March 18, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Interview: Noelle Stevenson on Webcomics, Fan Art, and “Nimona”

noelleauthorphoto credit Leslie Ranne_small

Photo by Leslie Ranne

Noelle Stevenson was a teenager herself when she began thinking about the comic that would become Nimona (HarperCollins, 2015), and that may explain why it has such resonance for her audience. Nimona is a YA fantasy story that has fun with the tropes of the medium; the title character is a shapeshifter who teams up with the softhearted villain Lord Ballister Blackheart and ends up fighting the sinister organization that controls their kingdom. Stevenson explores themes of friendship, identity, and justice, but she also provides plenty of action and humor, making it a fun read for teens and adults alike. It was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award (NBA), a rare distinction for a graphic novel, and Stevenson was the youngest person nominated for this year’s award.

In addition to Nimona, Stevenson also created the character designs for the comic Lumberjanes (Boom! Studios, 2015) and has been a cowriter for the series. She also wrote a story for Marvel’s Thor Annual and is the writer for their series Runaways: Battleworld (both Marvel, 2015). Here, the celebrated author and artist shares her inspiration for Nimona, her path to comics, and what she’s working on now.

What was your initial vision for the character of Nimona, and how did that change as you developed the story? Was she inspired or influenced by any particular people, real or fictional?

My initial vision was a girl who seemed very real at first glance, but [had] inconsistencies the closer you look. The very first iteration, way back when I was in high school, wore an eye patch, but she’d forget what side it was on and it would switch back and forth. That was interesting to me, a shapeshifter who forgot what she was supposed to look like in her “real” form from time to time, until those around her became suspicious that it wasn’t her real form at all. I think a lot of that is inspired by being a teen, because you’re trying very hard to maintain an image but you also have no idea what you’re doing or what you’re supposed to be. Nimona makes it look easy, but also gets it wrong.

TOP10_GraphicN_NimonaWhy did you decide to originally publish Nimona as a webcomic? How did that help you build an audience—and how did their feedback affect it?

When I realized that I wanted to tell Nimona’s story in its entirety, the obvious solution was to put it online. I was making a lot of art on Tumblr at the time, and I’d gained a pretty big following, so this felt like an extension of that. I shared everything I did very freely with the Internet, and I wanted [my followers] to see what stories I could tell.

It’s hard to quantify exactly how being so closely plugged into my audience affected the comic’s path— I tried not to let it, but it definitely did. I read all the comments, but I never commented myself because I didn’t want anyone to get spooked and not feel comfortable voicing their opinions. Most of the feedback was positive, but I did take certain things very much to heart and tried to address them in some way or another. Critique was a big part of my life at the time, since I was in art school. You take critique where you can get it—from teachers and other students or even strangers on the Internet.

How did Nimona change from the webcomic to the print version? Was your editor at HarperCollins involved with the webcomic version or just the graphic novel?

I sold Nimona to HarperCollins fairly early. In fact, the script wasn’t even finished yet. They bought it based on the webcomic as it was at the time, and on my outline for the rest of it. When I finished the script, my editor gave me feedback, but he really trusted my vision and allowed me to have a lot of freedom. I didn’t have to send them the pages as I posted them, and I often went off-script.

The changes for the book were mostly things that had been bothering me [anyway], like the constant style changes at the beginning or awkward faces and poses. I also added pages that I’d cut, and there were certain things that didn’t make sense out of context of the webcomic and had to be updated. But it was a very much collaborative process between me and my editor to get it ready for print.

How did you come to draw the cover for Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl (St. Martin’s, 2013)? What sort of challenges did that pose?

That one was really fun! I was mostly known as a fan artist at the time, and Rainbow requested me specifically to her publishers since the book is all about fan works. Authors don’t usually get to decide who creates the cover, but in this case the publishers reached out to me on her recommendation. It was the first job where I was hired to draw in my fan art style, which was so much fun.


Noelle Stevenson (center) with her parents at the National Book Awards ceremony.

What was the first comic you ever drew? What sort of storytelling possibilities do you see in comics that make it a rich medium for you?

I think I was always making comics, but I didn’t know that’s what they were. I used to draw little sequences of stick figures cleaning their houses when I was a pretty young kid. I divided each scene with a single vertical line, which was pretty much my way of denoting “panels;” I just didn’t know [the term] at the time.

I had an ongoing comic that took up several notebooks about an ant who was terrified of roller coasters but was always trying to conquer his fear by riding them, and the roller coasters would crash, and he’d get horribly injured. I’ve always been morbid, I guess. In college, when I actually took my first comics course, our first assignment was a single-page autobiographical comic about what we did over holiday vacation. I did a little sad one about being sick on my birthday and it was kind of melodramatic, but it felt really good to draw [with] this emotional language I didn’t have before, and from then on I was hooked.

Did you deliberately set out to build a career in comics? What have you learned along the way?

I don’t know what I set out to do. There weren’t any clear paths to funneling Tumblr followers into a real career at the time. I don’t know if I’d seen anyone do it, besides people who capitalized on memes and published coffee table books about them, and I didn’t want to do that. So when my first thing hit big [on Tumblr], “The Broship of the Ring,” I didn’t stop there. I could’ve probably just drawn that until people got tired about it, but I started trying all kinds of things, whatever seemed fun at the time. I don’t know what I thought was going to happen. I sold prints of my art but I didn’t just want to be a fan artist, and that’s where Nimona came from.

Webcomics [was] definitely an industry I wanted to be in, and that trail had already been blazed so there were more role models for me there, so I used fan art as a sort of springboard towards what it was I really wanted to be doing, which was telling my own stories. I’m glad that fan art got to stay this thing that was purely fun and free for everyone to enjoy for me, otherwise I think it would’ve quickly lost its appeal.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a two-book (at least) series for HarperCollins right now called 4 Wizards! I’m cowriting it with my friend Todd Casey, and I’m drawing it myself with colors by Maarta Laiho, who [was the colorist] on Lumberjanes and is amazing. It’s about two mismatched wizard/apprentice duos who live next door to each other, and one of them is possessed by a demon, and it’s a problem. I’m pretty excited about it.

See also:

School Library Journal Best Young Adult Books 2015: Nimona

Five Finalists Announced for the 2015 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

Girl Power to the Max: SLJ Chats with the Creators of the “Lumberjanes” Comics

SLJTeen header

This article was featured in our free SLJTeen enewsletter.
Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to you twice a month.

Brigid Alverson About Brigid Alverson

Brigid Alverson, the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog, has been reading comics since she was 4. She has an MFA in printmaking and has worked as a book editor and a newspaper reporter; now she is assistant to the mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts. In addition to editing GC4K, she writes about comics and graphic novels at MangaBlog, SLJTeen, Publishers Weekly Comics World, Comic Book Resources, MTV Geek, and Good Brigid is married to a physicist and has two daughters in college, which is why she writes so much. She was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards.

Empowering Teens: Fostering the Next Generation of Advocates
Teens want to make a difference and become advocates for the things they care about. Librarians working with young people are in a unique position to help them make an impact on their communities and schools. Ignite your thinking and fuel these efforts at your library through this Library Journal online course—April 24 & May 8.