One Thing Leads to Another: An Interview with Noelle Stevenson

Can you have a black Walter White or a female Lex Luthor without making an uncomfortable political statement? Can you have a epic, doomed gay love story like Titanic where you’re not just playing into the tired “tragic gays” trope? Can the character lose a fight dramatically and it not be seen as them being inherently less competent or valuable?

Check out previous interviews in the One Thing Leads to Another series here.

In the grand scheme of things I’m a relatively new member of the fan club.  Other than sort of intermittently following Looking for Group, I wasn’t clued in to the wonders of web comics until a friend linked me to a random (and perfect) comment about Sky High, which lead to me poking around on tumblr and finding this and this and this.  And this.  I joined immediately, for the pop cultural references, social commentary, comics and, of course, Nimona.  You probably should too, if you haven’t already.  The intermittent Scooby-Doo commentary alone is worth it.

And now here we are, a couple of years later, and Nimona is a real book that I can give to So Many People this holiday season (who are hopefully not reading this intro where I just spoiled their gift) and Noelle Stevenson has won a couple Eisners and been short-listed for the National Book Award (the first ever web comic to be nominated.) Nimona and Lumberjanes have already starting popping up on multiple end-of the year Best lists, including nominations for YALSA’s 2015 Great Graphic Novels for Teens, Quick Picks, and Popular Paperbacks honors.  Not to mention her work on Wander Over Yonder, Runaways (!!!), and in various anthologies (teenage Wonder Woman! Goddess of Thunder!)  In other words, if you haven’t had the pleasure, do yourself a favor.  Seriously.  I dare you to read the interview below or to check out any of Noelle’s work and not go full fangirl or fanguy immediately.  It’s impossible.  

Thank you, Noelle, for your Twitter feed, for making me cry when Nimona [redacted], for your generosity and vulnerability below and on tumblr.  Being a confused woolly little person wandering around making bad weird choices is a lot more fun when you have Nimona and April (and Ballister and Mal and Ripley and…) to keep you company. 

Always Something There to Remind Me

noelleauthorphoto, credit Leslie RannePlease describe your teenage self.

I was homeschooled for half of being a teenager and in public high school/college for the rest! It meant that I went from being THE COOLEST homeschooler to being this weirdly overconfident drama club kid who carried a lunchbox, was the only girl in school with short hair, and wore skirts over pants. I was a very try-hard teen who somehow didn’t really care what people thought of me, in practice. I made arm warmers out of socks and had no idea how to apply liquid eyeliner.

What did you want to be when you grew up? Why?

I wanted to be an artist, then I wanted to be a singer. Then I wanted to be an artist again. Then I wanted to be an actress and an artist at the same time. Then I wanted to be an actress, and artist and a writer. Eventually I dropped the actress part. For a short time I wanted to be an architect but then my mom told me it involved math and I changed my mind.

What were your high school years like? 

Like I said, I was homeschooled until I was 15, so I was pretty self-directed. I didn’t have a terrible time in high school as much as just being kind of…apathetic about it. It felt like a waste of time, so I made connections with the librarians and the art teacher and the drama club and I’d use those to get out of class all the time and go do my own thing. I cut class kind of a lot, actually. I felt a little like a ghost at public high school, but not in a bad way — it was kind of by design. I knew I’d only be there for two years and I had all these other plans. In the end, I’m really glad I did go to that school, because my art teacher was amazing. She was very overworked and basically taught 2-3 classes simultaneously, like literally at the same time in the same room, but she fought really hard to keep the IB Art track when the school was trying to slash it even when there were only 3 of us. She had the art school recruiters come visit the class and that’s pretty much how I figured out how to get to art school. She was really important in my life. I called her ‘Mom’ once, in front of my actual mom.

What were some of your passions during that time? 

I loved theater. We went to a ton of plays — my favorite ones were at the local university black box, but we went to ones at the bigger playhouses too sometimes. I was really into Sweeney Todd (the movie) at the time so we bought tickets to Sweeney Todd (the play) when it came to town. That one was a big deal! I loved movies in general, going to movies was probably my favorite thing to do. We had friends at the local art house movie theater too so we’d go there because they’d let us in for free. Maybe I was a pretentious teen?? I don’t remember being pretentious but I probably was. I loved reading and I’d hang out at the Barnes & Noble across the street from my school all the time — I read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy, or I’d just admire the illustrations in the kids’ picture books. I’d even take my friends there and do like, dramatic readings, and pretend to be an art critic while looking at all the book covers. I really, really wanted to have written the books on the shelves there. That store was the first place I went when I was home to see my books on display. It felt pretty good.

