Drawn this way

Martin McClellan

March 04, 2016

In the beginning was the author. She wrote into a blank void, empty of human emotion, empty of human intention. There, she placed the character, who stood looking around and scratching herself occasionally.

The author gave the character a desire, and the character moved. She moved towards her yearning, and in her movement a path was created, spanning from the point she started all the way to the point that contained her desire. The path, flush and new and straight and ready, existed only for her, and walking it fulfilled her purpose. The character walked, and walked, and walked, and the author watched her until the author became bored.

So the author put another person on the path. The character stopped.

"Hello," said the new person.

"Hello," said the character. "May I get past you?"

"No," said the new character, and the antagonist was born. Conflict was born. Frustration was born. And now, in response to those impulses, the protagonist was born.

The protagonist now had to alter her path around the antagonist to achieve her desire, but her desire was such that she was compelled to find a way. She stepped off the path, around the antagonist, and so the path reshaped itself. But the antagonist moved as well, and thus the scene was born.

But the scene kept replaying the same way over and over and again, and once again the author became bored. She allowed the protagonist to win, on occasion, moving around the antagonist. Mostly, the antagonist succeeded in blocking the path.

the author soon grew bored of this, too, and so she introduced other characters, each with their own desires. Each with paths that crossed each other. Occasionally her protagonist would reach her desire, and the author would sweep the whole void clean and start again.

Then, one time, many paths came together at once, and the author noticed that certain patterns emerged, depending on how the characters interacted. The story told itself out in the same way, and the author started keeping notes on those interactions, and setting up the characters to replay them. The characters kept acting out certain things in certain ways. The author was amused, watching these repetitions. She began to favor them. Thus was born the trope.

Storytelling relies on the past, because the stories we tell are echoes of the stories our ancestors told to keep us alive. The child who listened to the bear story closely had a better chance than the child who did not. Stories are part of our evolution, and our symbolic metaphoric language grew from the basis of needing to tell them well.

As people who study stories — by which I mean, people who read and watch and listen to a lot of them, so all of us — there is a sublime pleasure in someone who creates a piece so clean, so beautiful, and so measured that its existence feels preordained.

For me, reading Nimona is like this. I first encountered it online back when you could read the whole thing for free, where you can still the first three chapters. Where, I expected, I'd look at a bit of this comic people kept linking to. Then, suddenly, it was dark out and I hadn't really noticed, the glowing light from my screen bouncing off my face, and I was hungry, but I kept reading until I was done, and then I was. And I was sad, and irritated, there weren't more pages to read. That the whole thing was over.

A year or so later, during the holidays, I stumbled across the print version at Secret Garden Bookshop. Seeing it was akin to something sparking a memory of a favorite dream that you had forgotten. It gave credence to the idea of mystery and magic, if only in the sense that we hide things from ourselves with our faulty memories. I bought it for my nephew. But I didn't want to forget again, so a few weeks ago, my son and I went back to the store and I bought a copy for us to own and read.

Nimona starts as a lark. You think you're reading a simple story. You think you're encountering character tropes stripped bare. You are, in fact, encountering character tropes stripped bare, but drawn with panache and hilarity, and humor and affection.

Then suddenly there comes a "huh" moment. And another. Then a "wait, really?" and some moments of pure sweetness, and pure pain, that you realize you're beginning to really love these characters. That they're not simple, at all. That they feel more true, and react more realistically, then most characters you've seen before. You don't know them, exactly, but you want to.

The world they live in is a holey mesh of science fiction laid over a sieve of fantasy. It borrows sorcery, and castles, and knights, and jousting, and dragons from one, and computers, and research, and technology, and science fairs from the other. Each page is a possible step into one or both of these words, and so each page is almost unknowable, except that feeling of inevitability that comes from reading books that conjure momentum.

Sometimes you get the feeling you're watching the work of a bored pen when you read comics. Sometimes, you can feel the artist leaning over the table, clenched as if they can't draw fast enough. Sometimes they're just angry, or bitter, and the very blackness of their lines expresses that.

Although I doubt very much that this is true, Noelle Stevenson's art has the feeling the she's leaning back eating grapes while her dominant hand dances over the paper with the brush, as if a spell had been cast on it. It paints and paints, and letters, and paints, and creates huge letters for explosions and sound effects, and fire breathing dragons, and green-glowing computer screens.

And Noelle is probably having conversations while her autonomous hand works. Chatting with friends, and cracking wise with that particular humor so evident in Nimona. Chatting, and enjoying this process that some artists might find a curse, but here feels like a particular joy.

In the void, the author draws boxes around her characters. They've walked for a long time — interacting, blocking each other, intersecting, arguing — but she focuses only on the box. The antagonist and protagonist have met before, where the paths converge before they cross into the box, so they come to the story with history the reader doesn't yet know.

The author lets them move across the void, and for a backdrop she paints a room, and as they walk across the room she paints a door, and when they walk through the door she paints a village, with a castle, and as they walk through this landscape they are blocked and have to fight. They have encounters.

And in one of these encounters you become confused over who the protagonist is and who the antagonist is, and you realize that her story has many heroes, and you're not sure which one you are supposed to be rooting for.

Then the characters reach the end of that box, and the story ends. But you can see! It keeps going, their desires and the paths they walk. The antagonist keep blocking those paths, goddammit, and you want to watch. You look backward, knowing now they met before, but everything before the box is blocked too. You can only see that part the author has exposed to you.

That's all the author has decided to give you.

The author, you hope, takes a bow. Her work has been nominated for a Nebula. It's a National Book Award Finalist. And, you tell your friends "Everything you hear about Nimona is true," because if all your friends buy copies, maybe Noelle Stevenson will draw many more boxes in her career. Would that we all could be so lucky.

Books in this review:
  • Nimona
    by Noelle Stevenson
    May 11, 2015
    272 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Martin is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He's a novelist (his first, California Four O'Clock, was published in 2015 by a successful Kickstarter campaign). He designs websites, apps, and other things for a living.

Follow Martin McClellan on Twitter: @hellbox

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