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Embracing the Monster: Explicating and Recovering from Trans1 Child Abuse in Nimona

Every text converted from one format to another experiences small and large transformations in its adaptation: characters are created or dropped, plotlines are streamlined, and endings are utterly altered. Nimona, first a webcomic, then a graphic novel, and, most recently, a feature film, is no different. What is different about Nimona (2023) is the specific radically affirming shift in ending from page to screen. In an interview with Nimona creator ND Stevenson, Linda Condega writes, “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.” In the same interview, Stevenson himself, in explaining the comic’s final climax, said, “I think that the ending I had planned [originally] was an inability for me to imagine a happy outcome for myself.” Why does the source material end with a cruel murder of the title character, and the film end with a loving embrace? What occurred in the intervening twelve years between the first comic pages’ publication and the near universal acclaim for the 2023 film’s release? How did a transgender author come to be able to imagine a more hopeful ending for his story inadvertently about a shapeshifting trans allegory? The ending scene in the Nimona graphic novel published in 2015 is a tragic moment, where part of a little queer girl must be destroyed in order to love her. In 2023, Nimona’s foster father says, “I see you, Nimona, and you’re not alone”: he must accept and love her as a whole, complex being in order for her to begin healing from long-term abuse. These parallel scenes develop a dialog of shifting social mores about how we empathize with and care for those who experience deep abuse and trauma based on their otherness. They also explore a roadmap of self-acceptance and love for those who find their stories expressed in both adaptations. Both versions reveal parts of the truth of trans* childhood trauma. In both forms, Nimona’s world, its government, and how its organized systems function all allegorically and literally demonstrate the repeated injury and social abuse of transgender youth in a white supremacist cis-heteronormative society, but the changes in storytelling document a specifically trans* narrative shift from hopelessness in the face of an abusive world toward an imagining of trans* liberation through “radical hope.”

On September 20, 2011, Stevenson posted a character sketch on his Tumblr blog with the text, “Guys, I love Nimona, I want to make a comic with her in it.” The character--a punky, short, ambiguously-aged (though youthful) and -gendered (though femme) figure, wore pseudo-medieval armor, a pink tunic, and a then very trendy side shave cut into her pink hair. Her expression was suspicious, cool, and focused. Almost two months later, another sketch appeared, this time with Nimona and another character who “doesn’t have a name yet.” Stevenson wrote “they’re like the Batman and Robin of slightly Medieval villains.” Like the dynamic duo, the two characters are an adult and a youth, a “hero” and a “sidekick,” and share that found and foster family dynamic with the Detective Comics titans. Then, on December 15, 2011, Stevenson published the first comic featuring the character Nimona. The comic is two pages long. In it, Nimona offers to be villain Ballister Blackheart’s sidekick for doing cartoonish evil. She also reveals herself to be a shapeshifter by turning into a shark with legs and feminine breasts. The tone, if not already clear, is comedic. Stevenson continued to post individual panels, pages, sketches, and background information on the characters, and a following grew. The comic amassed a large queer audience, both because of the comic’s explicitly queer content and its home in the early 2010s environment of fans of independent comics on social media site Tumblr. That the heroine is a shapeshifter is no small part of this following. In queer and trans* cultures, the supernatural ability to shapeshift is a touchstone of symbolic identity, both for the bodily change involved and for the adaptation and resiliency displayed. The history of the comic’s publication echoes Stevenson’s own journey through Butlerian “gender trouble.” Early in the publication of the comic, Stevenson answered an “ask” (an on-platform question system):

fylum-qordata replied to your photo: I just kind of really like drawing both of these dudes

Nimona’s a dude. MIND BLOWN.

Haha, “dudes” = “people in general” in my vocabulary. Nimona’s a girl, but she can certainly be whatever gender and sex that she wants, depending on her mood. Since she’s a shapeshifter and all. Yknow.

However, in November of 2014, another ask requested information about Nimona’s gender when her shape was non-female or femme, asking “Does she switch pronouns? Does she generally stick with female ones? Or does Nimona not really care…?” Stevenson answers,

She’s been an octopus, a cat, and a giant flaming monster. I don’t really think it makes a whole lot of difference to her what the sex of whatever body she’s in at the moment is. All her bodies are different sizes and have different parts. She adapts to each one to use it in the best possible way, but it doesn’t change HER. I can’t say for certain if she’s ALWAYS identified as female, but during the timeframe of the comic she does.

