March 24, 2022


Heart Takes the Stage: A “Heart of the City” Collection. By Steenz (Christina Stewart). Andrews McMeel. $11.99.

     Fans of the original Mark Tatulli Heart of the City comics are definitely not the audience for this new collection of strips created by Tatulli’s successor, Steenz, who took over the strip in April 2020. Tatulli managed to make title character Heart a kind of anti-L, moving the dark and bizarre sort-of-suburban setting of his Liō strips to a mostly light and upbeat urban world (“the city” is Philadelphia). Tatulli retained much of the offbeat humor of Liō’s world but virtually eliminated its surrealistic elements, making Heart of the City into a family-and-friends-focused strip in which elementary-school-age Heart nevertheless lived in her own world through her obsessions with Hollywood and celebrity culture.

     Steenz has turned the strip into a middle-school one, which puts it in the same league as Big Nate and Phoebe and Her Unicorn. But simply having Heart now be 11 years old, along with her old friends and some new ones, is not enough to make the strip distinctive or, in truth, particularly interesting. This is why Heart Takes the Stage is a book only for people coming to the world of Heart anew, and without expectations: Steenz, at least so far, does not have the cleverness, puckishness and frequently offbeat elements that made Tatulli’s Heart of the City different and entertaining. Steenz also lacks any real distinctiveness in character rendering: all the kids in Heart Takes the Stage have the identical blocky, Minecraft-like appearance, right down to the shape of their fingers and toes (Heart is often fully dressed, even in jackets, but shoeless; other characters are frequently barefoot as well). And it is not just the kids: the adults in the strip look like slightly larger versions of the young people. An extreme example is in a strip in which Dean, Heart’s Star Trek obsessed friend, suggests that Heart watch the acting of William Shatner – and the three “Shatner” drawings make Shatner look as if he is just another 11-year-old.

     Although Heart is the title character of the strip, she is no longer interesting enough to be central to it. Walt Kelly’s Pogo was sometimes criticized because the title character was so middle-of-the-road-nice all the time – and Kelly explained that Pogo was the glue holding everything together. It would be nice if Steenz could turn Heart into the heart of the strip in a similar way, but at this point, the strips that do not include her are often a lot more interesting than the ones in which she appears. Thus, a long sequence in which Heart gets her ears pierced is ho-hum, while a series in which Dean “competes” in nerdy ways with new friend Charlotte, a fellow uber-nerd, is much more engaging. The Dean-Charlotte connection has more potential, based on this collection, than the Heart-anyone relationship.

     Steenz seems determined to make Heart of the City into a “life lessons” strip of the sort that is supposed to be good for preteens nowadays. There are elements of that approach in the ear-piercing story and in a sequence in which Heart gets the lead in a school play and finds out that she is so nervous that she cannot remember her lines unless she relies on her friends’ assistance. Thanks to them, she does a great job, and when Heart’s mom shows up after the play with flowers, Heart reveals that she requested them not for herself but for her friends, because “I couldn’t have done it without your help.” Simplistic life lessons of that sort are the stock-in-trade of Steenz’ approach – and dialogue just that clichéd is central as well. There is nothing memorable about the way any of the characters talk – like their appearance, their language is interchangeable. Steenz misses an opportunity here: she has gone out of her way to make Heart of the City multiracial (an element that is de rigueur for “teachable moments” strips today), but everybody sounds exactly like everybody else, which need not have been the case.

     Steenz obviously wants Heart of the City to tackle some real-world issues, which Tatulli assiduously avoided. Thus, there is, for example, a very long series built around a teachers’ strike – a sequence in which Steenz obviously has more interest than she has in any mundane interactions of middle-school kids. But preachiness and banal simplification of real-world issues coexist poorly with any sense of middle-school fun and adventure. Steenz’ comic strip is on the dour side, clearly well-intentioned but lacking any sense of lightness, personality quirks, or playfulness. As she settles into her creative role, Steenz would do well to spend some time with the strips of Lincoln Peirce and Dana Simpson, who have long since achieved elements of fun that the new Heart of the City desperately needs.

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