Article originally written by Zachary Clemente
Welcome to the first issue of Cross-Canon, a new bi-weekly column at Multiversity that will focus on casting a wider gaze at the world of comics by discussing the current climate of comics as a creative space, addressing current events, and feature trends. Part of this is incorporating interviews with creators and provide them with a platform for dialogue.
Recently, First Second announced a new project from creator Faith Erin Hicks: “The Nameless City,” an ambitious fantasy trilogy slated for 2016 release. Hicks is a cartoonist living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She answered some questions I posed to her about her new project, her career in totality, and a bit about Canadian life.
It looks like most of your work features characters in formative stages of late adolescence (teenagers/young adults), what about this age is fascinating for writing and how does that inform “The Nameless City?”
Faith Erin Hicks: I really like the emotion you can wring from characters that are younger. They’re not quite adults, so they’re not fully formed rational human beings with lots of experience in how the world works. Younger characters can mess up terribly and really feel the awfulness of their screw ups, or they can experience triumphs that might not be available to older characters. I just like how nuts adolescence can be, lots of drama to mine there.
On that note – as most of your primary characters have been girls, how are you approaching having a seemingly wider cast of leading female & male characters for “The Nameless City?”
FEH: Recently I adapted “Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong” (based on a story by Prudence Shen) to comics and it had two male leads, but yeah, previous to that the majority of my comics focused on female characters. That was something that was very important to me, as I grew up loving comics but also feeling like the female characters I wanted to read about were not present in the comics I read. Now I think that’s changed a lot and I feel pretty catered to as a female reader, by every genre except for superhero comics. Because I’d spent so much time with female characters for my previous comics, I was craving a change, and wanted to write a main character who wasn’t like me. So “The Nameless City” has a male lead, and lots of male characters who are part of the ruling class of the city. As for actually writing them, I don’t think I approached it differently than writing female characters. As a woman who enjoys things like comics, books, movies and TV, it’s very common to be asked to identify with male characters, because they are often the default lead. I grew up identifying with characters like Indiana Jones, and wanting to be them.
I’m very excited about the series, especially due to where influences are coming from (ATLA in particular) – how much of this story is coming from traditional folklore or is more of it filtered through the pieces of your favorite stories?
FEH: Originally “The Nameless City” storyline was a lot more influenced by the history of China, but as I got deeper into research, I eventually reached a point where I had to put it aside and draw from my own imagination, for the sake of telling a good story. There is no actual Nameless City in the history of China or the Silk Road; instead the setting is influenced by the broad scope of the research I did.
What influenced the actual name of the series? Was it legends of hidden (or perhaps “forbidden”) cities in Chinese history or something more modern, such as Lovecraft or Doctor Who?
FEH: I named it accidentally. When I first started work on the story, I didn’t have a name for the city the story was set in, so as a placeholder I just called it “Nameless.” Then that became a plot point, something that informed the culture of the city. It was a place that had been conquered over and over, and renamed so many times that out of rebellion the native population refused to give it any name. I’m of the opinion lots of good stories come out of mistakes or goofs, or assigning meaning to things at a later date.
More on the subject of your career, how do you approach working on a solo project (such as “The Nameless City” or “Friends With Boys”) as opposed to when you just do one part (such as art for “Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong”). For instance, Paul Pope has very different atmospheres for his writing and his art – is this the case for you?
FEH: I change rooms when I’m writing. I work at home, and my home is a two bedroom apartment I share with my boyfriend. The master bedroom is our studio space, and that’s where I do all my drawing, scanning and colouring. If I’m working on a script, I’m typically in the small bedroom, sitting on our bed writing on my laptop rather than my desktop computer. I guess it’s a different atmosphere, but it’s the same apartment. I haven’t yet reached a point where I can afford a workspace outside my home.
Is it a weird concept to you that your work has likely been and will more than likely be used as primary reading in school courses (college or otherwise)?
FEH: Haha, no! I think that’s awesome! I guess I cringe a little thinking about all the mistakes in my comics, and that someone would be nitpicking them, but I think it’s nifty if someone wants to study my work at school.
Something I’ve wondered quite a bit about your books, what determines whether there will be color or not?
FEH: Usually it’s up to the publisher, and I think they make that decision based on the audience for the book. I’m not sure why this is, but typically comics for younger readers (middle grade and below) are in colour, where teen books like “Friends With Boys” can be black and white. I tend to prefer black and white, but I recognize colour tends to reach a broader young audience, and I want this book series to be as successful as it possibly can be.
