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On the final day of our Super Women & Comics theme week (*sniff*) short story writer, blogger, 'reader, and media addict' Memory Scarlett joins us to talk about the shape-shifting, pink haired star of Noelle Stevenson's popular web-comic, Nimona.


It’s a popular story across all forms of media. A schlubby guy gets involved with a SuperAwesomeAmazing woman. She helps him realize his full potential via a training montage or two, complete with inspirational music and/or narrative captions that clue us in to his emotional struggle. And when the dude knows everything he’s got to know--ie, in no more than two months--the SuperAwesomeAmazing woman relinquishes much of her own power in the face of his shiny new abilities.

Yeah, she’s been training her whole frickin’ life, but it’s not like she could possible be more interesting/talented/suited to fighting injustice than this guy. I mean, she’s a girl.

Noelle Stevenson, creator of the recently-completed webcomic NIMONA, is clearly aware of this story--and keen to smash it.

NIMONA’s eponymous heroine is a shapeshifter with a penchant for pink, a thing for sharks, and some radical ideas about villainy. She figures the best place to make these ideas a reality is at the side of Ballister Blackheart, former hero and current walking insult to the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics, so she sashays into Ballister’s lair, talks her way into a job, and proceeds to fuck shit up.

The Institution and its champion, Ambrosius Goldenloin, won’t stand for that sort of behavior, especially since Nimona and Ballister look set to expose the Institution’s villainous deeds to the rest of the kingdom. As Nimona and Ballister work to bring the truth to light (and/or destroy property, acquire loot, and do awesome science), the Institution’s Director lays a trap that could turn Nimona’s strongest abilities against her.

The ingredients for SuperAwesomeAmazing-Woman-Uplifts-Schlubby-Guy are present and accounted for. We have Ballister, plodding along with a well-meaning but ineffectual course of villainy. We have Nimona, full of piss and vinegar and awesomeness. And we have a bad guy whom Nimona can equip Ballister to fight in ways he never would’ve managed on his own. Ballister can’t help but become better because of Nimona, just as the standard narrative insists he must.

NIMONA only fits the standard narrative to a point, though. Nimona is so much more than a super-talented sidekick who backs away at the right moment, and Ballister is by no means your standard take-all-the-credit hero (or villain, as the case may be). Both are fully realized characters, and neither is forced to relinquish so much as a shred of their awesomeness.

What’s more, neither prospers at the expense of the other. Stevenson plays up both Nimona and Ballister’s strengths and weaknesses, with particular emphasis on the ways they support and challenge each other. They’re partners, each able to take up the slack when the other falters. Neither hesitates to offer assistance when necessary, or to accept the other’s help.

Even though Ballister is a fascinating guy, I’d like to focus on Nimona today. After all, this is Superwomen Week at Lady Business and Ballister, for all his virtues, doesn’t appear to identify as anything other than binary male. Besides, Stevenson herself has said that while Ballister is the protagonist, Nimona is the main character. She’s the one who drives the plot and forces everyone else to become more than they think they are.

There’s a good reason the comic is called NIMONA, not BALLISTER.

Totally Guessable Spoiler: it’s because she’s frickin’ awesome.

Subverting the Norm

Nimona’s awesomeness manifests itself in many ways, not least of which is the way she inhabits roles often denied to female characters. She’s a continually subversive force who exists on her own terms and forces the world to bend itself around her.

To begin with, Nimona is unrepentantly violent while her male counterpart goes out of his way to avoid leaving a body count. Nimona is quite happy to run roughshod over everyone and everything, killing anyone who threatens her supremacy. Ballister often has to hold her back from causing undue harm during their raids on the Institution. The kick-ass woman has become a staple of urban fantasy over the last decade and a half, but in my experience it’s unusual for a female character to take such unalloyed delight in her ass-kicking abilities. We can debate whether any character behaving in such a manner is a good thing (me, I’m with Ballister on this one), but it’s certainly an important role reversal that immediately clues us in to Nimona’s subversive potential.