These two answers are both harmonious and dissonant: in the first, Nimona’s sex and gender are fluid with her shapes. In the second answer, four years later and right before the publishing of the graphic novel, Stevenson says that the bodily sex and gender are not related to the inherent gender of Nimona and that for the duration of the storyline, she is female. Stevenson’s own conception of Nimona’s gender shifted from being localized in the body to being nebulously a part of self, separate from the attached body. In July of 2023, Stevenson reblogged a Tumblr post reading, “This wild, wonderful, beautifully animated and heartfelt queer story started here… Here, on tumblr [sic], by an art student who was wrestling with his identity, mental health, and religious trauma. Tell your stories, kids, you never know how many people will thank you for it[.]” This post reflected on the history of Nimona from this first image to the film’s release on the streaming platform Netflix. Stevenson reblogged the post without comment, but, in an interview, spoke about the impact of creating within a larger trans and queer community: “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” (Codega). It is undeniable that the shift in storytelling between comic and film reflects Stevenson’s own conception of transgender identity, personal gender, and the effects of a community experiencing Nimona together as a serialized story. This path of adaptation mirrors Nimona’s own adaptive struggles as a character: as the story and its readership grew, that which was brilliantly adaptive to trauma became more damaging when outside of that trauma. Nimona’s initial strength came out of her pain and rage, which became a source of self-harm once she was genuinely loved and accepted. Nimona’s themes of queer rage, pain, and trauma, in adaptation, have melted into to gentler modes in the later forms of the story: the film is kinder to its main characters and audience than the comic was initially.

As a webcomic, Nimona initially operated as a comedic and queer exploration of genre convention in fantasy and fairy tale stories. Nimona pairs with her icon, the villainous Ballister Blackheart, with the express purpose of being “bad” and “breaking things.” While Nimona and Blackheart are “evil,” they are evil in the way mid-20th-century Disney villains are evil: they exist in a Manichean, melodramatic realm of heroes and villains and take the role of wicked evildoers. The antagonists of this story are, of course, the “heroes,” led by Ambrosius Goldenloin, a knight and police-style enforcer who was at one time romantically involved with Blackheart. Episodes were short in the early days of the comic, often only two or three pages. As the webcomic progressed, however, the complexity of the narrative and aesthetic styles increased. Characters underwent significant re-designs, chapters grew in length, and pages used more colors. A storyline emerged out of what had been a flat comedy pastiche of fantasy and fairy tale stories and into a character-driven drama in which all characters had hidden, vulnerable depths related to early traumas, and these traumas almost all related to their expressions of queer identities or socially outcast traits.

Stevenson’s work has typically focused on trans and queer characters. He is arguably most well-known for his work being the showrunner for Netflix’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (2018), a reimagining of the 1985 intellectual property with an explicitly diverse and queer cast. She-Ra and the Princesses of Power also features strong, heroic child characters who experience significant abuse and trauma in childhood (the main characters’ mother figure is abusive and controlling, and the plot focuses on resilience in the face of that abuse). Stevenson also maintains a blog with reflective, intimate comics exploring issues of self-esteem, hidden trauma, and gender/sexuality fluidity. Stevenson came out as non-binary in July 2020 before announcing that he was transmasculine in March of 2021. Even though Stevenson had not come out as transgender, non-binary, or even gender-questioning while Nimona was being written, Nimona as a character had clearly been a standing allegory for transgender experience. In a 2019 “Year in Review” comic (see Figure 1), Stevenson expressed feelings about himself, love, and gender over the past years. The first panel is a sketch of Nimona with dragon wings, reading, “so you draw. and you tell a story about a girl who wants to burn the world. about a girl who wants to be loved. and something changes. [sic]” Several panels later, Stevenson draws himself healing from chest masculinization (“top”) surgery. As a personal work, Nimona is very tied to Stevenson’s own perception of identity and of gender and minority status-related oppression. In an interview for Gizmodo after the release of the film, Stevenson said, “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.” While most of Stevenson’s work inevitably includes queerness as a topic, in Nimona that queerness is part of a central difficulty to be resolved. In She-Ra, the central relationship between two women contains conflict, but not uniquely queer conflict--that is, the conflict, and even themes of abuse, do not require queerness to make legible the narrative in which a parent figure manipulates and harms children directly, and the world and society at large remain generally neutral on the characters’ “other” status.

