Courtesy of Fantagraphics.

March 22, 2017

GUEST ROOM | I Could Have Never Even Met You, Sacred Heart

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It feels cliché to say so, but I still remember the day I met my favorite book. Maybe thanks to the sudden changes in the weather, I’ve been thinking about last summer, and one fateful evening in the Harvard COOP. Let me set the scene.

I’m living in Boston (Somerville, to be exact, with two grad students and two troublesome cats I look after as part of my sub-lease). I’m interning at an unnamed organization and, on the whole, feeling like I’m doing Good, Important Work™, but also staring out the window of the converted helmet factory I work in for hours on end. Even though I’m living in a city I fell in love with when my sister started at Tufts five-or-so years ago, I’m spending a lot of time alone and daydreaming about being back in Ithaca during the four miles I walk home from work to kill time.

One evening after a few Lagunitas at a restaurant that didn’t card (praise), I feel myself drifting further into limbo. It’s too late to go to the gym, but I’m dreading going back to another evening of hanging out with the cats and scrolling through Facebook. I jump off the red line at Harvard and go into the COOP, a bookstore that always makes me feel both excited and inadequate.

At this point in the summer I’m going through one of my phases of thinking that if I throw myself deeply enough into some topic it will give me Purpose and Meaning and help me figure out my life. After moving through the critical theory, pop statistics and “maybe if I read enough general interest books about law I can go to law school and totally have a head start” phases, I’ve settled on graphic novels. The COOP shelves them behind a checkout counter, so I know I’ll have to make small talk with a clerk even though I’m tipsy, sleepy and unsure if I should be dropping cash on an indulgence buy.

Sure enough there’s a clerk between my quiet browsing and me (and I know that it’s his job to be there and I am not, at the time, as bratty about it as I might sound now, but I’m in the mindset of a woeful, anti-social kid in the big city). He asks if I want recommendations. “Sure,” I say, “But I really don’t like fantasy, so non-fantasy suggestions would be prime, please,” and he launches into a long list of books that fall under the category of “I know you just said you don’t dig fantasy, but seriously, dude, just give this one a try.”

And then I see it. (In my memory, my gaze just slo-mo zoomed-in as T. Rex’s “Teenage Dream” started playing.) It’s thick and jet black and its spine screams “SACRED HEART” in a wicked, angular font. The author’s name is Liz Suburbia, which seems super cool, too. I flip to the front cover and a teenager is gazing at me over her shoulder, tears sliding down her face. The sun is setting, or maybe rising.

I turn to the clerk and calmly say, “wowthankyousomuchforalltherecommendationstheyallsoundsupercoolbutrightnowIwanttobuythisbookplease.” I get home and get lost in Sacred Heart. I don’t even notice the cats destroying stuff and being the little adorable hobgoblins they always are.

I can’t say too much about Sacred Heart. I promised myself I wouldn’t. Every panel of Liz Suburbia’s work carries so much emotional heft that I don’t want to sell short. I also want to retain the power to tell friends, “I can’t even describe it, you’ll just have to read it and see.” (I’ve been trying to get Jack Jones — the columnist who I’m filling in for this week — to read Sacred Heart for eight months. Seriously, Jack, what else do I have to do? Can you please just read it?)

Over time, Sacred Heart becomes my religious text. When I can’t sleep because my heart’s beating too fast or I want to cry because I’m convinced that I’ll never write a song again, I open it up and a therapeutic calm descends over me. All I will say is that it’s a heart-wrenching book about the kind of vulnerable, audacious punks I wish I could’ve been in high school.

I love my story of happening upon Sacred Heart almost as much as I love the book itself. I find something hopeful about the idea that, in a time of curated playlists, website cookies and “Must Read” lists, I’ve still found most of my favorite things through word-of-mouth and happy accidents. There’s the techno song I heard at a party and only remembered to ask the host about a year later (Deorro’s “Five Hours”). There’s the glam punk band my friend talked up, a band that I ended up seeing in the Cayuga Lodge basement later that semester, and then twice more throughout the year (PWR BTTM). There’s the oddball Game Cube soccer game another friend bought on a whim, leading to our mutual, all-night-marathon obsession (Sega Soccer Slam).

It’s strange, I realize, how much of my personality I base around my favorite media. If I had just stayed on the red line one more stop, or forgotten a recommendation, or left a house show too early, would I have ever known about so many of the things that I love?

A few times over the summer, I tried to regain the joy I felt when I first read Sacred Heart with other graphic novels. None of the attempts worked. Adrian Tomine’s Killing and Dying bummed me out. Maggie Thrash’s Honor Girl had a great, melancholy story but all of her characters had the same face. Brian K. Vaughn’s Paper Girls didn’t make me feel nostalgic for somewhere I’d never been like Sacred Heart did.

A few weeks later in the summer, Newbury Comics had a “buy two, get one free” graphic novels sale. Unable to choose a third book, I considered grabbing a second copy of Sacred Heart. I figured I could leave one in Albany and the other in Ithaca, and never be without a copy if I forgot to bring it to school or back. I balked at the last second. The moment in the COOP when I grabbed a beautiful black book off the shelf means too much to me. I’m scared that if I have two copies, I’ll eventually mess up and forget which was the one.

Shay Collins is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].