Messing-Up, Making Music, & Crafting Comics: Liz Suburbia Delves into Sacred Heart
Jul 07, 2015
Small town life can be strange. Take, for example, the community of Alexandria. Population: teens... as in the age range of all of its inhabitants. In Liz Suburbia's Sacred Heart (JUL151376), there's not a parent, adult, of figure of authority to be found. They all left the town in a mysterious exodus (but they did promise to return... eventually... maybe?). The kids left behind scrape by and form their own status quo, but stability can be hard to come by when you're a teenager. School is still in session, field hockey practices are scheduled, and you can bet there's a band playing just about every night. An eternal summer of parties, hook-ups, and punk shows may sound like heaven, but growing up can be hell—especially when there's no one there to tell you things will be all right. In addition to contending with puberty, there's also the matter of the dead bodies that keep showing up around town. If the swirling miasma of hormones doesn't pick them off first, then feral sociopaths will.
With its intriguing premise, a cast of characters that you can't help but see yourself in, and a distinct style and flair, Sacred Heart takes the well-worn territory of adolescence and turns it into something wholly its own. To celebrate the graphic novel's upcoming release, we spoke with creator Liz Subrbia to learn more about the comic's origins on the web and journey to print, creating (and populating) a lived-in narrative, and how punk rock struck a chord throughout the comic.
Be sure to pre-order Sacred Heart (JUL151376) at your local comic shop, and if you're heading to SDCC this year, you can snag an early copy at Fantagraphics' booth #1718 (but don't even think about spoiling it—wait, does the dog end up okay?!).
PREVIEWSworld: For readers unfamiliar with the title, Sacred Heart got its start as a webcomic serialized over the course of several years. What did you find appealing about sharing your work online and, conversely, what were (if any) some of the difficulties you encountered doing so? Did you originally plan on distributing Sacred Heart in any other way after finishing up its web run? How did Fantagraphics become involved with publishing the title?
Liz Suburbia: I didn't have very big plans for Sacred Heart when I started out; it was conceived as a bunch of loosely-related shorts that I thought would be fun to draw and show my friends. I wanted to print it all together as a zine or something eventually, but didn't want to wait that long to show people, so my friend Kevin Czapiewski (a tremendously talented cartoonist) put together a website for me, and I started posting pages as I finished them. As time went on, the story kind of expanded and tightened up on its own, and Neil Bramlette, who runs the Out of Step Arts collective that I'm part of, suggested shopping it around to publishers. I'm lucky to have him to advocate for me and push me out of my comfort zone; Fantagraphics wouldn't have heard about me without his efforts.
PREVIEWSworld: While more and more webcomics have crossed over the threshold from online to in-print, Sacred Heart’s transition has been a bit different—namely, you’ve completely overhauled and redrawn the first 19 chapters that were available for the collected edition. Will the print version of Sacred Heart be a significant departure from what fans of the original webcomic have seen? What kinds of edits or tweaks did you make to the first part (e.g. updating the artwork for consistency and fixing any errors vs. gutting it and reworking from the ground up)? Did you find it easier or more difficult to work with an existing framework for the story and style (as opposed to starting a project completely from scratch)? What aspects of this updating process have you enjoyed the most (or maybe a better phrase would be: “what has been the most cathartic?”)? How have you seen yourself grow and change as a comic creator between Sacred Heart’s inception and now?
Liz Suburbia: I was really fortunate to be given the chance to redraw and edit the original pages that were posted online, because I just kind of started drawing the comic without much of a plan. It developed organically to a certain point, and then I had to go back and really tighten things up so the story and the characterization would make more sense and have more of an arc to it. My art changed a lot in that time too—not just the style and technical level, but things like layouts and panel composition, having characters "act" instead of just standing around talking—these were all thing I learned as I went along. It feels really good to come back to an idea you still care about with more tools for expressing it the way you want to. Redrawing the old pages wasn't really easier than drawing new ones from scratch, though—it was almost harder, because I wanted to work in the improvements without altering the parts of the originals that I liked! I learned a lot about letting go and being less precious with my drawing.
PREVIEWSworld: While the mystery behind Alexandria’s current state of affairs will draw you in and make you want to know what happens next, it’s the town’s inhabitants that ensure that you’ll never want to leave it. Each character feels fully-fleshed out and realized—even the ones we’ve only met milling about in the background of a house party or thrashing around in the audience of a punk show. How did you go about populating the town of Alexandria? Did you plan out all of your characters from the get-go or did they come about or change as the story moved along? The webcomic had a large ensemble, but the story (thus far) focused mainly on leading lady Ben, her younger sister Em, and Ben’s best friend Otto. Will the trio continue to remain in the spotlight for the print edition of the comic or will we be seeing more of some of the other characters readers have encountered thus far?
