Faith Erin Hicks’s new graphic novel, The Nameless City, abounds with political intrigue, thrilling fight scenes and tense rooftop chases. Within its pages, Hicks explores the titular Nameless City, a contentious space with a long and mysterious history. This graphic novel is the first book in a planned trilogy, focusing on the growing friendship between the characters Kai, a young man of the society currently occupying the city, and Rat, a young woman whose family holds a long and intricate relationship with a land perpetually assuming new identities. These relationships allow Hicks to explore how vastly different people embrace the world they call home, but it also presents explorations of political occupation and generations-long resentments, both of which have plenty of resonance in today’s landscape.
We talked with Hicks about the process of creating this new fiction, as well as explored her artistic evolution, the change in her process that resulted in this graphic novel and more. And given that Hicks’ work has encompassed a host of genres, we also discussed which ones she’d like to tackle in future projects.
Paste: The Nameless City’s prologue is dedicated to establishing just how the namelessness of the Nameless City came to be. When did the notion of having a setting without a name (or with so many names that it became effectively nameless) resonate with you?
Faith Erin Hicks: Like many things that happen during the creative process of making a story, the idea of the City being nameless came about by coincidence. Originally I wanted the City to have an original name, perhaps one that was obliterated by time. I was reading about the history of Beijing, and how it had been named and renamed over its long history, and I thought, well, maybe this is something I can use as a theme in the story. This idea that the City had been named something different by conqueror after conqueror, so as an act of passive resistance, the City’s natives, people who didn’t identify with any outside nation, just refuse to call it by any name.
Paste: The layout and architecture of the Nameless City both loom large throughout the graphic novel. How did you go about creating a unique look for the space? Were you looking to any specific periods and styles of architecture, or blending across regions and periods of time?
Hicks: I did a lot of research into Chinese architecture. Every background drawn in The Nameless City was referenced from real life, although I did occasionally alter the designs of things in service to the story. I looked a lot at photos of the Forbidden Palace, and also well-preserved Chinese towns like Suzhou and Fenghuang. Although the setting of The Nameless City is specifically inspired by 13th Century China, I wanted the City itself to have an ancient, multicultural feeling to it, as though it had been built and rebuilt over the centuries by many different kinds of people.
Paste: Throughout the comic, there are questions of cultures colliding, and of the resentments that can fester between different aspects of a region’s population. What was your process like for creating the larger world in which The Nameless City thrives?
Hicks: I did research into The Silk Road and was fascinated by the history of this great trade route, and how people from all these different nations who often times were at war with each other, would interact under the banner of commerce. That research became the spine of the world I built for this comic, this idea that there were so many different people who might hate each other, but in the name of making a living wage, chose to live civilly (for the most part) side by side. There are dissent and fear among some of the populace of The Nameless City, but I wanted to present it as a functioning society, albeit one with deep-rooted problems.
The Nameless City Interior Art by Faith Erin Hicks and Jordie Bellaire
Paste: In some ways, the Dao’s rule over The Nameless City is presented as relatively benign; in others, it seems like a case of making the best of a bad situation. How did you balance exploring multiple facets of an ethical gray area without shifting the focus too far from the friendship between Rat and Kai?
Hicks: Yes, I wanted to present the Dao as rulers who were at least somewhat benevolent. The idea is that the City is a prize, and when you conquer it, you don’t want to destroy it or disrupt the trade that flows through it. If you do, this prize that you’ve fought for becomes less valuable. So the Dao, for the most part, have tried to be good rulers of the City. But it’s more complicated than that, and the theme of occupation and even benevolent rulership is something I wanted to emphasize in Kai and Rat’s relationship. Rat is someone who has suffered under the rule of Kai’s people. The Dao are the reason she’s an orphan, and she sees them in a very black-and-white way. Then along comes Kai, who’s a nice kid, if ignorant of his own privilege, and Rat doesn’t mean to become friends with him, but she does over time. I wanted the complications of the world Rat and Kai live in to be present in their relationship. Rat can’t forget what Kai’s people have done to her. Kai doesn’t necessarily have the power to fix things for Rat. Or does he? So their relationship is a microcosm of the larger struggles in the City.
Paste: In addition to your work as a writer/artist, you’ve also worked solely as an artist on a few projects. Does working on a project like that end up having any effect on your writing for future projects?
Hicks: It’s always fun to collaborate with other people, to see how they approach comics and storytelling, but working with other writers hasn’t changed my process all that much. Mostly I’ve seen how writers work with artists, and as the artist on some of those projects, I see what I like and respond to as a creator. So I want to emulate that in my own writing, when I get the chance to write a comic script for someone else to draw.
Paste: Your first graphic novel, Zombies Calling, was released in 2007. How would you say that your style and approach to comics have changed over the course of the last nine years?
Hicks: I feel like my work is much more assured. My drawing is more accomplished and polished, and I have a better handle on how to decompress a scene, really bring out the emotions characters are feeling. I’ve also changed my workflow considerably. The Nameless City is the first book I’ve done that is a digital/traditional hybrid: I penciled all the comic pages on a Cintiq, then printed out the pages and inked them traditionally with a brush and ink. Previous to The Nameless City, every comic I drew was entirely traditional. I feel like the Cintiq has allowed me to challenge myself as an artist and try things I wouldn’t normally be able to try with traditional media.
Paste: In the sketches in the back of the book, you alluded to the time you spent working on The Nameless City and the changes that the characters went through over that time. What was the most significant change that a character underwent?
Hicks: Oh, Kai went through some major changes. I feel like he changed the most. In the beginning he was a lot angrier and resentful of being in the City, and Rat was a lot brighter and more chipper, less damaged. So basically I switched their personalities, made Kai open minded and curious about this new world he’s come to, and put his anger into Rat. I think it was absolutely the right choice, and I love my wee kids.
The Nameless City Interior Art by Faith Erin Hicks and Jordie Bellaire
Paste: The Nameless City is structured over the course of several days, with chapter breaks for the first few. What appealed to you about this structure? Do you have any favorite works that use a similar model?
Hicks: I liked the idea of the first book being broken up by the passage of time. It basically spans Kai’s first month in the City, and I thought it would be fun to mark the days as they passed. Not every day is a chapter (that would be an incredibly long comic!), and there are sequences where multiple days pass, but I liked the idea of seeing Kai grow and become accustomed to his new home. I’m sure I’m not the first person to do this, but I can’t think of any comic that did it, right off the top of my head.
Paste: Your work has encompassed fantasy, coming-of-age stories, horror, superheroes, and science fiction. Are there any genres that you’d like to work in that you haven’t already explored?
Hicks: I haven’t done much science fiction, to be honest. The Last of Us: American Dreams was post-apocalyptic horror, and I did a short story for an anthology called Cautionary Fables and Fairy Tales that I set in space for no particular reason, but I haven’t had the chance to do anything long form that was really science-fiction-y. So I’d like to try that genre someday (I’m a big Star Trek nerd). I’d also like to do a romance comic, something with a lot of kissing in it. None of my books have kissing, and that’s kind of sad! I’m all for more kissing in comics.