No one owns a city

Paul Constant

March 30, 2017

When you watch a movie, you’re handing over a remarkable amount of control over to the artists who made the film: the movie starts, the narrative unspools at its own pace, and then it’s over. You can’t really get through a movie’s story any quicker than its director intended without fast-forwarding or skipping or taking some other drastic action that breaks the art.

Conversely, when you read a book the author has virtually no control over the time that the story takes in your mind. All the power is in the reader’s hands. You can linger over a sentence for minutes, hours, or even days if you wish. Authors play tricks with rhythm all the time — shorter sentences to give a sense of speeding up action, longer paragraphs to stretch time out — but those are just suggestions. A book ultimately unfolds itself at the reader’s discretion.

In comics, the transaction of time between reader and author is much more complicated — somewhere halfway between film and prose. When you turn a comic book page, you immediately take in a huge slab of time all at once, and the artist directs your eye physically across the page. That physical distance is roughly equivalent to time in the story. Sure, you can linger over a panel or pause before turning a page, but if an artist does their job right, the reader gives up a certain amount of authority when they read a comic.

Vancouver cartoonist Faith Erin Hicks is exceptional at controlling the speed of her narratives. Every page of her two most recent young adult comics, The Nameless City and The Stone Heart, demonstrate an almost physical kinetic energy. Before you even realize it, you’ve fallen fifty or sixty pages into Nameless and you’re totally enraptured, turning pages in some kind of a trance. This cartooning should be investigated as an alternative energy source.

In one page early in Nameless, a martial arts instructor lectures a group of students. “It’s my job to train a new generation of Dao, so that you may one day help rule over the city,” he explains. In the background, a young student steps forward and takes a swing at one of the teacher’s deputies. It’s slickly laid out across three panels: in the first, he lurches forward, balling his fists and glaring at the young woman, who is watching her teacher speak. In the second panel, the young man takes a swing at her — “WSST,” goes his fist in the air as she smoothly steps backward, her eyes demurely cast downward. The third panel reverses the camera angle, placing the sparring kids in the foreground and the teacher in the background, with his back to us. She’s flipping the confused student over her back in one fluid motion: “WHSSHH.”

That’s the bottom of the page, and an obvious place to rest, but the giant sound effect piercing the panel in the upper-left corner of the next page pulls the eye to it before the eye can even acknowledge the movement. “WHAMM.” The student is thrown, backwards and upside down, into a few barrels. Then there’s a panel where he just sits there, upside down, in the overturned mess of barrels, trying to figure out what happened. “Clearly there is work to be done,” the teacher says, his arms crossed as his deputy stands in the background, a little taller, a little prouder of herself.

The economy in these panels, the action and reaction and consequences, are laid out so simply that even an infant could follow them. Hicks only uses the barest suggestion to lay out her characters – a few lines, some delicately rendered facial expressions, a hint of a brick wall in the background — but she conveys an unbelievable amount of information in those two pages.

Nameless tells the story of a large city with no name. Or rather, it has so many names that none of those names can really stick. (“The city is called Dandao and Yanjing and Cambuluc. It has a thousand names,” someone explains. “Ask ten different people from all the different nations what the city’s name is, and you’ll get ten different answers.”) The city is geographically important, placed at the nexus of many different political factions, and it is continually being invaded and conquered. The most any single culture has managed to hold on to it is three decades. Some civilizations stay in power for a handful of years — maybe less — before they’re chased into exile again.

Kaidu is a Dao citizen, a member of the civilization that currently reigns over the city. He’s an outsider, a dreamer in a culture that demands an army of new warriors to fight off the inevitable next attack. He’s not sure why the city can’t belong to everyone, and none of the answers he receives satisfy him.

One day, Kaidu encounters a young woman named Rat, who belongs to the natives, the powerless people who live in the worst parts of the city and who find ways to survive under the crushing dominions of the city’s ever-changing parade of new leaders. Rat shows him the joys of running across the roofs of the city. These are the most effective passages in Nameless, a breathtaking display of how a comics artist can, in a series of static images, portray continuous motion. At times, Nameless feels like a flip-book, as though it’s turning to animation with every fast turn of the page.

It’s impossible to talk about Nameless without gushing over Hicks’ artwork, but the writing here is excellent, too. The city represents some of the most interesting urban world-building I’ve read since China Mieville’s brilliant The City and the City. The idea of a continually conquered location — that political unease and discomfort — permeates the book. Because the land is conquered so consistently, it is kind of unconcquerable, and no government can expect to rule for any amount of time.

The second book in Hicks’s Nameless City trilogy, The Stone Heart, was just released. It continues the adventures of Rat and Kaidu, and it deepens the political intrigue of the first book, adding characters and factions and cultures. Second books in trilogies are often tough, living as they do in the realm of neither here nor there. But Hicks manages to work with the strengths of middle chapters by reveling in her world-building for a while. She stops to allow Rat to dance for a page with a friend, creating a new — but no less pleasurable — variation on the energy of the roof-running sequences from the first book.

Colorist Jordie Bellaire does excellent work here, from the varied skin tones of the city’s many different residents to the depth she provides to establishing shots of large rooms and multi-tiered cityscapes. If I had one complaint about the palette of the books, it’s that the city doesn’t demonstrate much variance in colors — too many of the backgrounds are the same numbing blur of tans and reds.

But that’s less than a nitpick — there’s more than enough color in the city’s inhabitants and their adventures to make up for a lack of rainbow hues in the skyline. Hicks has created something fresh and adventurous with the Nameless City series: she’s written a compulsively readable book for teenage readers that is steeped in intrigue and politics, she’s drawn a comic that effortlessly controls the reader’s sense of time, and she’s told a story of friendship between people from two disparate cultures that refuses to demonize either one.

Rat and Kaidu come from different worlds. They are the fleeting conqueror and the perennially conquered. One lives a life of relative comfort while the other has to beg for food and footwear. But when they’re together on the depopulated roofs of the city, running through a world with more than enough room for everyone, they feel the same unbridled joy.

Books in this review:
  • The Nameless City
    by Faith Erin Hicks
    First Second
    April 05, 2016
    232 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
  • The Stone Heart
    by Faith Erin Hicks
    First Second
    April 04, 2017
    245 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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