Comic Review: The Heart of Thomas
Today I’m reviewing Moto Hagio’s The Heart of Thomas (1972), a classic shoujo manga and a founding text of the boys’ love genre. Since it’s a story about doppelgangers, I’m going to review it as a dialogue between two Rachels: one from the present day, and one from 2011, when I first read the book.
2013 RACHEL: Welcome, past self! Let’s talk about The Heart of Thomas.
2011 RACHEL: I just finished it, and my life will never be the same! It’s a shame it’ll never come out in the U.S., but I was able to find a solid fan translation –
2013: It just came out in the U.S., dude. Translated by Matt Thorn for Fantagraphics, the same people who brought you Hagio’s short-story collection A Drunken Dream. A very nice one-volume hardcover.
2011: …Is it a handsome one-volume hardcover?
2013: Very handsome.
2011: You’re lying.
2011: Well, this is great news. I’ve never read anything like Thomas – stylized and Gothic, but with a ferocious emotional reality, full of the peculiar bitterness of youth. It was an aesthetic flash bomb. Everyone should read it.
2013: And I admired it very highly.
2011: My god, this is the “admired, but not loved” talk.
2013: No —
2011: It’s the same one you give about Kate Bush. Why did you change your mind?
2013: We’ll get there. Why don’t you start by explaining the plot for the people?
2011: All right.
A German boys’ school. An unknown year. Thomas, a kind and handsome schoolboy, commits suicide by throwing himself off an overpass. He addresses his final note to Juli, an older student with whom he is in love. Behind his calm facade, Juli is desperately unhappy, and he grows even more so after Thomas’ death and the arrival of Erich, an almost perfect doppelganger for Thomas.
Erich is a rich boy who feels abandoned by his beautiful and melodramatic mother. He’s impulsive, hotheaded, and unafraid to shout out what he’s thinking; his spark is a dangerous one for the traumatized and unpredictable Juli. The two boys begin a complex relationship that could either save or destroy them both.
2013: The doppelgangers don’t stop at Thomas and Erich. This manga is crowded with doubles and echoes. No fewer than three major characters’ stories hinge on their strong resemblance to a dead parent. Likewise, Erich takes an initial dislike to Juli because he has the same name as Erich’s hated stepfather.
2011: Right. It’s about doubling – and the breakdown, and sometimes finding, of identity that results from being a double.
It’s also about denial of the past. “This never happened,” the all-consuming Mad Men catchphrase, applies to Juli as much as Don Draper. The unspoken law of Schlotterbach Gymnasium is never to make anything explicit. The events that traumatized Juli are never discussed, and the punishments dispensed for them are ostensibly for other crimes. And the teachers accept the school’s culture of open homoeroticism, but punish boys who are caught in a kiss.
2013: Apparently caught. It’s a long story.
2011: Rumor, insinuation, euphemism – all of these are tolerated at Schlotterbach. In fact, the place runs on them.
2013: That and flirting.
2011: The amount of flirting can’t be overemphasized.
2013: Despite its homoerotic world, Thomas is not quite a story about homosexuality as it’s currently defined. The younger boys flirt with each other one minute and giggle over girls the next; the older ones court and kiss the younger ones, but they don’t seem to build identities around it. The only character who explicitly expresses disinterest in women is Erich, and this is largely because his heart belongs to his mother, who confides in him and treats him like a husband.
2011: At times, especially with Erich’s smothering mother and the traumas that torment Juli, it seems like The Heart of Thomas is going to explain the characters’ homosexual interests with uncomfortable, dated pop Freudianism. But it never does — partly because Hagio is a better writer than that, and partly because neither the novel nor the characters seem interested in homosexuality as an identity. They see it in more of a 19th-century sense. It’s something people do, not something people are.
2013: Right. Not having attended a German boarding school, I’m not sure how realistic this is, but I do find it believable. It’s a society that could exist. And it leads to an interesting change from most modern stories about teenagers in same-sex relationships. Namely, Thomas isn’t about the closet. Secrets, anxieties, unspoken things — yes. But none of these characters are “closeted,” and none of them come out of the closet, in an easily recognizable sense. The situation’s more complicated than that.
2011: So where do your complaints come in?
2013: Melodrama. Victorian tropes. Characters under extreme stress have physical fits that nearly kill them. There’s murder. An adorable little sister has an unnamed aliment. I’m not sure that there wasn’t brain fever at some point. It’s alienating.
2011: It’s Gothic! You said so yourself. And besides, there’s such an overwhelm of youthful emotion in this book – tremendous losses of place, of family, of faith. It needs a sturdy melodrama to give it shape, to rein it in.