Embracing the Monster: Explicating and Recovering from Trans Child Abuse in Nimona, Sata Prescott, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1: Two frames from ND Stevenson's "2019 Year in Review."

Instead of individual abuser characters, however, Nimona makes use of the social antagonist, wherein systemic abuse on a social and societal level drives individual actions that harm young queer people. The initial story framework uses the symbols of cartoon “good” and “evil,” but neither of these explicitly points to the story’s antagonist. Initially, the protagonists are the “villain” characters, and one would therefore assume that the antagonists would be the “hero” characters: Goldenloin, the Director, and their associates. However, these characters are not easily pegged as evildoers, or even clear antagonists. Goldenloin retains audience sympathy, even when making “wrong” decisions. The film spends time with Goldenloin’s inner world in a moment evocative of therapy. Even the more malicious secondary character, Todd, is allowed a moment of forgiveness at the very end. The Director, despite having orchestrated the inciting action of regicide, is simply the head of society and the voice of maintaining the power of that society. The story offers sympathy for the Director even in the process of exposing her crimes. In a straightforward fantasy film, the Director-as-antagonist would have a simple reason for villainous actions: greed, or revenge, or just plain evil. But the film allows the audience to explore the Director’s motives rather than easily condemn her: it is not lust for power, but fear of destruction that drives her. She works to entrench oppression via her fear of the “monsters” that are part of her culture’s core value system.

All of these hero-antagonists participate in the systemic abuse of “monstrous” queer characters (that is, Nimona herself), but the problem is the founding myth of this world. Therefore, the resolution in Nimona cannot simply be defeating one or more of these individuals. The Director is not beaten through a sword fight. She only loses power once Goldenloin and his knights/police refuse to obey her orders. Goldenloin asks, “And what if we’ve been wrong? What if we’ve always been wrong?” (see Figure 2). This moment indicates the instance where the character (who is synecdoche for all the dominant people of a social system) refuses to abuse Nimona anymore. Goldenloin’s resistance and acknowledgement eliminates the Director’s power. While the Director attempts to use a big scary weapon emblematic of societal power structures to kill the “monster,” the climax belongs to Nimona, who uses her queerness (her shapeshifting) to become an enormous phoenix and resist this final attack. As no shots divert from Nimona to the Director or her attack, this moment is Nimona claiming her own beauty and power in the face of the literal architecture of society.

Embracing the Monster: Explicating and Recovering from Trans Child Abuse in Nimona, Sata Prescott, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2: Goldenloin defies the Director in Nimona (2023).

The last scene in the film shows the new society in which a knight plays ball with children in a wholesome mode. Blackheart and Goldenloin, united as a romantic couple, visit a community grieving spot to remember Nimona. The film here underscores the societal change that has taken place: the queerness and the otherness Nimona symbolized are now welcome rather than ostracized. This is the change that has made the world safer for the children present. In these shots of idealized society now, every image shows children in warm-toned light, interacting with each other and adults, and happy. This societal change is a radical effort for a fairy tale, which by genre convention typically seeks to restore a previous state rather than to change societal values. Fairy tales usually restore or re-create the monarchy, exclude a villain from society, and reverse course on societal changes (Zipes 188 and Hixon 68). In fact, the foundational “fairy tale” of Nimona operates in this “traditional” format, telling the story of Gloreth in stylistic medieval illuminations (see Figure 3):

Embracing the Monster: Explicating and Recovering from Trans Child Abuse in Nimona, Sata Prescott, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3: "Illuminated manuscript" of the Story of Gloreth from Nimona (2023)

A kingdom blessed bi beauti and harmoni in equal measure. Verili did its people live in the embrace of Blue Scies2, tilling the good earth, harvesting the bounties of their animated labors. … The people resisted the wiccedness that thrived in other Kingdoms, living in virtue, practicing kindness. Oh rejoice for a kingdom where lives were valued, stories were told, and beauti was made. … Monstrous darkness can even befall the Innocent and Undeserving. … Mai the powers curse forever the darcness that befell all. … With the magic of t’ Kingdom reduced to rot, all hope perished. Gloreth our savior, her sword our salvation. Though a beloved home can fall, a spirit cannot be so easili extinguished. It takes but one to stand in light and walc t’ One Lane of righteousness. [sic] (Sugano 9)