Would you be willing to share a difficult teen experience or challenge that you feel shaped the adult you became?

I was a really introverted kid, and a pretty cautious one. I was afraid of everything. I loved routine and I loved being safe and comfortable — I was a major homebody. I’d probably still be that person if I didn’t have the family I did. My family was really extroverted and adventurous, for the most part. We traveled a lot and I was always miserable. I was incapable of enjoying the awesome places we visited until much later. Then one time we were hiking in a rainforest in Guatemala and my parents decided to take us ziplining?? I swear I remember our guide having a wooden leg although I have no idea if that’s true or I made that up. Anyway, I was definitely NOT down for this. We had to climb waaaaay up in these skinny trees and onto these really rickety platforms, and THEN you had to stand on a box to make the jump. And I was like, no. My family was always pressuring me into doing stuff like this to me and I was never down for it. They got me up on the box somehow and I looked and there was NO way I was jumping. Not a chance. And I never would’ve jumped, seriously, except suddenly my mom just straight-up pushed me off the platform. Like she just threw me out of a tree. And I was fine! And I was ziplining! And I had a lot of fun!! As I grew up I stopped thinking that everything was going to kill me and I started thinking more like, well, I could die, but I probably won’t, so I might as well give it a try. It’s weird, but it’s the only way I am where I am now. Sometimes you have to just take a risk and jump. Or else your mom will throw you out of a tree.

What about a positive experience or accomplishment that had an impact on your adult self?

So I was talking about really wanting to see my books on the shelves at the bookstore, yeah? Well, when I was 15, I wrote a book. Actually, I think I finished it when I was 15. I remember reading Eragon when I was like, 11, and the author was a 15 year old homeschooler when he wrote it and I was like OH YEAH?? I CAN DO THAT TOO because even at the time I was super competitive, I guess. And I did it!! I wrote a whole book. It was more than 600 pages. It was really all-consuming for a while. I had great friends who were somehow always willing to listen to me rant about stories and pitch them potential plot ideas. I never shut up about it. I don’t know if anyone will ever see that book but it was so important to me. It taught me how to write and how to tell a story and how to finish something. I’m still really proud of it.

The author of Eragon tweeted that he liked Nimona a while back, actually. It felt like my life had come full circle.

What advice, if any, would you give your teen self? Would your teen self have listened? 

My advice to my teen self would be “stop trying to cut your own bangs.” I don’t know if my teen self would’ve listened. She was pretty hardheaded.

Do you have any regrets about your teen years? Anything left undone or anything that might have been better left undone?

I wish I hadn’t tried to cut my own bangs. Also I wish I didn’t wear so many skirts over pants.

What, if anything, do you miss most about that time?

I don’t know. I’ve never really wanted to go back. I think you’ve gotten a pretty good picture of how obsessive and awkward I was as a teen, and I think I have a better balance now. I’m a more complete human. And I have better hair. I miss the little things, I guess. Like, I miss playing video games with my little brother. I miss my old car and how we used to sing along really loud to every song. I miss our old familiar haunts. I miss being in plays and the feeling of community that comes with that. I miss how every movie I saw was the most amazing thing and just how easy it was to love things back then. But I wouldn’t go back, or even really change anything. Except how embarrassing I was about people I was crushing on. Also those really low-cut jeans that were really popular and one time I mooned everyone by accident. Oh god I forgot about that.

Every Day I Write the Book

You’re a fan of many things, it seems, from ScoobyDoo to lady pirates, Quentin Blake to Sandman. In fact, many of us first discovered your work through tumblr, where you posted comics fan art of characters ranging from the X-Men and Avengers to the “Broship of the Rings”, a series depicting familiar Lord of the Rings characters as hipsters.  “There’s nothing wrong with an influence that shows, in and of itself.  Everyone has them,” you tweeted last year.  In a later interview you expanded on that notion, explaining that every story you tell “comes from me, and from my own interests and my own background and my own life story. Those are connected to each other and they can’t really be separated.”  So I’m wondering what or who are the major influences on you and your work?  What ideas, events, arts (in any medium), people, or places inspire you? 

