Ares & Aphrodite, Oni, Rich & Levens, 2015Ares & Aphrodite

Jamie S. Rich (writer), Megan Levens (illustrations and colors), Crank! (letters)
Oni Press
April 15, 2015

I actually liked this comic. I know that sounds like damning with faint praise, but let me explain. I didn’t doubt that it would be a good comic based on my previous familiarity with Jamie S. Rich’s work with Joelle Jones on Lady Killer. But I wasn’t sure if I would like this comic. It’s just not in my usual wheelhouse. When it comes to romance, I prefer period romances and/or high fantasy romances with bustles and corsets or empire waists and bonnets and fog-shrouded English moors. I like romance comics of yore (from the 1950s to 1970s) for their historicity and exaggeration, but contemporary romance rarely strikes a chord with me.

I envisioned this contemporary romance comic in terms of a romantic comedy movie. Considering that the romance genre in comicsoutside of manga, which I don’t readis fairly limited, a romantic comedy movie was about the only point of comparison I could generate. And I generally dislike romantic comedies. But this is often the problem you come up against when interpreting a new genre, or even a rebooted genrehow do I interpret this within a generic context? So, going off these admitted limitations, let’s talk about this comic.

Ares & Aphrodite follows the blooming relationship of divorce lawyer Will Ares and wedding planner Gigi Averelle. Will is the hopeless romantic and Gigi the cynic, but neither are caricatures of these types. In fact, all of the characters are multidimensional even as they represent certain familiar types: conniving ex-wife, ambitious young starlet, and playboy movie producer (who closely resembles Austin Power’s Basil Exposition meets the professor in Gilmore Girls that Paris dated). There’s a sincerity and respect for the characters that makes me want to curl up with this comic when I want to feel warm and fuzzy (but not gooey, thankfully).

When I interviewed artist Megan Levens, she mentioned that she likes drawing romance comics for the emotional expressiveness of the characters, and it’s this skill that contributes to the pleasure of the comic without veering into cloying. Oh, you still get your teary-eyed dramatics (as you should!), but in ways suitable to the characters’ personalities. Gigi, the cynic, isn’t going to weep dramatically, but you bet the ambitious young starlet will. (But, like I mentioned before, she is still shown to be capable of more than just heartbreak and tears.) The main characters are not only distinct in personality, but also in appearance, which, unfortunately, is still something a great many comics struggle with. In keeping with the traditions of the romance genre, the choices of setting and attire are not afterthoughts to the narrative and inform the reader of who the characters are. Gigi wears softer colors and more romantic silhouettes that belie her cynicism. Additionally, her clothing looks appropriate to her age and sets her apart from her client Carrie, the young starlet, who wears more youthful and trendy pieces in the bohemian style of Vanessa Hudgens.

All of these elements are what makes this a good comic, but what makes me like, like really like, this comic is the lead male, Will, and how he relates to Gigi. Let me explain.

The romance genre often provides a pleasurable outlet and does the important work of making traditionally feminine concerns and characters central to a narrative. Many contemporary romances give us “strong female characters” with jobs and ambitions, but yet, the male character’s role doesn’t really change. The female role changes, but the male role remains stagnant. And this is particularly unfortunate because it tends to normalize masculinity and make it even more invisible. Femininity is represented as a changing and moving target, but masculinity is just “natural;” it needs no adjustment.

Wrong. In Ares & Aphrodite, Will is totally okay with being “feminized,” and by that I mean being in traditionally feminized roles or having traditionally feminine characteristics. It’s not a point of comedy or anything, it just happens to be who he is. One point I found particularly charming was when Gigi dipped Ares, and it came off as cute instead of farcical. Too often when traditional gender roles are reversed in romantic comedies it is for pure farce. Hahaha, isn’t that cute when she tried to save him?! But I really liked Ares & Aphrodite, because Will and Gigi are placed on equal footing with equal investment in their careers. Oh, and Megan Levens’ art is really such a treat.

Considering how much I like this comic to my surprise, I immediately added Rich and Levens’ other team up Madame Frankenstein to my to read list. If Rich and Levens can make me enjoy a contemporary romance story, I am thrilled to see what they can do with a horror/Gothic tale set in the Jazz Age.