By using this format, Nimona taps into what Susan Sontag3 described as fascist aesthetic to develop the look of the world. This society upholds a romanticized view of the past (and its arts), and Gloreth herself dominates the kingdom in white marble/metal statue form. Her image holds forward her sword in an almost Roman salute, ready to murder all of society’s “monsters.” In the utopian final scene, as a symbol of the old system being eliminated, one shot specifically shows workers disposing of the very big fantasy gun that the Director used to attack Nimona. Another shot shows that travel and commerce are taking place through a hole in the giant wall that has previously surrounded society. The people are dismantling the systems, the literal structures, of oppression to build a safer environment for future generations.

Despite this, the efforts toward revolutionary changes in society can’t help but fall a bit flat: no “monster” children are in this happy new world, or at least they are not visible in this moment. There’s no “home for battered monster girls” opening in the main street. The new leadership or government systems are utterly unaddressed. And that knight is still there, even though they are playing ball with happy children. Is there evidence here that if another strange being arrives they will meet with kindness and welcoming? Have the police force (the knights) been adequately reformed in the ambiguous time since the film’s climax? Clearly the film wants to impart this to the audience, yet the idealized world in the end still lacks these proofs. In fact, it might be that only the expression of Nimona’s trauma has been eliminated, and not the trauma. Nimona herself is gone and cannot advocate for her pain and needs. The people can remember her and mourn her, but are they addressing the abuse she experienced? Yet this ending is more hopeful than that of the comic, in which Goldenloin himself slays Nimona in dragon form to protect his society (an action that does not require any social transformation). He does what his role is meant to do: be a knight (social enforcer) and slay the monster (the divergent child). When, in the comic, Nimona divides into two beings, fragile and ferocious, the queer readership understands viscerally what it is to be two different people: one person who has stakes in social community, and one queer being who is in pain, rejected, and dangerous (VanOra and Ouellette). The film allows these split selves, fragile and frightening, to be a whole, including her pain and violent rage. A single moment pre-credits teases that Nimona may yet be alive, or present in some fashion (perhaps a ghost?), but the viewer never sees her again. Is a sad wall of public grief a justified answer to a millennium of abuse and suffering? This end is familiar for queer people, who have seen public change come in the wake of deaths like that of Matthew Shepard in 1998 and all those named in the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance (more than 200 since the memorial began in 2017). While the children of Nimona’s world live a better life, is there a guarantee that the “monsters” like Nimona will have that same privilege? Or do the members of this new society simply congratulate themselves on their liberal niceness? At least in the film, Nimona’s “foster father,” Blackheart, finally purges abuse from his way of loving Nimona, and Goldenloin refuses to re-create the society that perpetuates that abuse. Even Nimona’s absence helps to drive home the fragility of a queer child’s existence: even once the adults learn what that child needs, it can often be too late to undo that damage easily.

The dramatic difference in Nimona’s endings sits across one of the most changing eras of queer history. The Nimona graphic novel was published in 2015 in a United States that had just assured the federal right to same-sex marriage and assumed it would soon have its first female president. Nimona (2023) came out in a post-Trump United States during a period of some of the most pernicious coordinated attacks on transgender people in all its history. As of November 2023, legislators have proposed 586 anti-transgender bills, and 85 have already passed into law (Trans Legislation Tracker). Transgender and queer people have stepped forward in activism in ways not seen since the Reagan and AIDS era. It might be that 2023 does not have space for the nuanced, messy, and very personal telling of Nimona that 2015 had. But cultural knowledge of transgender issues has increased due to this political climate, meaning that the story of Nimona is oddly enough more accessible to a wider, less queer and more cisgender audience. As a comic, Nimona is a part of the subgenre “gentle” of “cozy” fantasy, a subgenre that emerged in the 2010s and reached mainstream during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. Cozy fantasy is often in comic form (though novel writers are gaining ground) and focuses on comforting, healing storytelling. These stories also usually focus on and attract readers from marginalized groups, especially queer people and people of color—those who need comfort and healing after whole lives of social abuse (24hr.YABookBlog). However, major studio films are not made for audiences of niche subgenres, and so the Nimona film could only have been made once transgender narratives were legible to the general viewing public. The Nimona film maintains some aspects of the cozy fantasy genre: the climax resolves through care and love between found family, and the worst of the violence is implied through back story instead of being part of the narrative timeframe. However, the genre of the film is more securely placed in “fantasy adventure.” Action scenes dominate the story, and Nimona’s transformations come with sparkles and sound effects. The audience for the film skews younger than the comic, and Nimona’s character complexity reduces somewhat.

