Three quick reviews of Harlequin manga titles

So about 10 years ago, Harlequin, in partnership with Dark Horse, did a line of comics called Harlequin Ginger Blossom — manga-style romance comics written by Harlequin writers and drawn by Japanese artists. There were 14 titles published and then they disappeared. I figured the whole thing managed to not catch on and it disappeared

The other day, I was browsing through Comixology, and I came across the Harlequin/SB Creative page (I believe most are also available on the Kindle, though, and possibly elsewhere — this is just where I found them). Not only had the whole Harlequin manga thing not disappeared, there are nearly 450 titles. (Most seem to be both be written and drawn by women.)

A quick crowdsourced query offered some suggestions of ones to read. So of course I bought some and did just that.

lucDomesticating Lucwritten by Sandra Paul, art by Mayu Takayama

This was probably the most straightforward and the sweetest of the three I read. It’s about a playboy, Luc, who is trying to train his late grandmother’s dog so he can put it up for adoption. His dog trainer, Julie, ends up staying with him to do just that (like you do).

It’s fun and silly (the dog, an Italian mastiff named Puppy, even has some asides). I didn’t find Luc to be particularly attractive — little too stiff and square-jawed for me — but Takayama’s Julie is bright-eyed and adorable. It’s the least sexually-explicit of the three I read — while Julie and Luc clearly has sex, it’s all hazy and dreamy with no nudity.

I didn’t quite buy the romance between them — it’s all pretty obvious and tame — but it was cute.

passionate-sinnerThe Passionate Sinner, written by Violet Winspear, art by Yoko Hanabusa

This is when things start to go off the deep end, which I am guessing is the ultimate appeal of these. I mean that in a good way. A surgeon named Paul Von Setan is blinded and the nurse who took the blame, Merlin, pretends to be an old woman to become Paul’s secretary as he works on a book on a tropical island.

Following all of that? Of course, Merlin is found out and Paul suspects she was the nurse who intentionally blinded him. There’s a bunch of gothic silliness here in the classic sense (think … Jane Eyre, but maybe in reverse and maybe with a loss of a limb).

The relationship seems primarily passionate and physical at first, and Paul definitely has a weird, controlling streak. There is a bit more nudity here and the sex scenes — while still hazy — definitely feel more physical and present. Hanabusa’s art has a pleasing retro quality to it, which I enjoyed. Her panel layouts are also dynamic and appealing.

This kind of falls into the “I don’t know if I’d call it good” category for me, but it was fun and I enjoyed I had no idea where it was going next (even if it ended up in an expected place).

Thesheik Sheik and the Virgin Secretary, written by Susan Mallery and art Kakuko Shinozaki

When I asked for recommendations, someone said “anything with Sheik in the title” and OK, let’s ignore the ethnic implications and just go with that. I picked this one because that title made it seem like it was going to be ridiculous.

I was kind of right. It wasn’t as over-the-top as I expected, but I think that made it better.

The virgin secretary of the title, Kiley, asks her boss, Rafiq (you guessed it! The sheik of the title. He’s from a fictional country in the Middle East so that fixes everything!) if she can be his mistress. You see, Kiley
just caught her fiancé cheating on her and clearly this is a logical solution to that. They agree to do this for three months.

I admire how quickly the plot just jumps to this (this arrangement happens in the first three pages). However, after Kiley admits to Rafiq she’s a virgin, he says he’s going to take it slowly — in a good way, of course. Yes, they fall in love because of course they do, but their relationship seems to have a natural progression. While there is conflict and family drama, it’s all pretty quickly resolved. I liked that.

Of the three I read, this definitely had the most sex — lots of undressing, fondling early on and it quickly progresses to more as the book continues. There’s quite a bit of nudity as well (all female, though). The sex scenes are pretty extended and while they still leave enough to the imagination, I was surprised at what they didn’t.

Shinozaki’s art is loose and modern and I thought it suited this story well. Kiley isn’t presented as a great beauty, but that’s definitely one of the points of the story. Rafiq is playfully handsome. Her page layouts have a breeziness to them that makes this story fun. For all the expected beats, the art really carries the story.

I have to admit I was surprised by the overall quality of these — I definitely went into this with some curiosity but not overly high expectations. The writing, while it adheres to pretty standard romance novel tropes and beats, is strong and effective. The manga artists are a good match for each title. These feel like they weren’t treated as a throwaway — the quality is much, much better than it needs to be. I love that.

While I could see how easily these could be addicting — they’re certainly entertaining and fun — at about $6 per title, they’re a little pricey for things I’m unlikely to ever read again. However, I like to know they’re there and whenever I need some silly comfort, I can imagine myself buying a couple more every now and then. I have a couple more recommendations to read but I’ll gladly take more.

Movie review: People Places Things

This review originally appeared Wednesday on Unseen Films.

Comics are cool and hip, right? Well, maybe not that superhero stuff necessarily, but those “literary” graphic novels that tend to get featured in the New York Times and such. Those and the people who make them are worth writing an indie romantic drama/comedy around, certainly.

