In Heart in a Box, Kelly Thompson and Meredith McClaren tell the story of a woman who recovers from heartbreak by going on a quest to literally reclaim the missing pieces of her heart. It’s a fabulist premise that the two creators use as a vehicle to tell a pretty grounded story about learning how to reengage with the outside world.
The book is filled with great sequences. In the section above, McClaren compresses six days of chores (Emma agreed to do some for a cantankerous old man in exchange for a piece of her heart) in a dialogue free 41 panel two page spread. She depicts a repetitive sequence of mundane tasks interspersed with suggestions that the old man is not well. Emma cooks, vacuums, sweeps, scrubs floors and cleans gutters. As the reader’s eye follows the sequence of panels, the truth becomes clearer. In the first row of panels, we see a medication bottle, and in the second we see a tissue with a hint of blood. In the third, we see where the tissues come a close up of from. As the story progresses, we see more tissues with more blood. By the time we get to the bottom of the page, the majority of panels are focused on the old man’s illness. The final panel is heartbreaking.
In the hands of other creators, Heart in a Box might have felt manipulative and ostentatiously sentimental. Although many of the characters Emma meets on her quest have experienced (or are experiencing) some great tragedy, McClaren and Thompson don’t rely on them to generate an emotional response. Instead they use them to complicate Emma’s feelings about her own experiences. She learns what it’s like to be a heartbreaker and how to empathize with the difficult parent, even if he’s not her own.