What Nimona (2023) does do that is narratively revolutionary is inviting the audience to empathize, not only sympathize, with Nimona herself. Previous entries in cinema featuring queer trauma have a general air of asking for sympathy, while empathizing with the characters in the film who learn that queer people are okay, actually. Decades of films on queer topics have been created by non-queer people for a generally dominant cis-straight audience, prompting the movement for “own voices” literature and media. Nimona even lampshades4 this when she retorts to an interruption, “Do you want to tell my story?” Movies like To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995), Brokeback Mountain (2005), and The Danish Girl (2015) all take a generally objective, third person-style narrative approach in which sad queer people have difficulties and cis-straight people realize that queer people deserve love. The characters in these films are also inevitably adults. These films do not necessarily prohibit individual audience members from “seeing themselves” in the queer characters, but the narrative structures only ask so much of the viewer. For example, in To Wong Foo…, a plot line resolves when a straight man accepts a trans woman as a lover. The trans woman does not go through a similar character arc. But Nimona keeps the audience inside the ideas, motivations, and changes of Nimona, as well as Blackheart and even Goldenloin. All of these characters have marginal identities, regardless of the majority white, cisgender, and straight audience watching the film. Nimona requires that the audience experience empathy to be able to engage with the film at all, and therefore dramatizes queer abuse, rage, and pain as a relatable, real experience instead of a peculiarity of character for audience pleasure. The audience must understand Nimona’s feelings, motivations, and pain or face confusion about the movement of the action. This is easy for trans viewers, who see themselves already in the trans allegory. Society abused Nimona specifically because of her status as a “monster.” That “monstrousness” most easily creates an allegory for queer and transgender existence in the real world, though it equally explores any other trait that does not align with what mainstream society is willing to allow. For those who have not specifically experienced social child abuse around transgender or queer identities, the abstraction into “monster” allows viewers to access abstracted empathies and join in Nimona’s anger and trauma. When Blackheart says, “I see you,” the line demands the audience face Nimona’s needs. Everyone has felt, to some degree, exclusion. Nimona abstracts that social abuse into an algebraic variable for anyone to absorb. While transgender experience is very clear in Nimona’s character arc, nothing prevents her story from also being symbolic of gendered child abuse, general child abuse, struggles with mental health, or other very human experiences.

Nimona reveals her abuse narrative in two scenes. One is told from Nimona’s point of view to Ballister, and is a lie about her origin story. The animation depicts this lie in mosaic stop-motion to ground the lie in the present scene, taking place on a subway system. This animation style subtly indicates that the story is a fabrication, being created in the present context. This story echoes the single story told about Nimona’s origin in the comic, where Nimona tells a story in red-hued sepia tone to indicate a flashback. In both these fabrications, Nimona emphasizes her normal-ness, but also expresses loneliness. Even in her self-mythologizing, she cannot have a happy childhood. The second scene in the film is an objective flashback, intended to show the audience the “true” story of the past. The story develops the story over a montage, an implies a sort of queer homoerotic longing between the Nimona and another girl who will become the monster-destroying Gloreth. As a child, though, Gloreth sees Nimona shapeshift, and earnestly welcomes her truth. The two girls become more deeply loving toward each other until adults discover Nimona’s nature. It is important to note that Gloreth participates with Nimona in queerness (symbolized by the sharing of magic and intimate company), but later rejects it from both Nimona and herself. The adults indoctrinate Gloreth, and Gloreth banishes Nimona as a monster. Even though Gloreth previously loved her friend, she chooses her social standing instead of her friendship, and later becomes the foundational myth of all of society.

