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Liz Suburbia Gets Rid of Adults, Lets Teens Rule in "Sacred Heart"

Liz Suburbia has been making comics for years, putting out short stories, minicomics like "Turbo Mutt" and "Eat or Be Meatball" and her series "Cyanide Milkshake." Beyond those, Suburbia's also been serializing a much longer project on her website, lizsuburbia.com. Now, that project has been collected in graphic novel format by Fantagraphics as "Sacred Heart." Well, collected may be misleading because, as the cartoonist told CBR News, she "redrew it from scratch" rather than simply printing what she released online.

Suburbia jokes on her website that "pretty much all of my comics are about dogs and punks." And while "Sacred Heart" certainly follows that trend, it's about much more.

The adults in the town of Alexandria have left, leaving the teenage residents behind to muddle their way through adolescence while also keeping their makeshift society together. That's hard enough, but the main character Ben Schiller is also trying to figure out what's going on with her sister Empathy. The result is a book that's relatable, terrifying and an incredible portrait of adolescence.

CBR News: "Sacred Heart" collects your webseries into a graphic novel format, correct

Liz Suburbia: Parts of it were originally self-published online or in my minicomics, but I redrew it from scratch for the final graphic novel version that Fantagraphics is putting out.

Where did the idea for this start for you? Did you start out knowing the shape of it -- the characters, the plot, the ending -- or did that emerge as you worked on it?

It started as a loose handful of characters and shorts but then began to develop as a more cohesive story the longer I worked on it. Some things I knew from the beginning but others I didn't. For example I knew what was going to happen at the end, but I didn't know why the adults were gone. I didn't really have any kind of story structure or character arcs in mind when I started. Everything kind of became clearer the more I committed to the idea, and my writing and drawing skills had to develop on the fly because I really didn't know what I was doing at the outset.

I'm intrigued that you knew the ending from the start. Do you usually work that way?

I was going to say "not really," but the only other thing I'm working on that's not a short or a one-off already has an ending, too, so maybe I do work that way. [Laughs] I guess it's easier for me to know where it's going and then fill in the details to get there.

Talk a little about Ben. Did you know who she was and what she looked like from the start?

Yeah, mostly. I didn't have much more in mind than a standard teen girl slice-of-life character when I began, but she really started to take shape as her current situation and her future became more fleshed-out. I kind of worked backwards from what she's going to be like when she's 80 and combined that with what I remember about being a teenager. Even though she's a very different person at 18 than I was, in both experience and personality, I can relate to her.

You worked backwards from what Ben will be like at 80 to figure out what she was like as a teenager? Did you approach all the characters like this?

"Sacred Heart" is my first comic with any kind of character development, so I haven't worked like this before, though I probably will in the future. I didn't sit down and draw out a map for each character working backwards from old age or anything, but knowing what they're going to be like as adults helps inform the things they say and do as kids. The characters who end up dead are a little harder to figure out.

Is the town based on any real place? How much time did you spend designing the setting?

Yeah. It's the neighborhood where I spent the last two years of high school. Almost every setting is based on something that's really there or that was there circa 2003 at least. Power Video closed a few years back. My memory for detailed interiors is pretty good, and I used Google Street View for reference for a lot of the houses and stuff. I changed the name of my old high school and the churches but Fort Hunt Park and the street names are real.

I loved the two younger girls who are sort of witches or I don't know? How do you describe them?

Megan and Donna are just a couple of tweens who are really into the occult. They're younger than a lot of the other kids so they've had less time under their absent parents' strict religious influence. Without adults all these young people are kind of directionless and isolated, but they've had enough exposure to the world that they still have the desire to cobble together some kind of normalcy for themselves. So they'll still congregate at school in kind of a half-assed way, but just because they only have so many places to go.

Talk a little about the sex because there is plenty of it, but you really seem to take care with those scenes and making sure they come off right.

It's important to me to acknowledge that sex is a thing that's happening in this environment, especially in the context of the characters' religious upbringing, but I really want it to be something that humanizes them instead of objectifying them. I don't have anything against porn comics but that's not my aim here. I definitely made an effort to keep the sex and nudity earthy and awkward as something the characters are experiencing, not as something that's necessarily there to titillate the reader. I want the reader to identify with them as people who have their own sexual feelings, not as inspiration for someone else's. It's by design that there's not really any sexy pin-up poses or anything, especially considering how young and vulnerable these people are. It's a fine line to walk.

Where did the idea of doing "Doggie Break," the chapter told from the dog's POV, come from?

Ha, I dunno. I like the dog so I thought it would be cool to see things from her perspective for a while and put a little breathing room between the story beats that come before and after it.

How did serializing "Sacred Heart" on the web help to shape the story? What changed from what people saw online to this print edition?

I was just kind of throwing the original pages up there because I didn't want to wait until I reached a stopping point with the story to show people. I had vague ideas about putting it in print when it was done, but I didn't really know when that was going to be. Sometimes I'd go weeks or even months without updating. Signing the publishing contract and having a deadline really threw my ass into gear. I got a lot more disciplined about working on my pages and got serious about tightening up the story, taking care of loose ends, working on character development, that kind of thing. The aimlessness really comes through in those original pages I think there's even a chapter online that I never bothered finishing. I'm really glad I was given the time to redraw and rework what I had so far because a lot of that early art and writing are really hard to look at.

So what's next for you? What are you interested in doing more of?

I have three eventual sequels for "Sacred Heart" planned and another longer series I'm thinking about doing. I'm going to continue making minis for my own amusement and putting out my comics zine "Cyanide Milkshake" for at least a few more issues. I'm saving up money so I can go back to school and eventually teach art and comics to other people.

Are you doing a lot of conventions or promotions this fall for the book?

I'll be at the Small Press Expo next month, and my publisher and I are currently figuring out a few West Coast appearances after that. Not much else, though. I can only take so much time off work!

"Sacred Heart" arrives this fall from Fantagraphics.

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