How 'She-Ra' Showrunner Crafted an Intimate Comic Memoir
Noelle Stevenson first came to most people’s attention with Nimona, the critically acclaimed fantasy webcomic that was published in 2015 by Harper Collins; from there, she helped launch Boom! Studios’ Lumberjanes and became the showrunner of Netflix’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. Her latest project, however, sees her return to comics for a memoir.
Made up of autobiographical comic shorts from across a span of nearly a decade, The Fire Never Goes Out goes deep into Stevenson’s life to create a portrait of a young creator struggling with the balance between their personal and professional existences and how they impact each other. The book was released this week, and The Hollywood Reporter talked to Stevenson about how it feels to share so much of herself with the world, and how The Fire interacts with her other work.
Heat Vision breakdown
The Fire Never Goes Out is something that’s intensely personal and raw; are you surprised when looking at the book how intimate it feels? Was there any nervousness about putting this out there like this, especially with your profile as high as it is thanks to She-Ra?
It's definitely a pretty vulnerable feeling! A lot of the comics in the book have already been published online, but when you post something on social media, it feels like putting a message into a bottle and tossing it out to sea. You don't know where it's going or who it's going to reach, but it feels so freeing, and then it's just... gone.
I never expected to publish them. Having them all in one place and in print with my name on it... I'm definitely a little nervous. But I also think talking about mental health matters, because so many people are in the same place, and I think we feel pressure to pretend that we have everything together and that nothing's wrong. So I hope that this message in a bottle reaches someone who needs it, because I think the more honestly we discuss it, the less alone we feel.
Do you think the book will surprise people who know you predominantly for She-Ra, or even for [Stevenson’s webcomic and graphic novel] Nimona?
I actually think it's a pretty good companion piece! Nimona and She-Ra were both very cathartic to make, because in so many ways they explore the same themes that are in this book.
I started making Nimona when I was 19, and I was having these constant meltdowns and explosions where I just felt like I would change into something darker and more terrifying and wreak havoc, and then suddenly I'd find myself standing in the destruction and wondering how it happened. It didn't feel like me. It felt like I transformed into a monster. Nimona gave me an outlet to explore those feelings by making them literal — what if I really did turn into a monster? And it helped. And people related to her, and found her lovable despite her darkness and her anger, and it helped me feel less at odds with myself.
She-Ra is the same. It's about sparkly princesses, but it's also about inheriting an incredible power, and the consequences of that power, and feeling like you don't deserve that power or you're going to mess it up and destroy everything. It's about being tired. It's about being angry. It's about feeling lost. Also, rainbows and flying ponies. And hubris.
The book goes back almost a decade and moves forward from there; was it strange for you in putting everything together, and revisiting those parts of your life? Was there a sense of disconnect in seeing the 2011 version of yourself, and reconciling her with who you are today? You have a conversation between her and an older — albeit, younger-than-you-now — self in the book; does it still feel like having conversations with younger you?
That was the strangest part. There's a gradual shift over the course of the book that becomes glaringly obvious as you read through the years. At the beginning, even though 2011 was one of the most tumultuous and lonely and terrifying times in my life, the tone is so chipper. I'm like, bragging about how well I'm doing, and there's this obvious disconnect. And that starts to unravel as the book goes on. Every success feels a little less stable, and there start to be little stumbles, and the fear starts growing — how high will I climb, and when will I fall? And then you hit 2015, which brought so many successes and high points, and it's just... tired. Sad. A little empty. Because I'm starting to realize that those things aren't enough to make me happy.
And I think I was afraid of what I know now — that it's not sustainable, and I was going to fall, and it was going to be nasty. I think I was actually relieved when I finally did. Because I'd been afraid of it for so long. I'm not so afraid of it now.
That’s something I wanted to ask about. If there’s one particular “story” to be found in the book, it’s how your attitude towards the fire, as you put it — something amorphous that’s as much passion and restlessness and creativity as it is anything that might be judged more harshly — has changed throughout the years. By the end of the book, you’re in a happier, healthier place in your life, but this isn’t a book about recovery or self-help or anything so straightforward banal. Were you worried that people would try and put a framework like that on it, either in terms of the publishers or editors when the book was coming together, or readers when it’s released?
I was afraid. I actually chickened out of including the name of my diagnosis in the book and the promotions, because it's a mood disorder with a fair amount of stigma against it, and I was worried on the one hand that people would think I was crazy and try to analyze me, or on the other hand, that maybe I'm just overreacting and nothing's wrong at all, and the diagnosis isn't mine to claim. Ultimately, I didn't want that to be what the book was about.
I don't want to pretend to be an expert on something I'm still just figuring out for myself. Medication and therapy has helped me so, so much, but my mental health journey will be so different from so many people's with the same diagnosis, and I didn't feel ready. Maybe I'll come to a place where I can publicly own my mental illness. But for now, for people who experience it differently, or handle it differently, or are in a different place with different resources, I want them to feel seen and understood without feeling pressured to reach the same conclusions I did.
It’s perhaps a reductive question, but who is this book for? Are you looking to reach the Noelle who needed to read this years ago, and people like her? Or is there a different audience you have in mind?
I think for a while I wanted to be seen as this young creator who achieved success early and had it all together, and I think the image of myself that I was cultivating was not honest, and it wasn't constructive. Young people and young creators especially experience a lot of anxiety for the future, and to see someone just sprinting as hard as they can for a finish line that doesn't exist and pretending it doesn't hurt... I don't think that's a healthy narrative.
It doesn't mean I'm less ambitious now, because I'm not, but there is so much more to that story and ultimately I want my voice to bring something positive to others' lives. I want to be honest about how hard it's been, and how often it has come down to luck, and how these obstacles are difficult but not impossible. So I think my ideal audience is other young people who are afraid for the future, and I hope that my journey makes them feel a little less alone.
Does seeing the shorts you’ve created for yourself collected in a book like this change the way you approach creating comics like that in the future? Does this perhaps inspire you to want to do more longform comics in the future?
I'm not sure! I never expected these comics to be collected, and so many are just dashed off on little scraps of paper to capture a feeling as quickly as possible so I could get it out of my head. Some of them I never even expected to show anybody. When I think too hard about it, I start to doubt that my story is interesting or worth telling, and so the looseness and the lack of preciousness to these little comics helps.
But I've come a long way over the years, so who knows? Maybe there will be a longform story to tell. For now, I just hope people enjoy these tiny pieces of my heart.
by Daniel Fienberg
by Bryn Sandberg