2013: I’m not sure I understand.
2011: I felt this very strongly.
2013: You may be right. You were definitely right about the art, though at first I wondered what exactly you saw in it. It’s quite sketchy compared to a lot of modern shoujo. The backgrounds can be minimal, and the use of screentone is rare and rather experimental. But the more I looked at it, the more I recognized its visual brilliance. The layouts are fabulously inventive – look at page 157, that half-dreaming state, the blending of faces; 170, with Thomas entombed in the middle of the page; 299, Erich’s mother vanishing in that dwarfed bubble of light.
And the expressions! Juli on page 130, that faint subtle descent into darkness; Erich’s wry, sad challenge on 171; the amazing sequence on 457, where Juli breaks down. It takes a moment to get used to this phase of shoujo character design – these kids’ eyes are grainy masses of emotion – but once you’re there, the individuality of the characters is as striking as their nuances of movement.
2011: So you do like it.
2013: I love it. I just wouldn’t go so far as “aesthetic flash bomb.” I seem to recall you didn’t recover from this thing for days. You were talking about Hagio’s mastery of character perspective, of the idea of character as conglomerate of other characters’ impressions, to anyone who’d listen. And I’m not actually sure I see that this time — but then, you were always a more open-minded reader.
2011: Well, I was also a little more prone to critical bombast. You know that.
2013: Let’s talk quickly about Erich and Juli.
2011: I love Erich. He has this bold, aggressive, investigative spirit, and yet he comes out with unexpected stuff –
2013: “You said you don’t like being pitied, but I do. Pity is such a kind emotion.”
2011: Right. So fresh, so forthright. And Juli – he doesn’t trust himself with happiness. He resents Thomas for burdening him with his death, feels Thomas is forcing himself on him. He’s so stoic, so brutal to himself and Erich, and yet you can see the warmth he had before his troubles began.
2013: And the reason his troubles took the form they did. There’s a strain of post-Nazi bigotry in his family, particularly in his grandmother, whose disgust at his dark coloring and Greek blood have given him a powerful sense of sin and imperfection. Although he knows now that his grandmother is wrong, he can’t shake away that childish sense that he’s inherently broken.
2011: Nazi? Would you go that far?
2013: It’s set in postwar Germany. She’s a racist obsessed with blonde hair. Thomas doesn’t engage much with the specter of Naziism, but surely this character is a glance at it.
2011: It is? When is this thing set, anyway? The clothes look Victorian; I see a big lump of a car that looks mid-century, but then there’s a rickety little Victorian one…
2013: Sixties takes on Victoriana. Hemlines are well above the floor. Young women wear their hair down. There’s a sweater with the alphabet on it.
2011: The little girls look one hundred percent Victorian.
2013: Well, it’s set in Shoujo Europe. And that rickety little Victorian car belongs to a rickety little Victorian man. We’re looking at the sixties.
2011: Fair enough. Let’s leave minutiae aside. I do realize the book is not perfect. I thought it was repetitive and the ending was flawed.
2013: Oh, I thought it was beautifully paced and the ending was superb.
2011: But no flash bomb?
2013: It’s possible that the flash can only go off once.
2011: Maybe the official translation isn’t as powerful.
2013: Oh, no, it’s great. Matt Thorn is a stylish and sensitive translator, and I’ve loved his work for a long time. He has an elegant way with Thomas‘ stylized but not stilted dialogue; I admire his integration of German phrases and his fantastic, subtle handling of that very difficult ending. It feels like a black-and-white subtitled movie. I can’t say enough good things about the translation.
2011: And this handsome edition of which you spoke? Tell me more about that.
2013: Well, I have some mixed feelings.
2011: What a shocker!
2013: The book is sturdy and impressive and good to hold, but the cover doesn’t feel right to me. There’s something a little insipid about it, with the vaguely “period” font, the dark drop shadow, and the static coolness of the image. It would have benefited from the kind of simple, highly stylized cover that Vertical uses for its Tezuka re-releases.
2011: Ooh, I love those.
2013: So do I, sweetheart, for reasons that will come to you.
Also, buyers should beware of a misprint, detailed here on Matt Thorn’s blog. Hopefully it will be corrected in future editions, along with minor errors – “an alter” for “an altar” on page 16, “breath” for “breathe” on page 165; “wing” for “wings” on 476.
2011: Are you done?
2013: No. Read it!
2011: I have.
2013: I’m talking to everyone now. Read it! Buy it if you can! Support official releases of challenging classic shoujo, and treat yourself to the rich and literary manga you know you deserve!
2011: Thank you.
2013: You’re welcome.