"Meat-eating orchids forgive no one just yet; cut myself on angel's hair and baby's breath"
I've been hearing about Heart in a Box for a few years now, as it has wound its way through the vagaries of the publishing business. The story of how any comic gets published is fascinating, and Heart in a Box has been in the pipeline for a while. Fellow Comics Should Be Good blogger Kelly Thompson, who wrote this sucker, told me a bit about its journey, and I've met artist Meredith McClaren on several occasions going back a while (she lives in Phoenix), so I would ask her about it when I saw her.
Needless to say, I was very keen to read it. It won't be out until September, but Kelly sent me the entire thing digitally (and I hope she won't mind if I switch to "reviewer mode" and start calling her by her last name now). You can get the complete adventure at Dark Horse, where it's something like 6 bucks. That's not bad at all!
I'm really struggling to figure out how to write about this comic, because it's brilliant - so far, it's one of the two or three best comics I've read this year. You might think that would make it easier to review, but I don't want to give too much away, because it's such a cool experience to follow along with the story. The story itself is easy to summarize - a young lady, Emma, has had her heart broken, so when she wishes that she didn't have a heart, a well-dressed dude appears and offers to take it off her hands. She takes him up on the offer but realizes pretty quickly that it was a pretty dumb idea, whereupon he shows up again (he left her his card) and tells her that to get it back, she has to find all the pieces of it (they've been distributed to others) and put them in a box. Problem solved! So the book is about Emma trying to find all the pieces of her heart. The well-dressed dude (Emma names him "Bob" because he doesn't actually have a name) gives her one piece back, which allows her to feel where the others are, and off she goes.
The plot, as I noted, is simple enough, but what Thompson does with it is phenomenal.
It's easy to look at it and think, "Well, it's a metaphor," and of course it is, but that's too easy a reading. We get both a literal telling and a figurative one, and both are compelling. The book begins with a jolt, as Emma is getting beaten up by a guy whom she manages to kill with an axe. It's always good to get your story off to a rousing start, and the protagonist hacking some dude up is pretty rousing. There's nothing figurative about it - she really does plant an axe in some dude's neck, and everything she does in the story is like that - it's happening to "real" people (yes, I get that none of the people actually exist, as it's a work of fiction), and there are consequences. She quite literally loses her heart, but because this is also an allegory, she can survive without it, as her "heart" is, of course, different from the organ that pumps blood through her body. There's absolutely nothing unique about this metaphor - when Once Upon a Time uses it, you can be sure it's not unique! - but that's okay, because the reader accepts the metaphor easily. Thompson doesn't waste time showing that Emma misses her heart, either, which she might have done. In one page, Emma realizes she's made a terrible mistake, so we can dispense with that. But having a heart and using it "correctly" are two different things, and that's what Emma has to learn. She has to see both the ways people abuse what their heart gives them and the ways that people can elevate themselves and others by using what their heart gives them. She sees the depths of depravity that comes when people don't know how to live with their hearts, and she herself uses the feelings of others against them, quite cruelly, to regain pieces of hers (Bob tells her that the people who have her pieces have to be willingly wished back to her without her explaining what she's doing, or she can cut the pieces out - again, literally, which leads back to the bad dude at the beginning of the book).
Thompson deals with complicated emotions and ideas in the comic - Emma is perfectly willing to kill a bad dude for one piece of her heart, but she's unwilling to kill others. However, she has no problem with other, more emotionally crippling plans, and one wonders if the evil dude in the beginning got off easy. As she moves throughout the country, meeting the other people who have pieces of her heart, Thompson presents her with devastating choices, and it's not always clear that she makes the correct ones. Even as she learns more empathy from an old recluse for whom she becomes a surrogate daughter for a time (trying to get on his good side so he'll wish his piece of her heart back to her, which seems to break the one rule Bob gives her, that she can't tell people what she's doing), she turns around and acts cruelly to the next person she meets, even though it almost breaks her heart again. Emma is complicated, and Thompson makes us care about her even when we see that what she's doing is going to be a train wreck.
There's so much more going on, too, which is why it's so hard to write about this. Emma has family issues, romance issues, trust issues, and they're all wrapped up together and she needs to work through them.