I am kidding here, partially — but writer/director James C. Strouse’s generically-titled People Places Things seems to take that conceit. While I give Strouse credit for some of his details, much of the “graphic novelist” elements seem like a cute motif in the larger story. While they add some unique touches, they do little to elevate the movie much beyond where you’d expect it to be.

The extended title sequence features blue-pencil comic art illustrating how graphic novelist Will Henry (Jemaine Clement, better known as half of Flight of the Conchords) met his current partner and mother of their twins, Charlie (Stephanie Allynne). As openings go, it’s intriguing but not necessarily insightful. Artist Gray Williams, who provided the art, illustrates these scenes in a typical indie comics way (think Adrian Tomine) — clean and a bit cute. It does little to tell us anything about who Will and Charlie are, however.

We first meet them in the flesh at their twins’ birthday party. Will catches Charlie cheating on him with “off-Broadway monologist” Gary (Michael Chernus). It’s an abrupt introduction to these characters — especially to Charlie — and sets up the meandering tone the movie often has.

When the story picks up a year later, Will is in bad shape, drifting through weekends with his (admittedly adorable) twin daughters (played by sisters Gia and Aundrea Gadsby) and the class he teaches on cartooning at School of Visual Arts. When a student, Kat (the amazing Jessica Williams) sets him up with her mother, Diane (Regina Hall),Will begins to question the direction of his life is taking. Or something. I think that’s what we’re supposed to think.

While Will should be an oblivious manchild, Clement brings such sweetness, wit and charm to the role it’s hard not to root for him. His initial scenes with Diane have a playful antagonism that show someone who’s smart but cautious with who he lets in. Even though the movie does have a few non-surprising scenes, like where Will fails to get his daughters to school on time — his gentle but deep love toward his girls is honest and heartfelt. Will is not without his faults but he’s man who is trying to do the best he can for his daughters and himself.

And that’s really the major flaw of the movie — as appealing of a leading man as Clement makes (and no doubt, he’s already a star, but he’s wonderful in this), Will has no real journey. And the major issue is with the character of Charlie.

While some of Charlie’s fears and complaints are understandable — she gave up her own ambitions for Will’s career and after becoming a mother — her character is written in a shrill, unlikable way (and introducing her while she’s cheating on the father of her daughters does her no favors). Allynne does what she can with the role, but Charlie feels unfortunately selfish and flightly because the movie requires her to be. I never really felt like I understood her motivations of what Will saw in her, other than they shared a history. (It doesn’t help that Clement and Allynne have little chemistry.)

But let’s get back to the comics stuff, which is what interested me in this movie in the first place.

While Will’s career as a graphic novelist is somewhat integral to the plot, it also too much like window-dressing. Will could’ve been any sort of artist — a writer, a musician, an actor. The “comics” aspect does come across way too much as a bid for hipness, especially when it comes to a somewhat forced conversation about the relevance of comics as American literature with Diane. I have fears that “graphic novelist” will quickly become the creative occupation of choice for protagonists of indie movies.

The movie does get some comic things right, though — Will teaches as SVA and certainly, many comic artists do. I’m not particularly sure why we’re supposed to look down on Will for living in Astoria (I know people who make comics who live there happily) and I kind of want to complain there aren’t enough women in Will’s class (although the bit about a male student sharing his comic about learning to masturbate felt pretty on-point, complete with Will’s eye-rolling exhaustion about it).

The shining star in this movie is Kat (and if there’s any justice in the world, Jessica Williams will be a huge star). She’s a 19-year-old black woman who wants to make comics and hangs out (or works — it’s not entirely clear) in a poorly-disguised Bergen Street Comics. She’s working on a comic with her life with her mother (and the men her mother dates) and from what we see of it, it’s pretty awesome. Will recognizes it’s awesome too, and he shares his work-in-progress with Kat. They have an intriguing, complicated relationship that feels built on mutual respect rather than romance, In fact, when Will misreads Kat’s intentions initially, she shuts him down so fast. It’s refreshing to a younger woman and an older man connect on a level that’s not sexual at all.

I loved that the movie recognized that it’s young women who are the future of comics, and choose to represent this with a woman of color. There was not nearly enough of Kat in this movie.

If you watch the trailer, you’ll know what to expect with People Places Things. It’s by no means a bad movie, but it’s slight and “cute” is probably the strongest word you can come up with for it. It’s definitely cute. It’s definitely a pleasant way to spend 90 minutes. But sadly, the more interesting elements get lost in movie that decides to hit the most obvious beats that the appealing cast can’t overcome. There is a good movie about these characters (especially about Will and Kat) but this movie just isn’t it.

(People Places Things is in theaters and on Video On Demand starting Aug. 14.)

Pénélope Bagieu at the Gaithersburg Book Festival


You wouldn’t know it to look at her, but French cartoonist Pénélope Bagieu is a knight.

Bagieu laughed off being a Chevalier des arts et des lettres, saying it mostly consisted of getting a hug and a heavy pin, it did set the tone for her conversation with George O’Connor at the Gaithersburg Book Festival on May 16.

