She who fights monsters

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on March 10, 2018

Not quite cartoony The opening page of Nimona Noelle Stevenson

A matador illustration by Noelle Stevenson

Nimona Noelle Stevenson Harper Collins India Fiction (graphic) $8.99

A dazzling new graphic novel subverts popular storytelling tropes about ‘gifted’ young girls

The idea behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, one of the most iconic TV shows of all time, was encapsulated in its opening scene. It came from a simple trope, ubiquitous in Hollywood gore-fests. A dark alley, a petite blonde woman walking down, checking nervously over her shoulder every now and then, ominous music playing in the background. Soon, we shift to the point of view of the unnamed monster/ghoul/otherworldly creature stalking the poor girl. Any moment now, the beast will reveal itself to her, and she will let out a blood-curdling scream.

Except, in Joss Whedon’s world, the girl swivels around, taunts the vampire, kicks and punches the living daylight out of him and, finally, stabs him through the heart with a wooden stake. Easy peasy. Whedon wanted, he explained years later, the equations of fear and power to be so utterly reversed that people would shudder thinking about the vampire’s fate.

Whedon, I’m sure, will enjoy Nimona, the first solo graphic novel by Lumberjanes co-creator Noelle Stevenson. This book had been serialised earlier, in the form of a webcomic, which is one of the reasons why you can see it getting better and better by the page. Nimona is set in a monarchy not unlike those seen in classical swords-and-sorcery fairy tales, with the addition of advanced technology and sophisticated, even biological weaponry. This lays the platform for one of the novel’s overarching concerns: the tension between science and magic (which, as in most fantasies, is a stand-in for human creativity).

Many years ago, Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin, the most famous hero of the land, defeated his best friend Lord Ballister Blackheart in a lance duel, unfairly using an energy beam to blast his right arm off. The cheating was suggested by the mysterious Director, the old woman who heads the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics. After this poor choice, Blackheart resolves to become Goldenloin’s arch-enemy, a supervillain who uses science and gadgetry to scupper his rival’s endeavours. One day, a young girl called Nimona, who happens to be a shape-shifter, comes to Blackheart, offering to be his sidekick. Apart from a bloodlust that seems comical more than anything else in one so young, Nimona seems like a happy, shallow, rotund youngster. But as Blackheart watches her drop bodies and burn down buildings (yes, she can literally become a dragon at will), he realises that Nimona is neither young nor innocent and that even the combined forces of the kingdom may be too feeble to stop her.

Stevenson is exceptionally talented at capturing micro-expressions. Silent panel progressions, such as the one where Nimona is impatiently waiting for Blackheart to finish fiddling around with his scientific experiments, or the one where Blackheart is woken up in the middle of the night by a paper missile thrown by Nimona, are tour de force sequences. Her style is deceptively cartoonish, much like Nimona herself: jaws are pointed, eyebrows raised beyond the hairline, but somehow, there is no doubt in the reader’s mind that Stevenson is being deadly serious.

The back cover of the book proclaims, “Nemeses! Dragons! Science! Symbolism!” Leaving aside dragons, the other three are cornerstones of the modern-day comics fantasia. And of these three, symbolism is where most comicbooks tend to become hammy and distinctly clumsy, overwhelming the reader with visual cues. Not so for Stevenson. Having impressed upon the reader Nimona’s childlike traits, she does not make her character unrecognisable in the second half. By now, we know that she’s not just a monster-slayer like Buffy; in many ways, she is a monster herself. It is to Stevenson’s credit then that Nimona is wholly convincing in both roles: monster and little girl.

Similarly impressive is the way we see Blackheart’s character evolve. A somewhat dry and sombre warrior at the beginning, his true nerdy colours are revealed beautifully. The mutual attraction between him and Goldenloin is handled with wit and delicacy: in an epilogue, we even see the beginnings of it in their childhood encounters.

Nimona marks the beginning of what will surely be a purple patch in Stevenson’s career. As good as Lumberjanes was and still is, this is her definitive work.

Published on April 22, 2016

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