Noelle Stevenson does not want to wreak havoc on the world, but some of her characters do. Nimona, an illustrated novel that hit the book scene nationwide this past spring, is based on the 23-year-old’s web comic that she developed while still a student at Maryland Institute College of Art.
Homeschooled in Columbia before attending A.C. Flora High School, Noelle doodled, completed a novel and even won a prominent award her senior year in the Visual Literacy Book Production category for Richland One’s Visual Literacy Festival. Yet, she did not know quite what she wanted to do with her life.
During a summer home from college, she participated in her family’s tradition of a Lord of the Rings movie viewing marathon. During the films, she drew the characters wearing modern-day clothing and participating in 21st century culture. She posted the sketches and was shocked at the response.
“It was crazy how it took off,” she reflects. “That was the first thing I did that put eyes on me, but it was done strictly for enjoyment — not to sell or to market.”
Nimona, published by HarperCollins, came about after Noelle found herself in a sequential art class in college. Noelle says she did not read too many comics as a child, except for Spiderman and Calvin and Hobbs. One illustrated novel she remembers reading was actually the Bible depicted in vibrant illustrations. The storyline that particularly enchanted her was of Samson. She began drawing comics and learned quickly that it was an exciting time for those involved in the comic and graphic novel genres. Since many comic female characters are often conveyed in ways that exploit their sexuality, Noelle desired for the main character, Nimona, to break the mold. Nimona fits the times in that she is a fresh character with just the right sprinklings of toughness and femininity. She wears pink, yet has a penchant for violence.
Like Noelle, Nimona has short red hair. However, Noelle says, “There’s nothing that I would label autobiographical per se, beyond just using my own experience to inform storytelling decisions. She’s been described as my villainous alter-ego, which isn’t entirely inaccurate.”
Noelle is pleasantly surprised that Nimona became such a hit. “It started as a couple of one and two-page comics, and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to give it a real shot,” she says. “HarperCollins publishing it wasn’t even in my wildest dreams. I had some ideas about Kickstarter and self-publishing, like a lot of webcomics do, but even that was far in the future.”
As Noelle was homeschooled along with her two older siblings and two younger siblings, Diana and Hal, her parents, livened many areas of study to make learning fun. As a result, Noelle enjoys incorporating historical and even ahistorical factors into her comics. “I like to capture the romanticized aspects. A comic is a story, so I like to play with the themes,” she says.
Noelle points out that homeschooling, in fact, allowed her the opportunity to be self-directed, to learn to manage projects and to explore unique interests.
Nimona has already been awarded Slate’s Cartoonist Studio Prize and won four Eisner Awards, presented this past summer at Comic-Con International in San Diego, Calif. The Eisner Award is the comic industry’s equivalent of the Oscar’s and represents the highest creative achievement in the American comic industry.
The fact that Noelle Stevenson is a rising star in the comic galaxy was evident at a spring signing of Nimona at the downtown Richland Library. Noelle’s mother, Diana Stevenson, a Columbia native, observed that hardly anyone in the long line, which stretched down a hall and out of site, was a friend or acquaintance of Noelle’s. Most learned through social media and word of mouth that she would be speaking and signing on a Sunday afternoon in May, and they swarmed there.
Star-struck fans purchased copies of Nimona, as well as a Lumberjanes book and Lumberjanes comics and waited anxiously for the chance to meet Noelle and acquire her signature. Besides the Nimona webcomic, which was presented on Tumblr each week and recently published as a full-length graphic novel, Noelle is also a co-writer of the comic series, Lumberjanes, which has a huge following. She also writes for Marvel Comics, including for Wonder Woman and Thor, and has also illustrated one of their covers. She additionally works for Disney Family in writing for the Wander Over Yonder animated show.
“Lumberjanes was on the New York Times best seller list,” she says. “That’s just weird. I still feel like I’m paying my dues, and I’m working in a field with such amazing talent. It’s just such an honor.” She says it is all exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time — like working for Marvel for the first time, which she describes as rather terrifying. Perhaps even more surreal is that Fox Animation has already purchased the rights to make Nimona into a movie.
Noelle believes that the comic culture has been less than welcoming to women. The first time she visited a comic book store when she was an 11-year-old, she distinctly remembers a scantily clad Princess Leia cutout. Female characters in comics have stereotypically been sidekicks in predominantly male character-driven stories; often, those females are known more for their curves than their personalities. Yet, Noelle’s Lumberjanes series, which she writes with two other women, and which won two Eisner Awards this year for Best New Series and Best Publication for Teens, features the adventures of five teenage girls who spend the summer together at scout camp. These hipster girls — each with their own distinct flair — encounter supernatural critters that present young-women-versus-monsters conflicts. It too has been purchased by Fox for an upcoming film release. Noelle’s drawings for a Wonder Woman comic involved the main character as a teenager; it shows her in an arcade and with an affinity for her stuffed animal cat named Pudding.
“I’m coming in at a good time. There are many female creators in comics right now, and many are passionate about wanting the culture to be welcoming to women and to female characters.”
Noelle says that she did not set out to make a statement. She just wants to write good stories with strong characters — male or female. Yet, she does embrace writing and illustrating female characters, protagonists and antagonists, who are outside the norm. “I want to increase the visibility and diversity of female characters,” she says. “I want to see all types of female characters represented.”
Noelle desires to continue providing empowering stories. She adds, “I just want to do what I love. I want to bring a new and original voice to projects … to stay true to the core of the characters.”