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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.

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.

33 for 2013

This is my list of the 33 things that happened in the comics world in 2013 that made me happy. They’re in alphabetical order.

Blue is the Warmest Color


Dirt Candy and the joys of comics about food

Here’s something you didn’t know about me: I once considered seriously going to cooking school.

Well, I’m not quite sure how “serious” the “seriously” part was, but at age 20 and obsessed with the Food Network (when it was good!) and the original Iron Chef, all I wanted to do was cook. But there was the pesky fact I was a vegetarian that got in the way of pursuing cooking school.

I still love to cook. I still love the Food Network (well, not as much as I did) and I spend more Saturdays than I should enjoying the cooking shows in PBS.

So of course, when I read that New York’s “vegetable” restaurant Dirt Candy‘s cookbook was going to be in comic form, I was automatically sold. Chef and proprietor, Amanda Cohen, wrote it with her husband, Grady Hendrix, and Action Philosophers artist Ryan Dunlavey provided the art. It’s a delightful glimpse into the burdens of opening and running a restaurant (harder than you think!) and the ups and downs of cooking (especially vegetarian food to skeptical audiences). Cohen’s voice is light and fun although she doesn’t shy away from the harder aspects of this life. Dunlavey does a wonderful job of keeping the pace with his playful artwork and animated style.

The recipes are amazing — many are more complicated than I want to tackle. One soup takes two days and there’s a lot of smoking and dehydrating and other impractical things, but they’re inspiring. I love the flavors Cohen comes up with and I’m happy to incorporate them into my own cooking. I also hope if I make it to NYC this year, that I can get to go to Dirt Candy.

My one complaint about Dirt Candy, though? Not enough images of the food. Both Dunlavey and Cohen kind of skimp on this area — the recipes are clear enough, but I wanted more illustrations.

Japan, unsurprisingly, does food comics better than we do in the West. Oishinbo, written by Tetsu Kariya with art by Akira Hanasaki, is 100 volumes but it’s broken up by subject in the U.S. They’re not cookbooks, but there’s plenty of information and history on food and many dazzlingly illustrated panels of dishes. If you still retain an interest in Japanese cuisine (and constantly threaten to make your friends vegetarian sushi), I don’t know why you’re not reading this series.  It’s fun just to look at. I wanted a few more elements of that from Dirt Candy.

As far as this year’s other major food-related comic, Get Jiro, which was co-written by celebrity chef/wild man Anthony Bourdain.  While I did enjoy the images of food, part of me kept wishing there were recipes instead of violence.

After all, recipes taking comic form is pretty logical. Recipes are, for the most part, sequential narratives and there are steps that can be easily illustrated.

Luckily for me, as far for fulling my need to see recipes in comics form, webcomics are were it’s at right now.

Every so often, Saveur invites a comics artist to create a piece about food. Some, like Lisa Hanawalt’s recipe for Hearty Sausage and Sweet Potato Soup are more or less straightfoward how-tos. Others, like Lucy Knisely’s Tanzania Travelogue, are more narrative pieces about the food eaten amongst the experiences the artist had.

Speaking of Knisely, she has an upcoming book that’s all about food called Relish and if that’s not quite enough, her blog, Crave This features plenty of simple recipes and fun images of food.

Panel from L. Nichols' Drawn ButterShe’s not alone there, though. I’m a big fan of L. Nichols’ Drawn Butter, especially for the drink recipes. Sarah Becan’s I Think Your Sauceome isn’t always about food, but they are often enough (and she sometimes has guest strips, which adds to the diversity of the food covered).

Of course, as a vegan, I sometimes feel alienated by a lot of cooking shows and even cooking webcomics. I watch and read to get ideas for flavors and techniques, but still, lessons on how to cook bacon are a waste of my time. That’s why Alisa Harris’ Cooking Up Comics is so delightful. Her recipes aren’t all vegan, although they’re usually at least vegan-friendly, but her clear illustrations and personal stories make all of her recipes fun.

And to me, that’s what it’s all about — food is something we all have in common. Food is a story we can all share with each other. I think comics are a perfect vehicle to tell these stories. So while I’d never claim this is any sort of comprehensive roundup of food comics, it’s the ones I delight in and they do fill the time between cooking show marathons. (And I absolutely welcome finding more!)

And maybe if you’re lucky, I’ll try out some of my own recipes on you.

Dear Fake Geek Girls: You can come hang out with me

I get what Tara Tiger Brown is trying to say here and, yes, my headline is as purposefully inflammatory as that one is. That’s the point.

I absolutely understand what it feels like to have all these things you’ve spent years trying to tell people about and being ignored at best or made fun of at worst for them. And then all the sudden all these other people decide all these things are awesome and you feel a little pushed by the wayside. Trust me, I get it.

But I also think there’s room for all of us.

Does it make me less of a gamer because I’m more likely to buy Bejeweled 3 than Mass Effect 3? (My two favorite video games are Tetris — for the original GameBoy — and Street Fighter II, by the way.)

Does it mean I’m less of a comic book reader because I get more excited about Mara than I do Avengers vs. X-Men? Or does it make me less of a fan of film because I prefer Wong Kar-Wai over Steven Spielberg?

All of these things are personal preferences. And I absolutely think finding common ground in your interests and tastes with other people is important — it definitely is. But I don’t think that’s all there is. And to me, the more the merrier.

For instance, I would never tell my mom she wasn’t a comic reader. She doesn’t read a lot of comics, but she’s expressed interest in several of titles I’ve mentioned (and she was curious about R. Crumb’s The Book of Genesis before I brought it up). My mom may not be the sort who goes to the comic book store every Wednesday, but I think my mom is as valid of a comic book reader as someone who does.

Those girls who pick up the Twilight manga because they loved the novels? They’re reading comics, too. At best, maybe they’ll decide the like the medium and decide to seek out more comics. At worst, that’s all they’ll read. I don’t have a problem with that either way. Both are completely valid.

I get I’m absolutely lucky in that I get to hang out with knowledgeable comic retailers and creators. But for as many gaps in my knowledge that I admittedly have, none of these people have ever once made me feel stupid. They’ve maybe handed me books and said I needed to read them, but they’ve never made me feel inferior for not having done so already.

So all you geek girls that are maybe just starting out and are maybe dabbling in all these thing: I absolutely welcome you. I have plenty of comics and movies and games I am more than happy recommend. If you decide this isn’t your thing, that’s cool, too. I just hope you did get to meet some great people in the meantime, because ultimately, that’s what this is about.

(Image is Jill Thompson’s art for Graphittie Designs’ Sandman/Death/Delirium T-shirt, which I may or may not be wearing right now and may have or may not have since I was 16 … anyway, it’s appropriate enough.)