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At a boys' school in Germany, a thirteen-year-old named Thomas Werner dies after being rejected by an older student named Juli. Did he jump? Was he pushed? Was it an accident? Everyone seems to care except Juli, who is tormented by his own set of demons, and when a new student named Erich who bears a striking resemblance to the deceased shows up, things just get more complicated. Who was Thomas, really? And will Juli ever be able to live without his shadow?
It is easy to see why this is the story that launched a thousand shounen-ai ships. Originally written between 1972 and 1974, Moto Hagio's The Heart of Thomas is a quietly brutal story about both the impact of one boy's death on the school community and an exploration of the demons that haunt us all. Naturally it's a bit melodramatic, but overall Hagio's tale meanders towards a resolution that is both satisfying and a bit unexpected, holding readers' attention even when it isn't entirely clear where the story is going.
Fantagraphics' massive hardcover, which at $39.99 tops even Yen Press' edition of Thermae Romae for price, is an omnibus of all three original tankoban in the company's usual high quality, oversize format. The translation makes use of a decent amount of German, though generally speaking none of it is difficult to figure out and some translations are provided. Translator Matt Thorn provides an essay about Hagio and her fellow Year 24 mangaka with some historical background about the series. There are two typographical errors over the 500+ pages, one a missing word and the other having “Juli” spelled “Yuri” early on, which is frankly more jarring. I mention these only because if I'm going to spend $40 on a book, I want it to be error-free, but these two glitches aside, this is a beautiful, well translated volume, complete with color pages in shades of red and black.
The story begins with the death of the titular Thomas. Hagio narrates the events (the only time she does so explicitly) before we read a verse in Thomas' own voice. It is written about Juli and explains the reasons for his suicide. Soon Juli is learning about Thomas' death at school and discovers that before dying, the boy posted a letter to him. He ends with the line, “Surely you must understand.” Thus begins Juli's torment. His friend Oskar, abandoned at the school by his father, sees himself as Juli's guardian but becomes powerless to help him. When Juli meets Erich, a transfer student with Thomas' face, he begins a slow decline into himself that no one can bring him out of. He is haunted by Thomas, by the reasons for his death, and by his own certainty that he has “lost his wings.” As the story goes on it becomes clear that this is a sense of self-worth, of being able to stand tall before God. Is it only Thomas' death that has caused this? Or is there something else?
Juli's story is intertwined with those of Erich and Oskar. Erich is mourning the mother he left behind to come to school and struggling with the fact that Juli appears to hate him for no reason other than that he looks like Thomas. Oskar, meanwhile, has abandonment issues and suffers from what might kindly be called a messed up home life. Thomas means something different to each of them, and while Hagio stays away from explicit explanations, by the end of the book it is clear that each boy has learned what it is that he needs to do in order to be happy.
As far as the BL elements go, while they are there, they're far from being truly romantic. Hagio dances around the line between romantic and platonic love, and while there is some kissing, she keeps things fairly coy and there are references to the boys all being interested in girls. This is a conceit now seen more often in yuri manga, the idea that homosexual love will be outgrown once school days are over. In fact, The Heart of Thomas in many ways feels more related to today's yuri rather than yaoi in the gentleness of its pacing and the specific traumas of the past, particularly those in Juli's. Those scenes, coming at the end of the volume, are fairly horrific, perhaps all the more so because Hagio does not show us everything. Since other past events are told rather than shown, this makes the pages even more powerful in the scope of the story and helps to fill in the missing pieces of Juli's anguish.
Hagio has a delicate touch with her artwork, part of which can be attributed to the general look of shoujo in the 1970s. Boys are beautiful and willowy, hair blows dramatically, and backgrounds have the look of a 19th century pastoral watercolor. Perhaps the best touch, however, is the way that Hagio subtly works Thomas into many of the collage images, reminding us that he is at the heart of the story and using angel imagery to help us to understand the role he plays. The large format of Fantagraphics' edition makes it easy to appreciate these scenes, and even if you don't like the style, it is easy to enjoy looking at Hagio's art.
The Heart of Thomas may be the grandmother of the boys' love genre, but it would be shortsighted to simply classify it as such. Organically flowing towards its resolution, it is a story about coming to accept and understand yourself through your past, no matter how difficult it may be. Heartfelt and dreamlike, it is a window into the lives of those affected by the sudden death of one of their own. Whether you come out of it cursing Thomas as a fool or lamenting his passing along with the others, there is a reason behind its endurance over the years. Surely, if you read it, you can understand.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : A-
+ Beautiful book, story all comes together in a satisfying way. Delicate art and characters who learn and grow.
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