“I've always loved telling stories with my art.”
In the past two months, Noelle Stevenson’s autobiographical comic, the weight of them, has been downloaded and read more than 50,000 times on Gumroad. The free-to-download (and pay-what-you-want) product has raised tens of thousands of dollars for BIPOC transition fundraisers.
Noelle is an Eisner Award-winning cartoonist and animation producer. She’s the creator of the fantasy webcomic Nimona, writer and co-creator of the comic series Lumberjanes, and creator, showrunner, and executive producer of the Netflix animated television series She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.
We asked Noelle to reflect on her journey from the beginning: how she discovered her voice; how she gained a following; and how she built her career as a narrative storyteller. We traced her steps from the time she developed her first major character to her time writing at Disney and managing creative teams at DreamWorks. For anyone sharing creative work online, Noelle’s story is an inspiration and an education.
Discovering Her Voice Through Comics
“I was definitely one of those kids who always showed a love of drawing.”
When she was 14 years old, Noelle wrote a 600-page novel, and she spent long days engrossed in creative work. Homeschooled until she was 15, she drew on reams of paper her dad brought home from work. “My parents couldn't keep up with the amount of paper I went through. I’d draw sequential images and separate them with a vertical line. When I look back, I realize I was making comics, although I didn't see it that way at the time.”
Noelle didn’t have an art teacher until she went to public school for two years. “That teacher was incredible. She worked hard to make sure we had AP art classes and I ended up making an illustrated story.” Her teacher entered the story into a contest, and it won. “My teacher really encouraged me; she brought in college recruiters and she was the reason I knew I could go to art school.”
Noelle wanted to illustrate, and she chose to study at the Maryland Institute College of Art. “I didn't know there were other applications for illustration, but I was exposed to more of that at school.” Without a grand plan, Noelle got into a sequential art class, an umbrella term for comics. “I didn't know anything about comics, and every time I started to read them, I got shut down by people who loved them.” Noelle felt she wasn’t invested enough to find a place for herself in the comics world.
That soon changed. “I discovered I’d been trying to find my voice with prose, and I'd been trying to find my voice with illustration. Suddenly with comics, I could combine both of those in a way that gave me a voice I'd never had before, and that was very exciting. I realized comics is a huge, diverse field. It’s a medium with many different applications. That was when I really started discovering my love of telling stories.”
Comics also became a way for Noelle to get through a difficult time. “I had a manic-depressive episode that took up the better part of a year. It was driving me into the ground.” Through her comics, though, she found a way to communicate. “I could talk about my feelings and people would understand. That was new because I'd always struggled to explain what was wrong or tell people what was going on with me. With comics, it seemed like people started to get it.”
Realizing the Power of Fan Art, and Gaining a Following
While Noelle was discovering her voice and going through a hard period in life, she also stumbled into fan art. “I started fan art in an unexpected way. I was lonely and I felt like I was stuck in my own head in a way I couldn't get out. I was grinding through to finish my artwork, and I needed white noise on in the background while I worked.” Noelle put on procedural T.V., the show Bones, in particular. “Hearing those voices made me feel less lonely. The characters were trying to solve murders and I got invested in them. At some point, I took a break from my work and started trying to capture their likenesses.”
Noelle worked as quickly as she could to capture the likenesses without pausing the show. She posted her drawings on Tumblr and connected with the Bones fandom, a group she didn’t know existed. “I felt less alone. Suddenly I was connected to these people. I figured out I could enjoy something on my own and then share that enjoyment with other people who liked the same thing. The subject didn’t matter, it was more about the connection.”
The more fan art she drew, the more her following grew. She started watching movies and sharing other likenesses. “I did Hunger Games comics that went super viral and people were following me because of that.” Noelle had made a name for herself. “I was recognized for my approach. I started going to conventions and people would argue about whether it was ethical to sell prints of fan art. I was a bit of a controversial presence in the comics world at the time.”
“I liked having a connection to people all over the world based on media I enjoyed, but I also knew that I wanted to tell my own story.”
Developing Her First Major Character, and Pivoting Her Following
Noelle’s first major character, Nimona, emerged from both comics and fan art. “I was struggling with not wanting to be just a fan artist. I was interacting with a lot of people, but I wanted to make my own original content, as well.”
