Harlequin Ginger Blossom, published in English by Dark Horse, are successful Harlequin novels adapted for the Japanese comics market. Every volume says “written by [American Name]” and “art by [Japanese Name]” on its cover, which doesn’t seem entirely fair; adapting prose to a sequential graphic narrative is a job in itself and it goes uncredited thanks to the existing invisibility of this role in a world where “art” in comics is largely understood to mean “draw lines where told.” These manga must be pretty popular in Japan, presumably fitting in fairly seamlessly to the josei market, as re-translation is taking a chance on a western market that’s otherwise drastically underserved.
Then again, maybe it’s simply the strength of the Harlequin brand that allowed this gamble; there’s a rock-solid market for romance dramas told in slim volumes. Or it could have been the time. The two books in my possession have a publication date of 2005 (the year the term “weeaboo” was attached to the hypernerdy Japanophile stereotype) and advertisements for Makoto Kobayashi’s What’s Michael and Club 9 in the back, both of which are excellent but neither of which fit comfortably into westerners’ “manga” genre boxes in today’s market. Maybe these are relics of a time before absolute streamlining? Maybe things just used to be better.
Either way, Harlequin manga is outrageously expensive (I’m about to contextualise this). As you can tell, I bought it anyway.
The volumes beside me here, on the sofa, have a nine-ninety-five printed price tag next to the Dark Horse logo at the lower left corner of their back (“front,” we’re reading right to left) cover. Nine dollars and ninety-five cents! Converting that today makes seven pounds, ninety four pence, which is about the price of a single volume of any given manga bought new today in Britain. It’s not a terrible price for what it is in that sense. But Harlequin manga isn’t just manga, it’s Harlequin content. Harlequin novels are things that, I don’t know about you, but I and many people I know grew up reading for a deniable mixture of ironic fun, bubblegum snacks, sexual curiosity and a desperate need for a road map re: how exactly is this adulthood thing “romance” actually supposed to work? Like this? Oh Jesus Christ! We bought them in charity shops for pocket change—I actually wouldn’t even know where to buy a Mills & Boon (that’s Harlequin but in a different chemise) novel new. You can get two for one forty-five in the Blue Cross right now, if you want a couple?
Research tells that Harlequin novels tend to sold for between four and eight pounds in paperback, and hover at about two or three (if they aren’t actually free) for the same story on Kindle. The four pound ones look more common than the eight—Harlequin manga are or were more expensive than their originals and their more recently written peers. You can read the original prose versions of both Penny Jordan’s Response and Betty Neels’ A Girl in a Million for half the price of the comics, and without, one must assume, any additional input from either Jordan or Neels (Neels, in fact, was dead by 2001, with Kako Itoh’s adapted comic released for Japan in 2002 before its 2006 American re-re-release). A translator is listed for each—Ikoi Hiroe—but their job must have been made quicker and easier by the existence of an English original. Mustn’t it? Maybe not. There are mistakes in the manga that don’t appear in the prose; see below how real-world accuracy has been lost in translation. Isn’t this interesting?
One wonders how the Harlequin adaptation process works in Japan: is it work for hire, one-time payment stuff? How much does a cartoonist get for an American release of their side of things? How much does an original American writer earn from a Japanese release in Japan, when their words have been transformed into a script for or by an artist who’s made the story their own? I’ve little doubt these stories read differently in their prose and comic versions; aside from the literal change in how visual information is delivered there’s a cultural shift as the fiction moves between mistresses. Agatha Christie’s Great Detectives Marple and Poirot do not behave, move, respond as David Suchet and Julia McKenzie’s Poirot and Marple do, and the anime versions of the St Clare’s pupils are vastly different people to those delivered into my brain by Enid Blyton’s unembellished textual narrative. How is transformation recognised by the various creators’ monetary return? How much of this sore-thumb price tag is down to what?
