The Webcomic Overlook #213: Heart Shaped Skull (Serenity Rose)
Hello, boys and ghoouuullls! It’s October. The time when we put pumpkins with grinning faces out on the porch. When we dress up in fancy costumes like “clown” and “sexy clown“. And when webcomic reading becomes webcomic bleeding. Welcome to the Webcomic Overlook October Spooktacular!
I’m your reviewer, Hell Santo. This week, we’ll be looking at several webcomics that are to die for! Creepy tales of witches, ghouls, spirits, and creatures that go bump in the night. Will they delight, or will they fright? There’s only one way to know if a comic stood a ghost of a chance!
We begin with a story of a young woman growing up in the Pacific Northwest. She’s a very quiet girl. Gloomy. Shy. Frightened. But deep down inside, there’s something wild just aching to emerge. You might say that this woman has … hex appeal!
Tonight, let’s take a look at Aaron Alexovich’s Heart Shaped Skull, which is also known as Serenity Rose. I have no idea witch one is correct. I’ll go with Heart Shaped Skull just to keep things simple.
I mean … sin-ple.
No wait. That one was a bit of a stretch. I apologize for that one.
Now let’s get one thing out of the way first. Does Heart Shaped Skull‘s style remind you of anything? Anything? Wait, who said “Hot Topic” shirt? No points for you! That’s an out of date reference, since it seems like they’re stocking up on Hello Kitty and Adventure Time novelties these days.
Here’s a hint: when you type “Heart Shaped Skull” into the Google search bar, the second result is “Heart Shaped Skull Invader Zim.” There’s a booty load of Gothic themes, big bug-eyes, the presence of characters either looking incredibly glum or yelling as if on Ritalin, and the color black as if it’s going out of style. Now, before we toss off rejoinders in the vein of “ripping off Jhonen Vasquez,” Mr. Alexovich’s Bio Page does say that he contributed character designs to both Invader Zim and Avatar: The Last Airbender. So he does have an excuse. Mr. Alexovich has also worked for major comic publishers, notably with DC Comics’ girl-oriented Minx imprint and Vertigo’s Fable series.
Our heroine is Serenity “Sera” Rose. Surprisingly, she is not a shower gel you can buy at Bath and Bodyworks. She is a young woman in her early 20’s. She’s adopted a rather Gothic look, which should be no surprise since she’s designed by a contributing artist for Invader Zim. Sera is very insular. She’s a shrinking violet, the sort of girl who gets embarassed easily. To work through her negativity, as the first book is entitled, she draws comics under the pseudonym “Zero”. She suspects she’s a lesbian, though she’s a little unsure. Also, she looks like a muppet. This isn’t a veiled criticism, by the way but something that’s expressly mentioned early on in the comic.
Oh, and she’s also a witch.
It actually surprised me how this aspect of her personality became the central theme of the entire webcomic. Early on, it seemed like it was just one component of her gloomy personality. There’s a scene where Sera’s browsing through the floppies at her local comic store, for example, and Sera launches a complaint against the comics industry against the portrayal of witches. Her beef is with a big boobed superheroine called “Wiccan” who’s engaged in epic battles. The comic creator, who I imagine is based on any number of Image Comic artists (or perhaps Michael Bay) is portrayed as a moron who’s a total poseur.
But then, one book later, entitled “Goodbye, Crestfallen!”, Heart Shaped Skull has been transformed into an action extravaganza. Sera is using her powers like a superhero with hex powers, and she’s exchangine fire with another witch in a huge fight scene filled with spells, light shows, mass decapitiations, and dudes straight out of “Call of Duty: Black Ops” armed with M-16s.
Man, I did not see that coming.
Now, I’m not faulting Mr. Alexovich and his storytelling or anything. After all, seven years had passed in real time between Sera’s criticism of comic book action scenes and Sera’s big battle. Sometimes, you want to write something other than Sera being mopey all the time, you know? I bring it up just to point out that if you wanted to get into Heart Shaped Skull because it seems like a frank, uncompromising look at the life of an introverted young adult a la Ghost World, I feel that it’s fair to warn you that eventually there will be epic sorcerer duels.