Will the finished product of “The Nameless City” include color?
FEH: It will!
Was working on “The Last Of Us: American Dreams” the first time working on an existing property (at least as far as making comics is concerned)?
FEH: I had a brief contribution to Marvel’s “Girl Comics” anthology, but other than that, “The Last of Us” is the only time I’ve done a licensed book.
What kind of animation work have you done – do you think setting yourself up for such a long project will end up being detrimental to retaining a career in animation?
FEH: Oh, I definitely have no career in animation at this point. Hopefully my comics will continue to sell, because otherwise I’m kind of screwed! I lost my job in animation in 2008 and despite looking very hard for a new job, wasn’t able to find one. But by then I was starting to make money in comics, so decided to do it until the money ran out. And that was five years ago. At this point I’ve worked longer in comics (5 years) than I have in animation (4 years). As for what I worked on in animation, it was mostly kids TV for Canadian channels. I doubt you would have heard of any of the shows I worked on.
Perhaps you will be able to work on independent animation projects afterwards?
FEH: Maybe? If something comes along and it’s a really good project, I’m open to it.
You clearly have a fondness for mediums beyond that of comics. What would you say are the most important games, cartoon/anime series/movies that inform you and your work?
FEH: TV and books, mostly. I really like shows like Breaking Bad, shows that are very rooted in character and despite dark content have a great sense of humor. I’d put Avatar: The Last Airbender in that category too. Great humor and a really dark, challenging storyline. I’m currently playing the HD remake of Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker and it’s hitting all the right spots for me, just a beautiful game. For books, I like YA a lot. The really good stuff, like Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races or Rae Carson’s Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy is spectacular. I tend to gravitate towards books with alternate history or sci fi settings, but I also like the occasional realistic fiction novel, like Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park. I read as much as my schedule will allow; I think if you write comics it’s a good idea to continue to read lots of prose so your writing influences aren’t just comics.
Thoughts on poutine? [Interviewer note: Poutine is a traditionally Canadian dish consisting of fries, gravy, and cheese curds – many American tourists have never been the same since consumption.]
Did you ever watch shows like This Hour Has 22 Minutes, The Red Green Show, or Canadian Air Farce? I grew up close enough to Windsor to get some of them. 22 Minutes was my favorite, but still have a fondness for Air Farce‘s recurring canon bit where they would stuff many objects, often food-based into an air canon and, with much aplomb, fire them at pictures of Canadian politicians.
FEH: Air Farce was a big part of my childhood, but it was the radio show, not the TV show that I grew up with. My dad would always put it on the car radio when my family drove home from church on Sundays, and my brothers and I would laugh our asses off. I have very fond memories of that. Right now I don’t watch any of those shows regularly, although when I catch a snippet of 22 Minutes, it always impresses me. Some good satire on that show.
Have you read Pope’s “Battling Boy,” what do you think?
FEH: I thought it was fantastic and I really hope we won’t have to wait another 5 years for the sequel! I’m also excited there’s going to be a prequel comic about Aurora West. She was my favourite character.
There’s been a lot of critical attention on the mainstream comics industry now. Various editorial problems, issues between creators in general and publishers when it comes to company-controlled properties. Do you have any “words of wisdom” to making the climate a little better for creators and readers alike?
FEH: Oh god … not really? I mean, I’ve never worked on corporate comics so my knowledge of that world is very limited. And I’d hate to offer advice steeped in ignorance. I know there’s a lot of options now for creators, so that’s encouraging. If something awful happens to a creator at the big two, there’s nothing to stop them from going to a creator-owned publisher like Image or Dark Horse or First Second and trying to make their own stories.
Is there one project/story/character you are dying to write for Marvel or DC?
FEH: I really like Marrow. Think Marvel would let me do a story about her as a teenager?
What kind of part-time jobs have you worked in the past to make ends meet while doing creative projects?
FEH: I only worked in animation while making comics for publishers. I had lots of crappy part time jobs when I was in school (turf work on a golf course, receptionist, janitor, wrangled kids at a summer camp), but once I graduated college I was able to support myself with my animation work. Until the industry crashed and burned in 2008 and I lost my job. When I was working on my first two SLG books (“Zombies Calling” and “The War at Ellsmere”), I had a full time job in animation and drew those comics on the evenings and weekends. That was really rough, really long hours. I’m glad I don’t have to do that anymore.