I don’t know. What matters is whether or not the object in question makes the price demanded worth it. Is there something in a Harlequin Ginger Blossom worth several pounds or dollars more than one might expect or be willing to pay for the average Harlequin experience? Does art actually merit additional payment? Because that’s all that’s being added—a literal visual component to a story available cheaper and potentially more relevantly elsewhere. And a much quicker reading experience. Does art merit additional payment even when the sum experience is, in at least one measure (time), reduced?
Well, I bought them. But I bought them for kicks, didn’t I? I bought them for curiosity and for gimmick and because I know, when I see it, what I can write about later. Producing product for that sort of sale might work out economically but it’s not precisely to be admired. It’s not spiritually worthwhile to produce for that sort of market. So the question I should answer for you isn’t did it seem worth it in the moment, but do I regret it now. Did the comic book format make spending six pounds (I got these secondhand) each on two you-know-the-end Harlequin stories—that’s ten pounds and fifty five pence more than I needed to lay out if I wanted two aggressively heterosexual and baldly unrealistic romance dramas—worth it to me?
Uhuh! Sure did.
To tell the truth, the thing that’s made me decide I would buy these, instead of carrying them round a shop for a little while and changing my mind out of preemptive buyer’s remorse, was one little detail on the back cover of A Girl in a Million. It was this:
Pink ink! On romantic, feminine art full of floating flowers, doily snowflake backgrounds, glittering eyes and dates that non-diegetically sparkle. That’s a gimmick in a million, frankly, a visual shift that not only spices up the monotone printing of tankobon that one gets used to but actually enhances the thematic aesthetic of the storyteller’s choices. Pink! I like to look at it. Why are all manga printed in black anyway? If coloured lines are a boon to lithograph comic sales, why would they be a drag to manga’s?
The pink, in fact, does more than the above. It’s quite possible that the original release was serialised in pink or some other colour, as periodical manga chapters often are when they appear in their initial Japanese magazine printings, but Dark Horse chose to use the colour of their print to designate which line their volumes belonged to. Harlequin Pink is “the sweeter side of love for ages twelve and up,” where Harlequin Violet is “sexy and sophisticated romance adears sixteen and up.” Dark Horse’s website retains a FOR MATURE READERS tag in the copy for Response (their Ghost in the Shell releases don’t—a thinkpiece in itself) which is definitely not for visual sexuality and is questionable as an appropriate way to mark the intense misogyny of the story. Making sub-genre this obvious at a glance is a fantastic way to brand stables under the umbrella of one main line, and I’d be hugely pleased if it was returned to or became wider spread. What’s not fantastic is that what Pink and Violet mean isn’t explained on the cover, or even at any point within the volume itself.
To find out what Violet (and violet ink) means you have to read the whole of a Pink volume (or flick though all of the adverts at the western start-end of the book, but even then the poster page for the other colour is on the left-hand page, making it unlikely you’ll notice). Once you’ve finished your story you see what you’re missing in the other mini-line, and if you buy and read that you get, at last, a plain explanation of what the first book you read was categorised as. I didn’t need to read these to understand—pink is traditionally cute and violet is traditionally sophisticated, which jives with the gist of each blurb—but having confirmation is better than guessing and knowing you may well be wrong. A gimmick is great to talk about, but talking about things that one is unsure of is something a lot of people don’t like to do. And that cuts down on your word-of-mouth marketing ops!
A Girl in a Million is a sweet, daffy story about a sweet, daffy nurse. She falls in love with a handsome Dutch doctor but knows that he is older and more experienced than her, and that they’re incompatible because she dreams of marriage and he doesn’t. It’s the exact same love story as my favourite from Mari Okazaki, except optimistic and guaranteed to end in ding dong ring on. Where Okazaki is wistful, Itoh is upbeat; where Okazaki is solid and defined, Itoh is pliable and dashed-off. Okazaki’s sensuality becomes a genki sort of earnestness in Itoh’s work, and Itoh’s version of “older man with a complicated past” is rather less evocative than Okazaki’s. Which is fine, of course, because Marius van Houben’s complications actually don’t matter, and his dedication to the single life vanishes with very little fuss. The reduced design of the character matches the reduced level of angst, making the hero’s appearance appropriate for the story being told.
