Unearthing The Hollow Heart: A Conversation On Queerness

Bobby VV, Jessica Scott, and Rook Geary come together to discuss Vault’s acclaimed queer horror story in anticipation for the upcoming trade release!

Rook: Hollow Heart had a grip on me before I laid eyes on the first page. The cover of issue 1 is dominated by the main character’s skull-like face, shining eyes peering out from the dark. It’s unnerving, but at the same time, there’s a human emotion there. The more I looked at it, the sadder he seemed. And then, well, I read the premise, and realized that was the point. 

Bobby: It reminded me of Nemesis from Resident Evil. There’s this one image from the game I remember seeing where it was as if he was looking directly at me while holding a dead body. Not that I played the games, but I remember seeing that image and I think I felt that chill. That’s what I got with the main character, but instead of putting the book down, I wanted to see more. 

Jessica: I love how that chilling image draws you in, and then you realize that the terrifying monster on the cover is the most human character in the whole book.

Credit: Paul Allor/Paul Tucker (Vault Comics)

Bobby: I think what’s interesting about Hollow Heart is how it appeared to be a horror book and I feel like with such an image, I was expecting that, but when I see that face, there’s a tenderness to it. 

Jessica: EL’s characterization is incredible. The book achieves so much emotion with just a slight change to their mouth or a different level of light in their eyes. Some of my favorite horror stories are tragedies, and this book was much more emotionally affecting than I expected. 

Bobby: I agree. There’s a vulnerability to them. EL’s face resembles a skull and I feel like with such imagery, I was expecting to stare into nothingness when it came to his eyes. 

Jessica: I think that’s part of the point. Most of the people at the research facility look into their eyes and they see nothing. But it’s not because EL lacks humanity; it’s them who lack it. What you see has less to do with what you’re looking at than with the person who is doing the looking. 

Credit: Paul Allor/Paul Tucker (Vault Comics)

Bobby: Thinking about the above image, I find it interesting that despite looking, well, not human, El is probably one of the most human characters. They are self-conscious about their voice, and Allor’s lettering uses that “robotic” (if that’s the right word) voice of theirs to imbue them with the sentience of a human.

Rook: Absolutely. Hating that their voice is so crudely synthetic is a very humanizing moment. It’s also a very tangible way of showing how trapped they feel — for obvious reasons, yeah, but even if they escape their current confinement, their voice is still going to sound wrong to them; it’s one more bar in the prison that holds them. That strikes me as a very deliberate choice to highlight some of the book’s queer themes.

Jessica: Feeling claustrophobic in your own body or trapped in a very small, confined — and misunderstood — identity is a smart way to introduce queer elements to a character who reads to other characters as incapable of love or desire, which in itself is a problem that queer people face from others at times, so it’s doubly meaningful, I think. 

Bobby: I think it’s very interesting how it can be applied to a wide variety of situations. For me, that was dealing with the fact that I lived in an environment where “queerness” was something out of the realm of what is considered “normal.” It’s something that I think every queer individual struggles with as they grow up in a world where they realise that they are operating outside a certain convention. That was how it felt when I realised my bisexuality as a teenager before I went back into the closet thanks to being dismissed until recently. It’s almost akin to the situation with EL, where they tries to escape their prison, but they end up back in square one.

Rook: Yeah, I feel you. Hell, I was in a pretty supportive environment in general, but a lifetime of believing I was one way made me doubt I was bisexual for years before seriously considering it. Every time I felt like I was getting closer to accepting that, some societal obligation or thing I thought I was expected to do kept me stuck. 

Jessica: Exactly, just like EL says that they didn’t even realize there was this whole world of emotions and sensations they were capable of feeling or allowed to feel, compulsory heterosexuality limits your field of vision regardless of what your inner self is telling you. 

Credit: Paul Allor/Paul Tucker (Vault Comics)

Rook: Well said. And I think it’s interesting that EL sees this as something that was deliberately kept from them, while Mateo is a little more generous and believes that it was simply that it didn’t occur to people to do better by them. I personally feel like the truth is somewhere in the middle, where people didn’t open themselves to the possibility that EL deserved better because showing empathy to them would reveal some things they couldn’t stand about themselves. 