Noelle was in the middle of an exercise in one of her illustration classes, and she was asked to develop a character. She thought back to the character she made up in high school and started adding to the story. Without knowing it at the time, the challenge of drawing fan art likenesses had been teaching her how to develop characters in general. “I used the skills I built and the character Nimona was a logical next step. I was interested in heroes and villains from fan art.” Noelle’s classmate challenged her to illustrate the story, and her comic became the first two pages of a compelling character.
“Nimona is a bit of an alter ego for me. She has intense depths of anger and insecurity and fear, and those things motivate her actions, but she’s still an aspirational, incredibly powerful figure. Her ability to turn into a fire-breathing dragon was something that came out of my own feelings. I was wrestling with what was going on inside my own head.”
As a character, Nimona has a deliberate, murky morality. “She’s not always good or nice. She’s often scary. But being able to create her and share her with the world and have people love her for who she was and for all of the parts of her personality – and to still find her lovable – that was a very big step for me to say, ‘I’m still lovable too, even though I have all these feelings I’m working through.’”
Comics gave Noelle a way to express things in a healthy way, and she began using Nimona in every assignment she could. “It was first two pages for one class, then another four pages for another class, then ten pages. That was when I said, ‘This is something I want to pursue. I'm going to turn it into a web comic and I'm going to keep adding to it.’”
In 2012, while still in college, Noelle shared Nimona online, and began pivoting her following. “I used the audience I’d gained from fan art on Tumblr to promote my original comic. That really gave me a leg up. The comic even had elements of the fandoms I was interested in at the time. That’s where I started building my voice as a narrative storyteller and a narrative visual artist.” And instead of tabling at conventions with fan art, Noelle focused her presence on Nimona.
Selling Nimona and Getting an Advance (in College!)
Not long after sharing the character Nimona online (and the summer before her senior year), Noelle started an internship at the comic company Boom Studios in Los Angeles. She also attended Comic Con for the first time.
Around then, a talent agent gave Noelle a call, saying he was interested in the comics she had shared on the internet. He asked about her comic Nimona, specifically, and told Noelle he was confident they could sell the character and publish a book. Until then, Noelle assumed she'd self-publish her work or use Kickstarter to continue telling the story.
She met with the agent, decided to sign with him, and returned to school for her senior year. In the middle of one of her classes, she got a call and stepped outside. Her agent told her Harper Collins had made an offer. “I couldn’t believe it. I was really surprised when they expressed interest because Harper Collins is one of the most noteworthy mainstream publishers out there. I went back into class, finished the critique we were doing, and I was shaking. It was something I’d never dreamed of.”
At first, she wondered whether the publisher was serious. “I said, ‘Are you sure? Because my comic was so weird and specific. I didn’t know if they’d want me to change it to make it more mainstream.’” But Harper Collins turned out to be incredibly supportive. “I hadn't even finished the script yet. It was the most illegible thing ever because I wrote it only for myself. But they let me take liberties with the story if I felt like it was the right thing to do, and I finished posting it online. They were really awesome partners.”
Noelle had taken the first leap in her career. “The advance was an unbelievable amount of money for me at the time. I couldn't even dream of a figure that big. Of course, that had to cover the next several years, but I was young. I was living off canned tuna. I could do it.”
When she graduated in 2013, Noelle flew back to L.A. and kept working on Nimona, drawing the rest of the book and finishing the web comic. “I'm not the quickest at comics. It took me a while, but I really enjoyed doing it. At Boom Studios she worked in parallel on her next project, Lumberjanes. At first she worked on character designs, and eventually progressed to co-writer and co-creator.
The Next Big Pivot: Falling in Love with Animation
In 2014, before Noelle had published Nimona, her agent put her in touch with agents from the Agency for the Performing Arts, a talent agency for performers, directors, and writers. Not long after, she was able to sell the movie rights to Nimona and her new contacts in the industry began inviting her to meetings with animation studios.
She had the opportunity to meet at Disney with the animator, writer, and cartoonist Craig McCracken. “I said absolutely. I'll go, but I didn't see myself ending up in that field.” Other than one four-minute short (for Bravest Warriors), Noelle had never written a script before. Even still, Craig hired her as a writer on his show Wander Over Yonder because of the strength of her work on Nimona. It didn’t take long for her to fall in love with the industry.
