It was nearly two years ago that I felt my heart rip out of my chest and get kicked around a hardwood floor. And it’s taken just as long to recover from it. To get to a place where I feel separated enough from it that I don’t feel like I’m getting dragged back in and getting clutched out.
I’ve had plenty of comics and other media help me get here during that time, but I haven’t seen one speak to that journey the way Heart in a Box by Kelly Thompson and Meredith McClaren does.I’ve reviewed Thompson’s work before with Jem and the Holograms, which does maintain a lot of that playful banter that exists in Heart in a Box. However, Heart in a Box is a lot more blunt. It is a book about heartbreak and recovering from it, after all.
The story follows Emma, a young woman from Los Angeles recovering from a breakup with A Man Who Will Not Be Named. Emma has been having a rough time of it, to the point she wishes her heart away. That’s when a mysterious person she calls Bob comes to her and grants her wish. The problem is that not having a heart makes doing other things not related to romantic love kind of hard. Emma asks for it back, but Bob tells her that he only has a small part of it and that she needs to seek out the other six parts in order to be whole again.
This is where it turns into a little bit of a supernatural road trip.
The thing about the way Thompson writes Emma is that she’s not always particularly “likeable.” She’s self-destructive, abrasive, and is not particularly good at handling her problems in sensible way. However, that’s what makes her so intimately relatable. Heartbreak and loss are messy and bring out the worst in people. Emma is at her worst and her journey is one about finding parts of herself that she lost, both figuratively and literally.
McClaren’s art is also a huge crux of this story. Her style is what a lot of readers would label “cartoony,” but she is easily one of the most expressive artists I have seen in a while. Every scene with Emma, you know exactly what’s going through her mind without saying a word just from the look on her face or the way she’s standing. I’ve had those emotions. I’ve had those looks. Not to mention the way she draws and colors the moments when pieces of Emma’s heart returns to her. I never knew that particular rush of feeling and emotion could be drawn out, but McClaren did it.
Really though, my favorite part of McClaren’s art is watching the color slowly return to Emma as she regains pieces of her heart. Even in the more ethereal moments, it feels like watching the slow process of someone’s life coming back together.
By the end, you’re spent and hopeful. Heart in a Box is an exhausting and beautiful book that might just be the most accurate portrayal of recovering from heartbreak that I have ever read. Granted, I’ve never killed any brothel owners or gone on whirlwind cross country road trips to get my heart back (though does driving to Florida to see NXT count?), but Thompson and McClaren approach the subject in such a real way that I’m surprised I’ve never seen it done like this before. It’s messy, it’s depressing, and it’s fucking beautiful.