Nimona started as a webcomic, which explains some of how creator Noelle Stevenson paces it and sets the narrative distance. It often feels very much like a traditional newspaper strip, showing the (admittedly peculiar) domestic lives of its cast. The first book opens with teen Nimona sneaking into supervillain Balister Blackheart’s secret lair, telling him the agency has sent him a sidekick to help his image with the youths. Turns out it’s not true and Nimona just wants to be a protege to the world’s greatest supervillain.
Balister’s not having it… until Nimona shows her shapeshifting powers; then she’s hired.
The first portion of the book introduces Balister and Nimona and a little bit of the world. Stevenson’s mix of medieval designs, futuristic science, and a pinch of magic is fantastic. There’s TV, but jousting. Jousting is presumably covered on TV. There just aren’t cars. There are refrigerators. There’s pizza delivery. Stevenson’s art style is comic strip simple so there’s never any clash with the objects; Nimona whining about Balister’s empty fridge doesn’t take the outdoor food markets into account, there’s just a fridge.
The clashes also lead to some good jokes and excellent moments throughout. Nimona takes place in a world without religion, just science on one side and magic on the other. There’s a monarch, but there’s law enforcement is all through an ostensibly transparent “Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics.” The Institution figures into Balister’s villain origin story, which he recounts to Nimona, and haunts him a decade later. Balister and possibly unrequited but definitely on the way to it lover Ambrosius were the two best knights. When it came time for them to compete (to graduate), Balister won and Ambrosius shot Balister’s arm off to be petty.
Can’t be a single-armed knight for the Institution.
So Balister becomes a villain and works to destroy the Institution while Ambrosius the Insitute’s enforcer and pawn, blindly following orders. But—as we learn once Balister starts taking Nimona into scraps with the Institution and Ambrosius, the two arch-enemies have a code of conduct. Ambrosius isn’t going to kill Balister and Balister isn’t going to kill civilians, a concept it takes Nimona a while to grok. She’s ready to burn the whole place down—literally—assuming Balister wants to rule as the new king.
The philosophical discussions of villainy are where Stevenson does some of the best work—as far as dialogue goes, the second half of the book is a rollercoaster of action—because there’s the disconnect with the sweet girl being a more vicious plotter than the bad guy. Balister’s character development is one of the most intense things in Nimona because you’re not necessarily on his side for his choices. He’s the protagonist of the last quarter of the book, but he’s not really the hero. You wish he was doing other things. He’s got his prejudices and faults. It creates a very complex book, especially given where everything goes as far as the Institution. There are enigmas wrapped in riddles inside mysteries and whatnot. Even when Stevenson makes it clear to the reader the Institution is dangerous, it’s never clear how dangerous. Especially to the… heroes.
As for Nimona’s origin, it’s even more tragic. She saved a witch in a well, the witch giving her the power to save her village from bandits, except the witch turned her into a dragon to do it, which scared the villagers. Running away, Nimona discovered she could shapeshift at will; but once she got back to herself, the village was already destroyed. Great moment in the comic when she tells that story. It rends Balister, which is particularly impressive since Stevenson does it all in the visual pacing. That comic strip pacing she establishes right off and keeps going until the final act.
And even though Nimona is a collection of strips—strips of varying length—it does have a nice epical flow to it. The second act has Nimona discovering it’s better to be Robin Hood than the Joker and Balister realizing his a lot more capable of positive feelings toward other human beings than he thought. Nimona helps him recover from old wounds, physical and emotional, but having her around puts her in increasing danger. The Institution is willing to let Balister do his villainy because it gives them a public enemy; the shapeshifting sidekick is changing the balance of power and she’s got to go, putting Balister and Ambrosius on an all new collision course.
Stevenson maintains a great balance of humor and drama—with a little bit of angst (Ambrosius’s boss at the Institution berates him for his relationship with Balister, which is nowhere near the worst thing she does, but is definitely the cruelest)—and then brings on the action. Sometimes Stevenson follows the biggest action, sometimes she avoids it to track the smaller actions. The biggest action isn’t great art-wise. Stevenson’s style scales up to a certain point but beyond it, some of the details are good but the action itself is cluttered. It’s a little nit to pick because Nimona’s all about the characters and the characters are great.
Even Ambrosius, who’s a complete tool. It’s just how well Stevenson writes this complete tool.
There’s also a great wacky scientist who Balister teams up with on a project; she’s a lot of fun. Even though it’s all deadly serious, there’s always a layer of fun. Except maybe in the climax, which is part of the problem with it. The book changes gears quickly—with a too short transition—and Stevenson has a reveal she doesn’t have time to properly explore.
Third act rushes and action set piece comic strip styling issues aside, Nimona’s excellent, ambitious work from Stevenson.