Page One, Panel One: Creating Characters with Noelle Stevenson

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Page One, Panel One features in-depth discussions between Van Jensen (The Flash, Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer) and other writers diving into the creative process behind comic books. This week’s conversation features Noelle Stevenson, the artist and writer who first broke on the scene with her webcomic, Nimona, and has gone on to work on Secret Wars: Runaways for Marvel and Lumberjanes for BOOM!.

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With the collected Nimona debuting in book form recently, we wanted to talk to Stevenson about how she designs such memorable characters, the cosplayability factor and her yen for metal arms.

Van Jensen: So, we’re talking about designing characters, and I wanted to look at that from a few perspectives. You draw and write, so you obviously think about the visual side as well as the so-called character building side. To start, I was curious what comes first? Do you sketch and get an image that you then explore? Or do you have a concept that you then sketch out? Or does it vary, character to character and project to project?
Noelle Stevenson: Usually I start with a concept, which I then sketch out so that I can get a feel for the character. The character doesn’t really become real to me until I draw them. If the character is part of a group or team, I like to draw them all together, so I can figure out what their relationship to each other is and how they look and feel standing side by side, or interacting. It’s very rare that I don’t draw the characters as part of my development process, even if I’m not on art duties!

Jensen: With Nimona specifically, where and how did she first appear?
Stevenson: Nimona’s basic concept existed as a supervillain character named Nightshade that I had when I was in high school. She looked pretty different than Nimona—she had black hair and an eyepatch.

I never did anything with her though, and then in school I started drawing this Joan of Arc-ish type character in chain mail and leather, but it wasn’t until a character design exercise in my junior illustration class that the two merged into one, and Nimona as we know her emerged.

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Noelle Stevenson’s first sketch of Nimona

Jensen: This was in college? Where did you study?
Stevenson: Yes, this was in college. I went to Maryland Institute College of Art and I studied illustration there.

Jensen: When did you decide that she should be a shape-shifter? What was the motivation there?
Stevenson: I’ve always liked shape-shifter characters. I gravitated towards characters like Mystique from X-Men, Zam Wesell from Star Wars and Tonks from Harry Potter. I think there’s something very appealing about a character who isn’t constrained to a single form, something that feels very powerful and unlimited, especially for a teenage girl who may be struggling with her own perception of herself.

Jensen: Was that how you felt as a teenager? Those can be such strange, challenging years.
Stevenson: Oh, for sure. It’s easy to feel like you don’t have any control over yourself or your life or your body as a teen—everything is changing so fast, and a lot of it feels so outside of your power. I think that’s why a lot of teens form really strong attachments to fictional characters or celebrities, draw their own characters or write themselves into fan fiction. It’s a form of taking back some of that control in the form of fantasy.

Jensen: What was it about that basic concept of Nimona that made you think she was a character that you wanted to explore?
Stevenson: It’s a story about identity, and whether who you are is tied to the body you’re in or not, and so the concept of Nimona as a shapeshifter is very intertwined with my intentions for the story’s plot. And I didn’t want it to be a story about body image or sexuality. But I do think, as a woman, it’s easy to sometimes feel very limited or vulnerable because of the body you’re in, and the world’s reaction to that body, and I wanted Nimona to be unaffected by all that. Or at least, for the violence she is subjected to to not be gender-based. It’s a power fantasy in that way. She can be literally anything at any moment, but she’s also very confident in her chosen human form, and that was important to me to show.

Jensen: With her and the other characters for that comic, what was your process for building out their histories? Did you do a lot of work on the front end? Or did they evolve more organically as you continued the strip?
Stevenson: Everything in Nimona happened without a lot of planning, at least at conception. The first few pages were done without knowing what the story was or who the characters were, really, although I had a lot of ideas. After the first six pages you can see me start to do more research and planning and development as I started seriously considering the idea of making this a full-length comic with a self-contained story. But a lot of it happened right there on the page.

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Jensen: Nimona at first is kind of a miscreant. Well, not kind of. Totally. Were you concerned about people being able to connect with her, given her tendency for turning into carnivores and eating people?
Stevenson: It was the story I wanted to tell. I’ve always gravitated towards villains and morally gray characters, and I didn’t see as many female characters that fit that description as I would like growing up. I wanted her to be…difficult to love, but also lovable, in equal parts. I’m not sure if I necessarily worried about people liking her at first—I wrote a character I wanted to see, and I figured people with similar interests would get what I was going for if I did it right, although I did get flak for it at first. Female characters are often constrained by the expectation that they must be ‘likable’ at all times, and I’m not really interested in that.

