Sweep Me Off My Feet! Next Gen Romance Comics, We Need Better

Harlequin Josei Manga comiXology thumbnails, screenshot, page one

You’ll hear me say it again and again until I feel I’ve reached a comfort zone, but I am very new to the world of comics. I’m still shamefully Wikipedia-ing my way through definitions and origin stories, and I can honestly say after a couple of years of building a relationship with my local comic book stores, my well of knowledge still only runs about a foot deep.

Romance, on the other hand, is something I’ve been reading since my mom handed over her worn out copy of Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’ The Wolf and the Dove, my first and still favorite romance novel. From the years of fourteen to eighteen, my bony teenaged hands flipped the pages of every historical romance my mom owned, and every Harlequin romance stored in dusty boxes in my local one-room library. Romance is a comfort zone for me. So imagine my elation when I put my search engine to use and found an article on this very site about a line of Harlequin manga. Harlequin? Really? To think I’d been a member of their fan boards for years and I’d never once heard mention of a line of manga.

I like to think of myself as an average romance reader. If the ends of the spectrum are “I need to experience passion every single day” to “if there’s a hint of romance, I’ll kill someone,” I’m right in the happy middle of “give me a vicarious experience where two individuals find their self-defined version of a happy ever after.” My expectations are medium-sized, and I’m very forgiving. As long as the author can move beyond the could have solved this whole damn mess in one conversation syndrome.

Unfortunately, from the Harlequin manga I’ve chosen to read so far, this syndrome is abundant and I’d fathom a direct result of cramming a two hundred and fifty page story into approximately one hundred to one hundred and fifty pages. My basic research of manga layout reveals the style is to use large panels similar to graphic novels and whimsical characters whose emotions are represented by their exaggerated facial expressions. If you pair the large panels with detailed settings and the focus on the character’s faces, there becomes no room for small chunks of much needed introspection in text blocks. Without the introspection, the books feel a bit rushed and the original storyline isn’t given enough space for the reader to develop a relationship with the characters.

Wanted by Her Lost Love, Harlequin comics
Wanted by Her Lost Love, Harlequin Comics

I happily took on the challenge of comparing Maya Bank’s Wanted by Her Lost Love’s manga version with the original novel. A quick synopsis: Girl quits university to take up with billionaire fiance. Mother and brother of said fiance don’t approve. Mother hatches evil plan to use brother to convince fiance that girl is unfaithful and unworthy. Are you still with me? Fiance believes his family over girl, writes her a very large check, and sends her packing. Six months later billionaire wonders why girl hasn’t cashed his check and hires a private investigator to search for her. He finds her working in a hole-in-the-wall diner and practically living in squalor. Oh, and girl is seven months pregnant. He literally busts her door down when she refuses to see him and forces her back to his life of privilege. After many of pages of not just telling him she was set up by his family, they finally reach a loving understanding, he quits his family and devotes himself to her and their newborn baby. Whew. Nutshell.

I read the manga version first and more than once found myself wondering at characters’ motivations. The dialogue is easy to follow, but it’s the thought process that doesn’t come across clearly.

When I read the original, the aha moments began. That was due to pages of introspection from the heroine’s point of view. There was a lot going on inside that girl’s head! When I reread the manga after reading the original it was an entirely different and more pleasurable experience.

If you’ve read the original book, the manga could possibly be a nice companion with added visual stimulation. After all, I have no complaints with the art or the complimentary pastel colors used in the covers. However, selling the manga as a companion doesn’t appear to be the marketing strategy with the price point being the same or higher on the digital manga as the original version in ebook format. Instead, it comes across as an attempt to catch both manga readers and romance readers in a wide cast net, yet not hold them up as worthwhile fans by putting forth their best efforts. The review aftermath appears to support this theory, although I have to admit I don’t think there are enough reviews of the manga to come to an absolute conclusion.

So the artist really cut out the scenes and rushed the first part so it feels like you read half the book. It didn’t feel all that cohesive.”

The plot dragged through thoughts and conversation with little of the action and ‘on the run’ scenes that move the plot in a graphic novel and which you often see in manga.”

I think the problem with harlequin Manga, is that they are overly abridged so you really do not get an entire story and plots aren’t detailed enough to give you adequate character development or explanation of what is going on.”

That’s if you can distinguish between the reviews from the original book and the manga version. If you’re using Amazon.com as your review baseline for research, checking the dates of the reviews is the bestsometimes onlyway to tell if they are based on the original book or the manga version. Also, search the reviews for the keywords such as artist, art, manga, graphic novel, or comic.

One Harlequin author who has a pretty decent backlist of abridged versions, and who shall remain nameless for the purposes of keeping a good relationship with her publisher, confirmed my worst fearthe author of the original romance novel has no creative input to the manga version of their book. I visited quite a few Harlequin author websites and the manga version isn’t listed on many of their book lists. Is it possible they don’t consider the title theirs after it’s been condensed into a barely recognizable work?

