by Kelly Thompson & Meredith McClaren
For better or worst, with comics, you usually know what you are going to get on some level. So much of the industry is driven by intellectual property or genre and as such, those properties and genre’s use tropes that play on a readers familiarity. It’s a catch twenty two; as a medium, comics are only limited by the imagination and ability of their creators but as an business, those imaginations are driven by formulaic constructs to appease the industries financial stakeholders. It’s why up & coming comics pro’s that start in creator owned books do intellectual property comics to gain exposure and why so many of them leave those IP books at the height of their fame because they don’t have to do them anymore. Because of that, comics are rarely surprising in a way that a great novel, film or television series can be. Sometimes they are surprising in how they upend the tropes of their genre or how they use those tropes or find something new and unique about it. Kelly Thompson & Meredith McClaren’s Heart In A Box is surprising in a different kind of way, it’s surprising in how it disregards genre, how unique it’s story and perspective are, how fully formed it is as a concept, as a story or as a character study, how its familiarity feels so human and overall, surprising for it’s unequivocal excellence. When we talk about up and coming comics creators, few have came out as strong in 2015 than writer Kelly Thompson. Beginning as a novelist and comics critic, Thompson has established herself on popular work for hire titles like Jem & The Holograms or Captain Marvel & The Carol Corps. But while those series have certainly hinted at her potential, Heart In a Box is her most fully realized work to date. It’s writing is smart, insightful, lively and profound as an examination towards the meaning of love and loss. With her is Meredith McClaren, a relatively new comics illustrator whose expressive and visceral visual narrative breathes life into Heart In a Box’s engrossing story.
Heart In A Box follows a young women named Emma whose in the throws of post breakup depression. She meet’s a supernatural “account manager” that offers to take her heart and distribute it to those in need of it’s parts, thus in effect erasing her emotions and ending her own heartbreak. But Emma quickly realizes that feeling nothing is actually worst than feeling horrible and she goes on a cross country road trip to gain back the pieces of her heart that she lost, by any and all means necessary. Heart In a Box has a brilliantly unique and engaging concept that is instantly relatable for anybody that’s ever felt the heavy pain of lost love. With some amazing character work, Thompson & McClaren show a complex portrait of desperation, confusion and growth out of adversity. But in that, they still find ways to make Emma funny and sympathetic as she is often making laugh out loud insights with her brutal sarcasm and pull no punches observations, even as it’s often fueled by her own self loathing. In that way, Thompson & McClaren create a fully formed and realized protagonist that can’t be defined by any kind of good guy/bad guy binary, but instead, is just trying to navigate her way through a complicated world. That’s ultimately what keeps Heart In A Box engrossing, it has the reader rooting for Emma to do the right thing even when she’s forced to be wrong because she’s such a fun and sympathetic person. Thompson gives her an earned empathy by exploring the layers to her behavior and decisions. At it’s most base level, Heat In a Box is a fun excuse just to hang with Emma and be a part of her world. While Thompson’s writing guides the story and helps in rounding out it’s protagonist, it’s Meredith McClaren’s vibrantly expressive illustration and color work that gives the comic it’s voice and aesthetic. There’s a cartoonish quality to her style that keeps the book fun and light while her epic surrealist flourishes of the supernatural instantly adds a new dynamic and dimension to the work. It’s this wonderful combination of whimsy and awe inspiring that takes the comic to these exciting places while still grounding it in a world that feels real and welcoming. It’s how Thompson & McClaren find the extraordinary in something so ordinary that ultimately makes Heart In a Box so successful.
With Heart In A Box, Thompson & McClaren pull off the kind of smart story telling and allegory that transcends the genre and medium with a comic that almost anybody could enjoy. It runs the gamut of emotion and is a journey that the reader will feel like they are sharing with the books actors by how real and honest they are. Heart In a Box in one of the best comics of 2015 which feels like nothing else in the medium, but is still warm and familiar. It has a casual complexity that is as inviting as it is engaging and emotionally affecting. Before reading Heart In a Box, I consider Kelly Thompson & Meredith McClaren up and coming. Now I know they’ve arrived.