Review: Nimona by Nate Stevenson

Ever since it was announced in February that Disney was closing Blue Sky Studios—which they acquired in their purchase of Twentieth Century Fox—and was canceling the animated film adaptation of Nate Stevenson’s webcomic-turned-graphic novel Nimona, I haven’t been able to put the series out of my mind. It is one of my favorites, and in my disappointment over the movie news, I thought I would revisit the comic.

What began as a webcomic and senior thesis at Maryland Institute College of Art became a bestselling graphic novel (published by the HarperCollins imprint Quill Tree Books in 2015) and earned Stevenson an Eisner Award, a Cybils Award, and a Cartoonist Studio Prize. The story follows a young shapeshifter named Nimona, who shows up in the secret hideout of the villainous Ballister Blackheart one day and insists on becoming his sidekick. Together they antagonize the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics, the governing body of do-gooders that Blackheart once belonged to. Amidst all of their exploits, Nimona and Blackheart uncover the corruption at the heart of the Institution and work together to take them down and expose the truth. However, their mission isn’t easy, especially with Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin, Blackheart’s ex-boyfriend, attempting to foil their plans at the Director of the Institution’s bidding. Goldenloin’s constant interloping tests Nimona’s already tenuous promise to Blackheart not to murder anyone; and when her lust for vengeance threatens their friendship, Blackheart begins to wonder who exactly he’s taken on as a sidekick.

Thematically, Nimona’s narrative lays the groundwork for some of Stevenson’s later projects—namely, Netflix’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (2018-2020)—in its exploration of the grey areas of good and evil and its challenging of stereotypical notions of gender. While the form she typically presents herself in is that of a teenage girl, as a shapeshifter, Nimona can transform into any living creature within a matter of seconds. Her powers of fluidity and identity construction are a threat to the Institution, which is itself a representation of a heteronormative, hegemonic patriarchal structure. This is clear in the Director’s plan to kill Nimona for the danger she poses as a “monster”/queer figure and as a young woman. It is also clear from the Director’s secret plan to expel Blackheart from the Institution because she disapproved of his relationship with Goldenloin and because she “didn’t see” him as a hero. In Blackheart and Goldenloin, former friends/boyfriends on two different paths, Stevenson gives his fans a sweet queer relationship (albeit one that is not explored in such depths as some of his other ones, that I won’t spoil here); and the epilogue hints at an optimistic future for the pair and Nimona.

In addition to the narrative, the artwork is beautiful in its simplicity and its movement. The cuteness of the character design belies the darker, more complex story in a way that creates deeply emotional moments for the reader that will stick with you. I discovered Nimona on Tumblr the same way many others did, nearly a decade ago, and was enchanted with it immediately. Along with other webcomic creators like Danielle Corsetto and Jeph Jacques, Stevenson was one I followed regularly and religiously. I was very lucky to meet Stevenson at Flame Con in NYC in 2018, and he could not have been kinder. He signed my copy of Nimona and drew a little shark and a heart in it, and it was so meaningful to have such a great interaction with a queer writer/artist whom I admire so much.

If you like stories of science and schemes, frenemies and fantasy, and queers and quests, Nimona is the tale for you. I also highly recommend Stevenson’s other projects, including She-Ra (available on Netflix) and the comic Lumberjanes, which is reportedly being turned into an animated film and television series for HBO Max. For more information on Nate Stevenson, you can visit his twitter here.