Jessica: It’s much easier not to care or think about someone’s rights or feelings when the Other is a monster or not quite human. It allows you to think of yourself as a good person even while you’re doing horrible things, because you’re not doing it to someone you think of as being of equal humanity. This book is terrifying and heartbreaking, but not because of the image that drew us all in and appeared to promise a spooky story about that eerie skeleton on the cover. Seeing what these people did to EL — even Mateo, who said he loved them! — is really going to stay with me for a while. 

Rook: Same here. Something that I thought was particularly affecting was how Allor and Tucker took the time to humanize all of these horrible people, adding details of their personal lives, their families, their losses, their children. They had all of these things binding them to humanity but chose to block themselves off from empathy at work. 

Bobby: I don’t think I was expecting that humanisation. Everyone’s got their own prison in a way and I think that prevents them from understanding someone like EL. It leads them to put other people in prisons, whether metaphorical or literal. In the case of the former, I think it could apply to their personal lives, whereas with the latter, we see that with what they do to EL. And I think that prison prevents them from connecting towards others and trying to, if it’s the right word, to empathize.

Jessica: I agree completely, and I found it very interesting that every character is queer, not just the most sympathetic ones. It gives a lot more depth and nuance to the story, and it shows that — whether we’re discussing queer issues like internalized homophobia or other forms of bigotry or just human nature and cruelty — everyone is susceptible to this Othering or this lack of empathy, so we need to examine that within ourselves lest we end up in our own prisons. 

Bobby: In a way, I can understand it. I think there’s definitely something to be said about how even folks like us can do the Othering. Part of me does wonder if this is a consequence of living in a system where our opportunities to understand can be manipulated. In this case, most of the people holding EL captive in the facility happen to be queer and a part of me wonders if it’s because they’re led to believe, or maybe taught to believe that EL is a “test subject” as opposed to a person, regardless of how EL was made. 

Credit: Paul Allor/Paul Tucker (Vault Comics)

Rook: I think that’s a convenient enough excuse for them to shield themselves from the realities of what they’re doing to EL. The label of “test subject” is just the latest in the long line of convenient words that let people call others subhuman. It’s really easy for people to fall into the trap of thinking that the group they identify with simply can’t be that bad, that they can’t make the same horrible mistakes as others have — people have been saying “it’ll all be better when those old racists in charge die off” since the baby boomers were young, and look at how that worked out for them. Now they’re the cohort in charge, and things aren’t exactly sunshine and rainbows, because that narrative was always too simple for reality. We’re all human. We all have the same potential to care, or to smother our emotions.

Credit: Paul Allor/Paul Tucker (Vault Comics)

Bobby: Even if we could make ourselves think that we can care, I think the book shows that it’s not enough. I remember thinking about Mateo and how for me, he represents that escape from the prison. He’s kind to EL and he tries to make their life easier. They talk about escaping together but then I read the scene where the narrator talks about how he has an ability to understand people’s feelings on an intellectual level; and yet he “couldn’t truly feel it.”

Credit: Paul Allor/Paul Tucker (Vault Comics)

Jessica: I found the narration so fascinating, especially the ostensibly unrelated stories that carried so much meaning through each issue. 

Bobby: Initially, I was under the assumption that it was a third-person narrator until the ending and I think in a way, each of the stories make sense, at least with what we’re seeing in the book. I do wonder if the stories are a part of EL’s consciousness and their idea of Mateo is someone they envision him to be as opposed to who he really is.

Credit: Paul Allor/Paul Tucker (Vault Comics)

Jessica: Yes I don’t think either EL or Mateo really saw each other for who they really were. It’s a good depiction of a relationship where each person has different goals and a different idea of what the relationship is, and how horribly wrong that can go, even if the real-life examples aren’t quite as extreme as this one. The emotional damage can still be quite significant. 

Bobby: I think in reality, it’s the idea of loving that idea of a person and finding out that they aren’t what you see them to be. In Hollow Heart, it’s probably “literalised” with both EL and Mateo. Heck, I might as well say that even with someone like Holly, who has a family. You start with the ideal of a relationship, but you carry on with that ideal and it can damage you and the person you’re involved with. 

Credit: Paul Allor/Paul Tucker (Vault Comics)

Jessica: Holly was one of the most intriguing characters to me. She has what society often tells us is the dream: a wife and a child. But she knows nothing about them, because all her time and energy is devoted to her job. It’s a job that to us seems to be quite evil, but to her it seems to be a calling; a higher purpose. I keep thinking about her wife screaming at her in the street, asking her who she is. Do people change, or do we slowly realize that they were never the people we thought they were? Or is the answer somewhere in the middle?

