Chaotic but subtle, “Sacred Heart” from Liz Suburbia and Fantagraphics is an idiosyncratic comic that’s full of surprises.
Written and illustrated by Liz Suburbia
There’s an absence of authority in the town of Alexandria, and the teens are trying to keep their makeshift society together until their parents return. But students keep dying mysteriously, local band The Crotchmen rock the nights away, freshmen palm readers and seers have lines out the door, and Ben Schiller has had it up to HERE with her sister Empathy’s disappearing act. It’s a punk summer vacation that might not make it to fall.
Like “Black Hole” before it – and if you want the elevator pitch, “Sacred Heart” is the punk niece of “Black Hole” – this webcomic-turned-paper-comic starts out with a not-particularly-likeable group of teens, and by the end has us knowing them so well it’s eerie. Sure, Alexandria and its teen population is a fucking, farting, hard-living maelstrom, but there’s an undercurrent of earnestness and vulnerability that comes through more and more strongly as the book progresses.
Put simply, there’s something weird going on, and we’re not exactly sure what. Where did these teens’ parents go? How come their town is in such bad shape? And why has no authority stepped in? Is this the post-apocalypse? Then what the fuck was that helicopter? And why are people turning up dead?
These questions hang around in the background as we watch the characters go about their lives – mostly hedonistically, although they’re wondering, too, if their parents will ever come back. Their unusual circumstances aside, they have the kind of problems you’d expect – romantic, sexual, and aspirational.
In the middle of it all stands Ben Schiller. She’s more subdued than her peers, but still pretty ribald, and wields a makeshift tattoo machine. We get a gradual feel for her personality through her most important relationships: her friend Mahoney, her sister Empathy, and her dog John McClane. One might be more than a friend, the other might be more than she seems, and the last is just a good boy, isn’t he?
As we puzzle out Ben, her world comes through in a black-and-white sprawl – crawling with graffiti and encrusted with garbage. It’s all confident as hell, with bold lines that would strut off the page if the simple layouts didn’t hold ’em in. All the while, the hand-lettering crackles and spits, keeping the dialogue punchy.
Liz Suburbia’s characters are battered and imperfect, with band-aids, torn clothes, cellulite, freckles, zits and stray hairs. And though the portrayals are highly stylized – the characters have vertical pupils and big features – the expressions and poses have an embarrassing immediacy. This is adolescence – the fundamental awkwardness of it – exactly as you remember.
Even better, every time it seems like a teen-movie trope is about to play out, the usual chain of events is subverted, and hard, and in a way that feels realistic rather than gimmicky. (I think I audibly sighed in relief when I realized there wasn’t going to be a pregnancy scare, or a prom deflowering.) In the world of “Sacred Heart”, the dramas of adolescence are small and specific and vital. And the other dramas, the big ones – well, they have nothing to do with adolescence.
(I won’t talk about that twist at all because it’s too good, and touching it will ruin it.)
There are also red herrings aplenty, which seem to hint at the real nature of Alexandria but actually lead you far astray. And to make sure we’re really on our toes, out of nowhere comes a chapter from the perspective of Ben’s dog. It’s totally unnecessary and totally charming, with Suburbia adeptly handling the challenges of a viewpoint so low to the ground. John McClane, he’s a good boy.
Some of the comic’s best visual moments are at the climax, when a flood envelops the town. The cluttered streets gush and overflow before our eyes, sweeping away everything we’ve come to know so well. The sense of motion is overwhelming, adding urgency to an already heartbreaking sequence.
The reveal on the very last page – and it’s a big one – casts a new light on the events of the comic without resolving any of the drama. And so, while we’re significantly less innocent than at the story’s start, it’s our investment in the characters and not the novelty of the reveal that leaves us wanting more.Continued below
Happily, there’s more “Sacred Heart” coming, so if this comic scratches an itch you never knew you had, you won’t have to suffer for long. In the mean time, though – with its rough-and-tumble nature, hard-hitting art, and graceful character development – “Sacred Heart” just begs to be recommended.