GRAPHIC NOVEL REVIEW: Heart In A Box by Kelly Thompson (illustrated by Meredith McClaren)

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The phrase ‘careful what you wish for’ gets kicked around a lot these days, without much thought for it actually means. It just something we say to people who’re behaving obnoxiously and irresponsibly, but for me the phrase has a much deeper moral meaning. One that says: the fault is in the want, the desire. Getting and wanting are both as bad as each other. Should you ever acquire your dream you will quickly discover that it does not feel anywhere near as good as the dream itself.  In other words: the wrong is in the wish. Or, to quote Coldplay: ‘When you get what you want, but not what you need.

‘Heart in a Box’ is a story about wanting and getting. A story that seems playful and boisterous on the surface but hides a sharpness underneath, like a kitten unaware of its own claws. It’s a story about love in its many forms, the wisdom of poor choices and the long road home from heartbreak.  

Emma Elliot has suffered a bad breakup. So bad she can’t bring herself to leave the safety of her room (or even her duvet) in her Los Angeles apartment. When she eventually does she finds herself lingering in a side alley outside a nightclub hating the world in general and herself in particular. In the absolute depths of her misery she ‘wishes her heart away’. 

Now, enter Bob. Bob is the demonic-yet-dapper Mephistopheles of this story. He arrives with the devilish line: 

‘you got a light, luv?’

and proceeds to lament that he may be the last in Los Angeles. The last what? We can’t help but ask: demon or angel? Is Bob good or bad? It’s a question that repeats itself throughout the narrative.

His offer to Emma is simple: her heart, in exchange for absence of feeling. He can take her pain away, if that’s what she really wants. Well, it takes her less than two panels to decide that yes, it is. Then, with a final ‘Fuck it’ she wishes. And everything goes grey… 

This isn’t really the start of the story, it’s just the build-up. The catalyst comes after five pages of empty emotion.  Turns out life without a heart isn’t life at all. 

‘It’s not freaking rocket science. You need that heart. You need it for lots of stuff, broken or not.’

And here is where the story proper begins. As she summons Bob and demands her heart back, she learns that he no longer has it. It’s been turned into pieces and scattered to others. The mechanics behind heart-swapping are never quite explained, but as Bob puts it:

‘not much to understand. You wouldn’t believe the shortage of hearts out there. People are in need’

Whatever the logic, Emma is now on a mission to track down the rest of her heart. It’s an adventure that takes her across the continent (I have to ask, why was her heart scattered only to Americans? Is there an export embargo we’re not aware of?), and sees her axing mafia bosses, decking bartenders, adopting cats, robbing graves, and finally, reconnecting with long lost loved ones.

All in all, it’s a brilliantly done graphic novel. A sort of mash up of the classic American road trip and Dr Faustus, with quite a lot of humour and a fair amount of action. Mostly the writing is seamless. Perhaps a few juddery moments in the dialogue or the story lore, but nothing worth kicking it out of bed. The manga-style artwork is fresh and interesting, with a sweet minimalist touch. The panelling is spacious and colourful. The words and pictures go together fluidly. You get the sense that artist and writer are working in complete synergy.  Together they invite the reader into a complex world of nuance and meaning, without demanding too much.  

The narrative is divided roughly into six chapters, each one focusing on a different ‘piece’. This gives it a pleasant structure and a sense of progress and trepidation as we approach the inevitable reunion with the original cause of Emma’s pain: the ‘man with no name’. 

Obviously because it’s a road trip, we spend a substantial chunk of time in the car with Emma as she drives from one adventure to the next. This is one of the things that I found really enjoyable and really rare among graphic novels: the presence, and focus, on quiet time. 

Too often comics are all about the BOOM, CRASH-BANG-WALLOP!!! without any breathing space at all. Well I got news for you, lads: that’s not a story. It’s just violence dressed up as drama. Real story, real drama, has a focus on feeling rather than action. Its high points are also quiet points. Its stillness is reinforced with real sensation. It’s a trick not easily pulled off, to make silence exciting.

One of the reasons why I think ‘Heart in a Box’ succeeds in this task is because it’s made entirely by women. It’s one of the very few all-female graphic novels I’ve come across, and it really shows. This may be a contentious thing to say, but stories have genders. There are he-stories and she-stories. This little piece of gorgeousness is a ‘she-story’, and we desperately need more of them, especially in this medium.

For too long comics have been an abode of the boys, who apparently have nothing better to do than draw big breasted maidens being rescued by heroes with endless abs. Like I say, that’s not a story, it’s just the masturbation of fragile male egos. Well, luckily those days are dead and dying. Grow up, boys. Real stories have real people in them. 

Look at Emma, for instance. She is without doubt the thing I love most about this comic. She’s not a caricature of femininity, or an object to be saved or conquered. She is a woman. There is a realness to her, with her slight chub and her enigmatic tattoos. She has the perfect balance of self-deprecation and sass. 

‘I am the ass of the universe. I am a wart on the ass of the universe’

Actually, she has quite a lot of sass. But who doesn’t love sass? And a filthy mouth? And she’s messy. Wonderfully, refreshingly messy. ‘Heart in a Box’ is a great graphic novel, sure. The story is strong and the art is beautiful. But Emma Elliot is what really makes it exceptional. We need more like her. 

Read it, you’ll see what I mean. 

Heart in a Box is published by Dark Horse Comics and available here.

Kelly Thompson

Kelly’s ambitions are eclipsed only by her desire to exist entirely in pajamas. Fortunately pajamas and writers go hand in hand (most of the time).

Kelly has a fancy degree in Sequential Art from The Savannah College of Art & Design and has published two novels – THE GIRL WHO WOULD BE KING (2012) and STORYKILLER (2014) and the graphic novel HEART IN A BOX from Dark Horse Comics (2015). She’s currently writing the forthcoming CAPTAIN MARVEL as well as JESSICA JONES, MR. & MRS. X, and WEST COAST AVENGERS for Marvel Comics and co-writing the current UNCANNY X-MEN: DISASSEMBLED event. She’s also writing the forthcoming SABRINA THE TEENAGE WITCH for Archie and another volume of NANCY DREW for Dynamite. Other credits include: Rogue & Gambit, Hawkeye, Phasma, and A-Force for Marvel; Ghostbusters, Jem & the Holograms, and The Misfits for IDW; and the creator-owned Mega Princess for Boom.

Please buy all her stuff so that she can buy (and wear) more pajamas.


Reviewed by Philip Webb Gregg


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