Transcending “Degenerate Capitalist Forces”: Liz Suburbia on Sacred Heart and Punk Comics

Comics Features Heart

Sacred Heart, originally serialized on Liz Suburbia’s website, explores a small town populated entirely by children. The town’s parents exiled on a cultish pilgrimage, Suburbia’s stories take on an immediate and propulsive quality. They remain accessible while addressing complex themes, like the demarcation between childhood and adulthood, faith and religion, love and sex. Suburbia’s black-and-white illustrations recalls the punkish light and shadow of Los Bros Hernandez, as well as the ‘80s-anime aesthetic of creators like Kat Verhoeven or Faith Erin Hicks.



In anticipation of Sacred Heart’s release next week, Suburbia spoke with Paste via email to discuss her history with comics, what it means to be punk and where Sacred Heart’s cast may fall in the future.

Paste: I wanted to start by asking about your history with comics. I definitely saw two X-Men allusions in Sacred Heart, but I wouldn’t have expected that, just looking at your aesthetic. What kinds of comics did you come up reading? What kinds of comics did you, or do you, gravitate towards?
Liz Suburbia: My history with comics is all over the map; I started reading newspaper strips and buying book collections of the same almost as soon as I learned how to read, but when I started getting interested in comics beyond that, my parents kind of discouraged me. I think they were concerned I was regressing as far as reading levels go. Every once in a while I’d read a Tick or a Tank Girl at a friend’s house. And for a while there when we were living on base I’d walk over to the PX and read the new issue of X-Force every month on the newsstand. I watched the X-Men and Spider-Man cartoons a lot, and Batman: The Animated Series.

When I got to high school, though, I was really trying to fit in socially, so I thought I had to leave those kinds of interests behind—until around my senior year when I made friends with some cool punk types who introduced me to zines and webcomics and not being ashamed of the things you genuinely like. From there I really got into Hellboy and Love & Rockets, and read a ton of webcomics. When I was 24 I got a job at a good, well-stocked comic shop and read pretty much everything we had in stock at least once, which was educational.

These days I wouldn’t call my tastes “refined,” but I’m definitely kind of picky with what I spend my small amount of free time reading. The stuff being made right now that’s most interesting to me is the really loose, intimate, shoot-from-the hip kind of comics that aren’t so much on the major radar yet, but are getting easier to find thanks to online word-of-mouth. Work by Cathy G. Johnson, Annie Mok, Kevin Czapiewski, so many others… I consider all those people I just named friends, but that’s the most interesting part of the huge varied beast that is comics right now: comics as a means to reach out on a personal level, or as a dialogue, not just something to collect or buy.

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Sacred Heart Interior Page by Liz Suburbia

Paste: You mentioned getting into punk in high school, and I think that sensibility is definitely apparent in your work. It’s not like you make grungy noise comics, but I think there’s that Love & Rockets low-key DIY feeling to Sacred Heart. Is that punk mentality or punk sensibility something that consciously affects your work?
Suburbia: I’d definitely say so, yeah. Emily Carroll recently said something on Twitter about there being a difference between comics for punks and punk comics, citing Cathy G. Johnson as an example of the latter, and I’m definitely inclined to agree. I think my work tends to fall more on the “comics for punks” side. I’m not really a visionary. To me the punk/DIY thing is kind of a two-headed beast, where on the one hand you have the vision and the drive to really challenge the status quo and push the limits of what’s socially and artistically acceptable, and on the other hand you have the space to make or do something for the hell of it because no one can stop you, with no regard for whether it’s marketable or going to impress the cultural gatekeepers.

Those two sides aren’t opposed, they’re just two different but equal approaches that thrive under the umbrella of “punk,” that strengthen and inform each other, and at their best can form this incredible engine of compassion and social change. I throw the p-word around a lot and I think some people get the impression that I have this religious attachment to it or whatever (I don’t), but I’m really just constantly amazed and inspired by the idea that me and my friends can make and share our own culture instead of just buying or consuming what’s offered to us by degenerate capitalist forces. It started in high school, this idea that sending a loving message or trying to put good into the world was as easy as scribbling something out with a marker and distributing copies at a show or something, and it’s never really left me.

Paste: You put “punk” in scare quotes. What does that word mean to you exactly? And I know you said that it’s a word you throw around a lot, but do you think it’s a word that generally gets thrown around a lot?
Suburbia: I do think it gets thrown around a lot, and there’s definitely a knee-jerk part of me that wants to argue about what’s punk and what’s not punk and what punk means, but I believe that way of thinking will only get you so far. The music and the fashion and the politics of punk have all been meaningful and educational to me, but at the end of the day, I think it should be more of a tool to learn more about yourself and others, and a lens through which to see and question the world around you, than a full-on identity.