Liz Suburbia: In the original version there were a lot more randos in the background. When I was editing, I found it really helped the story to reduce the background characters and give them each their own motivations, which was easier to to do once the comic itself had a set narrative in place. Ben and those closest to her are still at the center of things, but the premise affects everyone we see, so I didn't want to treat the central characters like they're the only ones who matter. Everyone sees themselves as the star of their own story, even the ones who just look like background characters. Most of them kind of wrote themselves—Alexandria is based on the neighborhood where I went to high school, but I made an effort not to just lift characters wholesale from real life. I needed to tweak them to play a part in the story. And using real people as comic book characters without their permission is rude!
PREVIEWSworld: Comic creators the world over and across every genre conceivable have used the teenage perspective to tell their stories—it’s an experience that’s universally relatable but also one that feels intensely personal. By circumstance, the world of Sacred Heart is solely the province of teens. What made you decide to use characters from this age group within your own work? Did you draw from your personal experiences while growing up when writing for these characters, and what was it like to try and occupy that kind of headspace again? Setting aside that it isn’t a monolithic entity, what do you find especially intriguing about these years or the “teen experience” in general, and which specific elements do you enjoy exploring in your work?
Liz Suburbia: When I started Sacred Heart, I was 25, so high school was a lot closer in the rearview mirror. Ben's experiences are really different from my own, but it's not hard for me to know how she would behave in the circumstances she's given, because the person I was at that age is still in here somewhere. I think to an extent we all carry all the people we've ever been around with us, and we can pull them out again and listen to them if we want. But I wasn't too far into the story before I decided that I wanted this to be a starting point—I have sequels planned that will follow some of these characters into old age, which gives this origin a sense of perspective for me, as the person writing it, that the characters don't have yet. I'm sure some teens will read the comic eventually, but it's intended for mature audiences—I wanted to be able to depict teens screwing up and making wrong decisions like I did, but I don't want the depiction of those things to come across like a model for behavior. If there's any lesson to take away from Sacred Heart, I think it's that young people are remarkable and resilient but still really suffer when the adults who are meant to care for them and protect them don't do their job.
PREVIEWSworld: Punk music features prominently in Sacred Heart. It permeates the story and style throughout. Which interest came first for you: music or comics? Was the discovery of either a life-altering event or did you gradually become more enthralled over time? For instance was there any particular song, band, or comic that sort of ignited the spark for you? How do you go about translating a music experience (the sweat, the noise, the crush of bodies, and the energy) to a static page of comics? Have comics, in turn, had an effect or influence on how you engage with music? Do you see any similarities between the comics community (be it the people who create, consume, or do both) and the music community?
Liz Suburbia: I think I liked comics and drawing them first, then moved away from them in high school because I was worried about people thinking I was a nerd (they did anyway). I got into punk because a bunch of kids I knew at school had a band, and everyone I knew would go to their shows, regardless of whether they were really into the punk thing or not. It really kind of pulled people together. I thought these kids were so cool, and they were nice to me and introduced me to a lot of bands, and to zines and DIY culture. From there on it was really easy to integrate my love for comics into the punk ethos of making your own cultural products—music, comics—with your friends in mind, instead of the narrow focus of getting published or being a big name or a rock star or whatever. I still print my own minis and zines, and I don't ever want to lose sight of why—as a way to connect and share ideas and love with others, not just to make a name for myself. If no one but my friends knew me and saw my work I'd still be doing it, and that's been my biggest takeaway from punk. It's hard to translate music into comic form, because the reader can't hear it, but punk is a little easier because what you can do is show the spirit of collaboration and the passion that goes into doing something because you need to get it out there, even if you don't necessarily have all the skills to do so. You can't make the music but you can show the reader how the music makes the characters feel, and when the reader relates to that feeling they can fill in their own music, according to their own preferences—you don't have to worry about alienating someone over sonic preferences. The comics medium is useful to that end.
PREVIEWSworld: Sacred Heart can be read as a self-contained/one-off story, but you’ve also expressed interest in possibly following-up on its plot threads and characters in previous interviews. Now that you’ve finished the book, do you still foresee yourself using it as a basis for future material? If so, how would you, ideally, like to flesh out these projects?
Liz Suburbia: I definitely think the story will benefit from the sequels I have planned, it's just a matter of when I have the time for them. I have a full-time non-comics job, and other comics projects I'd like to do, so it may take a while. I'll be aging along with the characters, which I'm sure will help me do a better job with depicting their experiences. I don't want to peak too early, you know?