The Heart of Thomas
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.)