“I’d been working on comics and it was relatively isolated. It was all me sitting in one room, drawing day in and day out. I love doing that and having complete control over the storytelling, but I also love working with other people.” Noelle was suddenly part of a crew and everyone was contributing. “It was really magical. I felt like I was in the universe that we were creating.”
She also received a lot of mentorship. She was invited to meetings and she got to attend recording sessions, mixes, and retakes. “I’m still grateful for that because it was one of the most pivotal moments in my career. I was able to learn so much from a giant in the industry.” Even after her writing contract expired, Noelle stayed in close collaboration with the Wander Over Yonder team, even painting backgrounds throughout the show’s second and final season.
A Big Break at DreamWorks
After Wonder Over Yonder, Noelle worked on freelance projects and animation, including DuckTales, Big Hero 6, and Lego Star Wars. Soon, she heard from her agents that DreamWorks was looking for someone to reboot She-Ra. With Craig and the Wonder crew, she’d developed a love for “cheesy eighties action cartoons,” and she immediately felt a connection to the material.
She wrote up a pitch, pitched it to DreamWorks, and they liked it. “It was a really great break for me. I was young, but I really wanted to do it. My whole life I've wanted to tell stories about powerful women and complex women. And that show gave me the ability to do it. The whole main cast is female characters, so it was the summit for me. I had my heart broken by my first show getting canceled, so I really wanted this one to work out. And it did, which is awesome. I got a really lucky break.”
After shepherding the show’s early development, Noelle was hired as the showrunner (along with Executive Producer and Developed By credits). That was a massive step in her career trajectory. “In that position, everything that happens on the show goes through you at some point. Every painted background, every script, every voice record, every storyboard, every retake session for the animation, I was a part of it.”
For the first time, she had to manage a creative team. “When you start out on your creative journey, managing people is not something you think about. Before then, I was mostly interested in being able to shape the story, to shape a world, and to shape characters. But there was another set of skills I didn't have yet. I learned things the hard way, but the crew was incredible.”
Noelle saw the job as being the compass for the show. “You get great people and they’re the ones who execute the show, but everyone needs to know which direction you're going. The most useful skill was learning how to make a decision at the drop of a hat, and if the decision doesn't work, figuring out how to fix it.”
She-Ra was also a challenge because Noelle also had to ‘manage up.’ “The other thing I wasn't experienced in yet was having to pitch my ideas in a way that executives and Standards and Practices were okay with.” With Nimona, Noelle did what she wanted to do with the storyline; now she had an approvals process.
“The central relationship of the show is between two women who have a lot of chemistry and a lot of friction between them. It was something I wanted to be a textual part of the story, but at first it wasn’t possible. Everyone wanted to play it safe, so it had to be a long game.” Noelle was told ‘No’ a number of times, especially on the romantic elements during the last season of the show. “Sometimes I had to say, ‘Put me on the phone with them. Let me see if I can move that needle.’ And somehow it worked.”
As Noelle told us, “It was challenging to get it that far, to hold my cards close to my chest and plan it out with the long game. It's sort of like a game of chess. I just ended up having to learn all these skills that I had never had before. Before I could just have an idea. I drew it. That’s the whole thing. Then I have an idea and I have to explain it to my team so that they understand it and can execute it. Then I have to sell it to the executives. Then I have to make sure it's possible to execute. And so that gets into pipeline: Who is best? Who is free? Who has too much work? How do we get this idea from inception to the final product? So I was lucky to learn all that stuff.”
The fifth and final season of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power was released last year, and Lumberjanes too came to a close after six successful years. But there's no rest in sight for Noelle. She's steering an adaption of Lumberjanes that is coming to HBO Max, and a feature-length film adaptation of Nimona is expected to be released in 2022. Noelle has also continued to create in more personal ways, last year releasing The Fire Never Goes Out, an autobiographical collection of drawings and journals.
Noelle has been open, as well, about her own story, and late last year she returned to her indie comic roots, drawing with total creative control. After undergoing top surgery (a double mastectomy with reconstruction), Noelle reflected on her experience in the 35-page comic, the weight of them. To connect directly with the passionate audience she's built over the first decade of her career, she published the book as a free download, and has donated all proceeds of the pay-what-you-want product to BIPOC transition fundraisers.