In a boys’ boarding school in mid-20th Century Germany, fourteen-year-old Thomas Werner falls from a lonely pedestrian overpass to his death, but not before mailing a letter to another boy at the school, Juli. Thomas’s death causes a stir at the school just as Thomas’s letter throws Juli into an emotional turmoil. And if that isn’t enough, a new boy shows up at the school who looks exactly like Thomas.
YALSA GGNT Top Ten Manga: Heart of Thomas
By Moto Hagio
Fantagraphics; December 2012. ISBN: 978-1-60699-551-8
516 pgs. $39.99
At the 2014 American Library Association Midwinter conventions, YALSA, the Young Adult Library Services Association announced their Great Graphic Novels list for 2014. Of the 78 titles listed, ten were manga. Heart of Thomas is a seminal work in shojo manga and an early example of the popular boys’-romance “shounen-ai” genre. This compelling story of complex relationships and emotions will draw in readers and keep them captivated until the end.
The Heart of Thomas is the story of the lives of several boys at Schlotterbach, a boys’ boarding school in mid-20th-century Germany. It covers only a short period of time, roughly from Easter break to summer break. While there is a rather large ensemble cast, the story really focuses on Juli, a prefect at the school, and the new transfer student Erich Frühling, who is the almost exact double of Thomas Werner, another boy who died only a few weeks before Erich’s arrival.
Even before Erich’s arrival, the relationships are complex. Juli is cold and studious, concerned only with school and following the rules. He appears to be the perfect student in both his studies and his personal life. His roommate, Oskar, is in many ways Juli’s opposite. He comes off as carefree, skipping class and smoking when the teachers aren’t around. He cares for Juli and tries to help him in any way he can. Juli has a sort of rival in Herbert, the head of one of the dorm rooms, and fans in Liebe and Adam. Enter Erich, whose sweet face belies an aggressive and angry demeanor. His arrival sends the school in turmoil as his often blunt and baiting words start fights. He doesn’t want to be at the school and is very vocal about it. Juli is the most antagonistic toward Erich, because of his strong physical resemblance to Thomas. Juli wanted to forget Thomas, and Erich has become an everyday reminder to him.
Juli’s proclaimed hatred of Thomas and his transference of that hatred to Erich is the central mystery of the story. Juli is hiding a deep, dark secret that makes him believe he cannot be loved. Slowly, through the digging of both Erich and Oskar, the layers are peeled away and Juli’s mystery is revealed. Along the way, feelings are proclaimed, relationships are mended, and secrets are exposed. Hagio masterfully brings all these elements together makes the story both compelling and powerful. It takes its time building up, but once the story is completed, it is difficult to forget.
The Heart of Thomas works in several different themes, many revolving around the concept of love. It asks the questions, what does it mean to love or be loved? What will we do to be loved or to help the one we love? Is it okay to accept another’s love? While asking all these questions, Hagio doesn’t put any conditions on them. All of the main characters are boys who are asking these questions and having these feelings toward one other, but never once is it suggested that these feelings are wrong. The feelings are portrayed so genuinely that gender becomes meaningless, and just seeing the characters happy are all that’s important in the end.
Some people might find aspects of this title to be troubling, such as the prejudices of pre-war Germany directed toward those who didn’t fit the prevailing ideal. Suicide, abuse and torture all become big components of the story, but none of these elements are included arbitrarily or without merit. They all add to the story by building the background and characters into richer, fuller world.
The Heart of Thomas is a mosaic of emotions build around rich and compelling characters. The story is complex and the mysteries it presents captivating. It is all told through an older, more simplistic art style that has it own charm. It can be silly or serious, but it always complements the story. Fantagraphics has given this edition a beautiful hard bound cover with color page inserts in certain chapters. It also includes an introduction by translator Matt Thorn. This haunting and moving story really deserves to be in every teen and graphic novel collection.
Review Copy Provided by Publisher.