The first movie I ever saw in theaters was The Prince of Egypt and it blew my tiny brain and I think little bits of The Prince of Egypt still show up in everything I do. My parents were really conservative and didn’t let us watch a whole lot of stuff so everything I had as a kid became really important, almost legendary, to me. Scooby-Doo was one of those too. Lord of the Rings and Star Wars were all-consuming to me for years. A little bit later, Pirates of the Caribbean. The musical Wicked. The Muppets. Kim Possible and Teen Titans. In terms of books, Redwall, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and Monster-Blood Tattoo were incredibly formative. These days it’s gotten a bit weirder — I’m inspired a lot by reality TV, 80s music videos, dystopian YA fiction, high school movies, Taylor Swift, and books about mountaineering disasters? I feel really strongly that you should have a really eclectic bunch of inspirations instead of just the “appropriate” things to like. That’s where the really interesting stuff comes from.

nimonaSome months ago you published a short but very personal comic on tumblr that you titled a comic about changing your mind. “It feels good to feel right. And changing your mind hurts,” you said, illustrating some of the evolutionary moments you’ve experienced over the years.  The comic ends with a declaration: “I want to know things.  I want to believe them because they are true.  I have been wrong.  I’ll be wrong again.  I don’t know what the truth is.  Maybe I’ll never find it.  But at least I’m looking.”  I’m struck by the way this piece encapsulates so many of the elements that you use to make Nimona, Runaways, Lumberjanes etc. so powerful, like distilling complex emotions into the perfect evocative moment and acknowledging insecurity and discomfort in a way that’s totally inclusive and comforting.  Would you talk a little about that particular short comic, and about what looking for truth and allowing yourself to change your mind means to you?

Well, I grew up in South Carolina. I was one of five kids and we were very heavily involved in the Presbyterian church. We went to church sometimes 3-4 times a week, plus Bible studies. We were homeschooled and super conservative and for a big chunk of my life and I didn’t even really know anyone who was different from me. I was surrounded by people who looked and thought pretty much exactly like me. Still, I was always very outspoken, and a very obsessive thinker who spent a lot of time in my own head, so I got into trouble even early on for asking the wrong questions. It was kind of clear from an early age that I was going to be a bad Christian but I fought for it, I fought REALLY hard because I needed to believe this, I needed this to be true. There’s this idea among evangelicals that you can’t really choose your own salvation, that God chooses you. Everyone else, though, is a vessel destined for destruction and I got kind of hung up on that. God was supposed to come back and separate the sheep (the good ones) from the goats (the bad ones). But it’s not like you could choose to be a sheep if you were a goat. Sucks to be you, see you in hell, goats! I really wanted to be a sheep, but I wasn’t a sheep, and I left the church when I was nineteen and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done because that had been my whole identity up until then.

That theme comes up again and again and again in everything I write. I’d actually say it is THE theme of the things I write. It’s about choice, especially about bad people trying to be good, although never so clear-cut as that. I want to try to humanize even the outright villains if I can, to try and see things from their point of view. I want to give the choice back to them, I guess. My characters make the wrong choice a lot but no one is ever just straight up born a hero or a villain. There are no sheep and goats here. Just a lot of confused wooly little guys milling around making mistakes. They are so often bad people who want very deeply — not to be good necessarily, but to be loved. And they are usually very bad at it.

lumberjanes1lumberjanes2lumberjanes3Identity–exploration of, how it shifts over time, and how perception sometimes shapes reality—is a recurring theme in much of your work, and while the search for identity is certainly not contained to the teen years, they seem to be your focus. “I don’t think naturally I tend toward anything that’s really distinctly branded as adult,” you’ve said.  “I feel like I sort of write for myself as I would’ve been at 12 or 13 years old.”  What draws you to explore the idea of identity, in all its different facets, and why do you think you naturally gravitate towards a younger audience?

Well, practically, I was reading the most when I was 12 or 13. I loved things the most at that age. So when writing, that’s the type of person that I imagine reading my books because that’s the way it feels the most alive to me. Like that 13-year-old is reading it as I’m writing it and I can feel her loving it.

When you’re a teen, you don’t really know yet who you’re going to be, but you really want to find out. I never felt right as a teenage girl. I didn’t like my body and I felt like I didn’t have any control over my life. Of course that’s really common for teenage girls, probably every single teenage girl in the world feels that way, but I didn’t know that at the time. I thought it was just me. So one day I got home and I was I guess 11 or 12 or so and the first X-Men movie was on, and Mystique was flipping around on screen, and she was blue and completely stark naked. And I imprinted on her immediately. She felt powerful in a way that I had never seen before, because you usually think of power as “punching things really hard, or laser beams,” but she was powerful because no one could get the upper hand on her. No one could figure her out, she couldn’t be trapped in a single form, and she didn’t have to do anything she didn’t want to do. She was so confident she didn’t even wear any clothes and I was transfixed. She made ME feel powerful. I KNOW that seeing a naked blue lady on TV is a weird turning point to have, but it’s true. Shapeshifters became a shorthand for the kind of power I wanted. I wanted to look exactly how I wanted whenever I wanted to, and not just that, but to switch between that and any number of other bodies in the blink of an eye, while keeping my real self safe.

