2016 Alex Award Winner: An Interview with Liz Suburbia

Liz Suburbia’s debut graphic novel, Sacred Heart, was selected for the Top Ten lists for both the  Alex Award and Great Graphic Novels for Teens, presented as part of the ALA’s 2016 Youth Media Awards.  A full list of all the authors and titles honored at the 2016 YMAs can be found here.

Cover-of-Sacred-HeartSacred Heart follows Ben Schiller, who is trying to navigate high school in Alexandria, a town where all the adults have gone away.  As the teens attend school purely to socialize and local punk band the Crotchmen rock the nights away in an abandoned church, Ben juggles her changing relationship with her best friend and her newfound role as a parental figure to her younger sister, Empathy.  But no one knows when or if the parents are coming back, and a string of deaths may mean that even more sinister things are coming.

Congratulations on your Alex Award win!  What was your reaction to winning?

Thank you!  I was surprised and humbled. My mom is an elementary school librarian who follows ALA news closely, so when she texted me about it I felt pretty good.

Was there something in particular that inspired you to write Sacred Heart?

I didn’t really know where I was going with it when I started; at the time I had just started working at a comic shop and was suddenly completely immersed in comics, so I was inspired to make one of my own. I started with the kind of generic “young girl coming of age” template and it grew from there.

Sacred Heart is about a town that is completely devoid of adults.  Did you know at the beginning where all the grown-ups had gone, or did that revelation come later in the writing process?  

At first I was having trouble writing adults into the story, and it occurred to me that I could just not include them. It took me awhile to come up with a good reason for their absence though. I had a kind of lightbulb moment out of nowhere when I went to see the band Shannon and the Clams, and they sang a song from the perspective of a kid who doesn’t want to be in their parents’ cult anymore.

Your main character, Ben, is on the outside of a lot of cliques.  Mostly, she seems to go unnoticed except when she’s working on a tattoo for one of her friends.  I could really relate to that, and I know many teens do, as well.  Is this reflective of your own experience?  

A little, yeah. My family was military so we moved around a lot, and I spent most of my life being the new kid. I think for some people, trying to find a group to belong to gets exhausting after awhile. It makes you hesitant at first with the people who reach out in genuine friendship, like Jenna does in the book.

I really love the relationship between Ben and her sister, Empathy.  Ben seems easily adaptable to being both the parent and the older sibling/friend as Empathy needs it.  Was this inspired by a particular relationship that you had as a teen?  

A lot of that relationship is fiction extrapolated from reality, haha. I’m the oldest of three but my brother and sister never needed me to take care of them or look out for them like that. If anything I kind of clung to the illusion that they needed me, because I didn’t have a really strong sense of identity at that age, and telling myself I was responsible for someone made me feel like I mattered a little more than I would have otherwise. I think older siblings like Ben are very aware of the archetypical “big sister” role and kind of cling to it in a vacuum.

Sacred Heart was originally published as a webcomic.  What was the process of turning it into a print book like?  

I started putting it online as I went along because I didn’t want to wait until it was done to show my friends—I was anticipating the story taking a long time to finish. Neil Bramlette, who runs the Out of Step Arts collective, liked my work and approached me at the Small Press Expo about joining. He came up with the idea of shopping it around to publishers, and did the bulk of that legwork for me, which was how I ended up with the Fantagraphics deal. Once I signed the contract I started redrawing the whole comic from scratch, which was a pretty hefty effort considering I was working around a 40+ hour workweek for my day job.

Do you have any plans for a Sacred Heart prequel or sequel?

I plan to continue the story until Ben is in her 80s. The next part will pick up about ten years after the events of this book, but I don’t have a concrete start date for drawing and publishing that yet. Everything’s outlined but scripting and drawing can take awhile, and I have other projects and a day job as well.

What comics did you read when you were growing up?  Were there any particular stories or creators that inspired you to get into making your own comics?

I started with newspaper comics, and had a kind of standard journey from those to Marvel stuff and Hellboy, and then to Love & Rockets and other more indie and literary work. I’ve got about 10 million influences but I don’t think anything ever made me really want to make something myself that I could hold in my hands more than a zine my best friend gave me our senior year of high school. They made it with their older brother, hand-printed and hand-stapled, and I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. I still have it.

What comics or creators are you really enjoying right now? 

I’m not as in touch with a lot of what’s out there currently since I left my job at the comic shop (and moved to a town with almost no places to buy comics), but my friends are putting out some of the best work out there right now and I feel really lucky to have access to it through them. Fütchi Perf by Kevin Czapiewski was the best comic that came out last year, hands down. Laura Knetzger’s Bug Boys gives me such warm and peaceful feelings- I’m planning on donating a copy to my mom’s school library. I’ve also been studying a lot of Kyoko Okazaki’s manga, trying to learn how to draw with a looser, cooler-looking style.

Sacred Heart contains a lot of elements of punk culture, including a significant storyline about a band.  Who are some of your sacred-heart-sample-pagefavorite musicians or bands, punk or otherwise?  

Bands like Priests and Downtown Boys are putting out some of the best and most vital stuff right now.  I’m not as connected to current punk since I moved away from the East Coast and stopped going to shows as much, though; these days I mostly just listen to Void. And Bruce Springsteen.

What is your favorite flavor of ice cream?

Vanilla bourbon!

Is there anything else you would like to share, or anything I didn’t ask about that you wish I had?  

I think the best thing about comics is how easy they are to make, and how empowering it can be to hold something you made yourself in your hands and share it with your friends. I hope as the comics medium becomes more popular, especially with younger readers, people will realize just how much they can do to take part in something they love. It’s very accessible.

— Elizabeth Norton, currently reading Daredevil Volume 1: Devil at Bay by Mark Waid and Chris Samnee

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