There’s some nice nonsense about a little boy who keeps accidentally falling from great heights and being hit by cars, and NHS nurses getting seconded to Europe as medical au pairs, and a pleasant PSA about romantic growing pains via a secondary couple (the handsome doctor’s brother and the brother’s wife happen to have produced the aforementioned danger boy). It’s happy and good-hearted and perfect sunny-day fluff. I plan to reread it with an ice cream and then buy a bunch of flowers.
Response is an appalling story about a maniac who rapes a woman, taunts her about it, gets her hit by a car and kidnaps and marries her while she has amnesia or possibly, while she is actually unconscious. Obviously by the end they are happily in love. There are arguments to be made about what is therapeutic or cathartic in fiction, but this is proper Fifty Shades Worse stuff that’s given no contextual “this is kink, okay” marker and sold to those sixteen-and-up as sexy and sophisticated romance, not psychological horror with a romantic aesthetic. “Sophisticated romance” shouldn’t mean “giving in and deciding your abuser is too hot to escape.” There is a strange relief in reading stories where men act this monstrously, a sort of I knew it, aha, in the same way that reading about murder can be very soothing. But I do like my murder novels to be designated murder novels, and for the victims to be pretty unhappy about being killed—and I don’t like my misogyny what-ifs to be designated love stories where the victims sigh happily and start daydreaming about having his babies.
Violet sophistication is delivered to satisfaction in the draughting of Response. The textual differences seem petty—Pink’s Caroline is a cute nurse who loves children and never complains while Violet’s Sienna is a multilingual scholar and secretary—but in comparison with Girl in a Million‘s Pink sensibilities (this is a description which only works in discussion with English market readers, as Pink in Japan is Blue in English, as in blue movies, as in flesh pictures) Violet is clearly the older sister, more together, more polished; mature. Everybody’s hair curls in neater, more caressing tendrils. Skulls have finer structure and the line work does too. Fashions are more worldly and better fitting, and our heroine’s breasts are both larger (this shouldn’t be but very often is communicative design) and more present, carefully outlined in eveningwear and lingerie scenes.
When she has sex her bust appears on page, but in erotic allegory, as she has no nipples. Almost nothing is shown of the male body in this story, but both the sex and the aftermath in which our grand bastard reveals that he was actually raping her for revenge is sensitively drawn. What’s shown is how she feels while naked, not how she looks to the man abusing her.
The manga formatting of Response is the romantic element of this story. It’s an atrocious narrative, but it’s told like a gorgeous dream. With a more overt destructive sensibility this could be a really excellent josei comic (I’d love to read Hashimoto’s one josei horror). As it is, the purple pictures let a 2005 or 2017 reflective adult reader think about how romantic fiction was defined and what it was informed by in 1984, when Response was first published, whilst Takako Hashimoto’s penwomanship soothes the stressful repulsion that anyone who lacks the predator-prince kink will be experiencing to a greater or lesser perceived degree. It’s distressing that the romance genre is so barren of boundaries, because I do believe that a “romance” label from a publisher implies “this is literally good, actually” and that even with practiced reflection it’s hard not to take some really bizarre definitions of partnership onboard. It’s certainly reasonable to say that making a frightful story violetly beautiful is further sugaring a poison pill. But I like to look at things that have happened, and buying a second hand volume of a very old story feels like enough distance to benefit from the 20% of nourishment I can chew out of it without swallowing the 80% of pith. I’m dismayed that Response is the sum product that it is, but I certainly value some of the reduced parts. I would absolutely recommend picking up one of her other Harlequin books if the blurb appeals, as controlling perverts are absolutely not the only style of leading man offered by a Harlequin romance.