What's astonishing is how dense the book is - it's 160 pages or so, but Thompson doesn't give short shrift to anything. Emma's encounter with Mae is as wonderfully done as her sojourn with Brian, the old man. Her amazement at where the final piece of the heart is as real as her amazement at what happens with Pete. Everything feels real, from her conversation with Brian's estranged daughter and what comes from it to her reaction to seeing the ex who dumped her and the brutal honesty of their conversation. Emma causes pain and is caused to hurt, and it's amazing how well all of the encounters are presented. Thompson is quite good at dialogue, and it all rings very true here, from the funny parts (Emma's initial conversation with Pete) to the painful parts (Emma's scheming with Mae). It's breathtaking how much Thompson packs into this comic, yet she never hits a false note.
I've been a fan of McClaren's for several years now, and I've enjoyed chatting with her at several conventions and Free Comic Book Day events in the Basin. Her art on Heart in a Box is stupendous, the best I've ever seen from her, and it makes me excited to see what her art on Hopeless Savages will look like. She's always been a fan of big, expressive eyes, and while that slight manga influence is still in her work, she's evolved beyond it and is doing amazing things with figures and settings.
Emma is a wonderfully designed character, with the biggest eyes in the book, which is fitting because she's the protagonist, and McClaren does terrific things with her many expressions. Emma needs to be a fully functioning human being - she has moments of sadness, happiness, sarcasm, anger, goofiness, gratefulness, and straight-up love, and McClaren never misses a beat with her. Thompson's script is wonderful, but it's also heavy on dialogue, and the moments of narration aren't too introspective, mainly surface stuff (this is not a criticism, as Emma's self-reflective narration is often very funny and insightful without being too long-winded). So McClaren picks up the deeper swirling emotions that roil our heroine as she navigates this tumultuous time in her life, and she does it excellently. Her conversations with Brian and Pete are beautifully drawn, as we see all the conflicting thoughts running through her head as she tries to figure out what to do. When she finds her ex-boyfriend, the words are terrific, but McClaren gets at the deep pain it's causing her just to see him and struggle through what she has to say. McClaren creates interesting characters, too - everyone has regular body shapes, and Emma goes through the book with half of her head shaved because she was going to shave the entire thing before her best friend stopped her. Obviously, she looks cool as fuck with the lower half of her head shaved, but McClaren still makes the top half a glorious mess, because she doesn't have time to style it, man! After the initial axing, there's not a ton of action in the book, but McClaren's fluid style is well suited for movement, so it all looks quite nice. She has some very neat double-page spreads, too, in which Thompson steps back and McClaren tells the story of time passing with a bunch of small, perfectly done panels. When Emma regains a piece of her heart, McClaren does some amazing work, with all sorts of pastel swirls that contain small memories of Emma's life - she doesn't focus on them, just gives us enough visual information so we can infer the rest. McClaren colors the book, too, and it's simply astounding. She changes the main palette whenever Emma moves to a different city, so the gray tinged with nauseating pinks and blues of the sex club where Emma finds the first piece of her heart is contrasted nicely with the orange and yellow palette of Phoenix, which gives way to duller browns in Kansas.
McClaren colors the heartless Emma a dingy gray, which makes the change when she gets back pieces interesting, as she regains her "actual" color slowly. The memories, as I noted, are in a different tone from the main story - they're more pastel, and they're a bit gauzy, setting them apart from "reality" and taking us a bit further into the realm of metaphor. This is amazing artwork, and it's nice to see it matched with such a great story.
I know that Kelly writes for the blog and I consider her a friend (even though we've never met in person, which better change next year because she better go to a West Coast convention like, say, Emerald City!), so I'm always a bit worried that my objectivity is compromised a bit when I read her comics. I hope not, but you can decide for yourself. Maybe if she writes a shitty comic, I can see what happens, but this is not that comic! Heart in a Box is stunning, and I really can't recommend it enough. I just don't know if I am able to get at the amazing depth and emotion in this comic with this review, because there's so much going on. As I noted, you can read it on-line right now, or you can wait until September (it's supposed to be out on the 16th) to get the printed version. You can pre-order it on Amazon and other on-line booksellers if you want the print version. You really should read it!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
[Edit: Kelly sent me some hi-res scans, so I replaced the ones I used. This looks a lot better on the screen, so I hope it gives you a better idea of what the art looks like.]