One of the things I appreciate about Heart Shaped Skull is how incredibly dense it is. Mr. Alexovich clearly has reams and reams of backstory piked up on a desk somewhere that he’s just champing at the bit to unleash into his comic world. Much of this manifests in pages that are long strings of exposition. While this would normally bug me in most comics, the presentation here is creative enough to keep me interested. Sometimes he presents his exposition in the form of a tourist pamphlets. Other times, it’s embedded in song lyrics. The latter, in fact, reminds me a lot of Tolkien’s oft used technique of establishing backstory by including it in song and poetry.
The meticulous attention goes a long way to turn the city of Crestfallen, Heart Shaped Skull‘s main setting, into a living, breathing town. The town is located in the gloomy confines of the Pacific Northwest. (As a Seattle resident, I was totally doing a fistpump at that revelation.) A long time ago, Crestfallen was once a safe haven for several witch families, which explains why it’s filled with Gothic architecture. However, many of the witch families have left, and an opportunistic entrepreneur turned it into some sort of tourist attraction.
Magic is sort of a well-known reality in the world of Heart Shaped Skull, by the way. Witches aren’t the only evidence of this. The world is also populated by some simply designed creatures, some of whom look like they should be fighting the Evangelions or something.
Sera’s family moved to Crestfallen due to her burgeoning spellcasting powers. However, Sera’s father was determined to give her a “normal” life, and thus she was never formally trained in the mystic arts. (A bit of a plot hole, I think. If you wanted to raise your daughter as a normal girl, why — even given the opportunity for free housing — would you move to a town whose very reputation is based on witchcraft?) Nevertheless, Sera does end up becoming a bit of a celebrity.
Everything stems from a display of magic from Sera’s teenage years. After a severe bout of self pity stemming from her burgeoning attraction to the same sex, Sera accidentally causes a school bus to flip through the air. The incident caused a media sensation. While there were attempts by the SSI (a government supernatural agency) to bring Sera in, it turns out that capturing her is kinda like trying to get one over on that kid in the Twilight Zone ep who could read your thoughts: you can’t do anything about it because he can punish you at a whim for any stray that may have unluckily entered your mind. So Sera got off pretty much Scot free. Unfortunately, the bus flipping incident also has caused deep psychological trauma.
Anyway, Sera re-emerges on the national scene after she saves the day by containing a potentially dangerous incident at a rock concert gone bad. There is, apparently, a strong tie between rock music and witchcraft. Witches seem to use their powers in elaborate stage shows with huge special effects and such. Heck, Sera even gets into the act in the latest book, “Break Your Stupid Heart.” So… is rock star the only career path available for a witch?
The AV Club recently did a review of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and the writers pointed out that several of the characters were based on rock stars. Morpheus looked like Robert Smith, and Lucifer looked like David Bowie. In absence of a classical pantheon, like Zeus or Thor or Bahumut, rock celebrities have become the modern version of gods. Is the same dynamic at work here? After all, the witches seem to exhibit almost limitless powers, and their morality in using them is entirely up to their whims.
Which is not to say that all society has taken kindly to witches. Sera is targeted from several fronts, mainly be right-wing fundamentalists and the conservative media, represented by the thinly disguised Box News. And the critics, incidentally, are not entirely wrong. The camera eventually pulls back, and we discover that the world is filled with even more witches … and not all have good intentions. Some, in fact, use their powers in the name of naked self-interest.
Sera’s enemies do tend to be one-dimensional, though, which is a little to the detriment of the comic. There’s a scene where Sera observes two “dudebros” at a truck stop. Their attitudes annoy her, so she turns their truck into a pig. While acknowledging that the depiction may be a stereotype, Sera (and, I’m thinking Mr. Alexovich) sorta sneers at the reader: “Note: for those of you who think ‘Dakota’ is nothing but an unfair stereotype, let me just round him up by saying he loves fluffy kitties, foreign films, and drawing pictures of himself as a unicorn all over his poetry chapbooks. There, happy now?”
Here’s the downside: Sera does really come off as every inch a petty jerk as the “dudebros” she hates. It’s not the only time she comes off as unlikable. There’s a scene where she tosses off a sarcastic non-apology that made me just want to slap her upside the head. The emo-ness of it all can get a little much. Sera comes off, at times, like Harry Potter in Order of the Phoenix, where everyone agreed that J. K. Rowling probably should’ve had an editor on board at some point.
