Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Sacred Heart by Liz Suburbia

Somewhere in America, there's a town by a river -- maybe not even a town, really, but a neighborhood. It's cut off from the outside world for some reason -- we don't know why, we don't know how. But the people who live there are going on about their lives as if nothing has changed -- except that they're all teenagers. (Well, we do see a couple of tweens. But no one older, and no one younger.) It's been going on for a while, too -- at least a couple of years.

How did this happen? Liz Suburbia will not tell you. What does it mean? She's not going to be really clear on that, either. There's no why in Sacred Heart. There's just a here.

As in, here are these teens, living the way they would without parents or expectations or requirements. Forming bands, having parties, going to the high school every day but mostly just to hang out, making and breaking relationships, watching movies, drinking, swearing and smoking and carrying on. The stuff teens do.

Oh, and dying. At least once in a while.  Suburbia will tell us more about that, as Sacred Heart goes on, but at first it just looks like what you'd expect from rowdy unsupervised teens: some car crashes, some fights that got out of hand, some people who probably just left town.

Sacred Heart is mostly the story of Ben Schiller -- we learn her full name near the end, but she prefers to be just Ben, so that's what I'll call her -- and secondarily the story of her younger sister Empathy and her best friend Otto. Ben is probably a high school junior or senior; or she would be in a normal town. She's a little smarter and a little clearer-headed than most of the kids here; she thinks about the world and makes plans in ways most of these teens don't. In a more normal town, she'd be one of the good kids, diligent at school and near the top of her class, preparing to go to a good college and move on to a successful life.

But that's not possible here -- this is a place entirely about now. No one is making plans, no one is going to be an adult. They're all reveling in teenager-ness, and Ben is, too, mostly, She has a crush on a boy on the football team -- don't ask how there's still a high-school football team, or who they play, because those questions won't help -- and she's worried about her little sister. (Worried about her in the entirely wrong way, as it turns out, like so many parents and older siblings.)

Ben isn't the focus all of the time; Suburbia's camera eye roams around the town -- the opening pages ape a tracking camera or montage, to tell us up front that she's telling the story of this place, and not one person -- and a number of teens, and those two weird tweens, have significant time on the page to have their stories come to life, too. This is a big book -- over 300 pages -- and Suburbia takes her time in telling this story, so she has room for a lot of pieces of stories, a lot of couples and breakups and heartbreak and crazy stories and just hanging out.

Sacred Heart is a remarkably quiet and understated graphic novel, for a story about rowdy teens left to their own devices with a mildly apocalyptic ending. It's a book about people and their relationships in a quirky, not-quite-realist world -- the closest comparison that comes to mind is Jaime Hernandez's early "Mechanics" stories, also about teens living in bigger-than-life ways. Suburbia's art is clean and just a bit cartoony, the kind of black-and-white art that denies that color is even a consideration. I don't know if I completely understood it -- I'm the kind of reader who wants to know how worlds work, and this isn't a world that can be clearly explicated -- but I liked it, and respected it, and cared about the people in it.

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