It’s been awhile since we last looked at middle grade comics for Pull List, and what could make a more perfect return than The Nameless City and The Girl Who Married a Skull and Other African Stories? While the latter retells folktales from the African continent, the former finds life lessons in a story of colonial occupation and Indigenous rebellion. Plus, Faith Erin Hicks writes for both comics, and her presence is always a good sign.
The Nameless City series
The ever-rotating list of conquerors call the city by their own forcibly applied names, but those born and bred from its streets and sacred temples eschew them all. Their city has no name, no matter what the invaders say. The Dao are the current occupiers, having taken the city a few decades ago. Kaidu, a preteen Dao boy, arrives in the Nameless City to train as a warrior and connect with his absent father, a military general. While exploring the city, Kai meets Rat, a local orphan girl his age. She agrees to teach Kai to run across the rooftops like she does, and they become fast friends. But when a selfish, heartless Dao prince takes control of the city, Kai and Rat must decide where their loyalties lie. They hold the key to the city’s fate, but what should they do with it and who can they trust?
Faith Erin Hicks wears both writer and artist hats on the Nameless City series. The setting of the city and the neighboring colonizers are all Asian inspired. Hicks picks bits and references from all over the Asian continent and historical eras. There is an energy to Hicks’ artwork, which is ideal for a series involving a lot of action – running, jumping, dancing, fighting, and escaping are all prominently featured. But even the quiet moments are emotive and nuanced. Hicks excels at small changes in expressions and fills so much drama into something so subtle. If you’ve followed this column, you know I love everything colorist Jordie Bellaire touches, and the same goes for this series. Interestingly, Bellaire changes the palette from scene to scene. It keeps the story flowing and engaging, particularly when the plot slows down or gets repetitive.
The Nameless City series is a beautiful, powerful story. Although it’s aimed at preteens, people of all ages will love it. It’s a middle grade take on colonialism, racism, empathy, and accepting people for who they are rather than rejecting them for what they aren’t. I’m glad I read all three together instead of freaking out about the cliffhangers during the year long break between volumes. The need to know what happens to Rat and Kai was just too strong. And if that isn’t the mark of a great story, I don’t know what is.
Writer and art: Faith Erin Hicks; colors: Jordie Bellaire. First Second released volume one, “The Nameless City,” in 2016, volume two, “The Stone Heart,” in 2017, and the third and final volume, “The Divided Earth,” on September 25, 2018.
The Girl Who Married a Skull and Other African Stories
In this intriguing and appealing comic anthology, seventeen writers and artists adapt fifteen African folktales with varying degrees of success. The stories featured range from why snake and frog don’t hang out anymore to why nobody likes the hyena to Thunder and her destructive son Lightning to, well, the girl who married a skull. As with all anthologies, some entries are stronger than others. A few stories were very good, a few felt incomplete, but all were enjoyable.
With its excellent art and fun dialogue, the eponymous story (by Nicole Chartrand) was my personal favorite. Faith Erin Hicks’ entry, “The Stranger,” leaned the hardest into the “adaptation” part of the anthology by shifting the setting to space. Cameron Morris and Nina Matsumoto took an equally as inventive of a route with their tale “Isis and the Name of Ra” by breaking out of the typical panel layout and piling detail after detail into the art. Jose Pimienta’s “Anansi Tries to Steal Wisdom” feels the least like a traditional comic, and I mean that as a compliment. It’s loose and breezy, with an unusual and creative art style.
Some of these stories were familiar ones for me, but that was because I was raised on folklore. Even as an adult, when I think of the stories I learned as a child, I think of Anansi rather than Cinderella (or at least the version of Cinderella where the stepsisters cut off their toes and heels instead of the Disney one). But for preteens who aren’t as well versed in African folktales, this is a fab introduction. Here’s hoping Iron Circus Comics publishes the rest of the volumes in the Cautionary Fables and Fairy Tales series sooner rather than later.
Artists and writers: Nicole Chartrand, Jose Pimienta, Katie Shanahan, Steven Shanahan, Chris Schweizer, Carla Speed McNeil, Jarrett Williams, Kate Ashwin, D. Shazzbaa Bennett, Mary Cagle, Cameron Morris, Nina Matsumoto, Ma’at Crook, Kel McDonald, Meredith McClaren, Sloane Leong, Faith Erin Hicks. Iron Circus Comics published the first print volume of the Cautionary Fables and Fairy Tales series on October 2, 2018.
Alex Brown is a YA librarian by day, local historian by night, pop culture critic/reviewer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, check out her endless barrage of cute rat pics on Instagram, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.