Hello all! You might have noticed an unusual formula for the title of this review; that’s because I’m implementing a new plan to streamline and organize my posts, which have for the past five years been going up on all sorts of days at all sorts of times. In the past year or so, maybe longer, I can’t remember, I’d already started to subtly shift myself to a more organized way of posting by scheduling all my posts to arrive at precisely ten AM on the day they’re to be published. That time will remain, but in tandem with the new columns I’m planning on starting/may in fact be starting as you read this, I’m going a step further. If you follow us on Facebook (and if you don’t HOW DARE YOU, hit the link at the bottom of the post to go there and hit that “Like” button), you probably (hopefully!) saw my post on New Year’s Day, detailing some of the big things I have in store this year — including name dropping those columns I mentioned a few sentences ago. One of those things was moving my regular reviews to Wednesdays. Why Wednesdays? I don’t know. It sounds good? Wednesday Reviews. It’s catchy, I think. At any rate, it keeps content more organized, rather than having me just spew words about on whatever day is available, and also leaves room for the others content I’ve got planned. But I’ll address those when we get to them. For now, I have a review to write and you’re probably tired of my babbling about blog organization.
Sometimes when I’m in a bookstore or a comic shop, I’ll just sort of cast my gaze around and see what catches my eye. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to just buy whatever I happen to see and be interested in, but I’ll certainly make note of it for later. That was the case with Heart in a Box, an OGN (that’s Original Graphic Novel, for all you non-nerd types) from Dark Horse, written by Kelly Thompson with art by Meredith McClaren. To be honest, I don’t much remember when or where I saw it, I just know that I made note of it and tossed it on my Christmas list and lo and behold, ’twas under my tree on Christmas Day. I wasn’t really sure what to expect from it; I think that I kind of just put it on my list on a lark and didn’t really even remember it later, until I unwrapped it.
Let me give you the synopsis as told on the back cover of the book:
When the Man With No Name breaks Emma’s heart, she wants to die. But you never die from these things; you just want to. In a moment of desperation, Emma wishes her broken heart away and a mysterious stranger — who may or may not be totally evil — obliges. But emptiness is even worse than grief, and Emma sets out to collect the seven pieces of her heart spread across the country, a journey that forces her to face her own history and leads inevitably to a confrontation with the Man With No Name himself.
I think when I read this I was expecting some sort of quirky fantasy-like quest; I don’t know that I actually processed the parts about grief. I mean, let’s be fair here, the aside (“who may or may not be totally evil”) and the moniker “The Man With No Name” don’t exactly lend a whole lot of gravitas to the description. And I wonder if that was the point. Because while there are certainly lighthearted moments, this is a serious story with serious subject matter, and now that I’m thinking about it I’m curious if the back matter is a ploy to get more people interested in the fantastic part of the story only to hit them with the serious stuff when it’s too late to turn back.
Which would be totally awesome and very clever, because I think there’s a lot of important stuff here.
The core of the story (see how I averted saying “heart” and making a lame pun? Damn, I guess I just did it anyway…), really, isn’t the quest for Emma’s heart — which is both literal and metaphorical — but is actually dealing with grief and depression. I can’t think of a single more accurate depiction of depression than what you’ll see in this comic. The emotions Emma expresses and her reactions to things resonated with me on a deeper level than any other comic I can think of, and deeper than most other things I’ve read/watched/etc. in general. If you’ve experienced depression, heartbreak, or both, you’ll understand Emma’s character probably more than a casual reader. This is a story for everyone, but it will resonate most deeply and powerfully with those of us who have had similar experiences.
Thompson’s story is fast-paced; I think I read it in less than an hour (I wasn’t timing myself or anything, I just happened to notice the time), and I wasn’t intentionally reading quickly. It’s just that kind of story. You’re drawn into it and it just moves at its own pace. But for all that speed, the story is certainly not lacking in detail or anything like that. In fact, given how quick a read it is, it’s impressive just how much content is in there. Though I suppose that is in part due also to McClaren’s art, which is interesting in and of itself.
As I was reading, my initial thought on the art was that it didn’t look like a “traditional” kind of comic book art, but more like the kind of art you might find in a webcomic. And I swear on everything ever that I had no idea until I read the bios at the end of the book that McClaren is in fact a webcomic artist and has had collections of her comics Hinges and Scraps published, neither of which I’d ever heard of before now and both of which I’m curious to learn more about. Thompson herself has degree in sequential art, though I’m not entirely sure what that means in terms of the industry since it seems her career is in writing and not visuals. Any readers care to elaborate for me on what a degree in sequential art entails?
At any rate, McClaren’s art is very expressive and fits the story quite well, which might be surprising to some. But just because a style of art evokes or is associated with webcomics doesn’t that it can’t be suited for a graphic novel, and anyway, webcomics can be just as serious as anything else, something I think we tend to forget since long-running series like XKCD and Cyanide & Happiness are the most well-known webcomics and they’re anything but serious.
This is the kind of story that makes you feel things. That’s not a bad thing, of course, but I just wanted to warn you that if you read this comic you’re going to feel emotions. Some people don’t like that, and I think that’s all the more reason for you to read this, honestly. Because if there’s one thing you can learn from it, it’s that it’s ok to feel things and to have emotions. And in fact it’s necessary for life.
Also you get some really funny moments, like this one, which is all the more reason to read it.
I mentioned that Emma’s journey to reclaim her heart is both literal and metaphorical, and I wanted to come back to that before I end this post. The quest is literal, as should be noted from the description above, in that she is in fact actually tracking down the pieces of her heart that have been scattered around the country (that phrase refers to the United States, just so you know). Which is a pretty interesting plot device and leads to a lot of really thought-provoking moments, to say the least. But it’s also metaphorical in that… well, remember when I said that at the heart of the story (dammit I made the pun again) was Emma’s personal struggle to deal with her grief and depression? There’s your metaphor. In chasing after the pieces of her heart, in trying to become whole again, she’s pulling herself back together and back from the pain and struggles that are consuming her. It’s an experience that those of us who have come back from and continue to struggle against depression can relate to in a very deep way.
Like I said, I really didn’t know what to expect from this comic and was kind of caught off-guard by it in some ways, since I wasn’t expecting it to be so powerful or to make me feel things. But that’s not a bad thing; in fact it’s a very good thing, I think. When I was expecting a light-hearted (dammit) quest, I got a surprisingly deep and emotional story with far more depth than I could have imagined from the description on the back. So I guess what I should ultimately be saying is that I’m glad I randomly had a whim to drop this on my Christmas list, and thanks mom for getting it for me!
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Hey, if Scott Snyder can make a terribly lame “heartfelt” pun in his cover quote for the book, then I can damn well be excused for my unintentional puns here!