There are phrases folks say when faced with something as terrible as child abuse: “Abuse begets abuse,” or “it’s a vicious cycle,” or even, “I don’t know how anyone could be that evil.” These sorts of phrases do a few discreet operations, at once sharing in the sorrow of the act while simultaneously permitting the same act to happen again and again; similarly, these phrases express sympathy for the source of the abuse while fatalistically divesting oneself from responsibility to halt or help. When the victim-survivor is a member of some marginalized subgroup, even the mild empathy expressed by the body of the community can reduce or turn hostile. The already non-functional empathy in these action-terminating clichés can transform from apathetic passivity into approval of the abuse. While a community may regret the inevitable harm that comes to some children, other/othered children may have somehow “deserved” their victimhood. Individuals abuse, but systems create the situations in which abuse can take place. These disengaging phrases tend to express that abuse is surprising, unexpected, random, and without cause other than a genetic or generational moral failing. This obscures the fact that abuse, especially of queer children, is so regular as to be analyzable and predictable. A 2020 study in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence stated that “82% of transgender individuals have considered killing themselves and 40% have attempted suicide, with suicidality highest among transgender youth.” This study examined what it called “intervenable risk factors: interpersonal and environmental micro-aggressions, internalized self-stigma, and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), and protective factors: school belonging, family support, and peer support.” The study found clearly that suicidality was far higher in both lifetime and recent attempts in transgender youth when family and community rejected their identities, and particularly that “[s]chool belonging, emotional neglect by family, and internalized self-stigma made a unique, statistically significant contribution to past 6-month suicidality” (Austin et al. 1). However, multiple studies show that these disproportionate rates of suicide, depression, and other negative outcomes for young queer people reduces significantly when the child receives loving care and support from somewhere in their life. The 2012 TransPulse study showed a 93% reduction in suicide attempts when parents were “strongly supportive of their gender identity and expression” (1).  In short, the science is clear that “queerness” is a risk factor for depression, suicide, and other dysfunctions; but calling “queerness” itself a risk factor is covering the source of abuse: social abuse and disenfranchisement based on the outsider status of the queer child. Bethany Everett suggests that identity instability is a driving force in the psychological health of young people in sexual minority groups. She finds that young people who experience stability in their identities of sexual orientation, defined as consistency of self-identification, are overall less likely to endure negative mental health outcomes, while those who are not able to socially express their self-identity earlier have more negative issues like depression and negative self-esteem. Everett talks about some of the contributing factors to this instability. The first is obviously the inherent instability of sexual orientation itself: orientations can and do change over time. But one of the major contributors to young people being able to self-identify their sexual orientation is the environment of acceptance and acceptability. Everett writes that “sexual minorities who do not identify as such for longer periods of time may avoid doing so because of perceived or real homophobic attitudes of peers and family members” (51), and the issues of safety are the primary influence that Everett and other researchers find at play in assisting in youth self-identification. This echoes the information that shows in studies of emotional well-being on the transgender spectrum. Edwards describes the systems of social surveillance as they relate to childhood abuse and social institution response to it, saying that an observer of a child “must then use cultural scripts and institutional routines to classify a family interaction as normal or deviant” (53). Edwards here describes the systems that observe potential perpetrators of abuse, but it is the very same system that functions to neglect when abuse takes place. Furthermore, its function as a system is not necessarily just to identify abuse, but to identify deviance. The system that attempts to protect children of dominant demographics will also specifically harm divergent children. Edwards also discusses how social inequities pass into the system of child abuse surveillance via these multi-valent factors, and specifically through police: transmitting worse outcomes for marginalized children than for their less marginal counterparts (55).

The social system, therefore, becomes the carrier of childhood trauma, repeating the initial injury through re-injury, triggers, and refusal to alter the patterns of behavior. That which mainstream society allows to continue and flourish is not an absence of abuse, but in fact the continuation of abuse. Abuse is not just the moment of action that yields injury, but also every moment when adults ignore abuse, when abusers are otherwise lauded, and when daily activities embed micro-aggressions. Mallory documents some of the sort of micro-aggressions that queer youth face in a study of Texas students:

According to the students, a classmate was persistently harassed after coming out as bisexual, and the administration failed to intervene. The students who wore the shirts [supporting queer people] were forced to change or go home. In separate incidents, two private high schools in Texas forced LGBT students to hide their identities. One school banned students from vocalizing support for same-sex marriage and prohibited student athletes from dating other students of the same sex. The other school reportedly told a student that he had to go “back into the closet” or he would not be allowed to participate in extracurricular activities (Mallory et al. 32)

