Whenever I go on vacation, one of the most interesting things is that I read on airplanes. Despite having my laptop and a multitude of television programs to choose from, I find that I also get a good chunk of reading done. During my most recent trip, I got a chance to read Sacred Heart, Liz Suburbia’s debut graphic novel. I was drawn in by the summary, which hailed the book as, “part summer vacation, part End Times anticipation, and a landmark coming-of-age graphic novel.” Sacred Heart nails what it wants to do, and if you do not question some of the trappings of the world Suburbia creates, you are in for a punk-rock teenager story that you will not easily forget.
The story opens and operates during a time at which the city of Alexandria has no adults. No one knows where they ran off to, only that the town is de facto run by teenagers. To say that it is being “run” is a very lenient phrase. The town is not burnt to ashes, and there are teens that seem to operate establishments like a Seven-Eleven or a movie theater, but there is no fire department, police, or paramedics to speak of. Liquor, however, seems to be in good supply given the fact that parties are commonplace in this wasteland. While I enjoy the concept and delivery of the world Suburbia creates, I do have to keep myself from asking questions. What if house appliances stop working? Why hasn’t any adult (other than those in Alexandria) passed by here? How about a documentary team (especially given the reveal towards the end)? How does this town get shipments of liquor and food if no adults are here and no one seems to really pay for goods? How is the electricity still running? What if someone has a kid? Are the parents just going to have to go medieval and just figure it out? How are there not any little kids here already? I suppose that I can get myself too immersed in the nitty gritty of world building, but these questions sometimes creep in as Suburbia crafts this almost apocalyptic image of this town. Perhaps this is part of the book, however. Overgrown greenery, wear, and graffiti cover the town, creating a gritty and punk aesthetic (there is even a Dead Kennedys reference in the beginning of the book), and you end up getting a pervading sense of anxiety for the characters. Everything looks like it’s falling apart, you don’t have any idea how long these teens have had to be alone, and you fear that they will not be able to handle it when things truly do come apart.
Suburbia’s strongest aspect of her novel is the atmosphere. She really nails the aimlessness and invisible anxiety that seems to envelope these characters. While many rarely voice their fears of this world they’re thrust into by the lack of adults, it seems ever-present in the constant partying, corpses turning up, and the constant wear on the the town. These kids are forced to grow up before their time due to circumstances they can’t control. This story (the term story is loose here as well; the story is more like a passage of time until the climax of the book) centers around Ben Schiller, a girl trying to navigate this new world. She holds a personal responsibility to take care of her younger sister (who wants nothing of it), live like a normal teenager (even though a ‘normal’ life is impossible right now), and navigate a world without adults. Ben is perfect as a moral compass for this story. She is neither an adult figure, but she is responsible to a point. Moments alone with her are probably the most poignant parts of the book where we get a window into her inner emotions in a way only the visual medium of a graphic novel can. We also get snapshots of the lives of those around her, whether they are friends or friends of friends. As a thick book standing at 312 pages, Sacred Heart gets away with going on these tangents without seeming unfocused. Instead, it comes off like indirect world building. Along with the setting, Suburbia takes advantage of the comic format by showing emotion or ideas without telling us exactly what happened through words. Snapshots of events are just enough to drive us emotionally where we need to go and allow us to know just enough about the events at hand.
Sacred Heart was a treat to read. The atmosphere and characters combined with a punk sensibility made for a page-turner that I will not soon forget. The book nails what graphic novels can potentially be, and I would gladly keep an eye out for any new content that Liz Suburbia comes out with.
You can check out the author's website here: http://lizsuburbia.com/