This has nothing to with the 1921 HP Lovecraft short story of the same name, widely held to be the first Cthulhu Mythos story. Still, The Nameless City by Canadian cartoonist Faith Erin Hicks may in time come to be hailed as the foundation for its own well-regarded mythology, if the writer-artist keeps going at this rate and level.
This graphic novel aimed at early teens and up is set in what seems to be an Asian country, probably in the past, but possibly even the future – say, when mankind is rebuilding after some apocalypse or other, and much of today’s knowledge has been forgotten.
After all, the Nameless City’s claim to importance is a massive passage through a mountain range, leading to the sea – built long ago by the forgotten “Northern People” using power that has also been forgotten.
The land’s great River of Lives runs through this passage, and the Nameless City grew around both banks of the river, with the mountains at its back.
This strategically important location has led to the city being conquered every few decades by one of the great kingdoms in the region – the Liao, the Yisun and most recently, the Dao.
We arrive in this place around the same time as Kaidu, the adolescent son of a Dao hero.
The easily distracted youngster, who finds it difficult making friends, somehow befriends a street-smart local girl named Rat. She teaches him to run parkour-style across the city’s rooftops, while he brings her food from the Dao palace kitchens.
It’s a simple arrangement, one that could land either of them in all sorts of trouble though they don’t seem to care. While their friendship grows, threats loom beneath the seemingly calm facade of the occupied city.
After all, an occupation is an occupation, no matter how diplomatic the Dao leaders may seem; and a conqueror will always be regarded with hate by those not content (or resigned) to wait until the next invading force shows up to claim the city’s vital access to the ocean.
The Eisner award-winning Hicks, whose more acclaimed works include Friends With Boys, The Adventures Of Superhero Girl and Zombies Calling, does a superlative job with the world-building here.
Within the first couple of chapters (initially, each one represents a day’s worth of Kaidu’s experiences in the city), we get a good grasp of the situation with the Dao occupation and also, enough of an introduction to the key characters to quickly take an interest in them.
Hicks also gives us a good idea of how sprawling, complex and deeply layered the Nameless City is, showing that a fairly great deal of thought went into its creation.
The underlying theme with most of the book’s characters is one of identity, not just who they are but where they belong. Kaidu, for instance, is Dao but has great appreciation for the city’s people and cultures; others regard it as the spoils of war, while some of its citizens resent those who have accepted their conquerors and work for them.
Maybe it’s just this old dude, but the key takeaway here seems to be that whoever/whatever gives your life purpose is who/what deserves your allegiance.
On the visual front, Hicks’ panels have a nice fluidity to them from one to the next, complemented by prominent sound effects that are neatly worked into the panel so that they seem like part of the image.
It’s also commendable how she manages to evoke a wide variety of expressions and emotions on her characters’ faces by playing around with just a few lines each time.
As this book is aimed at a younger audience, it is also heartening to find adult characters in here – not all, but those who matter – that take Kaidu and Rat seriously, treating their views with respect and not condescension. It’s through the children’s observations of adult behaviour – conqueror, conquered, sympathiser, rebel – that the book also imparts some subtle but strong observations on how relationships are forged, as well as power and the different ways it is wielded.
All this gives The Nameless City considerable lift, putting it right up there in the ranks of excellent graphic storytelling. (And I really hope it will run beyond just the projected two volumes.)
It does make me wonder, though – if “young readers” fiction can be so thoughtfully crafted, why is so much of “young adult” stuff total dross?
The Nameless City Book 1
Writer/artist: Faith Erin Hicks
Publisher: First Second