Childhood is the locus of forced conformity in gender. While adults who are gender divergent do not necessarily experience freedom from oppression, young people receive concentrated gender enforcement in school and at home. The vast majority of anti-trans legislation has to do with the teaching of minors and minors’ access to gender-affirming healthcare. Even when that legislation focuses on all ages of transgender people, it infantilizes trans people. In Nimona, the fragility of the relationship between Blackheart and Nimona demonstrates direct and passive abuse. Though Blackheart experienced exclusion based on his social class, he still maintains most of his values and social narratives from his time being inside of society. He still believes in liberal meritocracy. Despite having been in a socially ostracized category, he was and still aspires to return to being a member of the knights (i.e., the in-world police force). He re-inflicts these values on Nimona regularly through micro-aggressions. He repeatedly asks Nimona why she can’t be normal, why she won’t remain in one form (“a girl”), and expresses disbelief when she talks about her trauma. In the Subway scene in the film, Nimona mocks his micro-aggressions by calling him “an uptight knight asking me small-minded questions.” Their relationship has the feeling of the early stages of trust between a young person and a foster parent, communicated through small indicators: Blackheart covering Nimona in a blanket when she falls asleep, playing board games together, and other “parenting” scenes.

When Blackheart betrays that uneasy trust, the pain is as brutal as the initial injury. In an argument, Nimona shapeshifts threateningly, and Blackheart moves to pull his sword. This moment breaks Nimona’s threat display, wounding her more than the angry fight. The pulling of the sword in this moment uses the real-world rhetoric of police training to indict Blackheart. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, protests against police brutality gained solid momentum. This cultural conversation shed light on the types of systemic training that have led to the excess use of force and extrajudicial execution of primarily Black members of society. The Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform points to flawed training as being the primary source of police brutality, as “[t]hese training failures range from inadequate minimum training hours to the militarized ‘Warrior-Cop’ style training (such as the programs provided by the self-titled “Killologist” [Dave Grossman]) that many training academies continue to promote.” In Nimona, a knight pulling a sword is a symbol of that training, resulting in the recurring joke, “Arm-chopping is not a love language!” By pulling his sword, Blackheart isn’t only engaging in micro-aggressions against Nimona, who has shown she is willing to let these pass without too much suffering, but is now automatically re-engaging in Nimona’s abuse (preparing to slay the monster). Furthermore, this moment drives home the role of state-sanctioned abuse as a primary factor in interpersonal abuse. This new injury causes Nimona to experience a flashback: a trigger to bring Nimona back to the full force of trauma at the initial moment of abuse. In this manner, Blackheart, Nimona’s only family, abuses Nimona with not just his own anger, but with the full power and force of the dominant cultural hatred of “monsters.” Regardless of Blackheart’s individual actions, this moment carries with it the cultural context, the past events, and the implicit and explicit support of the dominant way of thinking.

In the analogous scene in the comic, Blackheart suggests a form of injury that would “help” Nimona by eliminating her shapeshifting ability. Though Blackheart doesn’t realize it at this moment, he is both threatening to take away Nimona’s central source of personal power and also to “de-queer” her. Nimona rages, saying, “I don’t need your help, okay? I have never. Needed. Anyone’s. Help. Do you know how many people have said they wanted to HELP me?” (see Figure 4) In this moment Nimona changes her arms to show her strength is literally in her shapeshifting ability–the very thing that makes her an outcast.

Embracing the Monster: Explicating and Recovering from Trans Child Abuse in Nimona, Sata Prescott, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 4: Nimona rejects abusive "help" in Nimona (2015)

Blackheart is advocating for conversion therapy5, or religious abuse. When Nimona returns to the evil lair, her hair has changed to a bright purple. From this point on, the hair style also changes, becoming more severe and punk as the story progresses. Several readers asked about this change, to which Stevenson publicly answered,

Nimona’s hair was pink at the start because the first sketches of her were done in pink pen, but cool fact - her hair is also the exact same color as Ballister’s cape! So it gives them a feel of being cohesive, a team. When Nimona changes her hair, I wanted to break up that “team” feel. … [S]o I settled on purple, which isn’t connected to any other existing characters. So it really sets Nimona apart from them, and sends the message that she’s only on her own team now.

