powers. Together, they cause trouble for Sir Ambrosias Goldenloin and the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics. What begins as a silly fantasy story slowly unveils many deeper secrets, including the nature of Ballister and Ambrosias’ relationship, the mystery of Nimona’s past life, and the true intentions of the Institution. The end result is a complex depiction of loyalty and friendship.
Stevenson is the co-writer of Lumberjanes, a comic about five teen girls who fight monsters at summer camp. Stevenson is just 23-years-old, making her the youngest National Book Award finalist in history.
Tim Manley: Nimona and the other characters seem to exist without any concern for today’s gender norms. This is similar to your work with Lumberjanes, where for a while, there is an absence of male characters altogether. In what ways does the book Nimona exist entirely outside of gender expectations?
Nimona is reckless and destructive and amoral - which is unusual for a female character.
Noelle Stevenson: My approach to both Nimona and Lumberjanes was to explore and deconstruct gendered tropes by ultimately disregarding them. Like you said, in Lumberjanes, no male characters are introduced until the 4th book. Women are the heroes and the villains and most of the faces in the crowd. What does that free you up to do with your female cast?
With Nimona it's a little different. Obviously, Nimona is reckless and destructive and amoral - which is unusual for a female character, much less the central female character - but also, the main romance plot goes to the two male leads, and they're both drawn with very similar 'handsome' designs while the women take on all kinds of shapes and sizes. The real conflict is between Nimona and the Director, with Ballister and Goldenloin almost being casualties of that. The characters are essentially gender-swapped from what you'd expect from traditional gendered roles in stories like this, but there's also nothing that is inherently gendered about any of them. I think the characters could be any gender and the story would unfold the same way. That's only one way to play with gendered expectations in a story and it's not more legitimate than stories that ARE gendered, but it was what I wanted to do with it here.
TM: You published Nimona online while you were completing it. Along the way, HarperCollins signed on to publish the physical book. How do you imagine the reading experience is different for readers who followed in pieces online, and those who pick up the 266-page graphic novel?
NS: Serialized webcomics supply a constant stream of content, which is cool, but they can also unfold excruciatingly slowly! I've heard from a lot of people who told me they started reading Nimona online and then had to stop and wait for it to be completed to finish it, which I totally get. It's an interesting challenge!
I had to make sure the pacing would be right when it was read in a collected volume, but I also had to make sure that each page contained something fun or interesting for devoted webcomic readers who tuned in every update day. I definitely got some crap from people who were mad a fight scene would go for six pages. You can read six comic pages in probably 1 minute, but that's also three weeks of waiting. Three weeks!!! One of the benefits of following it page-by-page like that was probably the community - people would read and re-read each page carefully, so there were jokes about background characters and really tiny details that everyone picked up and ran with. I'd be in on the joke sometimes, so there are extras who you can spot through all the crowd scenes, and readers gave them names and had ideas about their backstories. One of them is a couple who flees the bank scene together and later you can see them on a date and then they're together after that.
When you're reading a collected volume, you miss a lot of those details, at least on the first read. A comic is supposed to immerse you and have a good flow so it's really hard to stop and look for tiny details and still get the full impact of the story, but with webcomics you can.
TM: When Blackheart tries to calm Nimona by saying she isn’t a monster, the dragon form of Nimona shouts back at him, “You don’t know anything about me!“ How much do you think we are able to see our true selves, and how much must we rely on others’ perspective of us?
NS: Well, what's your “true self”, anyway? Nimona is in a unique position of being able to literally shape her physical form into whatever she feels like, but does that mean it's her true form? Is she a monster, or a little girl? You can see Ballister trying to figure out which one to talk to, but the truth is she's both, and neither. We all are. People see parts of us and might assume that's the whole story, and they might be mistaken in thinking they know who you are just from that, but it doesn't make them entirely wrong either. That IS you - it's just not all of you. This becomes much more literal for Nimona. If she feels like being a monster, she's a monster. Ballister really doesn't know much about her, but he knows there's more to her than that, even if in that moment that's her reality. He's seen other sides of her, and the thing is, he doesn't even know if she was telling the truth about those other sides, but he hopes she is.
TM: You’ve spoken previously about how online communities, and Tumblr specifically, have allowed female readers easier access to their identities as comics lovers. What benefits has Tumblr offered to you as a creator of comics?
I'd always liked comics, but I hadn't read many and never came close to engaging with any kind of community about it. I didn't see it as a place that would want me there or want to talk about the stuff that I wanted to talk about, but it turned out I just wasn't looking in the right places!
NS: My love of comics came from a lot of different directions at around the same time. I'd always liked comics, but I hadn't read many and never came close to engaging with any kind of community about it. I didn't see it as a place that would want me there or want to talk about the stuff that I wanted to talk about, but it turned out I just wasn't looking in the right places! Then I got into webcomics, and around the same time I took my first comics class at school and I went to my first indie comics convention. So this fascinating world of comics was unfolding for me, and I was reading more and more comics, and then shortly after that the new wave of Marvel movies started coming out. I've always loved superheroes, but also felt alienated by them, so this was an exciting development at the time. I found the kind of comics community I'd been looking for on Tumblr - I posted goofy fanart, and I checked the tags and found other blogs to follow. There were a lot of newish fans like me, and a lot of really enthusiastic fans who'd been reading comics for years and were happy to share their passion and help the newbies find an entry point. All of these things happened at around the same time, so my newfound love of comics really developed and took shape on Tumblr. It made sense that that's where Nimona was posted for the first time. And having this Tumblr community who was interested in similar things that I was, it was easier to channel my existing audience towards my original work. A lot of them were just there for Avengers fanart, but some of them did start reading early on and I was able to grow my audience from there!
TM: Dr. Meredith Blitzmeyer mentions her theory that all magic is drawn from an invisible source of renewable power that is everywhere at all times. Can you tell us a bit more about it, and, if possible, how to tap into it?
Science and magic don't actually have to contradict each other (this is a real-life fascination of mine!).
NS: The setting of Nimona is a world where magic used to be everywhere, but it's fallen out of favor. People find science and invention much more reliable, and they're uncomfortable around magic. The two coexist to some extent, but never mingle. Dr. Blitzmeyer is the only character who exists solidly in both worlds. She's devoted her life to reconciling science and magic and proving that they DO follow the same rules somehow, and she actually has something to show for it! Magic appears to make something out of nothing (just like Nimona can destroy and recreate herself with very little effort) but Blitzmeyer's research shows that magic DOES come from a source, it's just one that's never been observed or named before. So science and magic don't actually have to contradict each other (this is a real-life fascination of mine!).
But as we've seen, it can be really dangerous to mix science and magic. Like Nimona, magic is temperamental and unpredictable, and if you don't know what you're doing you end up with a big mess on your hands.
Tim Manley is the writer and illustrator of Alice in Tumblr-land: And Other Fairy Tales for a New Generation, and the co-writer of The 10 Letters Project. His one-person show, Feelings, debuted this year at the New York International Fringe Festival. He is online at timmanleytimmanley.com.
GET THE BOOK