Given that I discussed one of the greatest anti-heroes ever written last week, this week seemed a good time to discuss that line between anti-hero and sympathetic villain. One of the aspects of anti-heroes that makes them interesting is that on a bad day, they’re really not that much different from the villain. They don’t have Superman or even Batman’s strict moral codes that keep them from killing or doing anything that the average person might consider reprehensible. And most of the time, anti-heroes are out for themselves, not saving some innocent bystander. Often the only thing separating an anti-hero from a villain is sheer chance. For whatever reason, the anti-hero just happened to end up on the side of good that day. On the flip side of the coin, the sympathetic villain has many of these same aspects, and often is only villainous because he felt he had no other choice. Prime examples of this are Loki from the Marvel Universe, Megamind from the movie Megamind and Dr. Horrible from the Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog web mini-series. None of these villains are irredeemably evil, each has turned to villainy because they felt that it was the only choice they had left. In her graphic novel Nimona, author and illustrator Noelle Stevenson fully explores the relationships between heroes and villains and the line that gets drawn between them. In the process, Stevenson uses a humorous yet fairly dark fantasy world to explore the limits of monsters, heroes and villains. Originally spawned from a web comic, the story has been collected into a single volume which I will be covering this week for Graphic Reviews.
When Stevenson first introduces the reader to the fantasy world in which Nimona takes place, she makes it clear within the very first chapter that this won’t be your standard black and white, good versus evil fantasy story. The story opens with a young shapeshifter named Nimona convincing the kingdom’s villain, Ballister Blackheart, to take her on as an apprentice. Blackheart was once a hero-in-training himself and only a nasty “accident” during a joust kept him from taking his place among the ranks of the kingdom’s heroes. Blackheart has always maintained that it is in fact the kingdom’s golden boy, Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin, who is responsible for Blackheart’s “accident.” Angry at the betrayal and kicked out of the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics for being physically maimed, Blackheart has made it his life’s work to bring down Goldenloin and the Institution. Now that he has the skills of a shapeshifter at his side, it looks like that for the first time Blackheart might actually pull it off. But how much does he really know about Nimona? One thing is for certain, while Blackheart may have his own moral code, Nimona has no such qualms about villainy. Can Blackheart convince Nimona to tone down her wild ways or will his unruly sidekick bring more trouble down on his head than he can handle?
In many ways, Nimona reminds me very strongly of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Blackheart is the quintessential sympathetic villain. He has a moral code that prevents him from killing or injuring people unless it’s absolutely necessary and his only goal is to prove that the good guys aren’t exactly as “good” as they claim to be. Blackheart is made even more sympathetic by taking in the unruly Nimona who is determined to help her boss become the ruler of the kingdom (as any true villain should). Blackheart’s struggles to help Nimona and bring a little balance and support to her life set him up as a compelling father figure. But it’s just not that easy. Nimona has powers and a checkered history that’s not entirely under her control and Blackheart must come to terms with the fact that maybe Nimona doesn’t want his help or attempts to “fix” her. Throughout the story, Stevenson forces the reader to question whether Nimona is simply misunderstood and just needs a chance to prove herself or if she’s really a monster masquerading as a girl. It’s an interesting exploration of shades of grey (the good kind, not the terrible erotica) that forces the reader to question his or her assumptions.
Nimona is at once a parody of traditional fantasy stories and an examination of villainy and it does both remarkably well. The story is peppered with silly, irreverent humor that pokes fun at what a reader might expect from a traditional superhero/fantasy story. The names of Blackheart and Goldenloin are a dead giveaway but even the way Nimona fights, constantly shifting from animal to animal and often going completely overboard, is engineered to make you laugh. It’s irreverent in a way that’s different from Deadpool (less gory, less crude) but has much of the same unabashed, self-deprecating humor that makes the Merc with a Mouth so appealing. Nimona in particular serves as a vehicle for the reader to question all the standard fantasy tropes with derision even as Blackheart and Goldenloin defend them. It’s this humor that makes Nimona so much fun to read.
Nimona is one of those stories that is easily devoured in a single setting. Its irreverent humor and tendency to poke fun at heroes and villains in general make it highly entertaining while the more serious examination of what makes a monster manages to tug at your heartstrings by the end of the story. It’s an intriguing balance that makes Nimona a difficult graphic novel to put down. The comic style of the artwork complements the irreverence of the writing and the fantastic mood of the story in a way that realistic artwork would not. Nimona is likely to appeal more to fans of fantasy in general but I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys sympathetic villains and monsters rather than the traditional fantasy heroes.