The aftermath of Nimona’s broken trust leads to the ending. In the comic, Blackheart and Nimona never reunite fully in common purpose. While Nimona is divided in two beings, Blackheart tries to prove his trustworthiness to the young child version of her. However, the continued attacks on the raging black scribble dragon prove to Nimona that she cannot trust any of the found family to accept, love, and help heal her as she is now. Her rage is too dangerous, too inconvenient for society to address. The heroes have the sole purpose of stopping it, and stopping “it” means killing Nimona. Like the film, the reader does receive an indication that Nimona still lives afterward, but she does not reunite with Blackheart and Goldenloin. The closing lines of the book are Blackheart’s: “I can only hope I can reach her in some small way. I can only hope that if she does come back, she’ll know me for who I am. A friend.” These words play over scenes of a world where Blackheart and Goldenloin are living together, though little about the world itself has changed. Even though neither version of Nimona was able to both heal Nimona’s trauma and let Nimona survive in society (even when that society is radically altered), the film showcases a gentler version of Nimona’s story, in which she receives comfort, love, and found family directly as part of the resolution to the film. In 2015, Stevenson, closeted, learning, and growing, could not imagine a society that could change, and Nimona disappears from sight. By 2023, after years of community, inspiration, fandom, and a few thousand self-discoveries, Nimona could be seen.

In discussing the explicitly transgender poetry of Anohni, Naida Zukić argues that trans art “points to the violence of ecocide, terrorism, U.S. foreign policies, and political assaults on rights as inherently a heteropatriarchal project.” Identifying the violence of the cis-heteropatriarchy, Zukić suggests that direct interpersonal violence exists because of the cruel positioning of queerness in society (153). The resilience, the fluidity, of trans art is, itself, a guide for resistance of cis-heteropatriarchal violence. Nimona as a story is a template for healing from years of knowing oneself to be the “monster,” assaulted on all sides. And the story of how Nimona changed over time is a template for finding the strength and truth to throw off those abuses and become ourselves.

[I]n essentially all trans coming-out comics–you have this same rhetorical construction: Suppression, self-destruction, an instinctual grasping for truth, then final, joyous freedom from our self-imposed shackles. These comics … are an emotional how-to. That’s the real work of transition: accepting that your feelings are real, and that you deserve to be happy. Most of us don’t believe these things, and have to learn them. These comics show us how (Wendler).

Nimona is only one example of personal art that explores the effort to heal from anti-trans, anti-queer, anti-youth abuse, and it will never be the last. In a collection of oral histories from women who were abused in youth, Bailey Poland writes, “The lesson to be learned from this testimony is to believe in and to protect the integrity of our children and to break the silence that endangers them” (14). Seeing Nimona, and seeing all the being she is, is critical for saving the literal and spiritual lives of all those she represents.


1  This article will frequently use certain terms to refer to people outside of the cis-heteronormalized experience: trans and queer. 
• “Trans” will be used to specifically indicate transgender people, stories, and other community-specific issues. “Trans*” (with the asterisk) will indicate trans-specific theory and disruptive attitudes originating in the trans community.
• “Queer” will be used to indicate broad communities that include transgender people or otherwise are excluded from mainstream society. “Queer” will also be used to refer to topics in analysis, e.g., “queer theory.”

2  Blue Skies was the production company originally developing Nimona before Disney purchased the company and shelved the project. As a company, Disney is famous for its hesitancy to address queer people or topics in films it expects to release at a wide scale.

3  Susan Sontag’s “Fascinating Fascism” contains this description of fascist art aesthetic:
Fascist aesthetics … flow from (and justify) a preoccupation with situations of control, submissive behavior, and extravagant effort; they exalt two seemingly opposite states, egomania and servitude. The relations of domination and enslavement take the form of a characteristic pageantry: the massing of groups of people; the turning of people into things; the multiplication of things and grouping of people/things around an all-powerful, hypnotic leader figure or force. The fascist dramaturgy centers on the orgiastic transactions between mighty forces and their puppets. Its choreography alternates between ceaseless motion and a congealed, static, “virile” posing. Fascist art glorifies surrender; it exalts mindlessness: it glamorizes death.

4  For an explanation of “lampshading,” review TVTropes entry “Lampshade Hanging” at https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/LampshadeHanging.

5  In the real world, even though conversion therapy has been outlawed in 22 states and the District of Columbia, five states are using injunctions to prevent its ban, and many of the anti-transgender laws include efforts to forcibly de-transition transgender people (Movement Advancement Project).

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