Funeral of the Heart
By Leah Hayes
Leah Hayes’s debut graphic novel, is a dark, strange, mesmerizing book. It tells five sad stories in black and white, with handwritten text and scratchboard illustrations that strike a balance between dramatic poignance and eeriness.
The collection is aptly titled, as it is a book in which three people die tragic deaths, one man is transformed from a loving person into a cold-hearted one, two women find their lives reduced to sleeplessness and general horror, and another woman turns out to be schizophrenic. Each of the book’s five stories effects a small death of the heart, be it that of a character or the reader. And yet somehow Hayes manages to keep her book from plunging the reader into complete and utter depression.
Partly this is because the stories have an otherworldly quality, a fairy tale simplicity to the way they are told, which, though it makes for abnormally melancholy fairy tales, keeps them in the realm of the fantastic. Hayes is as skilled with words as she is with her scratchboard, narrating with direct language and a decisive tone of near-childlike simplicity: as if she is saying, ‘you may think these things I’m telling you are strange, but this is just how it is.’ The structure of each story is akin to that of a morality tale, and this, combined with eccentric plot lines based on largely unreal circumstances—like the birth of twin girls who are connected by their hair—ensures that the stories do not feel real.
As such, we are kept at a distance. It is difficult to become too emotionally attached to characters who possess only one or two traits each and seem to exist solely for the purpose of facing tragedy. But therein lies the paradox, as their life spans are so short, their stories so condensed, that whenever the characters face tragedy, it is stark, total, and consuming. In this way, the novel retains a profound sadness.
Hayes’s scratchboard drawings are spotted throughout the text as visual accompaniment. Whereas usually in comics, the art contains some of the action, here the pictures serve more as dramatic punctuation. They add to the novel by acting like asides, spelling out scenes that are only briefly touched upon in the text. In one, for instance, the words tell us that someone has died and her family members are sad. The corresponding art shows us a picture of a woman crying in a man’s arms and another couple kissing. The text is the plot line, the art the elaboration and detail.
Also of note is the novel’s black and white palette, which would be striking no matter what, but is all the more so because of its white-on-black design—the opposite of the norm. The result is a literally dark book that stuns when one of its pages is flooded by white—a birch tree, a bed sheet, or anything else. Used sparingly, the pools of white take on new meaning in contrast to their black surroundings and gain a dramatic power not often reserved for the color.
Hayes also draws her characters in a highly distinctive way, particularly their tiny fingers and teeth and their round bodies. Everyone seems to consist of a series of ovals, with limbs that move inorganically in a stylized, rounded way. This unnatural affect makes the drawings feel theatrical, which is augmented by her incredibly artful use of lines and crosshatching for dramatic effect.
Funeral of the Heart will definitely take your heart in its hands and break it, but I don’t think the book will quite bury it. Hayes has only just begun to explore the possibilities of a medium that obviously suits her talents, and I’d like to think that when the next installment comes around, we’ll all be healed and waiting.