*The Heart of Thomas — Recommended

Continuing their pattern of bringing out significant manga in substantial hardcovers, next month Fantagraphics will release The Heart of Thomas, an important work in the history of shojo. It’s by Moto Hagio, whose A Drunken Dream and Other Stories was published by them two years ago.

The Heart of Thomas is one of the first “boys’ love” manga (shonen-ai, which doesn’t have the sexual content of yaoi), originally published in 1974. Thomas is a boy at a German boarding school who kills himself over love for another student. There’s much focus on everyone’s reactions, placing mood over events, as expressed through big-eyed boys looking soulfully at each other, into the distance, and at the reader. Yet there’s substantial thematic content as well, material that makes this volume of interest to more than the fan of boys’ school manga.

Juli, the subject of Thomas’ crush, agonizes over the emotional weight the dead boy’s actions have forced on him. Then Erich, a boy who looks just like Thomas, transfers in. Meanwhile, Oskar, Juli’s roommate, has his own motivations — including helping Juli through an attack at 3 in the morning with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, which visually resembles something else entirely.

As the series progresses, things get weirder, especially when it comes to the boys’ backgrounds. Erich has a mother complex. The beautiful Oskar, who is said to resemble his mother, turns out to have a parentage secret. There are suggestions of peer pressure and harassment and a demon child who looks like an angel and predatory upperclassmen. One boy has the desire to avoid feeling pain by not feeling anything; another feels things so intensely and dramatically. The angel-wing imagery underlies the message of seeking forgiveness and purpose. Finally, there’s redemption through caring for another person.

Fantagraphics has chosen to release the whole thing in one volume, almost 600 pages (which explains the cover price). There are some odd formatting choices. The cover appears if you prepare to read the book right-to-left (typical of unflipped manga). However, if you open the “back” cover, that’s where the title page shows up, followed by translator Matt Thorn’s introduction. It’s a brief overview of the history of shojo manga and Hagio’s influences on this story, providing important context for the book, down to identifying which film inspired the plot.

The reproduction is excellent, with the larger page size making it easier to read the captions and dialogue. Diving into this volume means descending into the world of these boys and their oh-so-heartfelt emotions. Reading it for the first time, I found myself engrossed. It all felt strange and foreign (on multiple levels, given the way the style reflects the material’s age and the European setting created by a Japanese woman), but I kept turning pages, hoping for these children to find more settled hearts. The question of how much responsibility someone else’s feelings for you place on you is a universal one, never to be answered, but I enjoyed reading about these young men dealing with the problem and its consequences.

The publisher’s website has preview pages. Jason Thompson has written an excellent analysis of the book, but it gives away a lot more of the plot twists than I wanted to. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

8 Comments

  1. Yeeeeeeeeee-haw! Thank you so much, Joanna – this is one of the titles I’ve been waiting for for years, and I haven’t seen a word about it anywhere else. (The usually reliable French seem to have a blind spot when it comes to Hagio Moto: ROSE OF VERSAILLES, yes, SAKURA GARI and BROTHER DEAR BROTHER and even, if you dig hard enough, CANDY CANDY, but no Hagio and no Takemiya, either).

    Congratulations to both Matt and Fantagraphics for sticking to their guns – especially after the somewhat mixed reaction to their earlier Hagio short story collection. I do think HEART OF THOMAS will be easier for many readers to relate to, as the longer format allows them to become absorbed in the characters and their relationships, and how those relationships work out over time.

    Am now eagerly awaiting THE POE CLAN, and of course Takemiya’s SONG OF THE WIND AND THE TREES…

  2. There was a mixed reaction to Drunken Dream? I guess I missed seeing that. Glad you liked the piece, thanks. The Poe Clan is mentioned in Thorn’s introduction, and I’d be curious to see that as well.

  3. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again if you write something like the Haart of Thomas at the age of 26! Your place in the pantheon of true greats is sealed. That being said the price tag is a bit much for me and I just feel it would end up being a glorified musuem piece on my shelf so regerteably I’ll pass.

  4. Aaron: The preorder price at Amazon is really good ;)

    Read the preview a little while ago and was sold immediately. I hadn’t read any Moto Hagio before, and now I see why she has the reputation she does. Getting this (and A Drunken Dream, while I’m at it) as soon as I can.

  5. Great review! The Heart of Thomas is one of Hagio’s story that really stayed with me. The style and the story complement each other so well. This is just in time to add the book to my Christmas list!

  6. […] of my list is the Heart of Thomas omnibus volume from Fantagraphics ($39.99) that I had a chance to read last year. This solid […]

  7. Lucky you American to have Fantagraphics publish this one with Matt Thorn as a translator. The French edition by Kaze Manga is not so good looking and it’s a shame there is no introduction text or text about history of shôjo, explaining why Moto Hagio and The Heart Of Thomas are so important. And I have to add this is the first Moto Hagio work being published in French…

    I’m forward to seeing Marginal or Otherworld Barbara getting published by Fantagraphics.

  8. […] manga to English in deluxe presentations — titles so far include important historical shojo The Heart of Thomas and Moto Hagio’s Drunken Dream as well as the cross-gender series Wandering Son — their […]

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