13 June 2016

Review: The Heart of Thomas by Moto Hagio

Also: take a look at Unreality SF to read my review of Big Finish's first UNIT audio, Extinction.

Comic hardcover, 516 pages
Published 2012 (contents: 1974)
Borrowed from the library

Read May 2016
The Heart of Thomas by Moto Hagio
translation by Matt Thorn

The Heart of Thomas is the most recent English translation of a piece of shōjo manga by Moto Hagio, and reading it means I've finally read all of Hagio's work available in English. (For a brief period, anyway; there's a translation of Otherworld Barbara coming out this fall.) It's the first long-form work by her to be translated into English; previous volumes have collected her short fiction. It's also her first piece of realist fiction in English, with no fantasy or science fiction elements.

Hagio's layouts are typically dramatic and emotional.

Heart of Thomas is about a boy at an all-boy German boarding school who commits suicide; from what I had read, I expected to be because of homophobia. Heart of Thomas is a very different book than that, though, and much more complicated. Thomas actually dies right in the opening chapter, and the book chronicles the effects his death has on the community, especially Juli, with whom Thomas wanted to be involved, and a boy named Erich who comes to the school just days after Thomas's death and looks a lot like him. Many of the boys at Schlotterbach are interested in other boys; there's no hint of homophobia, and the male-male romantic and sexual relationships are diverse in their types.

This is an unflipped manga, i.e., don't forget that it will make little sense unless you read it right-to-left.

There are a lot of characters; in addition to Thomas, Erich, and Juli, there's Ante (a young manipulator who competed with Thomas for Juli's attentions), Oskar (a world-weary older boy who is Juli's only confidante), and many more. Hagio is impressive in the depth of her characterization: the 500 pages of this book are a slow unspooling of information about the characters, and situations that initially seem obviously are slowly revealed to be more complicated as time passes. Each and every character turns out to have a subjectivity that's not obvious when the book begins, but influences their actions and feelings throughout. In their ways, each boy here is damaged and hurt, and some of the sections where we find out what's going on are riveting and painful. It's over 500 pages long, but it never feels padded or dull; Hagio keeps things going at exactly the right pace.

If the book is summed up by anything, it's by this exchange between Juli and Erich:
Something that threw me about the coloring conventions used here at first is that even though Juli's hair is dark black, when there's a light shining on it, Hagio renders it completely white, like she does for blond characters.

There's no easy solutions here, because few of the characters are in love with ones who love them back; indeed, I think every love here is unrequited: but by the book's end, some of the characters have opened up enough to reciprocate and form real relationships, even if they're not necessarily romantic or sexual. It's a beautiful book, in both word and image, and Hagio even throws in a few jokes for good measure. I've really enjoyed everything I've read by her, and Heart of Thomas continues that trend. Here's hoping for more translations soon.

I really liked the comedy background students, though they do put paid to McCloud's notion that the central characters are the ones that are more cartoony, in order to promote reader identification.

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