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The Upside-Down Villainy of Nimona} ?> Nemeses! Dragons! Science! Symbolism! These are all things that make up Noelle Stevenson’s web-comic-turned-graphic-novel, Nimona, a silly but poignant story about heroes and villains. The twist in this tale? In Nimona, the villains aren’t really villains and the heroes aren’t really heroes.
This is a story in which a kingdom has a Champion (the “good guy,”) and a Villain (the “bad guy”) who follow a routine: the Villain, Lord Ballister Blackheart, makes some mischief, and the Champion, Ambrosius Goldenloin, fights him off, Ballister goes home and comes up with his next plan, repeat. That all changes when Nimona, a young shapeshifting girl, shows up. As her story unfolds, the deeper question that arises is “what, exactly, makes a villain?”
Villains on the surface
The two surface villains in this story are Ballister, who wants to bring down the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics, and his sidekick Nimona, who just wants to blow things up and cause general chaos. But we soon learn that Ballister has a deeper reason for his actions: he has a grudge against the Institution, which raised him to be Champion and then threw him out after he lost his arm in a joust with Ambrosius, who was his best friend. And, while Ambrosius always maintained that his injury was an accident, Ballister never believed him.
Nimona’s origin story is more ambiguous. She can take any form she wants and heals incredibly quickly. Who is she? From where does she come? Those questions aren’t really answered, but there are clues scattered throughout the story: when Ballister wants to learn more about her powers and suggests running some tests on her in his lab, she reacts violently; in a battle with the Institution, she takes the shape of a scaly beast and her head is cut off, and yet she turns up alive the next day; and Ballister learns about an ancient monster that could take the form of anything it wished and couldn’t be harmed by arrows or a sword.
Who is the real monster?
One of the main threads in this story is the question of whether or not Nimona is a monster. All of the “good guys” insist that she is. But is she a monster just because everyone says she is?
There are hints that she was experimented on as a young child. With no parents or a place to call home, underneath all her bravado is a very real desire to belong somewhere, and she finds that with Ballister. He is the only one who believes she is something more, the only one who fights for her, because he is in the same situation. He’s been set up to be the villain, and so a villain is what he is.
Who are those we label as “villains” in our own lives? High-school bullies and jerks at work? What about those people who are outward proponents of misogyny and racism? And, I know I have my own ability to hurt others, so doesn’t that make me a villain too?
These are the questions I grapple with because, while I want to believe in grace and see past the villain to the real human hurt, there are also people who shoot up schools and night clubs. There are very real monsters in this world and platitudes aren’t going change that.
While infiltrating the Institution, Ballister and Nimona learn that it is growing mass quantities of jaderoot, an incredibly poisonous plant. This hardens Ballister’s resolve to expose the Institution and he hatches an elaborate plan to turn the people against it.
Ambrosius finds himself in the middle of this. He still believes that he’s the hero, that he’s fighting for justice, but he soon finds out for himself just how far the Institution has fallen when the Director orders him to kill Nimona and Ballister. When he refuses, the Director tosses Ambrosius aside because he’ll no longer go along with her orders, demoting him to guard duty when Ballister is finally captured.
That’s when the truth comes out. During an argument, Ambrosius admits that the Director put him up to beating Ballister in the joust. She gave him a weaponized lance, which he wasn’t going to use until Ballister beat him in the first round; then Ambrosius’s jealousy took over and he used the lance, knocking Ballister off his horse and destroying his arm.
Slowly but surely, the Institution emerges as the true villain; we learn that it has been pulling the strings behind the scenes, setting up Ballister and Ambrosius as pawns to draw the peoples’ attention while it experiments on occult artifacts to build up power. Everything comes to a head when the Institution captures Nimona and draws some of her blood in order to study it; enraged, Nimona manipulates the extracted blood into a fire-breathing beast, which attacks the kingdom. Ballister and Ambrosius team up to stop the monster, but Ballister is torn between saving the kingdom and saving his friend. It’s a messy end: they stop the monster but, in doing so, Ballister betrays Nimona and she disappears.
Nimona plays with the idea of villains. What seems simple steadily becomes more complicated as we learn more of the story. Ballister may have started out as a villain, but by the end he is the hero of the story, the one who saves the day. Likewise, Ambrosius the hero turns out to be more complex as his own shortcomings surface. And Nimona gives me hope, because she shows us that we are more than the monsters inside us; we just need to see past the scales.