Moto Hagio's Heart of Thomas, recently translated and released by Fantagraphics, is my first proper introduction to the shounen-ai, or "boy's love," genre of manga. I have friends who are into yaoi and boy's love, and they have been remarkably generous with their time, knowledge, and gag gifts of yaoi versions of comics I like, but it isn't quite my thing. I generally like comics that are all about cigarettes and guns, and there isn't a lot of that in Heart of Thomas. What there is, though, is drama. No -- it has melodrama. It opens with a young boy, a student at a boarding school for boys in mid-20th Century Germany, committing suicide. That is sad enough, but he leaves a note behind, as a way of confessing his love for another student and praying that he can make one last connection. Things... go south from there. Check our exclusive preview and a quick review below the cut.I was a little worried going into Heart of Thomas, since I'm unfamiliar with shoujo manga, or girls' comics, and boy's love. But I like Moto Hagio, the author of the book, and I'm open to new things. I'm glad I gave it a chance, because the sheer level of theatrical drama in this book is enough to keep a skeptic hooked. I burned through the book, partly out of a desire to see how dramatic things were going to get, but mostly to see how the story played out.

The boy who committed suicide, Thomas Werner, confessed his love to Juli, an upperclassman, six months before he died. It was part of a game between him and another student. They were racing to see who could seduce the strait-laced Juli first, but Juli found out about their plot and shot Thomas down in front of his class in the cruelest way. Six months later, Thomas is dead and Juli has received his last letter.

Thomas's death haunts Juli, as he seems to feel partly responsible at first. But that haunting soon turns to outright resentment. Juli had no interest in Thomas, so why should he be burdened with the weight of Thomas's death? On top of that, everyone else believes that Thomas's death was an accident, not suicide. Juli knows the truth, and it sits heavily upon his shoulders.

The resentment eventually turns to malice. Juli rips up Thomas's last note at his gravesite and refuses any responsibility for what Thomas did. Things get worse when a transfer student, Erich, joins the school. He's the spitting image of Thomas, which sends the school into a proverbial tizzy.

Erich resents Thomas due to the expectations placed on him by people who knew Thomas. Juli resents Thomas, and sees Erich as a shadow of Thomas. The rest of the school is wrapped up in their own petty dramas, from tea parties to simply attending class and having fun.

Everything is heightened in Heart of Thomas. Juli doesn't just resent Thomas. He has dreams about him that end with Thomas exploding into flowers. Erich steps into Thomas's place in the school by accident, and finds himself the latest curio and showered with attention. He's spoiled and unruly, even going so far as trying to strike a teacher who corrected him. Characters scream, throw things, and have the most sparkly eyes you ever did see.

It's a girls' comic, a romance comic, and drawn accordingly. All the boys are drawn to be very traditionally girly -- one of the boys is nicknamed "fräulein," which threw me off initially -- and flowers, sparkles, and several other shojo manga tropes are in full effect across the book's five hundred pages. I still feel like an outsider, someone peeking in the window of another person's favorite genre, but I do feel like I get it. The apocalyptic twists and turns are engaging, to put it lightly. It's like a soap opera that's been all the way turned up. No one has subtle emotions. Even seething anger or grief manifests itself through dark shadows and gloomy spotlights. Joy or rage? Those explode onto the page.

My previous high watermark for melodrama was Chris Claremont's run on X-Men comics. I wasn't prepared for how far Hagio was going to take her story, but I'm totally into what she came up with. It works so well because Hagio is telling a story that's almost entirely character-driven. There's not really a big important plot to follow, or villain to defeat. She's just packing a boarding school full of characters and letting them bounce off each other. It's that simple. Heart of Thomas is a trip, and a good one. I wasn't expecting to enjoy it as much as I did, and it was nice to enjoy something outside of my usual comfort zones.

Check out the preview below, and then hit your nearest bookseller for a copy of your own.

'The Heart of Thomas' is available now at your local comic shop or on Fantagraphic's website.

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