ND Stevenson is still processing. About two weeks after the release of Nimona, the animated feature based on the webcomic he wrote in college, Stevenson and I were able to chat about the journey that Nimona has been on for nearly a decade. Not just going from page to screen, but going from studio to studio, and how Stevenson thinks about storytelling now versus then.
“It still doesn’t seem entirely real,” he said at the start of the interview. So few adaptations get made, and even fewer of those adaptations are any good. “You have to protect your heart a little bit,” he explained. “I hoped for the best, expecting the worst.” With everything that’s happened to Nimona, it seemed like the smart move.
Stevenson started writing the Nimona webcomic for a college assignment when he was a student in 2012. It was a massive hit, and the illustrations were later collected in a graphic novel in 2014. Then, the movie options came knocking. Blue Sky Studios, the same place that did Ice Age and Epic, began working on an adaptation. When Blue Sky was bought out by Disney in 2019, Nimona’s future was up in the air—the express queer themes of the story weren’t exactly what Disney was known for. And then, even though the animators said they had nearly completed the film, Nimona was unceremoniously shelved. When Annapurna and Netflix stepped up to finish work on Nimona, Stevenson didn’t let himself get his hopes up. He felt like he was “bracing for the next plot twist.”
But now, Nimona is out, it’s wonderful, and Stevenson is trying to figure out how to respond to how big it seems, how many people have seen it, and who’s going to see it next. People have been coming up to him to discuss the film, but he says it feels surreal—“I’ve been protecting that little part of my heart for so long”—talking about Nimona like it’s a real thing.
“All of this is just the absolute best outcome, when [getting this film made] was not a guarantee at any point and the odds of that happening were really low,” he said. “Nimona is something really special and something really special happened here. And I’m just trying to record that because I want to remember everything. I can’t even describe how profound it’s been.”
He added, “Every time I see it something new just smacks me in the face.” When meeting fans and talking to them about Nimona, Stevenson will often come away with a new interpretation of the film. And a lot of that comes from the way that the original comic continues to resonate with people today. “One thing that I’m really struck by is how people talk about how Nimona [the comic] was their awakening, or that it helped them figure things out about their own gender.”
Stevenson is trans and bigender, but when he was writing Nimona, he was still exploring his own identity. “I knew [Nimona] was a commentary on gender. I didn’t know I was making that commentary on gender. But that was something that was recognized by people who saw themselves in it.” For Stevenson, Nimona, and really all of their work, notably the comic Lumberjanes and the Netflix series She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, “these stories have been my own way of exploring myself. I was feeling out these identities in fiction. Subtext implies I knew what I was doing… calling it subtext is generous, because that implies that I was doing any of that on purpose. I really, really did not put it together.”
Now, he can see how his work, which came out of a “place of pain and emotional distress,” has become a powerful metaphor for queerness. The ending of both the movie and the comic are hopeful, but the movie is much less ambiguous about it. The comic was originally going to end in a much darker way.
It changed “for two reasons. The first was that I told my sister the ending and she threatened to never speak to me again if I didn’t change it. And two, I was also starting to get to the place, personally, where I was able to listen and say, ‘you’re right.’ The ending I had planned hasn’t felt right for a while. I think that the ending I had planned was an inability for me to imagine a happy outcome for myself.”
But, Stevenson said, over the course of writing the comic they were able to imagine what a happy ending might look like. Part of that was because of the fans and the community of readers who were rooting for Nimona. If they were cheering Nimona on—in all the messy, imperfect, disaster shapes that she took on—what was stopping them from cheering for Stevenson too?
“I wanted to keep that darkness and that anger,” Stevenson said, “but over the years I realized that while it’s easy to be cruel to yourself it’s much harder to be cruel to other people.” Over the course of its telling, Nimona had become a comic that reached far beyond the confines of just Stevenson figuring his shit out. It became representative. It meant something to other people. Being hopeless himself was allowed, but he felt it wasn’t fair, and wasn’t even the right story, to say that “there’s no happy ending for Nimona, especially when the audience is seeing themselves, maybe for the first time, represented in this character.”
