Heart in a Box cover, words by Kelly Thompson, art by Meredith McClaren, Dark Horse Books, 2015Heart in a Box

Kelly Thompson (words), Meredith McClaren (art)
Dark Horse Books
September 16, 2015
Disclaimer: This review may contain spoilers and is based on an advanced review copy from Dark Horse Books.

Heart in a Box is a brand new graphic novel written by Kelly Thompson (Jem & the Holograms, Captain Marvel & and the Carol Corps) and illustrated by Meredith McClaren (Hinges, Hopeless Savages). As a big fan of Thompson’s work on Jem and Carol Corps, and her comics commentary on CBR, I jumped at the chance to review her latest graphic novel. A word of warning – this graphic novel involves feels.

Heart in a Box follows a young woman named Emma Elliot trying to track down pieces of her heart after making a deal with a David Bowie wannabe to get rid of her heart. What prompts her to do this? A really bad break-up, duh.

The premise is not unfamiliar. We know how it is going to go down when Emma gets rid of her heart based on our familiarity with “be careful what you wish for.” In fact, Emma probably does, too, at least a little, but we are all a little stupid when heartbroken, no? Fortunately, Thompson knows that we know this and makes some smart writing decisions that focus on Emma’s character development and the reader’s journey with her.

The story jumps right in media res with Emma in a brutal fight, similar to Fraction and Aja’s game-changing run on Hawkeye. The fight ultimately culminates in Emma committing murder. Details are revealed mid-story, but it makes for an opening that immediately pulls you in. Additionally, McClaren’s art is highly expressive and perfect for such an opener.

Heart in a Box, words by Kelly Thompson, art by Meredith McClaren, Dark Horse Books, 2015

Following this scene, the reader learns how Emma got into this situation in the first place. Once she gets her wish to not have a heart, there’s no drawn out representation of this. Instead, this part is conveyed with minimal text and Emma rendered in tones of grey against vivid backdrops, before we jump right into Emma’s “call to action” to get her heart back with each chapter devoted to finding all seven pieces of her heart. 

I emphasize the familiarity of the plotline not as a critique of Thompson’s writing, but to emphasize the writing decisions that Thompson makes. She takes a familiar premise and infuses it with feminist themes that take precedent over the premise and logistics of the plot point. For example, the name of Emma’s ex is unspoken or deliberately marked out—because as the reader learns along with Emma—the story is not about him, it’s about Emma. This focus on Emma enables the story to be what it is and should be about feeeeels.

A slice of life story with magical realism, Heart in a Box is smart storytelling, but it’s also just so very raw. Like real raw. There’s this whole thing with a cat, and at one point the story is set-up as though Emma will have to kill the cat, and if that happened I was never, ever going to forgive Kelly Thompson. And there’s the super cute guy whose heart Emma has to break, and it’s a lot. (Admittedly, I am not so good at the feels.) Thus, the familiarity of the premise allows for the focus on Emma’s grief and healing, which is heightened by McClaren’s expressive, cartoony characters.

At some points, this rawness overwhelms other aspects of the story. For example, the David Bowie wannabe, or “Bob” as Emma decides to call him, is a mysterious character who speaks in terms of his magic like a call center job. He is the poor, unfortunate schmuck in the “Acquisitions” department who has to ask, “Did you try restarting it?” Bob has little knowledge of how the other side of his job, “distribution,” works which leaves several unanswered questions. I found myself more than once confused, and even annoyed, wondering how these individuals that Emma tracks down acquired pieces of her heart—to the point that my confusion overshadowed the actual story. Honestly, the distribution isn’t the point of the story because again, the focus is on Emma, but sometimes this elision of magical mechanics felt more unfinished than deliberate.

Regardless, by the end, Emma is healing and beginning to feel empowered and emancipated from her heartbreak. She begins to see through her grief in a way that is very familiar to many people who have suffered heartbreak, but that’s what makes the story so raw even when Emma makes painfully stupid decisions.

Come to think of it, this would be a great gift for a friend going through a breakup.