Bagieu, who is a recent transplant to the U.S. (Brooklyn, specifically — she joked the next thing she’s working on is finding a couch), discussed with O’Connor the recent translation of her first graphic novel, Exquisite Corpse (First Second, 2015) into English as well as her life, her work and being a rock star (she’s a drummer! Despite the fact she said her former band sucks, she was still a drummer in a rock band and that’s amazingly cool).

Bagieu got her start drawing a comic called Josephine for Swiss magazine Femina. While she had a background in animation, she had never drawn a comic before, so she said she learned as she went. After she completed a year, she realized she had a book. After three years, she had enough and liked the idea of writing a complete story. That became Exquisite Corpse.

O’Connor asked about why it took so long for the book, originally published in France in 2010, to appear in English. Bagieu talked about meeting First Second editor Mark Siegel in France and how he expressed interest in her work, but because of translation and rights issues, it just took a long time. She also discussed the differences between French and American markets. In France, books are just released; in the U.S. there are worries about if it’s for adults or if it’s for kids. She also laughed that books can’t be “too French” for American audiences.

Bageiu said she’s enjoying her time in America and loves that people are connecting with her work. She finds it amazing and delightful her book was translated. She joked that she doesn’t even care if people come up to her and say Exquisite Corpse is “crap” because they “said it in English.”

O’Connor asked about the main character of Exquisite Corpse, Zoe. Zoe wasn’t a reader and O’Connor found that intriguing. Bagieu said that was actually something she could relate to, mentioning that famous people were the people on TV in her world. She also mentioned that despite making comics, she didn’t really read them until some bookstore clerks helped her out. She mentioned My Mommy: Is in America and She Met Buffalo Bill by Jean Regnaud and Mile Bravo as the breakthough comic for her. It left her “crying like a fountain” and made her realize that comics aren’t just adventures or “boyish.” She said she now gives all her friends comics as gifts, and she pointed out, she’s “never wrong.”

Bageiu and O’Connor then discussed her process. She writes a lot before she ever starts drawing, and said no one else can really understand her scripts but her. She plans things out because the moment she starts to draw, it’s “scary.” She said the one thing she’s really careful about and clear about is the dialogue.

When asked about her influences, Bageiu said her mom had a lot of picture books, and she spent a lot of time with those. She mentioned ’50s and ’60s illustrators, especially, and cartoons. She used to tell people she wanted to grow up to be Tex Avary.

As far as upcoming projects go (other than a couch), she just completed a book about the ’60s folk scene, focusing on Mamma Cass, called California Dreaming. While there’s no promising it will be out in English, she’s hopeful.

In conclusion, O’Connor asked if Bageiu had any dream projects. She said she doesn’t really think that way, but at a panel at Toronto Comic Arts Festival, she and other panelists were asked what all illustrators dreamed of doing. Everyone one of them said “the cover of The New Yorker.” While she didn’t say she hopes for that, it doesn’t seem out the realm of possibilities for her.

After all, there are so many things she wants to do. She wants to live “one hundred years” because she has so many stories to tell.

But since Bageiu has already been knighted, I don’t think any of us should worry about what the future holds for her.

Review: Part-Time Princesses by Monica Gallagher

Part-Time PrincessesSenior year isn’t going as well as they’d hoped.

Best friends Amber, Tiffany, Michelle and Courtney perform as princesses at their local theme park, The Enchanted Park (which has seen better days) and are looking forward to their futures. However, as obstacles keep them from their perceived dreams, our heroines in Monica Gallagher‘s Part-Time Princesses (Oni Press, 2015), realize they can use their strengths and abilities to save their park from those who want to destroy it.

It’s refreshing to read a comic about teenage girls that’s not focused on them being misfits. Although our heroines are popular, they’re more Clueless than Mean Girls — they can be a bit self-involved but they’re well-meaning and each has her own motivations and interests, from the ambitious, smart Michelle to the dramatic Tiffany

Gallagher has a wonderful eye for fashion and the way teen girls actually interact. Each girl looks unique — down to her body type and style (Courtney is athletic and sporty, wannabe model Amber is tall and graceful). While Gallagher’s backgrounds are sparse, they focus the attention on her strong ability to convey personality and emotions through body language and facial expressions. The girls not only feel like friends to each other — they feel like girls you know.

While the story mostly proceeds with the expected beats as each girl finds her true abilities, there are a few curves — an unexpected romance, a hidden conspiracy — that keep the plot from feeling too obvious. Gallagher’s gift for the playful rhythms of life keep her storytelling strong and fresh.

As much as I love comics about girls and women in extraordinary circumstances (whether it’s real life or fantastic), it’s refreshing to read a graphic novel that’s about normal girls doing mostly normal things. I would love to see more comics like Part-Time Princesses in the world.

Digital review copy provided by Oni Press.

2014 Comics Superlatives

As I started rounding up the comics I liked this year, I saw a pattern, so I made a joke:

And then I just decided to go with it.
This is not a definitive list but these are all comics, creators, events and projects from 2014 I want to recognize. I think we can all agree that 2014 was a pretty remarkable year for comics.