Venturing deeper into the Nameless City with Faith Erin Hicks

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Mar 27, 2017

The multi-talented Faith Erin Hicks is undoubtedly one of the most exciting and versatile cartoonists of her generation. From her hugely popular high school drama graphic novel Friends With Boys to her Eisner Award-winning Adventures of Superhero Girl to video game adaptation The Last of Us: American Dreams, Hicks can seemingly do anything in comics, and do it well.

The Canadian author’s latest project is her most ambitious yet, a fantasy adventure trilogy called The Nameless City that follows two kids from vastly different circumstances as they explore the titular city and play a vital role in its evolution. The setting is inspired by the folklore and history of 13th century China and is a place where a number of fictional cultures converge and coexist—though sometimes not without tension.

The first book in the trilogy, appropriately titled The Nameless City, was released last April to critical acclaim, and the second book, The Stone Heart, will be arriving in stores on April 5. And — as you may have guessed from my rambling introduction — I was able to ask Hicks some questions about the new book!

Read on to learn about the adventures awaiting you in the second book in the trilogy, Hick’s inspirations, and much more — as well as a glimpse at a few pages of The Stone Heart. And let us know if you are excited for more Nameless City in the comments below!

The Nameless City ended with a pretty radical shift in the way things operate in the titular city, thanks to Rat and Kai. How much is the city at large aware of their role in the change?

Faith Erin Hicks: Most of the City is pretty unaware of the role Rat and Kai played in helping to shift the political opinions of those in power. With these comics I wanted to write and draw a story about kids who may have the ability to affect the future of their world, but they're not Chosen Ones. They're ordinary kids, and while Kai especially may have access to adults who wield political power, they aren't famous or seen as leaders or heroes. They probably won't have statues built in their honor after the trilogy is done.

The General of All Blades' son didn’t seem too happy about the idea of a council. Will he be causing problems for our heroes going forward?

It'd be a bit of a spoiler if I answered that question, wouldn't it! Erzi has his own arc, like all of the characters in the comic. Hopefully readers will respond to what he does and what happens to him in the end. The best advice on writing I ever got was from my editor, Calista: "Every character in the story thinks they're the main character." So I work hard to make sure every character in ever story I write has a satisfying emotional arc.

After a rocky start to their relationship, Kai and Rat seemed to be solid friends by the end of The Nameless City. Is it all smooth sailing for the pair from here on out? And what can you tell us about any new friends they might make?

It's not exactly smooth sailing, although Rat and Kai have learned to trust each other more than in Book 1, and that shows in their friendship. But there will still be struggles they have to deal with, because they live in a complicated, unequal world. They'll also meet up with a couple of new characters who are old friends of Rat, but new to Kai. Rat apparently trusts Kai enough that she's okay with introducing him to her cool teen buddies. We'll see how that goes.

The Nameless City is populated by peoples from several different nations, but we don’t see any of them firsthand in the first book. Will we be traveling outside the walls at all in The Stone Heart?

Actually, yes! But I can't say much more than that for fear of spoilers. We do at least get to learn a bit more about the world and other nations surrounding the Nameless City, as the Dao start reaching out to try and build a Council of Nations to oversee the City.

You explored themes of class division and xenophobia in The Nameless City, what new ideas has The Stone Heart allowed you to explore?

I guess the theme that people can change if they choose to listen to people other than themselves. Dao society (the society that Kai is from) is built on principles of war and conquering, and I wanted to explore the idea of this society evolving and learning as a result of decades spent in the City. In The Stone Heart we see more of the character of the General of All Blades, someone who had conquered the City and initially was suspicious of the idea of a more democratic government overseeing it. But later on, due to his interactions with Rat and Kai, he begins to see the possibilities of allowing the people who actually live in the City to have a say in their government.

From the cover, it looks like Rat gets a re-designed outfit in this book. Can you tell us about your process for developing the kids’ looks and what research might go into it?

My process is pretty grim, to be honest. It's a lot of collecting historical clothing reference, then drawing and redrawing the character until she looks "right." As for what "right" is, usually I only stop designing when I have to actually draw the book. Otherwise I'd keep designing for years, in a foolhardy attempt to get the design perfect. What's frustrating is that no matter how much I design a character, until I draw them on the page, I'm not sure if the design will work out. Sometimes I end up re-designing characters after drawing them for twenty pages or so. For online clothing reference, I enjoyed the Asian Folk Wardrobe Tumblr, which has great photo references of clothing from various countries across Asia.

Has there been any aspect of writing or drawing The Stone Heart that has challenged you in a way that your previous graphic novels haven't?

Combining the historical and fantasy elements of this story was very complicated. Previously all of my books have been set in modern times (or for The Last of Us: American Dreams, which was a prequel comic to the video game, a post-pandemic society), so it was easy to find reference and I understood how that world works because I live in it every day. For The Nameless City, even though the story is fantasy and the world is fictional, I was drawing inspiration from a culture and history not my own, and I wanted to do so with as much sensitivity as possible. I wasn't only writing people who were very different from me, but I was drawing them as well. I wanted to create a rich, multicultural world with a long history, and I wanted all of that history to be apparent on the page.

You do it all on these books except the coloring, which is by the great Jordie Bellaire. What made her the perfect fit for The Nameless City, and how did you pull her away from seemingly coloring every other comic book?

Amazingly enough, Jordie actually wanted to work with me! And I'm so thrilled and honored she did, because I think she makes The Nameless City come to life. I worked really hard to convey the multicultural aspect of this fantasy world when I drew the comic, but the minute Jordie puts her colors down on the page, that is when the City really comes to life. Jordie is amazing.

Are you currently at work on Book 3, or do you have another project you’re working on between books?

I'm plugging away at drawing Book 3 right now. I'm a little over halfway done with it, and it should be finished in the summer. I'll be sad to see the completion of this project; it's been incredibly fulfilling to me as a writer and artist, but I'm also looking forward to a bit of a break when the book is done. It's been three years of really hard work, and I'm ready to take a week off, catch up on sleep and play some video games. And maybe read some comics too!

The Stone Heart arrives in stores on April 5 from First Second Books. All artwork by Faith Erin Hicks with colors by Jordie Bellaire.