9.5

Sacred Heart by Liz Suburbia Review

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<i>Sacred Heart</i> by Liz Suburbia Review

Writer/Artist: Liz Suburbia
Publisher: Fantagraphics
Release Date: August 26, 2015

Most artists, offered the opportunity to collect a web comic into print, would do just that, maybe tweaking a bit here and there to make the art more consistent. Liz Suburbia decided to redraw her entire digital project—all 309 pages of it. That might seem a little crazy, and perhaps it is, but the results can’t be argued with. When the original first online pages are compared with what the book has become, the later versions are simpler, stronger, more assured and more conversant with the form. An impressive clarity exists in this published version that isn’t in the earlier web comics, exemplifying Suburbia’s almost ruthless commitment to stripping out the extraneous and prettified.

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Sacred Heart has already drawn comparisons to the work of Jaime Hernandez, and with its teenage protagonists, black-and-white palette, Hank Ketcham-influence, punk aesthetic and liberally scattered cultural references, it’s not hard to see why. But Charles Burns’ Black Hole is at least as relevant. A creeping sense of dread permeates these pages, which start with our protagonist, Ben Schiller, making her way through a graffitied landscape. Suburbia ignores exposition as much as she can, throwing the reader into the middle of an established scenario and expecting her to figure it out. The tags that adorn every surface in sight don’t seem that unusual until one realizes just how many there are, and that no one is cleaning them up. The high school parties that seem to take place every night are likewise unremarkable up to a point. But where are the adults? And who or what is responsible for the kids who keep turning up dead?

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Sacred Heart Interior Art by Liz Suburbia

Set against this quietly apocalyptic background, more ordinary adolescent adventures lay under the subdued devastation: crushes and heartbreak, friendships and family relationships, who’s going to the dance with whom. The scent of end times may drift subtly in the air, but this fact only intensifies the fever pitch of hormones and underdeveloped frontal lobes. Suburbia’s great gift is her sense of montage. A couple pages of small nine-panel grids check in on each character (some not yet introduced) at bedtime, flitting through the town with a god’s-eye view. The same format recurs later, in the lead up to the homecoming dance: a sneaker being tied with a necktie dipping into view; two girls applying make-up and styling hair; a hand grabbing a bottle of grain alcohol; the empty gym, with a banner above the doors; the DJs setting up sound; helium balloons; smokers outside; a girl with her arm out the window of a car. The effect is Eisenstein-esque, suggesting much more than just a random selection of events.

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Sacred Heart Interior Art by Liz Suburbia

Little to no dialogue exists in these moments, which rely on sound effects and the evocation of senses to get their point across. The decision is a smart one, and it makes these scenes feel more immediate, more attuned to feeling than thinking, just like the brains of their characters. It also keeps them moving, which makes the book hard to put down. The pleasure of making connections from one panel to the next is addictive. Finally—although it contains tragedy and death in abundance—Sacred Heart is not a downer. It contains many moments of pure, primate-brain-driven joy, whether produced by music or sex or freedom. It is a genuinely wonderful book both in its clever approach as well as the more guttural and immediate experience of enjoying it sans analysis.

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