Female characters are often expected to be the voice of reason. They’re meant to temper the male lead’s impulsive streak and, in doing so, prove themselves less capable of decisive action. Nimona bucks this convention with her chaotic, radical approach. She has a sensible streak--for example, she reminds Ballister they need to put something in the Institution’s place once they’ve torn it down--but she more often serves as the voice of let’s-fuck-shit-up-as-dramatically-as-possible. While Ballister’s villainy is usually focused on exposing the Institution via a series of subtle manoeuvres, Nimona prefers to charge in and leave a trail of destruction behind her. She delights in Ballister’s quieter side projects, but she insists they serve as a complement to her more destructive brand of action.

These chaotic tendencies extend to Nimona’s physical appearance. Her shapeshifting ability allows her to become anyone at any time, and she takes full advantage of it. While her default form appears to be that of a short, stocky teenage girl with a mostly shaved head and pink hair, she flits from form to form and even from gender to gender with wild abandon and no regard for the laws of physics.

Nimona exerts total control over her body. She can be a small girl, a burly man, a dragon, or a shark as the mood takes her. It’s a powerful stance to take within a world that attempts to control the public’s perception. No one but Nimona can dictate who Nimona should be. She’ll listen to Ballister’s suggestions because they’re family, but this deference is something she gives Ballister because she cares about him and recognizes his experience, not something he takes out of a desire to undermine her or assume control over her life.

On a related note, Nimona doesn’t engage in anything remotely resembling a romantic relationship; quite a departure for a SuperAwesomeAmazing woman partnered with a single man. Her bond with Ballister is distinctly familial and lacks any hint of sexual tension. They simply care about one another, and we see their affection and respect in action on the page. Their mutual support drives the comic through quieter moments like board gaming sessions and movie nights as well as the destruction that fuels the wider plot.

One could argue their age difference and Ballister’s past relationship with Goldenloin precludes any possible romance, but a) relationships between older men and teenage girls are all too common in fantasy and b) bisexuality exists. Stevenson has made a deliberate choice to give Nimona and Ballister a familial bond rather than a romantic one, and to make this relationship the story’s focus.

Nimona’s World, Nimona’s Self

Nimona’s chaotic, unconventional nature dictates the comic’s overall form as much as it drives the plot. It’s possible to read Nimona’s world as a reflection of Nimona, or vice versa. This world is everything at once, just as Nimona herself is, and it remains in a state of flux throughout the story.

Stevenson calls her creation monkpunk. Nimona’s world has an obvious medieval aesthetic, what with its reliance on knights and its tunic-and-trewes fashion sense, but it’s by no means a strict analogue of the middle ages. Advanced science abounds, pizza delivery is very much a thing, and people get their news from TV and face-to-face video communications units.

Science is such an integral part of everyday life that Ballister has trouble getting his mind around Nimona’s shapeshifting abilities. Magic just isn’t done around these parts, though it might still have a presence over the mountains, maybe, if you believe the rumours. As always, Nimona the wrench in the works; the thing that twists the system and forces those around her to question what they know about how their world works.

Her existence demonstrates science and magic are by no means as discrete as Ballister would have them. Nimona’s magic has a definite impact on the kingdom’s scientific fervour via the destruction she wreaks, while both the Institution and Dr. Meredith Blitzmeyer, a scientist Ballister meets when he and Nimona attend an inventors’ fair, have invented devices that can control and contain magic. On top of this, the few glimpses we see of Nimona’s past indicate this is far from the first time scientists have taken an interest in their potential influence over her magic.

Nimona freely exercises her power to shape the system, but she’s not entirely immune to its power to shape her in turn.

Good and Evil?

Nimona does shake things up nonetheless, and in doing so she challenges the binary of good and evil.

Ballister serves as Nimona’s catalyst for change. Nimona chooses to become a villain’s sidekick, but what does that mean when the villain is a former hero who’s been forced into the bad guy’s role by a cultural narrative that favours golden-maned fellows over bearded Asian dudes with one arm? In encouraging Ballister to step up his villainy and let his inner evil genius loose, Nimona actually brings his heroic tendencies to the surface. Ballister has always worked for the people, and Nimona gives him the perfect excuse to harness his potential in a more productive, obvious manner.

