I don’t think I’ve seen a better cover for a graphic novel or comic than Heart in a Box this year. We can all lie to ourselves and say that we don’t judge books by their cover, but I have bought many a bad comics based on their cover and missed just as many good comics because of theirs. I wanted to read Heart in a Box because of the cover, but the story inside kept me reading. The story uses one of the most over used devices in comics. It shows you something that’s going to happen later in the comic for it’s opening. It’s an easy way to get the audience excited about what they’re going to read because otherwise there would be a slow opening building to this moment. To effectively use this device, it needs to be a graphic novel because that gives the story enough time to build towards the scene and the reader enough time to forget the opening. It works here and so while the story device is played out and overused, it’s still very effective here.
The premise for the story is pretty brilliant. It’s brilliant in the way that Scott Pilgrim isn’t actually about fighting evil ex’s, but rather the emotional baggage that new relationships bring with them. Heart in a Box has a concept that has an obvious surface level story that can be taken for what it is, but then a deeper, thought provoking story to be found.
The surface level story follows Emma. A woman that’s been sulking for two weeks after a major breakup. Her roommate forces her to come out of her room and go out on the town with him and after some coercing she gives in. But all she feels is the pain still. Later she tires of the club and steps out for some air when a stranger startles her. Their interaction isn’t a normal one as he informs her that he appeared after she wished for her heart to be removed. He’s an angel of sorts and there to help with her wish by removing her heart and sending it out for distribution to others. After a bit Emma agrees and suddenly she’s a grey lump on the page. Her coloring fades away and it should be noted that this book is beautifully colored so it’s very noticeable.
For a while Emma is great because she doesn’t feel anything, but then she’s not great… because she doesn’t feel anything. Eventually she gives in a calls Bob, the name she gave the angel that took her heart, and asks him to give it back to her. Unfortunately for Emma, it’s not that simple. The twist and I feel I must tell you because it will make you instantly hooked on the book, is that she must place pieces of her heart back in a… box. She can do this by taking the heart out of someone physically or finding some way for them to give it back to her. This puts her on a journey across the country to track down pieces of her heart to become whole again.
There’s never the same method used twice to get the pieces of heart back. Each piece acts as its own chapter and is different. There’s a different journey and there’s something different for Emma to learn from each experience. Not to spoil what that is, but it’s a range. Writer Kelly Thompson takes the reader on a complex journey because humans are complex. The breakup may be the focus for Emma, but Thompson makes Emma deal with all of her issues whether she knows it or not. At the end of the day it’s a brilliant look at not so much finding yourself, but fixing yourself after a breakup. Because anyone that’s gone through a breakup knows that fixing yourself and being yourself after the end of a relationship is hard. When you pair with someone, part of your individual identity becomes blurred with theirs and when you’re divided you have to figure out what’s you and what’s them. Thompson understands this very well and has crafted a unique journey for the reader to follow.
Anyone that’s been asking for diversity in comics for the last few years’ better love and appreciate Meredith McClaren’s character designs. First of all, Emma is more than likely a woman of color. I don’t know her nationality and frankly it doesn’t matter. She also has a body shape that’s realistic. She’s not a model or a superhero, but rather a real woman with curves and body fat like the rest of us. She’s still beautiful and attractive. McClaren’s character designs in general are cool and different from most comics. The characters are modern looking which is just a rarity in comics.
If you like the coloring on the cover then you’re going to love McClaren’s work on the inside. Her coloring is some of the best I’ve ever seen and the coloring adds so much to this story. Not just the grey’d out Emma we see later on, but just the entire book. It adds to any mood set by the story from danger, to depression. All of it is on point, but even if you don’t pick up on the subtleties then you can appreciate how beautiful it is just at first glance. You’re likely to become a fan of McClaren’s artwork by the end of Heart in a Box, and that’s a good thing.
The concept of this story instantly hooked me, but the execution and maturity of the story is what made me dig in. Don’t take “maturity” the wrong way because the story has plenty of funny moments, but the fact that it could hide the maturity and still have it ring true shows how talented these storytellers are. Heart in a Box is 100% a story I would recommend to new readers, especially women. It’s a story and presentation that only works as a comic which only shows how amazing this medium can be. If you like complex and yet entertaining stories about relationships, then check out Heart in a Box.
Heart in a Box Writer: Kelly Thompson Artist: Meredith McClaren Publisher: Dark Horse Comics Price: $14.99 Release Date: 9/16/15 Format: OGN; Print/Digital