American Romance Manga

By Poison Ivy,

I just read the prettiest, sweetest book. It was a Harlequin Ginger Blossom manga, an adaptation of a Debbie Macomber novel that first appeared in the US as part of their Silhouette Romance series, their sweetest and least overtly sexy line of romances. Such sweetness and lack of sexual detail has become so unpopular in the United States that the decades-old Silhouette Romance was finally discontinued and collapsed into Harlequin Romance. At about the same time that Harlequin was facing up to this market rejection, it was experimenting with manga (comic book) versions of the same material.

Harlequin has a strong worldwide translation and adaptation program, so it’s not surprising that in Japan, where comic books are big, Harlequin novels have been adapted as manga for many years. Because of Japanese laws and conventions regarding sexual expression, even the Harlequin titles that were very hot for their day, ones by Charlotte Lamb and Penny Jordan, for instance (that included the main characters having very passionate sex before marriage), were turned into sweeter versions that emphasized the romance over the sex. In Japan, these stories became manga aimed at young teenage (under 16) girls and up.

Manga have become big stuff in the US for that same market, and the female-oriented manga is mostly imported from Japan. Very little of it originates from American writers, or from American romance writers either for that matter, although that is changing. But meanwhile, perhaps it’s not surprising that when Harlequin stuck its toe in the water by trying out manga in this country, it simply brought over reprints from Japan. It had an American comic book company, Dark Horse, oversee adapting the previously Japanized material back to English for an American readership.

The result has fairly obviously been a commercial failure. These books are almost impossible to locate in physical bookstores or in comic book shops, although they can still be ordered online. No American-published Harlequin line of books is so obscure. Soon after they began, the publication schedule was slowed down, the price point was dropped, and then Harlequin took back the rights from Dark Horse and produced some on their own. Except that no new titles have come out since January 2007. The Ginger Blossom website was still up and running a few months ago, clearly aimed at young teenage girls, not at adult romance readers. And no new Harlequin Violet, the portion of the Ginger Blossom series that contained premarital sex, were published during Harlequin’s tenure of the line. Now, that same website has nothing to do with any Harlequin manga, and they can’t be ordered directly from eHarlequin. Maybe the line has not been officially pronounced dead, or maybe it has and so few people care that nobody heard about it.

This is a shame. The American public is missing a delightful extra dimension to a romance reading experience. It probably takes a little getting used to that the entire comic book is printed in pink ink. (The more adult line, Harlequin Violet, is printed in purple ink to indicate passion.) This is common practice in Japan. And the stylized artwork, with the male model, boyish hero, and the very girlish, ultra-sweet looking heroine, also takes some getting used to. In this country we no longer look to comics to be pretty, yet girl-oriented manga are very pretty indeed. That’s at least half of their charm, the delicacy of the ink line, the smoothness of the finish to how each character is drawn. These are qualities that American comic books and comic strips used to have. The acme of American comic art was such newspaper strips as “The Heart of Juliet Jones” by Stan Drake and “Mary Perkins On Stage” by Leonard Starr. And let’s not forget “Steve Canyon,” and “Terry and the Pirates,” both adventure strips by Milton Caniff whose high gloss made them major American hits for decades. John Romita and Gene Colan in the comic books gave the same kind of attractive polish to their artwork, whether in superhero or romance comics.

American girls are used to pretty, so that’s all right. They’re even used to excessive femininity. This generation of girls was raised in pink, and wore a lot of Disney princess outfits through the years. It’s the satori of an otherwise forward-looking culture that we tell girls they can be anything, but now as never before in recent years we raise girls to be girly. So it’s a little surprising that the Harlequin manga seem to have tanked.

On the other hand, it’s usually a mistake to start a new anything with old material, and that’s essentially what Harlequin did. Harlequin did not adapt brand new stories that today’s romance novel readers in America are reading right now and might want to see in comic book format. The newest was several years old and the oldest were over 20 years old. Worse, Harlequin took previously created adaptations meant for a different culture. Stories that were out of style here. Passé. No longer the mainstream of romance excitement.

It’s too bad. I enjoyed the way the Ginger Blossom manga softened some of the worst Harlequin excesses of domineering males and cowering females (a style of story that Harlequin itself has mostly dropped, even though their book titles often suggest it anyway). The light and airy, dreamy manga art style gave a sense of rightness to even the most preposterous plots. Like the one with the Greek tycoon who manages to go through a marriage ceremony with the heroine and whisk her off to a Greek isle–while she’s in a coma! This is the stuff of fantasy, and the manga art style is a great complement to such stories because it revels in the fantastic.

I hope some other American publisher will try to adapt current romances and use this beautiful art style in the future. I like manga but Japanese imports are very limited in scope because the position of women in Japan is subservient and the Japanese have this whole schoolgirl thing going. I’d love to read comic book style romances about adult women in believable American situations. Wait a minute. That’s exactly what is all about. Okay, we’re good.