That’s where a lot of it gets watered down and turned more and more superficial until it just becomes grist for the market-driven mill, like Rancid onesies or some shit. And the same thing happens with comics—people buy $400 statues or like a Spiderman spatula at Williams-Sonoma because of this idea of “comics culture” and a comics-based identity. That’s how they get you, by pandering to the need everyone has in their heart to belong to something bigger, like a subculture. But comics aren’t a culture, they’re just a medium. You can’t use comics or punk rock or religion or whatever to shortcut real engagement with others and with the world.

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Sacred Heart Interior Page by Liz Suburbia

Paste: Because it’s coming out on Fantagraphics, some people may lump Sacred Heart in with indie comics. Do you think that term has developed that same sort of culture around it? Maybe not with the same level of consumerism, of course.
Suburbia: Yeah, kind of. It’s not just consumerism but a narrow or privileged worldview that I think we need to check ourselves for on the regular. There are definitely people who really hold tight to an “indie comics” identity because they see themselves as underdogs in opposition to the big DC/Marvel machine—and I’ve definitely been that person in the past. But for every person patting themselves on the back for being hip to Chris Ware or whoever, there are plenty of cartoonists from minority backgrounds whose work goes overlooked in favor of yet another depressed-white-guy narrative. The internet seems to be helping as far as getting those names out there and signal-boosting their work, and providing an affordable way to show their comics to a lot of people, but indie comics culture is still really obviously biased in favor of white suburban nerds. Punk culture has the exact same issue. Speaking as a pretty privileged person myself, I don’t ever want to let my “punk” or “indie” identity be my excuse for enshrining my own status as a social underdog, while ignoring the greater prejudices that others are up against. That kind of thinking comes all too easily.

Paste: Do you think that socially-conscious perspective drives the kind of work you do at all?
Suburbia: Frequently, yeah. I’m trying to communicate some of that with Sacred Heart especially, but I’m playing the long game. The seeds are being planted in this first book. I’m trying to develop as a writer so I can say these things without being hackneyed or preachy—being preachy comes easily, as you can probably tell from these long-winded answers I’m giving. I’m strengthening my form to better serve my content.

Paste: Earlier you mentioned moving around a lot and how that influenced your reading habits. Do you think that has left a mark on your work in any other ways? Sacred Heart feels very dialed in to things like finity, ephemera and change.
Suburbia: Probably. Moving every two years as a kid had a pretty big effect on me and I’m sure it comes through in almost everything I do in one way or another. I’m always instinctively grasping for some sense of permanence and security, but those things don’t really exist, at least not in the capacity that I want them to. Sacred Heart is one of the ways I’m exploring those things—like how we create security, how we function without it, and is there anything we can find in this life more resilient than death? How do you live when death is certain and there’s no guarantee of an afterlife?

Paste: Were those themes a factor in Sacred Heart’s cast being entirely comprised of children?
Suburbia: Originally, I didn’t know why there were no adults in the story; it started as a series of loose vignettes and I just kept… not writing adult characters. As the story developed and the reason for their absence took shape, those themes really solidified. Our first experience with security is with our parents, and taking that away has a huge impact on a person’s life. I think about parenting a lot, and about the tension between what we’ve been taught from birth and our responsibility for our own choices. For the record, I was fortunate to have really good parents—maybe that’s why I was caught up in this this idea of what life would be like without that care and positive influence. I don’t know why I went down that road instead of following my own experience—where the lack of feelings of security came from moving around all the time—but here we are.

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Sacred Heart Interior Page by Liz Suburbia

Paste: So where did the idea to set it in a small, close-knit community come from? It obviously preceded your conscious choice to exclude adults.
Suburbia: I guess that’s just how I remember high school: not everyone knows each other, but everyone’s heard of each other. The Jack Brown character is based on my husband, who went to the same school as me—we didn’t really meet and get together until years later, but I knew he had this wild reputation, like there were rumors that he was a narc or in the mafia or whatever. And it was years before I learned that none of that was true, that he was just another troubled kid trying to get by like anyone else. I think in these kinds of settings it’s easy to think you know someone just because of that proximity. It kind of came through in Sacred Heart without my conscious intention even, the way your whole world can change just from seeing someone you’ve known for ages in a different light all of a sudden.

Paste: You mentioned this just being the first book. Does that mean you have plans for more Sacred Heart and, after that doozy of an ending, will you continue to explore that idea of seeing people in a new light?
Suburbia: I have three additional volumes planned: one that takes place about 10 years later, another about 10 years after that and the last one way off in the future when Ben is around 75-80 years old. There are a lot of themes I’m intending to touch on: the positive and negative sides of human spirituality, long-term relationships, finding purpose in life, forgiveness and others that might come up naturally or unconsciously in the development. I feel like I’m executing this story in a really flawed way, but I’m putting a lot of love into it because it’s trying to get to the heart of the things that are on my mind every day. My hope is that I can continue to improve as a writer and an artist and a human being, and do justice to that. It’s probably going to take me a long time to finish, but I think taking my time and growing old along with my characters will be a good thing.

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