Funeral of the Heart (Fantagraphics)

foth-header.jpgLeah Hayes’ debut graphic novel was released to much fanfare earlier this summer, but does it live up to the hype?



120 pgs. B&W; $14.95

(W / A: Leah Hayes)


During this past spring, Leah Hayes’s first graphic novel, Funeral of the Heart, was released to much fanfare. The press release for the graphic novel says she is "poised for greatness" and calls the book a "stylistic tour-de-force." But this hype is a bit of a stretch, and even calling this book a graphic novel is in every possible way a misnomer. It is actually a collection of five sparsely illustrated short stories which do have their shining moments but as a whole never really gel with one another.

Now certainly the book does have style; of this, there is no doubt. The layout of the book is wonderfully designed, and the illustrations themselves are quite lovely. The deceptively simple lines of the artwork match the style of the stories and amplify the emotions the stories evoke. Hayes’s drawing can be creepy and build tension if the story calls for it, or it can change gears and create sympathy within the reader for the characters in the stories. There is an image of a funeral near the end of "The Needle" that is breathtaking, and an illustration of a hospital at the beginning of "The Hair" features brilliant use of negative space, akin to some of Frank Miller’s best work on Sin City.

The cover to Funeral of the Heart by Leah Hayes. Click for a larger image.It’s just a shame there aren’t more of her drawings here. Of the total 120 pages in this book, less than 50 of those have any artwork on them. Of that total, five are merely title pages for each story, and several of the remaining images are mere illustrations that do not do anything to help tell the story. Beyond that, there are several non sequitur illustrations which have little to do with the content of the stories they are in. For example, at the beginning of "The Needle," the text describes how two sisters have rushed to their grandmother’s deathbed while the illustration depicts people lounging on a beach.

And sadly, most of the style the book has is without substance. Her stories are written in a very childlike way and in a tone similar to that of magic realism, but this attempt at imbuing her work with a dreamlike quality often falls flat. At best, as in the first story "The Bathroom," it comes across as vaguely self-important, akin to the kind of writing you might find in a college literary journal. At worst, it is incredibly pretentious and utterly nonsensical, as can be seen in the second story of the collection, "Whoreson." This tale centers on a man who is covered with hair, becomes a famous writer, has a son who hates him because of his appearance, and whose death causes the waters neighboring the town to fill with fish.

The highlights of this book are the third story "The Change" and the fifth and final story "The Hair." These two tales actually come close to capturing the mood of magic realism with their simple plots, especially in "The Hair," a story about a pair of twins born conjoined by their hair. Also the artwork in them, particularly in "The Change" which portrays a man whose personality shifts greatly as he deals with heartache, coincides with the words of the story to make the audience empathize with the plights of the characters therein.

But even these have rather clunky, stilted language in them at times, as when the hospital where the twins are born in "The Hair" is described as "slow and honest" or when a new development is signaled in "The Change" with the words "Then one day, something happened." Also these stories can be very inconsistent in their internal logic. The twin sisters in "The Hair," for example, are somehow able to braid the hair they share even though it is connected to both of their heads.

Leah Hayes clearly has great skill as an illustrator, which has led her work to appear in The New York Times and on the cover of McSweeney’s. But she wastes these talents in this book, never fully utilizing the "graphic" element of this graphic novel. Instead she relies too much on her words to carry the brunt of the weight, and thus the storytelling leaves a lot to be desired. | Steve Higgins


Click here for more information and a three-page preview, courtesy of Fantagraphics.

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