Jensen: You were having a lot of fun with fairy tale tropes with that book. As you built the cast, were you thinking about archetypes and riffing on them?
Stevenson: There are a lot of superhero tropes as well as fairy tale tropes, and I think I was more interested in riffing on the superhero tropes than on the fairy tale tropes, although there’s a lot of overlap. But there was definitely the intention to subvert those tropes, and then subvert them again, to not let anyone land solidly in the realm of, ‘This is the hero and this is the villain.’

Jensen:   Cosplay  is obviously a huge thing at cons. When designing characters, do you think about making them cosplayable, so to speak?
Stevenson: A lot of that went into Nimona’s design, for sure. I noticed that I hated dressing up as female characters, and always chose to dress as male characters. I really wanted there to be more iconic options for people who want to dress as female characters, but not necessarily be sexy or sensual or overtly feminine, especially in the superhero realm. So it was definitely on my mind, but then she didn’t really end up being that cosplayable, mostly because of her hair, because you really have to commit to that haircut or figure a way to fake your way around it. So I considered the way that some women might want to dress or see a female character represented, but I didn’t feel constrained to stick to that in a really literal way.

Jensen: What characters are your favorites for cosplaying?
Stevenson: I haven’t done a lot of cosplay myself, honestly. I dress up for Halloween mostly. I’ve done Doctor Who, I did Charles Xavier from X-Men: First Class, I’ve done Hawkeye and this past year I did Carrie Kelley. Carrie Kelley was the first cosplay of a female character that I felt really comfortable in. I don’t like dressing femme or wearing revealing clothing, plus she already has short red hair like me, so it felt like an inevitable cosplay. I think it’s my favorite costume so far. I was worried everyone would just think I was Robin, but luckily I know a lot of nerds and they got it!

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Runaways #1 Cover by Sanford Greene

Jensen: Now that you’re writing for Marvel on Runaways and working with [artist] Sanford Greene, how has that changed your approach to character design? Did you do sketches to send to Sanford? Do you need that visual to help flesh them out?
Stevenson: I was really excited to learn that I’d be working with Sanford, because I love his work and I’ve never worked with an artist whose work is so clearly different than my own, and that was a new experience. It made me feel like I could tell a different kind of story, one that I didn’t normally tell because this one wasn’t going to be executed by me. I did do sketches of the characters though, mostly for my own benefit, when I was nailing down the cast. I sent those to Sanford with my character descriptions and with photos I’d used as inspiration, and he did his own take.

Jensen: I noticed that Bucky is in the book. Did you just really want to have another dude with a metal arm?
Stevenson: Mostly I wanted a dude who was really militaristically loyal, but maybe to the wrong people. But I do like metal arms.

Jensen: Has there been a character that you really struggled to connect with? If so, how did you handle that?
Stevenson: It happens sometimes when I’m working with characters created by others—you have to find something that interests you in all of them, because that’s your job. I felt that way with Lumberjanes a bit at first, because they were based on people I didn’t know, so I always worried I was missing something. Jo was a tough nut for me to crack at first, and how to elevate her past ‘the smart one and the leader’ stereotype, so I put a lot of extra attention into her in the second half of the first arc, because I wanted to figure out what she was about. When we got promoted to ongoing, I asked to go back and write the “first day of camp” issue that we skipped so we could really figure out who each of these girls is and where they come from and how they’re different from one another, and that helped a lot with my understanding of the characters.

Jensen: Who’s your favorite main character, any medium?
Stevenson: WHOA that’s a tall order!! Um. I generally tend to zero in on minor or supporting characters instead of protagonists. Part of that is I’m sure being a middle child, and wanting to adopt the least loved characters as my own, haha. And part of it is an appealing level of mystery that ancillary characters possess that protagonists maybe don’t. But also protagonists aren’t always main characters…gosh. I don’t know why this one is so hard for me.

Um. Hushpuppy from Beasts of the Southern Wild. Or Harriet the Spy.

Jensen: Okay, so I have to ask—favorite side character?
Stevenson: Haha. Um. Zam Wesell. Or Mystique. Or Lex Luthor. Carrie Kelley? Hawkeye. Velma. Okay I’ll stop.

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