HOLLOW HEART, ISSUES #1-4
Writer & Letterer: Paul Allor
Illustrator & Colorist: Paul Tucker
Publisher: Vault Comics
WHAT IS IT?
A dark sci-fi romance about a tortured lab-made monster and the technician that wants to help him escape.
It's Beauty and The Beast meets Robocop in a character-driven escape drama with the pathos of The Shawshank Redemption.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
El is a mishmash of human parts stuffed inside a giant bio suit, a sentient cyborg that's been relentlessly experimented on and tortured. El tries to escape his laboratory prison, but he's thwarted by corporate security.
After the escape attempt, corporate shakes things up and sends El a new technician, Mateo. Mateo doesn’t just fix El’s suit, he tends to El's mental health too. In their first interaction together, El refuses to talk because he hates the way his voice sounds. So Mateo adjusts the suit's vocal hardware to a more pleasing tone for El—a voice he finally identifies as his own.
As the bond between Mateo and El progresses, so do the repairs and changes to El. With his growing sense of self, El begins to experience his first highs and the ensuing lows. He questions why he had to suffer so much, and with that pain comes a great rage and sadness.
Can the empathetic Mateo control the monster he’s helping set free? Is Mateo's love enough to protect and save El?
Writer Paul Allor’s evocative narration is the series' trademark ingredient. Narrative anecdotes guide the first 6 pages of each issue, overlaying and reflecting on the actions of a rotating featured character. The little stories within each issue read like puzzle pieces you'll want to read again and again to piece together each character's back story and motivation.
Artist Paul Tucker creates an unforgettable and wholly original monster in the skull-faced El. Particularly impressive is how Tucker contorts the cavity of the eye in El's skull to show a dramatic range of emotions: slight angle changes and manipulations of the hollow shadow show El at times scared, full of rage, or hopeless.
Allor excels in creating scene-stealing details that make for compelling character development: the lonely Mateo hunting for a one night stand on a phone app, corporate bigwigs casually and callously using a half-alive robot with an exposed brain as squash target practice.
Tucker renders Mateo with a thin mustache, a soul patch, and a bumpy hooked nose. In contrast to the sea of ripped, geometrically perfect bodies featured in so many comic books, Mateo is a visually refreshing and ordinary looking protagonist.
Writer Allor also letters the series and uses a unique caption box style for his narration, adding open triangles or open rectangles on the right side of each box: a triangle signifies an ongoing sentence and a rectangle notes its end. The style choice makes the captions look like pages pulled from the binding of a book.
Tucker is the colorist on the book and provides the story’s indelible visual signature: the glowing pink liquid that encases El’s head. A hot pink skull inside a space helmet is a truly brain-searing image.
The series moves with a precise, slow-burning intensity that feels like it could boil over at any moment. It keeps you on the tips of your toes, always eager for the next page and the next issue.
In a book with so much character work, Tucker does an excellent job keeping the many closeups of the cast engaging and meaningful. Every panel works to tug on your heartstrings.
Full disclosure: I’ve taken a few classes by Paul Allor, who also teaches at Comics Experience. But please note: I'm a judgmental snob and I would not praise this book if it was not truly fantastic.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK?
Content warning: some violence and sex, though nothing explicit or excessive. Many characters struggle with depression and anger. It’s a grown-up PG-13.
In issue 3, when Mateo gives El access to what I interpreted as a collective memory bank from the previous hosts of his human parts, it very much reads like the flood of information causes El to orgasm: “Oh, oh my… don’t you dare stop.” It’s one of the very best scenes in the series, but if you don’t want to see a closeup of a skull-faced monster metaphorically orgasming, you’ve got the wrong book.
I find myself wincing as I read this book, like I’m about to get smacked upside the head, waiting for tragedy to strike. The feeling of doom is pervasive and imminent. Don't pick up this book if you're looking for sunshine and rainbows.
WHY SHOULD I READ IT?
Like all great monster stories, from Frankenstein to Robocop, Hollow Heart asks what it means to be human by showing the world through the eyes of its inhuman creation. But rather than fear, what happens when someone treats the monster with respect, compassion and even love?
Hollow Heart showcases the strength of the comic book medium with its nuanced writing and impressionistic artwork working in harmony to elevate the storytelling to something deeply resonant and unique.
There's an old saying that the Velvet Underground didn't sell many records, but everyone who bought one started a band. While I can't speak to Hollow Heart's sales, the book feels like a cult classic in the making—one that could spawn a hundred other great writers and artists. It's the kind of book that makes someone fall in love with comics all over again.
HOW DO I BUY IT?
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