Morbid curiosity isn’t the best reason to buy a graphic novel, but sometimes the very idea of a book, contained in a paragraph of solicitation, is difficult to resist. You read the pitch, then you read it again, and you say to yourself, “I shouldn’t, but how can I not?” You could be missing something so awful that it travels all the way around to awesome.
I had kind of a jumbled response to Dark Horse’s Harlequin: Ginger Peach line of romance-novel manga adaptations. It’s an interesting attempt to reach out to a new audience. It’s also… well… weird. Mass-market North American prose pulp turned into Japanese illustrated pulp turned into North American illustrated pulp? From the holder of the Star Wars comic license? It sounds like nonsense rhyme.
Then there’s the personal context. I remember Wednesdays in high school when I’d volunteer at the local hospital. It wasn’t exactly demanding, and we had long stretches of down time. So the other volunteers (two mercilessly sharp-tongued young women from the nearby all-girls Catholic school) and I would grab Harlequin books off of the library cart and read them with a combination of disdain, horror, amusement, and secret pleasure.
Dark Horse provides Harlequin books in two flavors: Violet, for readers aged 16 and up, and Pink, offering “the sweeter side of love” for readers 12 and up. One of each came out this week, and I went for Violet: Response, because it promised a higher quotient of smut.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t deliver the kind of so-bad-it’s-good thrills I’d anticipated. The plot is certainly insane, like many I remember from those afternoons in the hospital. It features a Greek tycoon, a temp agency, revenge, a coma marriage, amnesia, malaria, and tons and tons of yearning held in check with no small amount of difficulty.
But it isn’t aggressively insane. Writer Penny Jordan and illustrator Takako Hashimoto studiously resist the urge to wink at the reader even once. That’s only to be expected, because the intent is obviously to create an enveloping mood. Irony would be like salt in the punchbowl.
The characters are developed exactly as well as they need to be. Prim Brit Sienna is credibly torn between moralizing and unchecked lust. Mogul Alexis is that patented combination of love god, bastard, and lost little boy. The handful of supporting characters rounds things out and fills in the slow bits.
Hashimoto’s art is gloriously accomplished. In design and composition, it’s all swirling emotion. It doesn’t entirely serve the story, though. The driving point of Response is Sienna’s almost primal attraction to an unworthy man, and the visuals are perhaps too demure to convey that kind of hunger.
They’re also purple. The book is “printed in hot violet ink!” Again, the point is to envelop, but it’s only partly successful. The hue actually highlights the delicacy of the quieter scenes, but it diminishes the impact of the darker ones. When shadows creep in, they don’t suggest darkness. They just look really purple. (I can only imagine what Pink: A Girl in a Million looks like.)
And the ultimate effect, like those Wednesday afternoon novels, is one of disposability. Response is proficient, and it has an underlying weirdness of purpose and conception that’s diverting, but I can’t imagine ever wanting to read it again. Still, morbid curiosity didn’t go entirely unrewarded. I’m glad I sampled the line, though I won’t be rushing to pre-order others.
I am very curious as to whether this initiative will reach its intended audience. Romance novels make a lot of money, but is the existing audience dying for the same stories in a different medium? Part of me hopes so, because of the daring of the attempt, but I’m dubious. And if the Ginger Peach books get shelved with the manga instead of the romance novels, which strikes me as very likely, the experiment might never experience the kind of conditions it needs to succeed.