The Prince's Pregnant Bride, Harlequin comics
The Prince’s Pregnant Bride, Harlequin Comics

Not so, says another Harlequin author I spoke with. Jennifer Lewis, who is pleased with the manga version of her book The Prince’s Pregnant Bride says:

“My Harlequin books have been released in more than twenty different languages and countries (I counted once a few years ago). We authors get excited to see, say, the Finnish or Korean version of one of our books, or the Manga edition, but don’t really think to put it on our website as they would get pretty unwieldy, which is probably why you’re not seeing them on people’s websites.”

Another Harlequin source I spoke with assumed the books chosen by Harlequin K.K. / SB Creative Corp. (the listed publisher for the manga) are picked like most foreign translations; from a detailed synopsis and art form. Her assumption is close. A more detailed explanation of how Japanese editors choose the stories to translate can be found in a 2013 post on the Harlequin.com blog. And the explanation of the process makes perfect sense.

The Darkest Night 1, Harlequin Josei Manga, Lords of the Underworld, Gena Showalter & Earithen, But why translate the abridged version back to English without the input of the original author? With big names like Gena Showalter and Maya Banks co-headlining the front covers with the manga artists, it’s possible the names are being used as automatic sales. I mean, isn’t Gena Showalter on your auto-buy list? She’s a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author with over twenty-five adult and young adult titles. Ms. Showalter knows what she’s doing. I get it might be impossible for English-language authors to provide input on the Japanese version, but once translated back to English it would make sense to have the original author sign off. Better yet, have your bestselling authors corroborate with the artists and present fresh, engaging romance stories sure to have fans begging for a print version in their local comic book store.

I wanted so badly to believe it is a recent half-hearted, predictable revenue stream until I dug in a little further and found that Harlequin K.K. has over eight hundred retranslated manga titles listed on Amazon.com, going back as far as 2006, with approximately sixty being released within the last thirty days. Maybe they are in it for the long haul. After all, the romance novel industry rakes in a stunning one billion dollars yearly (Bookstats via myRWA website).

So, maybe the editing team at Harlequin K.K. / SB Creative Corp. just need a little guidance. Lucky for them, I have some time to invest in what I’d like to see in a romance comic. Remember, I’m your average romance reader, looking to expand her love-of-romance horizon.

Career Girl Romance No. 64, Charlton Comics
Career Girl Romance No. 64, Charlton Comics

Let’s jump back to a time when romance comics still lined the shelves and compare these to our current choices of Harlequin manga. It may be comparing fruits from different trees, but a good romance is a good romance in any form. I had to know if my reaction to the trope driven stories of yesterday mirrored my reaction about the available romance manga of today. I took a trip to the 1970s era of romance comics and ordered titles from DC Love Stories and Career Girl Romances.

DC Love Stories definitely had it wrong. The soap opera style stories were sandwiched between articles on How to Develop Sex Appeal and Ten Secrets You Should Know About Boys. (Really, there’s only one, but we’ll save that for another article.) On the first page of the first comic I read, the male co-workers called the female lead “honey” and “baby,” neither of which were her name. Moving on.

Next on the list was Career Girl Romances from the now defunct Charlton Comics. Don’t get me wrong, the cover still boasts a woman crying over a man who doesn’t want to marry her, but the first story I read flipped the gender role stereotype on its large forehead. A bush pilot juts her chin high as she tells her client he can find someone else to fly him if he’s uncomfortable with a woman pilot. Oh, and by the end, Mr. Suit and Tie had to prove himself to her. That’s some seventies empowerment right there. You  know what also helped this story? Several text blocks of introspection.

How do we get an updated version of this on the shelves? Why not take a trope driven story and make it a series of comics? If I can invest in Secret Six as DC Comics slowly builds the character arcs month by month, I’m sure I can invest the same amount of time in a true to life couple overcoming modern, believable obstacles to find realistic love and a happy ever after or even a happy for right now. In my opinion, Harlequin already has the talent to make this happen.

I’m sure I’m not alone in my quest for a good romance comic, but I can admit there is a market and fan base for what already exists. Not everyone agrees with the negative reviews, and there is an entire community dedicated to reading and discussing Harlequin manga. From the description, it appears to be a very private group, and while I was curious about their reactions to current titles, I was hesitant to invade their space. If you are a huge supporter of the manga line you can find a way into their discussion group through their Facebook page HarLequin manga.

I also think it’s only fair to add every Harlequin author I spoke with is delighted to have a manga version of their book on the virtual shelves.

Okay fellow lovers of romance, it’s your turn to tell me what you’d like to see in a modern day romance comic. Have you read any Harlequin manga titles or do you have any books you’d like to see abridged to manga? Could you follow a romance comic through thirty issues to get to a happy ever after?
Melinda Pierce

Melinda Pierce

Contributor for WWAC, mother of 2 mini-geeks, writer, and girl geek. Dreams of having enough time to write Veronica Mars fanfiction. @melindabpierce

One thought on “Sweep Me Off My Feet! Next Gen Romance Comics, We Need Better

  1. Thanks for a cool look into a side of comics I hadn’t really thought about–or even knew existed!
    For what it’s worth, when it comes to romance comics, I was a big fan of all of the Sean McKeever=penned Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane series back in the early/mid 2000s. It was nice to see Marvel do something so different so well.

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