The ending of Nimona the comic is sad, but it’s not hopeless, like Stevenson had originally planned. And the movie goes even further. It’s aimed at a younger audience, and considering the politics of 2023, and what Stevenson has learned about himself, he thought “it would be irresponsible to present an ending without hope. Compared to the comic, which I think was hopeful in its own way, I think the movie takes a much more aggressive stance with that radical hope and love and acceptance.”
He described the comic and the movie as being in conversation with each other. Both embrace messiness and darkness, but are also clear examples of where Stevenson was when he was making, or helping to develop, both stories. He said he feels lucky to have been given such a voice with the film, and while he loved how it turned out, there’s something about the comic—its daring movements, its messiness, its ambiguity, that he thinks is “really cool.”
Stevenson recalled that some people were “frustrated” by the ending of the comic. He said he gets it, but “the frustration is the point. I want you to get mad. I want you to wonder about what happens next. In that way, you can be a part of the messines.”
Stevenson said, “I think there’s something to be said for storytelling that is ambiguous. Where there isn’t a clear answer. I don’t think that every queer story has to be hopeful or even uplifting. I think it really depends.” He became animated as he talked about how these stories—all the queer stories—are in flux; created in conversation and opposition to each other, “created with the world and with the passage of time.” These stories “continue to change and grow as I have changed and grown, as we all have.”
Queer stories, even queer stories that are told through subtext, are often forced to be defined as queer stories. They’ve got to be put in the box. They’ve got to be a certain kind of queer story. But that’s a disservice to queer creators as much as it is to queer stories. No story is anything more or less than a story. It simply is, just like we all are. So often we generalize things like gender and presentation and transitioning in order to make things clean and comfortable, but the truth is much more expansive, messy, and hard to define.
Stevenson described why he’s drawn to ambiguous endings much like his response to his transition: that regardless of his presentation, he’s been himself the entire time, even as he pushed boundaries and tried to answer questions about who he was. “I feel like I don’t know that this me is any more me than like any other way I’ve ever looked. But this is what feels right, right now. The same way that Nimona is like ‘This is who I am today,’ so am I. Any story that [resists definitions] like that is something that’s a lot harder to explain.”
I asked if he would go back to Nimona in any format. “If I go back to the comic, I want do it for the right reasons,” he explained. “The plot has always been incidental to the characters’ relationships. The story is all about the emotion and the relationships between the characters and the stroy arc is the character’s arc.” He explained that just wanting to spend time with these characters isn’t a good enough reason for him to return, and that, in a way, the movie allowed him to spend time with these characters, with this world, for a little bit longer.
“I have talked about what a movie sequel would look like,” he said, getting excited. “I had an incredible conversation with [Nimona star] Eugene Lee Yang about Goldenloin’s backstory, and what his story would look like. I can see so many ways I would go. There’s a reason to tell that story. I would love it. I think it would be really, really cool. A sequel to the movie would be awesome. That is something that I feel like right now.” But, he said, he has “absolutely no idea if that would ever happen.”
Often ending things, even your own stories, is hard for the audience too. People would probably love to see more Goldenloin—they’d probably love to see more Nimona and more Boldheart too. And with the ending of the film, there’s so much left unanswered. But Stevenson, much like with the ambiguity of the comic, said he likes this too, at least when it comes to the stories he’s interested in telling. “Good stories answer a question,” he explained, “and great stories leave some of those questions answered. I want to leave questions for people.”
Stevenson seems to be searching for a way to define his voice in a world that seems to actively resist being without boundaries—the very thing that he embodies, both as a trans person and an artist who revels in ambiguity and messiness. He doesn’t want to sew up all his stories; he wants to leave raw edges. He wants to leave questions. “We are all, in our own ways, a question without an answer. I think a lot of us feel that way, and I want to tell stories about that.”
Nimona is now streaming on Netflix.
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