Credit: Paul Allor/Paul Tucker (Vault Comics)

Rook: Great points about Holly. I personally feel like the answer is in that murky middle ground, because few things about the human psyche fit into neat boxes. I feel like the text supports that to a certain extent, but lets the reader draw their own conclusions as it presents these snapshots of the personal lives of the people involved in maintaining EL’s hell. They’re all ambiguous, caught between a history we barely glimpse and a future we can’t know. The voice of the comic is also…I don’t want to say free of judgement, because it straightforwardly presents evil things the facility does to EL as evil, but it’s more concerned with giving you an honest and revealing view of these characters rather than sussing out who’s the worst and why. That’s such an unusual perspective, but I really appreciate it. It leaves the reader free to wrestle with and figure out their feelings on each person, from Mateo to Holly.

Bobby: I think Allor’s style of presenting events is meant to make us ponder on what we make of the overall situation. And I think introducing some of the nuances that each of the characters have helps in that means things get more complicated. Holly is someone with a wife and a kid. I know that she probably seems to see this as what Jessica said was a higher purpose, but on the other hand, I also do wonder if she’s doing this out of a need to put money on the table? I could say that for the other characters as well, such as the guard for example. All of that does make me wonder if part of the reason why events are presented in a certain manner might be because of the system, by which I mean the system that informs society. It’s the system that creates a situation like the facility with EL. Now I don’t know if that is clear, but that’s what I got from reading the book. Because I was thinking about how science can be abused by those in the system who have power and I wonder if that is indeed the case with this story. 

Rook: I think all of the characters feel the weight of that system pressing down on them, directly or indirectly. Regardless of whether Holly is doing this for a “higher purpose” or for fame or just to put cash on the table, those things are all incentivized by the society we live in. 

Monstrous things get excused in the face of those priorities all the time, and I feel the people in this story illustrate a lot of perspectives on that. They’re making Frankenstein’s goddamn monster; something clearly beyond the pale in our world. But horrors like separating immigrant children from their families have become regular occurrences here, and people got used to it. Some terrible things become invisible, acceptable, and so many of the characters here let that happen because their jobs necessitate it. That’s not an accident on the creative team’s part.

Jessica: Absolutely. When you just think of yourself as a small cog in the wheel, as a capitalist society encourages you to see yourself, it’s easy to ignore or get used to awful things because either you’re not pulling the lever yourself or you’re only pulling the lever on someone else’s orders. Personal responsibility gets diffused throughout “the system,” and we can all think of ourselves as good people working through a bad situation. It encourages complacency, which becomes the death of morality. The detached narrator emphasizes that. 

Bobby: I think it should be noted that all of these characters, or at least most of them are queer, which I think puts forth the idea that nobody is really safe from dealing with a capitalist society. Which is what makes it really interesting when I see EL try to break out of that mold. They’re not human. They were created and I think there’s something to be said about how unlike a human who is complacent, EL wants none of that; escape is the only option for them, and that’s through Mateo, the one human who seems to care for EL, but as mentioned, has his own plans. In a way, I guess EL is being imprisoned by Mateo, who seems to symbolise that sort of compassion that some believe can co-exist alongside something as ruthless as capitalism. And tragically, EL can’t escape that. 

Credit: Paul Allor/Paul Tucker (Vault Comics)

Rook: I think every character in this story is presented as a kind of monster, in a way. Even somebody as benevolent as Mateo, willing to repeatedly injure himself in an attempt to understand a kind of pain that only EL can feel, is well past the parameters of what’s typically considered normal human behavior. And despite his compassion and understanding towards EL, he still makes some monstrous decisions because he can only see the lesser evil as a real option. The system limits everyone’s choices, until they feel like being a monster is the only choice they have.

Credit: Paul Allor/Paul Tucker (Vault Comics)

To me, Hollow Heart is about coming to understand monsters, and the pain that makes and perpetuates them. 

Hollow Heart’s trade paperback, which collects all of the five issues that comprise its story, will be released by Vault Comics on the 19th of October. Be sure to pre-order your copy as soon as possible!

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