"Conjuring devils, angels and demons, only the children see shape to his tone"
Hey, remember when Nimona was a webcomic and everyone said it was great, and then it came out in a book and everyone said it was great? Well, let me be the absolute last person to tell you that Nimona is pretty great. I mean, it's not like you don't need a reminder every now and then! Noelle Stevenson's epic is a fine comic, and the book is brought to us by the people at HarperCollins, who slapped a $12.99 price tag on it (it is, I should point out, 262 pages long) even though you could read it for free!
But as you know, I'm a sucker, so I just had to have the print version!
I don't know if I can really write too much about Nimona, because so much ink has been spilled about it already. It's a clever story in which old-school knights and dragons and such smashes into new-school genetic engineering and lab-born viruses. It begins as a comedy, but Stevenson is too smart to keep it there, as it's hard to sustain the level of winking and nudging at the audience that she does in the early chapters. Nimona is a sidekick to the villain, Ballinger Blackheart, and early on, we get a lot of jokes about her situation. Stevenson makes "sidekick" and "villains" jobs, as Nimona claims "the agency" sent her (which Blackheart immediately knows is a lie) and she tells Blackheart that he's doing his job all wrong. Blackheart plays by rules, which is ridiculous, as Nimona points out, because he's the villain. She convinces him to step up his game and strike the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics harder, as well as be nastier to his nemesis, the hero Ambrosius Goldenloin (which is a terrific name for a noble hero, by the way). Stevenson quickly shows that Nimona is far more evil than Blackheart, and the book, while never losing its humor, becomes something much darker.
Stevenson's plot isn't the most original thing in the world - could the Institution be hiding something? could Blackheart really be noble and Goldenloin be kind of a douche? could Nimona have her reasons for her plotting? - but while it isn't stellar, it's good enough, especially because Stevenson builds the relationships in the book very well - not only between Nimona and Blackheart, but between Blackheart and Goldenloin, who went to hero academy together before a terrible event drove Blackheart away and paved the way for Goldenloin to become the kingdom's hero. Stevenson keeps Nimona from turning into a weeper, as she never quite opens up to Blackheart, but their friendship evolves well over the course of the book, even when Blackheart seemingly turns against her. There's an odd flashback about Nimona that feels shoved in at a random moment, but it does give us enough information about her so we know what she's gone through. Stevenson never lays out exactly what her deal is (she's a shapeshifter, but there's more to it than that), but that's unnecessary. All we need to know is that she and Blackheart have a wonderful friendship, even as Blackheart learns more about her and Nimona thinks he's betrayed her. By the time those events come, their rift is painful because of all they've shared together.
The humor of the book is a big draw.
Stevenson doesn't go for a lot of big jokes, she just puts her characters into situations where the humor comes out. Obviously, Nimona being a wise-cracking shapeshifter helps, and there's a moment early in the book where Blackheart thinks she's been killed, but she surprises him with a decent gag. But a lot of the humor just comes from the fact that we have knights and dragons and other medieval stuff in a "modern" setting, where science is fairly important and cell phone technology exists. That incongruity is never remarked upon, but it skews the story to the humorous side. The fact that Stevenson plays with hero/villain tropes is fun, too - it's not unique, but the tropes are so ingrained in our culture that when anyone twists them a bit, it can be funny (based on the skill of the writer). As I mentioned, the relationship between Blackheart and Nimona is great, because Nimona is a prankster but Blackheart knows she's hiding something, and as the humor gradually gives way to darkness, Stevenson does a nice job making sure that the charming relationship they have remains front and center. The humor certainly helps with that.
Stevenson's art is solid - her anatomy is a bit disproportionate and she doesn't do too much detailed background work, but for the tone of the book, it works perfectly. She doesn't need to be too subtle with facial expressions, so her characters' eyes and mouths tend to be fairly simplistic. Her best facial work is with the eyebrows, which jump and curl across faces beautifully.
She does a wonderful job with Nimona's shifts, both in the creativity in what she comes up with and the way she draws the in-between phases in a few places. This becomes more magnificent when a monster appears at the end, where Stevenson's inking is superb - the monster's black hide is broken up by flames, and Stevenson's brush strokes make it look like the fire is flickering around the creature. She uses special effects well, too, adding a bit of science-y flair to the story, as Blackheart uses a big gun at one point and a scientist he meets inadvertently invents a way to trap Nimona, and in both instances (and others), Stevenson uses brightened colors that I would say were painted in if I didn't know Photoshop exists. But the "special effects" are blended in organically, and they look great. Stevenson's storytelling is very nice, and her exaggerated figures are part of the point, so it works. It adds nicely to the humor of the book, but she's good enough to make the serious parts look serious.
Nimona has been around for several years, so I'm sure if you wanted to read it, you already would have, but it's only existed in print format for a few months, so if you're like me and just can't bring yourself to follow a webcomic (I don't have anything against webcomics, I just lose track of them a lot), then here's your chance to get the complete saga. Stevenson obviously knows what she's doing, and the blend of humor and darkness in this comic is really well done, as it draws us in and then shoves a knife into our guts. It's a terrific book for everyone (I look forward to giving it to my daughter, who'll enjoy it, I think [Update: Yeah, she dug it]), and you're part of everyone, aren't you?
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