Of course, she contributes her own potential to the cause in typically chaotic fashion. Nimona ain’t the kind of girl to sit in the corner while the guy does all the important work.

Her influence extends to Goldenloin, supposed hero and terrible runner, albeit via a sideways route. Goldenloin has always been told he’s the good guy, but he’s so in thrall to the Institution that he has no real power of his own. Nimona’s example brings this point home, as does Ballister’s increasing awareness of and engagement with his own agency. Goldenloin may be a pretty white guy with the government behind him, but he has far less interest in actually helping people than does the one-armed bad guy with the devilish goatee. His ability to affect real change is pretty well moot.

Nimona’s chaotic influence helps both Ballister and Goldenloin see that the line between good and evil, productive and stagnant, isn’t always as clear as the world would have them believe.

She also maybe-sorta-kinda brings them back together as she forces the pair to actively engage with the choices that put them on opposite sides. All parties acknowledge that Goldenloin’s collaboration with the Institution doesn’t just disappear overnight because he’s slightly more self-aware now, but Nimona has at least brought them to a place where they can, perhaps, become the best versions of themselves: probably mostly good, but with a villainous slant when necessary. Because sometimes you need to mess things up before you can make a difference.

Choices, Now and Always

NIMONA is funny and entertaining and deeply interested in tackling complex, thoughtful issues, but it wouldn’t be much of a story without a painful climax. And that climax transforms the comic into something downright terrifying as it tears control from Nimona’s hands.

Nimona is forever cagey about her past. The backstory she gives Ballister early in their acquaintance is fake (though Stevenson has said Nimona never truly lies, so we can take it as a metaphor/coping mechanism). Despite this, we gain a strong sense of what her life was like before she decided to pursue villainous sidekickery as a profession. Her deep-seeded fear of labs remains a persistent motif. She won’t even allow Ballister, whom she loves and trusts, to test her abilities. Time and again, any attempt to force Nimona into a particular pattern, be it a certain physical form or a way of life, unleashes the beast within her.

And Nimona’s inner beast is a feral creature, often beyond her control.

Which is terrifying, because the Nimona we’ve come to know is always in control. She dictates her physical form, her attitude towards the world, and even her body’s response to injury. We can read this not just as an awesome ability but also as a careful and deliberate attempt to exert herself within a world that has often robbed her of the right to make her own choices.

It’s no wonder she reacts poorly when her agency is again contested.

One can argue that Nimona’s suffering near the end negates some of the power she holds as a SuperAwesomeAmazing woman who isn’t required to bow down before the schlubby guy she helps elevate. This is a valid stance, but one I’m inclined to shy away from. Ballister doesn’t so much save Nimona as help her save herself. Once again, their actions are a team effort, with Ballister propping Nimona up even as she encourages him to take that extra step.

Nimona loses a lot, but one has to wonder whether she herself sees it as a loss. She’s never been particularly concerned with appearing to be on the side of the angels; rather, she’s interested in destroying stuff, taking down oppressive systems, and helping her friend. In the process of doing so, she’s gained a new family in Ballister, paved the way for decisive change throughout the kingdom, and destroyed a glorious amount of government property. In assuming the villain’s role, she’s created a space in which a new form of good can flourish.

I have to wonder if she got exactly what she aimed for.

Questions, Not Answers

Ultimately, Nimona is so fascinating because she’s a question, not an answer. She challenges the other characters and pushes her world to its limits, but she provides few concrete solutions along the way. Stevenson gives us a great deal of material to sift through, but she rarely spells anything out. It's up to the reader to decide what happened; who Nimona is, whether she’s achieved her goal, and where things might go from here.

Nimona’s changeable nature extends past the final page. She becomes whoever the reader knows her to be once they've examined the textual evidence--and different readers may know her to be different people.

I know my own stance on her will change every time I reread NIMONA, and I look forward to rediscovering her a great many times in the coming years.

Date: 2014-11-17 08:35 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
I couldn't read your whole post because spoilers, but I'm excited to know it's here for me to read after I read Nimona :D I never got around to starting it online, but the book is totally one of the things I'm going to pre-order with my Christmas/birthday gift cards.

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