Heart in a Box offers up an intense emotional journey, but ends up sacrificing too much of the fundamentals along the way.
The concept behind the graphic novel, from current Jem & The Holograms writer Kelly Thompson and artist Meredith McClaren (Hinges) is certainly intriguing and effective. The protagonist Emma tries to liberate herself from the suicidal depression she’s fallen into after the break up of her last relationship by letting a mysterious man take her heart and redistribute the pieces to people who need it. When she realizes, belatedly that she’s effectively lost her humanity and needs it back, the man, who she calls Bob, sends her on a cross country journey to retrieve the pieces and put them in the box he provides so that she can re-absorb them into her.
The most frustrating decision the book makes is to constantly shrug off every opportunity to engage with the world that it takes place in. Whenever Emma asks Bob how any of it works, how people get the pieces of other people’s hearts and how they’re distributed he claims ignorance, telling her it isn’t his department. Even if it worked for the character, which it doesn’t because it effectively moots much of his presence, it leaves gaping holes in the overall story. Without knowing how and why any of the people, including a cat, got the pieces, they have no real presence other than as obstacles for Emma to overcome. There’s no drama, no question of whether they might need those pieces or be better off with them than Emma is. As flawed as Scott Pilgrim vs the World was, there was at least a sense of who the exes were and how they fit into the structure of the story beyond being a barrier between Scott and Ramona.
The other problem is that there’s just too much left incomplete or unsaid. We don’t, really, ever find out who Emma is aside from someone who moved across the country after a disastrous break up and had a difficult childhood. The reader is never left with any kind of sense of who she is. What her interests are, what her job was, or why her roommate would let her steal his credit card and run up fifty thousand dollars in debt while in the earliest days of recovery from what he described as “suicidal depression.” The oddest of the missing pieces to me is that there’s little to no follow up to Emma killing the first person she has to get a piece of her heart back from, which is where the story starts.
It’s an incredibly odd choice to start her journey by lodging an axe in someone’s neck when the story only de-escalates from there and it’s further compounded by how the sequence conflates the legitimate fetish community with exploitation and human trafficking. She presumably doesn’t really engage with the fact of having killed someone other than screaming at Bob because she only has a fraction of her heart left at that point in the story, but it -and the fact she has a dozen extra hearts absorbed into her body- never really get dealt with. She just sort of pinballs around from piece to piece, occasionally reminding herself that she did it at particularly self deprecating moments.
The only more dissonant moment is the climax of the story, when Emma discovers that her ex’s new girlfriend has the last piece of her heart. After a confrontation with him and a refusal to forgive him for his cheating or be friends when she just wants to get on with her life, the story seems to become bored of itself and it’s rules as Emma just straight up tells her ex to repeat the phrase that will get her the piece back. After committing a murder, digging up a dead body, and even seducing someone over a period of weeks to get the other pieces back, it devalues the whole enterprise for her to simply hold her hand out and ask for the last piece.
Thompson is a writer, through her work both here and on Jem & The Holograms, who has a great deal of energy, a gift for snappy dialogue, and a keen interest in emotional journeys, but has to really discipline herself in interrogating her ideas and engaging with them fully. Heart in a Box had all the ingredients it needed to be a great comic within the premise alone, but actively refused to investigate any of that potential. There’s at least a dozen moments throughout where Thompson and her editor should have stepped back and asked “Why?” and didn’t.
What clearly drives the story and makes of it what it can is McClaren’s artwork. Her kinetic, exaggerated figures and bold color choices are a strange contrast to the frequently lethargic plotting that make it seem almost frenetic at times. There’s no middle ground for McClaren’s figures, they’re either seemingly gawking in a wide eyed stare or squinting at all times with little room in between. It’s an effect that starts to get tiresome with Emma, as she seems to ricochet between staring or squinting in disbelief at every new turn of events. “Bob,” on the other hand, seems to have as much of a hard time keeping his eyes open when he’s on panel as I generally did.
McClaren’s clearest strength is her coloring as she’s able to draw on a broad range of colors and palettes, adapting them perfectly to whatever the scene demands from the black light aesthetic of a fetish club to the drab, creaky home of an ailing old hermit. She also carefully adjusts the hues within a panel to focus the action and the flow where it needs to go while remaining subtle and keeping unity across a page. She’s incredibly meticulous in her color choices, distinguishing her as a creator to watch in that aspect of her work.
Heart in a Box is, sadly, an underachiever. It’s a comic that finds itself so enamored with the idea of a forest that it forgets the individual trees. Thompson remains a promising new voice in comics, she just has to dig beneath the surface to fully realize the potential her work is clearly brimming with.
Written by Kelly Thompson
Drawn by Meredith McClaren
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Emma Houxbois is a fiercely queer trans woman from the wilds of Canada, most recently spotted in the Pacific Northwest. She is a two time IWC Women’s World Champion and has written about comics for the web since 2005 for sites including Playboy, Bitch Media, and Graphic Policy.