Inside The Nameless City, the Best YA Fantasy Comic Based on Medieval China That You’ll Find

By
Faith Erin Hicks. Photo: First Second Books, Nathan Boone

The comics medium has been undergoing a revolution in the past decade, and Faith Erin Hicks is in the vanguard. Superhero fiction has long been the dominant mode for sequential art, but in recent years, female-led literature targeted at younger readers has been experiencing a spectacular rise in both visibility and sales. The past few years have seen sensational releases from youth-oriented creators like Raina Telgemeier (Ghosts), Hope Larson (Compass South), and Hicks, a Vancouver-based writer-artist with an animation background and a crackerjack eye for action and emotion. She’s been cranking out ace work both in webcomics and the printed page since the turn of the millennium, and her greatest work yet is currently underway.

Hicks has mapped out a three-part YA novel series, colored by Jordie Bellaire, titled The Nameless City. Its second installment, The Stone Heart, will be released in the first week of April, and it’s even better than the first. It follows a handful of young people in a world built on a base of ideas and imagery from China during the first half of the last millennium, specifically during the Yuan Dynasty, a period when the Mongols held the Imperial throne. Those conquerors were of a different ethnicity than the majority of the people they ruled, and The Nameless City plays with the notion of multiethnic coexistence and tension by establishing a fantastical burg without a name where a tense peace could unravel at any moment.

Against that backdrop, we meet Rat and Kaidu, a poor child and the child of the ruling elite, respectively. Their friendship is heartfelt but threatened by their differences of race and class, and they stumble upon plots to destroy the détente that people from each of their groups have died for in the past. The story is compelling enough to garner an animated-series adaptation, slated for 2018, meaning Hicks’s tale will soon be spreading far beyond the book market. We caught up with her to talk about why YA is booming, incorporating criticisms of the first volume in the series, and how being Canadian helps her produce good work.

What was the first part of the story that appeared in your head?
I wanted to do a story about two kids on the opposite side of a complicated political conflict. Then I wanted to bring them together and, hopefully, have them to build a relationship — but a relationship that wasn’t easy because of the environment that they lived in. But, man, it was years in the making. I have sketches of the characters in sketchbooks that go back to like 2007.

Why translate that idea into Yuan Dynasty–era China? It’s a pretty specific and unusual setting.
I’m not sure, exactly. Initially, it was more of a generic fantasy setting, but I just happened to be reading books about the silk road and also a biography of Kublai Khan, who’s the founder of the Yuan Dynasty. So when that started to influence me, I was like, I should do something inspired by Middle Eastern and Asian history, because I can’t have old white people.

What kind of feedback have you gotten from Chinese readers?
I’ve gotten feedback from friends, and some have really enjoyed the setting, but others have had criticisms of it. Sometimes readers get confused about the first book and feel like, This is historical, when in reality it’s not. One thing I possibly should’ve done was bring the fantasy element more to the forefront in the first book, to make it more obvious this is a fantasy world, that this is not a historical world. So in later volumes, the fantasy element is more emphasized. We find out more about the origins of the city, the mysterious cultures that built it, this mysterious power that they have.

Excerpt from The Stone Heart. Art by Faith Erin Hicks and Jordie Bellaire. Photo: First Second Books

That makes sense. Which character seems to speak most for themselves? Whose lines and decisions just flow into you?
Probably Rat. She’s a character that I wanted to write for a long time: a girl who’s so angry underneath it all. She’s gone through some stuff, and she’s very angry as a result. That’s something we don’t see very often in fiction. I know from myself, growing up and reading a lot of fantasy and a lot of stories were targeted at boys, I felt there weren’t a lot of characters that resonated with me, so this was definitely a character that I wanted to see in books. Angry and tough and strong, but also still emotional.

You talk about not having stories like this available to you as a kid, and that’s true — there weren’t many young-adult comics targeted at girls until recently. Now they’re becoming a rising force in the medium. I mean, Raina Telgemeier has often had half the spots on the New York Times best-seller list for comics. Why do you think it finally happened?
There are a number of different factors. There was a huge manga boom in the early aughts that brought in a lot of female readers. And Raina, of course, her work is tremendous. She also deserves credit for bringing in a young, female reader that maybe wasn’t being served up. I feel like there have always been young women that want to read comics, but it took so long for publishers to get behind the idea. I remember being a teenager and desperate to read comics and being attracted to this medium, and then going to my local comic store that I was kind of terrified of, because it was like dark and scary. There was nothing there for me. I would buy X-Men comics and feel so dissatisfied.

The internet has also played a big part in expanding the medium. Lots of women do webcomics, and they’re very accessible. Not everyone is lucky enough to have a good local comic store or library or bookstore, but most people have the internet, so that’s another way to reach readers.

The book is very physical — there’s a lot of slapstick comedy and the fight scenes are kinetic. How does one block out a fight scene in a comic?
A lot of looking at Donnie Yen fight scenes. [Laughs.] He’s my favorite. I also draw from a lot of manga. The great Hiromu Arakawa, who did Fullmetal Alchemist — there’s something so good about her fight scenes. She’s so many levels above me, but I try and do my own pale imitation of her work. And then just drawing those pages over and over again. Those are definitely the most complicated and time-consuming pages, ’cause it’s not only getting the posing right, but it’s figuring out the flow of the action. That’s something in comics that’s important: the clarity of storytelling. Especially when you have an action scene, figuring out characters’ actions from panel to panel. That can really make or break a fight scene.

Excerpt from The Stone Heart. Art by Faith Erin Hicks and Jordie Bellaire. Photo: First Second Books

This may be an odd question, but how does being Canadian affect your work?
In terms of my Canadian identity, Canada’s very multicultural, and that was a part of the inspiration for The Nameless City. I loved the idea of a city that was filled with so many different kinds of people, all living and working side by side. But to be more serious, I feel like being Canadian has contributed to me being able to work full-time in comics. Our health-care system, for example. Because I’m self-employed, the fact that I don’t have to worry about health care — that’s been a big part of what allows me to do my work. Canada also has a grant system for artists that can be very generous. Early in my career, I got a grant that really helped me through those early shaky financial years. I get stressed and concerned for my American cartoonist friends, with all the stuff going on in the States right now.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Inside the Medieval China-Based Comic The Nameless City