Released September 30th by Boom! Studios, writer and illustrator Maria Llovett’s Heartbeat offers a new take on the teen romance. With lettering contributions from Andworld Design, a translation by Andrea Rosenberg, and inspired by poetry, Llovet creates a deeply personal narrative exploring the teen psyche.
I must admit, I’m an inconsistent fan of teen media. Simply put, I hate seeing the same cliché love triangles and awkwardness repeated over and over again, often without much reinterpretation, cleverness, or sensitivity. When it does work, however, teen dramas can be immersive psychological and social commentaries.
Llovet’s series, while difficult to relate to at times and deliberately discomfiting, successfully dramatizes a psycho-sexual love triangle between self-absorbed high school students and sympathetically illustrates a teenage obsession with death. Llovett delivers lots of style without compromising the character-driven story.
High School Hell
Llovet employs quite a few cinematic techniques to create the mood of the series. First of all, her frequent use of Dutch angles lent visual gravitas to each major scene. The technique also added a sense of dread to the school setting. Eva, the protagonist, doesn’t fit into this rigid, upper-crust private school. She’s the only child of a working-class single mother who struggles to afford the school’s tuition even with Eva’s scholarship.
Thus, Eva’s poverty places her at the bottom of her school’s hierarchy. She dreams of being loved by the mysterious school hottie, Donatien. She wants to be friendly with Donatien’s aloof girlfriend, Amber and wishes to be free of Violetta’s bullying. The only person who acknowledges her in a normal way is Amber’s brother, Mackenzie. But even he disappoints Eva in the end.
Moreover, all of these dreams and desires are revealed through dream sequences and poetic narration. Despite the narration being esoteric and melodramatic, Eva would have been difficult to sympathize with without it. Reading the narration as removed from the story itself, reminded me of my own woe-is-me teen journals. When you’re a teen, everything feels big and dramatic. It was this reminder that helped me relate to Eva instead of judging her.
Artistically, the dream sequences, distinguished by the rounded corners of each panel, provide the same kind of intimate insight that fuses the real and the Romantic elements of character and story. Each dream sequence is like a painting, seemingly making a pastiche of Frida Kahlo and anime. This style epitomizes the disturbing beauty of the subject matter and characters. It’s uncomfortable to be inside the mind of a young girl. You may feel like a horrible voyeur and want to look away, but you can’t.
You can’t even look away from the multiple panels in which Eva undresses. Her vulnerability and fragility in these panels are discomfiting to witness, yet there’s beauty in her pathos. She’s like the motifs of butterflies and delicate flowers that adorn the panels’ backgrounds. The butterfly represents romantic desire and freedom. The flowers, which may be Hollyhock, generally represent romance and ambition. Sadly, Eva’s vulnerability gets exploited by Donatien after she witnesses him drinking blood from his dead girlfriend’s chest wound.
For anyone else, Donatien potentially being a murderer would be a huge red flag, but Eva is desperately lonely. Through Llovett’s six-to-twelve panel grids, we get montages that condense plot points. In the middle half of the book, the montage is used to show how Eva’s new relationship with Donatien affects her. At the beginning of the series, Eva’s diet consists almost entirely of chocolate bars. However, the later montage shows Eva smiling, sharing suggestive glances with Donatien, and eating a full meal. It’s a satisfying package of neat layout and storytelling.
Style and Substance
Like a bow on a gift box, Andworld Design’s lettering adds some stylistic flair with what little dialogue and effects there are. Most striking were the effects for phone sounds and crying. They were all drawn in bright blue and pink-colored cursive and sometimes took up more of the page than typical phone sounds in comics. Making those sound effects larger than life exaggerated the feeling of interruption. Drawing the effects in cursive taken in tandem with the narration added to the sense that we’re reading Eva’s diary. Therefore, each sound is as Eva heard it, whether big or small or flashy.
As a whole, Heartbeat is a heartbreaking gothic teen romance. Whether or not you love the story and characters or find it irredeemably disturbing, you will remember it long after you’ve read it. With all its dark style and psychological substance, it’s worth the read.