Writer Kelly Thompson and artist Meredith McClaren do a fine job blurring the lines between “story” and “art” in their collaboration on “Heart in a Box.” The book opens in medias res with an action-packed murder scene that requires explanation, so naturally the story circles back to the beginning to deliver that in a mostly linear fashion. Instead of bouncing all around the theoretical timeline, though, Thompson and McClaren focus on recounting the events leading to and spinning out of the opening sequence.
Emma, the protagonist of “Heart in a Box,” holds the key to the story; Thompson presents the tale in a first person narrative, letting readers into Emma’s thoughts and ingratiating the character into the readers’ minds. What should be a fairly simple, procedural story of heartbreak and the long road to recovery becomes an action-adventure turned mystical thriller, peppered with all sorts of bizarre checkpoints.
The heavier (or more unusual) beats anchor the front end of the book and, by the time things settle down a bit, Thompson and McClaren have given the readers plenty of reasons to continue with Emma on her journey, despite some of the things she has done to get there. Emma collects a cast of characters who empower dialogue and assist the story’s flow, such as Bob, Brock, Harper, Mae and Xan, with some of those having a profound impact on the story and others receiving the ramifications of said impact. At no point does Emma become perfect, but that doesn’t keep her from experiencing organic growth in front of the reader. At the same time, Thompson and McClaren challenge the readers to consider their own decisions in the situations present in “Heart in a Box.”
The overly expressive caricatures that populate the pages cut the seriousness of the tale but amp up the emotion, with their eyes truly serving up the souls of each character and their emotional state. McClaren also uses a gorgeous range of color to accentuate emotions and transitions, as there is no story purpose to “natural” color in this book. Blues and purples, dingy rose and warm yellow bring just as much to the story as a character looking off-panel or their pupils opening wide with joy. McLaren appears to draw some influence from Danielle Corsetto and Sean Galloway, but clearly also has some manga in her wheelhouse. The end result is a lively, fun-looking book that packs a lot of emotion, most of which is broadcast through the collaboration which brings the panels to the page.
“Heart in a Box” serves up a complete story of heartbreak, recovery and the effects those have on the world. Like the butterfly wings of the chaos theory, one person’s acts — random, violent, kind, insincere or hearty — impact others and multiply in ways and directions that frequently defy description. Thompson and McClaren don’t deliver the secret to life, the universe and everything in “Heart in a Box,” but they do give readers a story packed with emotion, soul and jazz. The duo leaves enough possibilities to revisit Emma at some point in the future but, once the book is closed, “Heart in a Box” delivers a complete, satisfying tale.
Note: In an attempt for full transparency, Kelly Thompson is a current writer for CBR’s “Comics Should Be Good” blog and a former CBR reviewer.