Nimona, a graphic novel that was a finalist for the National Book Award, features knights and dragons and beings with amazing powers. It is not, however, your typical good versus evil story. Nimona is full of wonderful shades of gray in the form of its three main characters: Nimona, Ballister Blackheart, and Ambrosius Goldenloin. Young Nimona, a teen, shows up at the lair of the well known supervillain Ballistair Blackheart to become his uninvited sidekick. She is more than ready to get involved in evil plans, mayhem and destruction. Blackheart is hesitant, but when Nimona reveals her shapeshifting ability he brings her onboard to fight against the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics. The champion of the Institution, which guards and protects the peasants, is Blackheart’s nemesis Ambrosius Goldenloin. Through Stevenson’s creative and imaginative story telling, we learn the backstory of each character, that good and bad can coexist within one person, and that through sacrifice, redemption just might be possible.
For a supervillain, Blackheart seems to be very concerned with following some basic moral rules and reining in Nimona’s enthusiasm. Nimona is chomping at the bit to do some fighting and killing, but Blackheart makes it clear that, “It’s not about winning. It’s about proving a point.” In flashbacks, we see that Blackheart and Goldenloin had been good friends while training together at the Institution, but an act of betrayal broke them up and put Blackheart on his current path. He is a scientist, and very talented, but he also is angry at the Institution and Goldenloin. Meanwhile, Nimona is pretty tight lipped about her own personal history, but she is amazing in battle. The Institution is on edge over her abilities and orders Goldenloin to kill Nimona and bring in Blackheart for justice. As the situation unfolds and the truth about the Institution becomes clear, friends and former friends will have to make tough moral choices. The good guy isn’t always good, the bad guy isn’t always bad. And Nimona, how to characterize her? She has terrifying powers but she is also vulnerable because she is young. Is she an incorrigible threat to be destroyed? Or can she be taught and trusted? We as a society seem to be caught between punitive justice and correction/education when it comes to offenders. We don’t seem to spend much time looking at the reason for the problematic behavior (or how our social and political decisions contribute to it). It’s just so much cheaper and easier to lock up, but this doesn’t serve society or the individual in the end. Nimona has the potential for enormous destruction but she does not have to go down that path. The question is how to stop her from going there and whether anyone is willing to make the sacrifices to help.
Each character in Nimona has done some unsavory things. They been driven by ambition and/or desire for revenge, but they also have the chance to reflect on that and change if they so choose. Stevenson does a great job showing the struggles of each character as they make their ultimate decisions about how to act and what they are really fighting for. The problems in the relationships among the three are very relatable, as they are rooted in basic human nature and not the supernatural — being alone, bullied, abused, betrayed. These characters sometimes stumble, they will do things that have unintended repercussions and harm innocent people, but they each feel deep friendship and loyalty to another, too. It is not a foregone conclusion that good will win in the end, and that makes this story a compelling read.