Noelle Stevenson is the artist and writer of Nimona, a fantasy/superhero webcomic set to be published as a young adult graphic novel by HarperCollins. Known online as “Gingerhaze,” Noelle is also the artist behind The Broship of the Ring and other witty pop-culture comics. Noelle lives in Baltimore where she attends art school, and likes pirates, bad TV, and making fun of things she loves.
Could you tell us five random facts about yourself?
1. I compulsively chew on objects. My pens are covered in teeth marks and I’ve destroyed many pairs of earphones by biting through the cords.
2. When I was fifteen I wrote a 600-page novel about pirates. Nothing ever came of it, and it’s unlikely to ever reach the public eye, but it taught me loads about writing and storytelling.
3. I have very bad road rage – it’s almost a Jekyll and Hyde situation between regular me and highway me.
4. The only video game I’ve ever played is Crash Team Racing, but I’m VERY good at it.
5. When I was nine I took an acting workshop, and somewhere there is a character on a CD-ROM educational game who is voiced by me.
Tell us about your journey to becoming a graphic novelist.
It began at art school when I ended up in a Sequential Art class my sophomore year, and I was very skeptical about it – I considered comics a sort of exclusive club that I wasn’t allowed in. I didn’t really grow up with comics, besides Calvin and Hobbes and Tintin. I didn’t know the big names. I hadn’t read the must-read graphic novels like Watchmen and Maus and Blankets, which my friends wouldn’t shut up about. But then, unexpectedly, I quickly realized that I LOVED COMICS. I found that I had a voice in comics that I hadn’t had before – that I could say more with some simple words and a few pictures than I could in just writing or images alone. During this class, I read comics more actively, attended MoCCA for the first time, and just generally got excited about comics. Mostly I was interested in webcomics and independent comics – the idea of creating a story entirely on your own terms was very appealing to me, and the possibilities seemed endless.
Then of course during the summer of 2011, a little thing called The Broship of the Ring happened and my Tumblr blog suddenly gained a whole mess of attention. That was also the summer of X-Men: First Class, Thor, and Captain America, which meant that I was a lot more invested in Marvel and superheroes in general than I’d ever been before. I found that I’d been inducted into the world of comics and there was no going back.
Nimona came into existence during my junior year. We were given a 30-minute exercise where we were required to make up a character, and this chubby little pink-haired shapeshifter was what came out of it. I liked her, and so when I enrolled in Advanced Sequential Art next semester, I already knew that I wanted to tell stories with her in them. By the end of junior year, I’d used three separate class assignments to make Nimona comics, and had 16 pages altogether. At the encouragement of my Advanced Sequential teacher, Joan Hilty (a former editor at DC), I decided to expand Nimona into a webcomic.
The webcomic went online in the summer of 2012 – incidentally, I had already fully devoted myself to the world of comics at this point and was interning with BOOM! Studios in Los Angeles, getting a behind-the-scenes look at the comic publishing. Around the time that Nimona went online, I got some attention for my Avengers and Hunger Games fan comics, which brought a literary agent to my blog – Charlie Olsen from Inkwell Management, who, upon reading Nimona, contacted me about representing me. I signed with him at the end of the summer and returned to Baltimore for my final year of school. Charlie was very proactive, getting my comic in front of all sorts of editors while I continued to update the webcomic, and long story short, I ended up striking a deal with Andrew Harwell at HarperCollins for a two-book deal.
What has surprised you so far about the publishing process?
I suppose I’m most surprised that I’m actually going to be published! It’s been such an extreme and unbelievable journey to this point that I’m still having trouble getting my head around it.
Why do you feel drawn to the stories you create?
I’ve always been attracted to moral ambiguity in characters – which often sees me taking a special interest in the villain, and why they feel they have to do what they do. Especially in superhero stories, where traditionally the villain is very archetypal and the line between good and evil is clear. I guess I wanted to mess with that a bit.
Take us through the process of creating a chapter of Nimona.
It starts with scripting. Scripting is actually one of the most fun parts to me, because the jokes are still fresh and since no one sees the script but me, I don’t have to worry about making it look nice, or writing careful descriptions or anything – I just let it flow. Then, I sketch the page out very roughly on Photoshop. The characters are little more than stick figures, just to sort of visualize how everything is going to work together.
After that I tighten up the sketches a bit – it’s still pretty rough at this point, since a lot is still going to change between the sketches and the final lines. This is where I make a lot of story decisions. Maybe something that I wrote in the script turns out to not be working, and so I figure that out. Or a character who was meant to be in the background comes out looking so cool that I write them into a future scene. Or, to spice up a conversation, I’ll draw something wacky to keep the viewer entertained.
After that it’s pretty straightforward – I finalize the panels, digitally “ink” the sketches, color everything in, and then draw the word bubbles and hand-letter the text. It probably takes about 5-10 hours to make one page of Nimona. Because it’s a draw-as-I-go comic, pages get drawn in chunks of 2-4 a week, staying just ahead of the update schedule.
Does writing or drawing take more time to develop? Which requires more editing?
Writing takes much less time. Like I said, the writing tends to flow a lot more quickly, while I don’t solve a lot of my problems until I actually get to the sketch phase. The script is constantly being edited, right down to the moment when I write in the dialogue – because the script is so loose, it allows for a lot of leeway. It’s really more of a guideline for the story than something that’s set in stone.
Do you tend to plan out all the background details and small references in your panels, or do those elements come as you finalize the art?
I usually only plan out the characters, their props, and the parts of the setting that they interact with directly, like chairs and tables – unless the background is very important in that scene, of course. A lot of the details don’t come until I finalize the inks – background characters, for example, exist as only vague shapes in the sketch.
Where’s your favorite place to cook up stories and/or designs?
I LOVE driving and thinking about stories. I also love lying in bed before falling asleep and planning my stories, which is something that I’ve always done as far as I can remember. Also sometimes if I’m in a movie theater and I get bored, I’ll drift off and daydream plot elements as well – something about being in front of a big screen makes me feel very inspired.
How do you approach writing your very shades-of-gray characters?
Like I said, I’ve always gravitated towards villains, especially ambiguous ones. For me the most interesting villains are always the ones that make you think, “Wait, you’re actually kind of right, even if you’re going about it in the wrong way.” I take archetypes that I’ve seen in stories, like Lex Luthor and Superman for example, and think, well, why does Lex Luthor do these evil things, why does he feel he has to do this? Was there a chance for him in the past to do the right thing, to be a good person? Can he be redeemed? And the same for Superman – what are his reasons for doing good, and are his intentions always pure?
What is your favorite panel, scene, or arc you’ve written or drawn recently?
I’m getting a kick out of drawing Nimona’s burly male form, I have to say.
Is there a novel or piece of art which has inspired you particularly?
I get inspired by movies a lot, and most recently I’ve been inspired by a lot of animated movies like ParaNorman, Wreck-It Ralph, and Rise of the Guardians.
Do you have things you need in order to write/draw (i.e. coffee, cupcakes, music)?
Netflix, music or This American Life! I always need something to entertain me while I draw, because drawing comics can get very tedious.
What are you working on now?
I’m still hard at work on Nimona, along with my school and other projects.
You can keep up with Noelle and her projects on her Tumblr, Gingerhaze. Follow her on Twitter as @Gingerhazing, and find more information – as well as archives and updates for her comic Nimona – at her website.