From long-running soap operas to comedy-drama slices of life to daily gag strips, the digital comics scene has exploded over the last decade and readers have never had more options. Feeling overwhelmed? Christina Harrington and Joe Stando are here to take you on an expedition through the webcomics wilderness and show you the best specimens in our monthly Deadshirt Webcomics Field Guide.
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
I have to admit that I didn’t start reading Noelle Stevenson’s fantastic webcomic Nimona until after I’d read the first issue of Lumberjanes. Let me just say here and now: BOY, WAS THAT STUPID OF ME. Stevenson’s Nimona was launched in 2011 and is now in its eleventh chapter of this well-paced, tightly woven story. I could have been reading this for three years and enjoying the twists as they happened! Although, now that I’m all caught up and anxiously waiting for the next page to publish (every Tuesday and Thursday) I envy the way I ate up the archives, never having to leave a cliffhanger for too long. Maybe that’s the best way to enjoy this webcomic, to blast through the archive in one sitting. If it is, this Field Guide couldn’t have been written at a better time: Nimona is in the final leg of its story and will soon be available through HarperCollins in its completed form. Perfect for new readers who want to catch the last conflicts of this fantastic story live, while those who want to wait to read it in one go will not have to wait long.
Nimona was never meant to be an ongoing series, but rather a self-contained story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and this definitely shows in its careful storytelling. Nothing is wasted here, and consequences are real and lasting. Nimona is about, well, Nimona, a teenage girl who is also a shapeshifter. We see her shift from shark to wolf, dragon to Nimona-but-with-really-muscular-arms, and everything in between. She’s also good at impersonating other people. The story starts when Nimona demands to become apprentice to super-villain extraordinaire Ballister Blackheart, who grudgingly agrees to take her on in his fight against the beautiful and misguided ‘hero’ Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin, and the organization that controls him.
You see, Nimona’s world is run by The Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics, a corrupt and malevolent group that trains soldiers and provides a hero in order to pacify peasants and keep nobility safe. Blackheart used to be one of the Institution’s top recruits, but he was kicked out after Goldenloin ‘accidentally’ injured him. (Read: blew off his arm and scarred his face.) Blackheart, now with a fancy robot arm, has sworn to take down his former best friend and the Institution that so cruelly labeled him a villain.Stevenson smartly introduces us to this world through archetypes–a vaguely medieval setting, a genius supervillain, a dimwitted knight, a young maiden–and then immediately starts twisting these ideas into something wholly original. Here, a king rules, knights joust, and magic is real, while at the same time news anchors read from teleprompters, mad scientists create laser guns, and pizza delivery is only a phone call away. Old tools, like swords and shields, exist alongside contemporary ones–Ballister never has anything in his fridge but experiments–and even next to science fiction, like the floating computer screens the Institution uses to complete their space age-esque headquarters. The story takes us from fruit stalls in open markets, to high-tech labs filled with floor-to-ceiling test tubes, the contents of which are accented lime green.
Nimona herself is perhaps the best example of this old-meets-new aesthetic: she wears a chainmail dress under her tunic, while sporting a decidedly modern haircut and several face and ear piercings that, by the way, look super fucking cool. Everything in this comic looks super fucking cool. Stevenson’s art is expressive and energetic, with dynamic fight scenes–whether that means Nimona as a dragon chomping on some goons or in the well choreographed hand-to-hand fights between Ambrosius and Ballister. Her use of color lends energy to well blocked pages. I’m thinking specifically of a conversation between Ballister and Ambrosius in Chapter Ten, where one person is always bathed in orange and the other blue. I won’t show that scene here, as it comes later in the story and might reveal a bit too much to new readers, but I will say the coloring to the scene adds another layer of meaning to the conversation, as good coloring should. Colors work overtime in quieter ways as well: whenever Nimona is in animal form she’s always highlighted in a pinkish-red, a signature that eventually becomes plot-relevant.Keeping to archetype, Sir Ambrosius is always dressed in gold armor with a blue cape, while Ballister wears black armor with a red cape. Ambrosius is the Hero, Ballister is the Villain, and Nimona, the Maiden. Of course, these archetypes don’t hold true for long. Nimona immediately shakes off expectations simply by the way she looks. Soon after her introduction we quickly learn that Nimona also defies expectation in the way that she acts. She’s violent and impulsive, with no problems about killing what she calls ‘goons’ and Ballister calls ‘security guards.’ She’s more than just a bruiser, though. Nimona is funny, quick-witted, and, at times, stoic. She’s also endearingly innocent, placing all of her faith in Ballister Blackheart, who she believes in and trusts without question.
Blackheart is introduced to us as the villain–through admission, through the color scheme of his clothing, through his preoccupation with science. And while he is a supergenius (something that automatically pegs someone in this type of fiction as evil), he doesn’t believe in killing and even plays along with the Institution’s set rules for combat. Blackheart is a kindhearted nerd who can hold a grudge, but ultimately his goals are moral, even if some of his actions aren’t. Ambrosius Goldenloin, the supposed hero of this world, is just as complicated. Though I wanted to hate him, I quickly realized that though he’s a jackass who’s not as good as the Institution would make him seem, he also wasn’t as bad as I wanted him to be. He cares about Blackheart and doesn’t want to see him destroyed, even going as far as to warn his old friend about the Institution’s plans.
Though the story seems simple–anti-hero and sidekick work together to take down shadow government–there are several surprising twists that add depth to the plot, including a big one in the tenth chapter that I won’t go into here for the sake of avoiding spoilers but which I can assure you made me go “whaaaaaat” out loud. The world of this comic is lush with its own culture, traditions, and lore, lending believability to already well-established characters. It’s a witty story with a sarcastic, and sometimes goofy, sense of humor that in no way undermines its more serious moments. Nimona constantly surprises me, and is one of the most original and entertaining comics, online or otherwise, that I’ve ever read. I’m excited to see how it all ends, but I’m more than a little sad that it’s ending at all. Hopefully when that time comes I’ll be more prepared to leave this wonderfully original world and its inhabitants.Nimona is written and drawn by Noelle Stevenson and updates every Tuesday and Thursday. You can read starting from the first page right here.