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Review: ‘The Nameless City Vol. 1′

The Nameless CityThe Nameless City Vol. 1
Writer/artist: Faith Erin Hicks
First Second; $14.99

One-time webcomics creator Faith Erin Hicks’ first published work was the 2007 graphic novel Zombies Calling, and over the course of the nine years since, she’s proved to be a particularly prolific creator, both writing and drawing her own work (original graphic novels The War at Ellsmere and Friends With Boys, comic strip The Adventures of Superhero Girl) and drawing comics with various writers (OGNs Brain Camp and Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong and the Bigfoot Boy series).

Now she’s embarked upon her most ambitious work to date, writing and drawing a trilogy of epic fantasy graphic novels that could very well end up being her signature work. Is she ready?

Based on the recently released first volume, The Nameless City, she is apparently more than ready. The 230-page adventure comic is the work of a talented cartoonist who has found and perfected her visual style and is confident and assured in her storytelling. It’s impressive how much Hicks has accomplished in just under a decade and more impressive still how much she’s grown as a comics creator.

The Nameless City‘s title city is a massive, sprawling metropolis in what appears to be a version of medieval Asia. It gets its name–or lack of name–from the fact that its extremely strategic location means that it is a prize that various warring nations are forever conquering, occupying, and then eventually losing to a rival state, the cycle repeating itself indefinitely.

Each of those nations has its own name for The Nameless City, although its inhabitants named it Nameless, so as not to use any of the names of the conquerors and, at this point in their history, most have decided to stop fighting invaders, accepting them as a part of life. At the start of the story, the city has been under the control of the Dao, who call it DanDao.

Among the Dao is our protagonist, the young Kai. He is training in his people’s huge, walled fortress to someday be a warrior capable of defending the city from other would-be conquerors. And he, like his government functionary father, has ideas about the city and how it should be run that are anathema to the traditional cycle.

Kai’s own awakening comes when he first journeys into the city and meets a mysterious young girl named Rat, who he strikes up a forbidden friendship with. He pays her in stolen food in exchange for lessons on running the city’s rooftops.

While Hicks has designed this world of hers to look and feel both real but historical (and vaguely so at that), there’s no mistaking its commentary on geopolitics. The foundation of its setting, and the roots of the various interpersonal conflicts, are differing philosophies on how nations and/or peoples could or should relate to one another. Hicks never pulls out a soapbox for any of the characters to stand upon, but war, national interests, occupation, realpolitik, prejudice, and compassion are all subjects simmering behind the panels of The Nameless City, driving the plot and the specific actions of most of the characters, who have varying points of views on these weighty subjects.

The focus is, as it should be, on the characters and their relationships. Kai is a plucky, put-upon young man fascinated by the seemingly free Rat and the sad mysteries of her life, and this is his coming of age, or at least coming of conscience, story. He’s literally learning about the world outside the walls of his own culture for the first time.

Kai’s father and his martial arts teacher have two very different ideas about how the city should be governed, and the people of the Nameless City–who call themselves “The Named”–are similarly divided between keeping their heads down and surviving or risking their necks and fighting back.

That Kai and Rat provide an example of how the Dao and The Nameless could ultimately get along and each be improved by such a relationship is this first book in the trilogy’s story and, rather remarkably, it holds together quite well as a completely-complete, distinct graphic novel. The Nameless City may be a trilogy, but the first volume stands alone perfectly well.

Kai’s training, both with the Dao and under Rat, provides Hicks with plenty of dramatic and occasionally intense action scenes, as our characters race across the peaked and shingled rooftops, leap over rivers, and parkour up walls. There is, in this volume, some actual fighting, mostly of the sort one might find in a kung fu movie, but most of the action is of the running and jumping variety, which is all the more exciting given how fully realized Hicks’ detailed, thought-out, and lived-in cityscapes are.

With the second volume already announced and scheduled, it looks like Hicks is going to end the first decade of her career in a very good place, with her best and most widely appealing work to date. God only knows what the second decade will bring, but I’m certainly looking forward to finding out.

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J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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