Retro Review: The Heart of Thomas

This hardcover volume, translated by manga scholar Matt Thorn and published by Fantagraphics, is an omnibus of all three of the original unflipped tankoban in the oversized format. This is a classic example of shōnen-ai or boy’s love manga written and illustrated by Moto Hagio, a member of the Year 24 Group who is considered a founding mother of modern Shōjo. In other words, this is a must read if for no other reason than its significance in the genre. That said, there are many other reasons this book is worth picking up. This is a deeply complex character driven story focusing on huge concepts all tied to the exploration of both death and love.

The story is set in a boarding school for boys in mid-20th Century Germany and opens with the mysterious suicide of a young boy named Thomas Werner. Kicking off the main storyline, he leaves a note behind to once again confess his love of fellow student Juli. Thomas’s death figuratively and literally haunts Juli, and this is even further heightened when a student who looks very similar to the late Thomas transfers to the school. The writing is simply beautiful with Thomas becoming a symbol for each character in the book allowing them to work through the loss of the character and what it means to them. Unsurprisingly for a story that starts with a suicide, the subject material is sometimes heavier than one might expect from Shōjo including things like abandonment issues and abuse. That said, it is a fairly optimistic tale where each character learns more about themselves and how they might seek their own type of resolution and happiness. The way in which the boys are permitted to express such deep emotion is one of the more powerful aspects of this genre, which generally targets female readership and therefore encourages cross gender identification. Unfortunately, there are a couple of typographical errors such as “Juli” being spelled “Yuri” at one point or the use of “alter” instead of  “altar” once. There are also the normal unflipped issues such as oddly placed ellipses.  It should be remembered that these are not errors that Moto Hagio made though and none of these ruin the story.

Even if boy’s love is not your normal reading material, the art makes it more than worth picking up this book. It is a little bit sketchier than more modern examples, but it does contain many of the expected tropes such as effeminately drawn boys with wide eyes and lots of sparkles and flowers. It also contains much, much, more. Moto Hagio creates visually stunning layouts that capture an etherealness not often seen elsewhere. Her pages often inspire me to first read panel by panel and then take a step back and take in the page as a whole. There is a fair amount of symbolism at play in this novel as well with Thomas literally turning into flowers at one point symbolizing the return to life that happens in spring and the return to life he hopes Juli will experience as a result of his choice to end his life. This is a book you will want to read more than once as there are many layers to this story and the imagery brings these nuances to light. Color is not common, but, when it is used, it is to great effect. The only negative is when she includes more humorous comic strip like styles in a few places. They just feel out-of-place in such an otherwise breathtaking piece. Still, it is interesting to see her experiment at this early stage in her career.

One of the things that’s nice about this book is how accessible Fantagraphics made it for new readers. As it is unflipped, they include a short introduction for English-speaking readers to peruse should they open the book the wrong way and start reading it in the way in which they might expect. This is followed by a page telling them to stop reading, flip the book over, and read the panels from top right to bottom left for a “more satisfying reading experience.” While this might mean that the more experienced readers will not get to the introduction at the end, that is not nearly as bad as trying to understand a story reading the whole thing backward. The introduction itself, by the editor Matt Thorn, is a solid little piece talking about the origins of the story and its importance. Because the expectation is clearly that some of the readers would be new to manga, it would have been nice if he had included a little more background information such as what tropes and expectations are included in the genre or even who the readership of these types of stories are and why they are drawn to them. Still, I am glad that they included the background information that they did and it is always interesting to get a glimpse at what inspires creators to make the stories they do.

If you are interested in the history of manga, this a book you will want to pick up. If you are looking for a story that is emotionally complex, does not provide easy answers and is romantic, in various meanings of the word, this is the story for you. And finally, if you are wanting to see some of the most aesthetically pleasing art to come out of the shōnen-ai genre, this is definitely a book you will want to spend some time with. Thomas’s heart may just haunt you too.

by Moto Hagio published in 1974

GenreRomance novel
English publisherNA Fantagraphics
Original run1974 – 1975

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