Review: Sacred Heart
by Liz Suburbia
I’ve been mulling over Liz Suburbia’s recently released graphic novel published
by Fantagraphics. A big softcover book, 312 pages of black and white comics, Sacred Heart is the kind of book you
could hurt someone with if you had to. The root of the story is the tangled web
of relationships in a town where all of the adults have vanished, leaving their
teenage kids behind waiting for their promised return.
This web of relationships is centered on Ben Schiller, a
punk girl in a trashed town, trying to figure out the way forward in a world
that is not easy or quiet. The push and pull of her relationship with her best
friend Otto takes up the bulk of her focus, but she’s got other people on her
mind; her worryingly distant sister Empathy, her crush Dominic, and another dozen
or so characters who make up the backdrop of an image of Alexandria, VA that’s
steeped in forgotten religious fervor, the horror of abandonment, and magical realism.
Suburbia’s cartooning feels vaguely reminiscent to me of Kevin Czap’s recent book Futchi Perf. I suppose some readers might say the art is “manga-influenced” but in reality, characters are drawn with a warts and all approach that is concerned with real world representation, with all the freckles, body hair, and scars that go along with it. It’s a refreshing change.
Suburbia isn’t really interested in giving up information
easily; characters are planted early before they become a major part of the
story, and small character ticks in single panels influence pages of story
later. And part of this is how honed in we are on Ben’s perspective. The people
she’s near, the things that are happening all around her aren’t really on her
mind, and thereby aren’t on the reader’s mind. Private crises are happening all over town,
and we get to see snippets of those things from time to time. But when
characters break the surface tension of the water and leap onto the page as
fully formed people, it’s because Ben is finally paying attention.
And inside of the time that Suburbia gives us with these
characters, we see bits and pieces that remind us of how well you can build a
character, provided you’re trying. I love the way Suburbia’s characters have
ritualistic behaviors that show up in odd moments. We see Ben crossing herself
in her room, but that’s the most obvious thing. Otto’s obsession with dirty underwear,
Hugo baking for girls he likes. We also see how cliques and groups build upon
each other and fall in and out of each other’s orbits. Bad things happen,
constantly. These characters are equal parts tender and wretched, provided on
the context, altogether human – and that’s a hard balancing act.
I’m fascinated with the relationship between Ben and Otto,
the two characters Suburbia devotes the most time to. With their friendship
(which turns into a romantic relationship), we see Suburbia explore consensual
sexual relationships, gender identity, and emotional dependence. Otto doesn’t
really know who he is or what he wants, and in private moments, we see Suburbia
dig into his character, perhaps a bit more than any other. Otto is a very needy
person; much of the conflict that occurs in Sacred
Heart is because of Otto’s neediness. We see his relationship with his
girlfriend Kim fall apart because of his jealousy. When he and Ben start having
a more intimate relationship, he quickly rebounds to Ben, and bears down on
her. That emotional weight gets to be too heavy for Ben; we see Otto lash out
in a very childish way when Ben tells him this.
There are some religious themes at play here – the title of
the book Sacred Heart is probably a
reference to the Catholic devotion of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, which
promises grace, peace, and consolation to those devoted. In Sacred Heart we see faith whittled away
and also built into something monstrous. Ben, at two points in the book, develops
stigmata on her side and hands, symbols of the Christian crucifixion story and
anxious faith. Catholic mysticism has long been used as a component part of
urban fantasy, but here it seems more of a reminder of what is lost than what
any character is trying to find.
And all of this complicated mess is soaked in a punk
aesthetic. Lyrics from songs by Teenage Bottlerocket and The Undertones cameo. A
punk band, the Crotchmen (later to become Sex Heretic), acts as a focus point
for all of the characters. Get everyone into the gymnasium for the school dance,
not because it makes sense in Suburbia’s post-apocalypse, but because it’s the best way to make the Lord of the Flies feel like normal high school.
Scenes from concerts are some of Suburbia’s most transcendent cartooning –
character’s faces melt off, songs appear as clouds, and in one particular scene
sampled above, the music blows characters back from the stage, like a strong
In Sacred Heart,
Suburbia has created a set of compelling characters and a deeply nuanced narrative that is worth reading and rereading. Recommended.