That, of course, may be the point. While the moping and the social paralysis were ways help the reader identify themselves with Sera, eventually the characters in the strip get fed up with it and call Sera out on her BS. There an underlying theme in “Goodbye, Crestfallen!” that Sera actually has had it pretty good. She’s so self-absorbed that she never noticed how some witches live terrible lives without families, and some of her actions have led to the deaths to people she never knew about. Heart Shaped Skull treads a very thin line, though, between wanting to see our heroine overcome her obstacles and wanting to see our heroine get comeuppance after comeuppance because, damn, girl, you need to get over yourself!
Sera eventually seeks out Vicious Whisper, a free-spirited witch who represents the right way of doing things. Now, bear in mind that the strip thus far the characters are cynical and suspicious and this is a good thing. Vicious’ backstory, on the other had, reads like some sort of Mary Sue fanfic:
Victoria “Vicious” Whisper was born 33 years ago near Oxford, England, to the famous British physicist Ronald Wu and the even famouser Japanese Pop Idol Kimi Whisper. By all accounts, Ron and Kim were ideally suited to raise a young witch; the two of them are optimistic, generous, open-minded, and intimately acquainted with the subtle art of “fame-management” (not to mention chocked full o’ ££) their kid… would be the envy of witches the world over.
So in the back of my mind, I was thinking, “OK. Clearly Vicious Whisper is a villain. All that My Little Pony stuff is just way too out of play in a comic about a mopey Goth kid. Seriously, this is the identity of ‘the real killer’ in every police procedural on CBS.” Nope! Vicious is a world traveler who knows every witch in the world and is a wise mentor type. Every word out of her mouth is a pearl of wisdom that is more enlightening than Rumi, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, and Solomon combined. Everything she does is delightful, her magic makes butterflies out of thin air, and everyone loves her.
Man, do I f***ing hate
Marrissa Amber Flores Picard Vicious Whisper.
But, despite my qualms over the characterizations, I still have to give a very high recommendation for Heart Shaped Skull. I already mentioned the world-building, which is perhaps the most engrossing part of the comic. Read every long paragraph and every footnote. There’s so much fun just exploring the world that Mr. Alexovich created. I am positively giddy with every flashback introduced in Heart Shaped Skull. How awesome was it to learn that the Crestfallen Aquarium was built by a Chinese pirate witch who needed no ship because he could travel underwater? Answer: very awesome.
The other reason to read Heart Shaped Skull is the fantastic art design. Mr. Alexovich lovingly draws very little detail where he can. A trip to a rural gas stop becomes a fun little catalogue of various knick knacks that Sera finds there: from “real fur” miniature cat to Native American “Dream Catches” to VHS tapes. With each odd location rendered — even the fantastical ones — you get the sense that Mr. Alexovich has actually been there, the way he lingers on every detail and pokes around at every angle.
The art gets downright experimental at times. Sometimes he fills the entire page with negative space, save for an image of Sera and words dripping beneath her. There’s another time where Sera is stomping around the room trying to stay awake. The words “Don’t Sleep” are written all over the page to great comic effect. Early scenes of Sera writing stuff on a loose leaf paper remind me a lot of my own stupid self-absorbed ramblings and primitive attempts at writing comics for the college paper. And, well, Sera looking like a bug-eyed Muppet will always be kinda adorable.
At the same time, Mr. Alexovich is also very capable of drawing scenes you shouldn’t be reading on your iPad when the lights are out.
In the end, the strengths very much outweigh the weaknesses. Heart Shaped Skull is a bit of an uneven comic. The tone jumps around without warning, the characters are a little flat, and the plot can get a little unfocused. But man, that art. It is gorgeous. The comic is also highly energetic, bouncing like a kid on sugar from one idea to another with boundless enthusiasm. And the world of Heart Shaped Skull is one that’s worth knowing more of. Hey, sometimes that’s all you need when it comes to fantasy stories: a setting that can let your imagination run free. Heart Shaped Skull: it’s frighteningly good!
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)