By Noelene Clark
Updated July 09, 2015 at 11:48 AM EDT
Faith Erin Hicks / First Second Books

After a decade and a half of writing and illustrating comics about high schoolers — with some superheroes and zombies thrown in — cartoonist Faith Erin Hicks is delving into a fantasy world of her own making, inspired by 13th century China.

The Eisner-winning author of The Adventures of Superhero Girl and Friends With Boys is taking a page from some of her favorite stories — including Avatar: The Last Airbender and Jeff Smith’s Bone — in her depiction of the eponymous city, which remains nameless to natives no matter how many nations invade and rename it. The story centers on a girl called Rat, who is a native of the city, and a boy named Kaidu, an outsider whose nation is occupying the city.

The Nameless City is due out next April, but First Second is handing out free galleys at San Diego’s Comic-Con International at 11 a.m. Saturday (come to booth No. 1323). EW has an exclusive first look at the graphic novel’s cover as well as a couple of inside pages — check them out below.

EW caught up with Hicks to discuss her inspiration for the tale and the unlikely relationship between its protagonists.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Can you tell us a little about the origins of this story? What inspired this idea?

FAITH ERIN HICKS: A lot of different things inspired The Nameless City. I’ve been developing it for ages, mostly as a fun story idea to play around with in my spare time. I have sketches of the characters from as far back as 2007. They looked really different back then. Initially the inspiration was, “I want to do a comic with fighting and running and complex political situations, but I also don’t want it to be set in modern day, because I’m tired of drawing high school lockers.” I’ve done a lot of comics set in modern day, especially high school settings, and I wanted a change. I get bored if I draw the same thing over and over again. At the time I was working on the proto-Nameless City story, I started getting interested in Chinese history and read a few books on the Yuan Dynasty of 13th century China. I decided that time period would be the historical inspiration for the fantasy world The Nameless City is set in. Finally, I was inspired by the stories made by other artists I admire: Bone, by Jeff Smith, Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa and Avatar: The Last Airbender. Those stories and the artists who created them influenced The Nameless City in big and small ways.

Your main characters, Rat and Kai, seem to be unlikely companions. What draws them together?

At the beginning, Rat would prefer not to be drawn towards Kai. She kind of hates him, actually. He basically bribes her to teach him to run over the city rooftops (Kai is terrible at this, and Rat is a terrible teacher). They’re total opposites socially: Kai’s people are the current rulers of the City, and Rat is a City native orphaned by conflict. How they deal with that complication is the main story of The Nameless City.

Recently you’ve illustrated quite a few projects by other writers. What’s it like working on something completely your own?

I love it! I love collaborating too, but it’s been a few years since I got to write and draw a story all my own, and I’m thrilled to be back doing it all myself. I can take these scenes that I have in my head and put them directly down on the comic page. I can tailor the story to my own goofy sensibilities, write the kind of characters I’d love to read about, design and draw them in a way that’s appealing to me. It’s pretty cool.

(I did have a collaborator with The Nameless City: the very excellent Jordie Bellaire did the gorgeous colors in the comic.)

Faith Erin Hicks / First Second Books
Faith Erin Hicks / First Second Books
Faith Erin Hicks / First Second Books