guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

June 2008
Leah Hayes, Funeral of the Heart (Fantagraphics, 2008). $14.95, paper.

By James Moore

The term graphic novel is a broad one, embracing a wide variety of formats from purely visual narratives to more prose filled work. Freelance illustrator, musician, and teacher Leah Hayes’s second graphic novel, Funeral of the Heart, lays on the outer edge of what would normally be considered a graphic novel. More accurately, it is a collection of short stories with illustrations interspersed throughout.

These stories all have a magical realist bent, sometimes veering into macabre fables. The shorts are slight, and forgettable.
Funeral of the Heart’s five tales concern quirky, low-key, and slightly grotesque characters caught up in moments of heartbreak and disillusionment. Hayes occasionally grasps at a sense of disquieting melancholy, and these tend to be some of the more affecting moments. Those moments, however, pass quickly, and the book fails to either worm its way under the skin or into the heart. Mostly. Funeral is dour with some saccharine/maudlin elements laced beneath the gloomy surface.

While Hayes may not be the strongest writer, her artwork is indeed interesting. The illustrations for
Funeral of the Heart were created using scratchboard, using a sharp instrument and etching away a surface layer of ink or paint to create the image. Hayes’ images have strong compositions making excellent use of negative space and the high contrast intrinsic to the scratchboard. That the drawings is literally scratched away gives the book a rough, dreamlike feel. Her figures are misshapen and pathetic in a slightly whimsical way. The illustrations complement and enhance the stories, often more than the stories deserve.

Where the book succeeds most is as a design object. It is a carefully packaged book, where even the text pages demonstrate an elegance and care of design. Hayes varies the amount of text and its placement on the page as a way of controlling the pacing and mood, giving the stories more impact that than they would have if they had been just printed traditionally. Her hand-scratched lettering makes the book seem more intimate. Hayes’s title pages, including the book’s cover does a good job setting the stage for vignettes. While the stories themselves are neither especially good or all that bad, Hayes’ choices in presentation are ultimately what saves the book. Overall, there is a certain unity to
Funeral of the Heart that makes it work where a less carefully wrought book of similar style and tone might have simply been a pretentious disaster.

Funeral of the Heart in many ways pulls off the creative goals it sets for itself. That is, one senses it is precisely what it wants to be. Whether what it wants to be is of interest is another matter. It reads like a worked-over art school assignment involving an unlikely medium and a dream journal. Aesthetically, it is attractive and polished, but there just isn’t much for the reader to latch onto. It is not that there are any particularly damning flaws, just a lack of anything to really recommend other than as a curious art object. Hayes, who also works as a musician under the name Scary Mansion, actually captures more effectively and hauntingly in her music the subdued spooky atmosphere that Funeral of the Heart fails to achieve.