Warning: Contains spoilers!

Second Warning: You will cry.

Third Warning: I’m not messin’ around! For realsies, you’re going to cry like a baby and the unstoppable river flowing from your eyes will create a pristine lake of tears. Children will water ski in your tears while their mom watches from the shore and dad drinks a beer as he drives the boat!heartbox

Sure, I’m having a bit of fun with the emotional outpour that will result in reading Heart in a Box, but it comes from a place of truth. I tend to put a lot of distance between myself and the media I consume. I’ve been that way since I was a kid and it’s never really gone away. Don’t get me wrong, I connect with a lot of books, movies, television, etc. but the impact never feels as strong as that of others when they react to the same thing. Heart in a Box, written by Kelly Thompson (Jem and the Holograms, Captain Marvel & The Carol Corps) with art by Meredith McClaren (Hinges), did its best to pierce my comfort bubble and succeeded with flying colors. I laughed, I cried, I wanted to throw things – basically this book ran me through the emotional gamut and I’m all the happier for it. Thompson and McClaren never shy away from the heightened intensity that comes from affairs of the heart. Instead, they use a fantastical premise to facilitate an honest and, at times, brutal look at a young woman’s journey towards emotional maturity.

The plot goeth thusly: After an extremely harsh breakup, Emma, embittered and frustrated with the lingering feelings she has for her ex, wishes her heart away with the “help” of a mysterious stranger she calls Bob. Realizing she can’t live without her heart, Emma embarks upon a cross-country quest to regain the seven pieces needed to make her heart whole again.
hiab-page-3-panel-excerptAs lead characters go, Emma is a refreshingly honest look at the flawed female protagonist. It’s been coming up a lot more as new writers and artists inject comic books with characters devoid of decades worth of continuity but heavy on presence and personality. And thanks to Thompson’s superb grasp of voice and McClaren’s expressive art, Emma feels real. She’s by no means a terrible person, just emotionally immature, but as the story unfolds we learn the reasons behind Emma’s actions and we gain new insight about the wide spectrum of love through her journey. Emma’s struggle and eventual redemption act as metaphorical explorations of the many ways in which love is given and taken. Each interaction she has produces a different display of love, but those interactions also come with the added baggage of rage, regret, loneliness, and hope tied up in a knot of confusion and occasional clarity. Nothing is simply done or explained in Heart in a Box because the book’s greatest strength is in its complex and nuanced portrayal of people.

Whether it was intended or not, Heart in a Box has shades of the hero’s journey in its plot and structure. Emma’s call to adventure starts with her desire to put her heart back together. Bob, acting as mentor and helper, gives her the box that will mend her heart physically and each person or animal in possession of a piece presents a challenge or temptation. Emma’s turning point comes when she ends up as caretaker to a crotchety old man and, upon his death, digs up his grave to get her piece back (trust me, it makes sense in context). Her need to complete the quest drives her forward but it’s only after she receives her final gift from an unexpected source that she feels whole and healed again. It doesn’t match entirely, but the elements are definitely there.HIABOX_WM-108

As I said before, Kelly Thompson has an amazing gift for voice and character. Her sense of humor comes through repeatedly but it never steals the book away from the dramatic moments. Instead, Thompson finds a lovely balance between comedy and drama in just about every part of the book. Characters like Bob and Mr. Jamison, who would typically be used as comic foils for Emma in other works, do just as much heavy lifting within the narrative. Bob may be totally evil (possibly) but he’s often the only person she can talk to and he respects her emotional needs even if Emma isn’t aware of what she wants. Mr. Jamison, a bitter old man, isn’t just reduced to flinging insults at Emma. He has his own story to tell and how it reflects on Emma is brilliant storytelling on Thompson’s part. Seriously, from a character and narrative perspective, Emma and Mr. Jamison’s time together is the cornerstone of Heart in a Box.

Which brings us to Meredith McClaren and her beautiful illustrative work. Like Thompson, McClaren brings personality to the art, which is a necessity given the range of emotions Emma goes through. There’s an open quality to the art that deftly draws you in and holds your attention. The line work is simple, and by that I mean it isn’t busy or unnecessarily detailed. She knows exactly 20150915_202243how much to show so that we keep our focus on the characters and she really knows how to throw a punch to the gut when it comes to Emma’s state of mind. McClaren also handles coloring duty and it goes without saying that there is some fantastic color work happening in this book. Once Emma wishes her heart away, she becomes grey and flat but with each piece returned her coloring brightens a little more as she’s infused with more memories and feelings. When I talked with Kelly on the podcast, she was very open about how crucial the coloring was in conveying Emma’s emotional status in the story. She and McClaren went back and forth on the desaturation and their hard work shows. I’m an especially big fan of Emma’s fusion moments with the pieces of her heart. It’s so raw and I love how McClaren turns the memories into different forms depending on what she gets back. Also, I’m a sucker for a sweet tattoo on a character and Emma has one¬†awesome octopus tat!

So, if you’re looking for a good cry or just a nuanced and honest look at human emotion, go pick up Heart in a Box¬†at your local comic book store or go online through Amazon, comixology, or Dark Horse. It’s definitely worth your time.

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