Where to even start when talking about Liz Suburbia’s Sacred Heart? Should I gush about how she completely re-drew the 300 page graphic novel for publication with Fantagraphics? How about the hundreds of pop culture references she seamlessly includes? What about that the story rips your heart out, puts it back, and rips it out again? I can’t get enough of her work now. She says she plans on releasing 3 more related graphic novels and I’m all in.
I’ll start with a little background. Sacred Heart was almost entirely published online before Fantagraphics picked it up. The art style was a lot different, but not unrecognizable. When she signed on to publish SH in book form, she completely redrew and re-wrote the entire thing. And it looks so good. I could definitely sense the love that went into the creation of the book. The thing is, though, the webcomic should be read too. The art style is so detailed and beautiful, but is a product of her younger years. She has improved, and learned more about making comics and wanted it to show in its published form.
Now, onto the story:
Most of us remember what it was like to be a teenager, but what if some of your teenage years were spent without parents? That’s what happens to the residents of Alexandria when their parents leave. No one knows when they’re coming back. Some hold onto some hope, others have given up wondering. Some of my favorite scenes are when Liz shows what everyone is doing when they are alone at night. Some teens are reading or writing, some are crying, talking, and some are boozing, toking, and having sex. And the whole time, you don’t quite know why they do what they do. Why is this guy crying? Does he miss his parents? Or is he sad that he can’t tell them he’s gay even if they come back? Every character has such rich characterization, even those you only see once or twice. You just kind of know everyone.
Sacred Heart follows Ben Schiller, an aloof 18 year old who has taken the role of caretaker for her younger sister Empathy, her dog John McClane (Die Hard, anyone?), and sort-of for her best friend Otto. She’s got a lot on her plate, and the stress of not having parents for a while has definitely started to break her down. Strangely, though, life seems to be almost going on as it would if parents were around, except less in the open. The wild parties would be held in secret, the punk shows might be held in the woods, the weed and alcohol might be consumed in basements instead of the street.
Ben and Otto are the primary focus of this graphic novel, navigating their friendships and relationships and sexualities. At first, they seem almost like siblings, with Ben giving advice to Otto about his tumultuous relationship with his girlfriend Kim. After Kim and Otto split, though, we get the sense that perhaps there could be something more between them. And then it happens. But the stress of having to take care of Otto as a boyfriend and trying to figure out where her sister goes at night is weighing on Ben. Meanwhile, Otto doesn’t really have anyone else he can fully be himself around, so he seems to cling to her. The best part is that even though a lot of the relationship stuff is in the foreground, there’s still the looming question of where the parents are in the background. Side plots of surrogate families forming, some teens becoming parents themselves, and others leaving town altogether keep it interesting. And there’s the fortune-telling girls predicting something coming for them any day now.
The book is chock full of teen angst, religious symbolism, music, and murder. Yes, MURDER. In a place with no laws, underdeveloped brains, and jealous fits of teenage hormonal rage — of COURSE there will be murder. And also punk shows. Another reference I loved was that this band’s name is the CROTCHMEN. And their band sticker says, “Who Watches the Crotchmen?” Clever.
There’s a lot going on in this book, and you just have to read it to know what I’m talking about. And when you’re done reading that, read this interview with Liz.
Liz Suburbia lives in Virginia and is working on her next graphic novel in the same world as Sacred Heart. She posted a playlist of suggested music to listen to while reading Sacred Heart on her blog. You can find all the songs on Youtube, but I kind of stuck with The Get Up Kids to write this post.
This post was written by Stacia Oparowski, a library assistant in technical services. Besides reading and reviewing graphic novels, she also participates each year in NaNoWriMo and writes the November updates. If you have a suggestion for a graphic novel she should review or if you would like a graphic novel recommendation, please email her at email@example.com.