And I mean…that’s kind of what stories do, right? You get a new body for a little while, you experience the world through someone else. So maybe I can make someone else feel powerful, too.

runawaysOnce upon a time you felt that “comics were not for me or by people who looked like me,” and that the stories and characters you were looking for didn’t exist. You’ve talked about your desire to broaden representation in comics, not just in terms of having more female characters, or more characters of color, but by offering readers different types of stories featuring truly complex characters with stereotype-confounding characteristics, to show readers that “there can be a future where limits don’t exist.” Where do you see—or where would you like to see–comics heading, especially given the ongoing, often heated, conversations about diversity and belonging and authenticity?  And what’s next for you personally?  Do you have any interest in exploring other mediums or formats (like becoming more heavily involved in film or television or, say, writing a straight-up young adult novel?)     

Honestly, I want to find a way where we can still have these conversations about gender and diversity, because they’re SO important, but also kind of…give the stories in question a little room to breathe, and expand. It’s great we have role models, and I know it’s making a difference. But I think that’s just the beginning. I want female characters and characters of color to be able to exist in a mundane way too, or in an outright unpleasant or villainous way, and not have them have to carry the weight of portraying every single marginalized person positively, and not have their negative traits be seen as a poor reflection on the group they represent. Can you have a black Walter White or a female Lex Luthor without making an uncomfortable political statement? Can you have a epic, doomed gay love story like Titanic where you’re not just playing into the tired “tragic gays” trope? Can the character lose a fight dramatically and it not be seen as them being inherently less competent or valuable? I want the same nuanced characters, the same diversity of personalities, heck, I just want…MORE characters, and more kinds of characters. We deserve all kinds of stories. But first we have to break those stereotypes down before we can start to rebuild. So we do need role models! But the more positive representation we have, the more freedom we have for characters who aren’t role models, too. I hope that we can explore both at the same time. That’s what I’m trying to do.

Just Can’t Get Enough

Question from Libba Bray: Dear Noelle, you and Lou Grant are so very right: Spunky IS a terrible word. But there aren’t enough adjectives of happy to describe how giddy I feel reading Nimona, though “awesome,” “inspired,” “hilarious,” and “hell’s yes!” come to mind. (Shhh, “hell’s yes” is SO an adjective.) Since you are so knowledgeable about both sidekicks and supervillainy, will you please explain to the rest of us what makes for a great sidekick in life as well as in literature? And can you tell us about the rules of villainy? Who would make your Top Five list of Supervillains? Also, if you were a supervillain, what would your name be, what crimes would you commit, and, most importantly, what would you wear? Tell us, Noelle! Tell us!

Well, a good sidekick should have a real go-getter attitude and also bring something new to the table, such as for example, being able to turn into something that can carry you when you’re tired of walking. Like a dinosaur, but not a horse, because those are hard to draw. You and your sidekick should be a team and you should always take your sidekick’s opinion into account or they might go rogue and blow up a building. And don’t ask your sidekick to file paperwork or make coffee because they will probably do it all wrong on purpose so you never ask them to do it again. Sidekicks: POSSIBLY more trouble than they’re worth.

Top five supervillains: Mystique, obviously. Lex Luthor. Skeletor counts, right? Yes he does. JADIS, EMPRESS OF CHARN. Carmen Sandiego.

If I were a supervillain…well, the obvious answer is shapeshifter, but I’m gonna branch out and say “time traveler.” I’d be a really sneaky villain. It would be easy to get rich because I’d just go back in time and invent things as my own and win at all the horse races. Then I would use my wealth for even more Crimes. I’d wear something really distinctive yet mysterious, like a fur coat and an eyepatch and a really sharp suit and shoes with silver tips, so I’ll appear everywhere through history and everyone will wonder what it MEANS.

Noelle has contributed a question for the next author in the series, M. T. Anderson.  Watch for an interview with him coming soon!

Noelle Stevenson is the New York Times bestselling author of Nimona, short-listed for the 2015 National Book Award and nominated for a 2015 Eisner.  She was awarded the Slate Cartoonist Studio Prize for Best Web Comic in 2012 for Nimona.  A graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art, Noelle is a writer on Disney’s Wander Over Yonder, the cowriter of Boom! Studios’ Lumberjanes, the winner of  2015 Eisners for “Best New Series” and “Best Publication for Teens”, and has written for Marvel and DC Comics. She lives in Los Angeles. In her spare time she can be found drawing superheroes and talking about bad TV.

You can find Noelle at her website, or follow her on Tumblr or Twitter.

— Julie Bartel, currently loving my yearly re-read of Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising while also finishing Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On and diving into Illuminae by Amy Kaufman