It’s hard to condense everything that makes up Liz Suburbia’s Sacred Heart into a short review. On the surface it’s a love letter to grungy garage punk-rock and the frenetic energy of small town youth. It’s also about faith, alienation, longing, fear, family, fanaticism, sex, murder, self-doubt, and monsters of both the fantastical and all-too real variety.
Surly and pragmatic Ben Schiller is growing up in the literal teenage wasteland of Alexandria.What at first glance appears to be an unremarkable if ramshackle American town is in fact home to a host of dark secrets, perhaps the most troubling being the mystery of why no one seems to be older than 18.
Seemingly abandoned by their parents years earlier, the children of Alexandria have had to grow up fending for themselves and attempting to discover just what kind of people they really are. In Ben’s case this means touching up her best friend Otto’s tattoo, crushing on a handsome jock, and worrying about her cavalier sister, Empathy. In other cases it means a lot of kids are turning up dead.
Sacred Heart had its genesis as a webcomic hosted on cartoonist Liz Suburbia’s website (where you can still read the original pages). But when given the opportunity by publisher Fantagraphics to collect the comic into a book, Suburbia did the unprecedented: she went back and redrew all 300+ pages of the comic, tightening up the story and giving it all a polished and uniformed look that, in my opinion, took an already lovely comic and turned it into the must-read graphic novel of the year.
Sacred Heart perfectly balances moments of sublime joy and gut-wrenching terror, capturing the sweat and grime of punk rock-fueled adolescence alongside its crushing loneliness, made all the more palpable by Ben and her peers’ situation. Alexandria manages to feel chillingly real, especially with the way its large and varied cast reacts to the atrocities happening around them — namely, that they grieve, gossip, and inevitably get wasted all the while wondering whether this will be their final year of emancipation.
I could not put Sacred Heart down, and after I set it back on the shelf I felt compelled to pick it up again almost immediately. Suburbia’s style, her humor, her grim and extremely selective approach to world building leaves the reader feeling tense, enthralled, and haunted even after the second, third, or fourth re-read. Do yourself a favor and read this comic right away, you won’t regret it.