Collecting Romance- Harlequin and manga

Back in January, I was starting to think about collecting some romance novels (everyone needs a hobby, right?) and what I’d want my collection to look like. Anyone who knows me won’t be surprised to learn that what I really wanted was to collect oddballs. Books that might not mean much to most readers, but mark an important point in the history of the genre. This both keeps me from driving myself up a wall trying to find sequential Harlequin Historicals (though that’s an idea!) and it makes me feel better knowing that someone, somewhere is holding onto these books with the knowledge of what they mean.

So where to start? There are so many ways to go that your head would spin for weeks. But I knew where to begin. With Harlequin’s Dark Horse manga.

What? Harlequin manga? You heard me. Let me explain.

As described in this excellent article from Duke’s Unsuitable blog, Harlequin entered the Japanese market in the early 1980s and found success within a decade, becoming a dominant provider of fiction translated from English in the country. As they did in other countries, Harlequin became a hit by hiring local translators who not only adapted the text, but adjusted plots and dialogue to fit different cultural norms. But they saw the potential for more by getting into the Japanese ladies comics market. In 1998, they began partnering with Ozora Publishing House to translate their books into comic form.

As the new century dawned, manga began to become more popular in America and Harlequin saw yet another opportunity for growth. In 2005 the company licensed Dark Horse Comics to translate and distribute their manga titles back to English.

Only six titles were published by Dark Horse before Harlequin took over distribution in 2006, and continues to do so to this day. Inevitably, the manga shifted to the digital space, and they’re available in the US through Harlequin Comics.

As I said though, my interest is really in those Dark Horse titles. They represent a fascinating translation project from start to finish. A book like Debbie Macomber’s The Bachelor Prince (published as a Silhouette Romance in 1994) first had its text translated from English to Japanese, including cultural changes, for a regular text edition. Then the text was translated into graphic form by Misao Hoshiai and published in Japan. Then the text from that graphic form was translated back into English Ikoi Hiroe for the American market. It’s a little bit like a romance version of Telephone Down the Lane, right?

Another interesting element of these six editions is that while the original texts all had different authors, and the manga translation was done by five different artists, they were all translated back to English by the same person. It raises fascinating questions of whose voice is really represented in the books.

Another unique aspect of these books is the way there were presented. Two separate lines were created. The first, Harlequin Pink, was intended for all ages. Typically, these were from the Harlequin or Silhouette Romance lines, so they tended to be pretty chaste. The books in the Harlequin Violet line were Harlequin Presents books, which tended to have a higher heat level, but were still closed-door. The Violet books were marketed as being for readers age 16 and over.

The color of the line the books as assigned to also indicated what color ink would be used in the printing. This was a gimmick that definitely had mixed results.

Interior pages from The Bachelor Prince (2006).

The pink volumes are, quite frankly, headache-inducing after a while. While it’s really more of a dark pink ink, it still ends up being very difficult to read.

Interior pages from Holding on to Alex (2006).

The violet/purple ink for the other volumes is really only marginally better. Not so many headaches, but I have found it hard to concentrate on it for any length of time.

Ultimately, Harlequin eliminated the Violet line for US audiences, and stuck with Pink. Thankfully, the Harlequin Comics volumes you read today are in good old black and white.

These six volumes won’t ever make me rich, and they have no lasting significance to romance history beyond the fact that they were Harlequin’s first experiment into graphic storytelling. But they were easy to acquire, with all six costing me around $35 including shipping despite the fact that I bought them from multiple sellers, and they’re interesting conversation starters that I’m happy to have.

Spines of all six Harlequin Dark Horse manga

What was your starting point for romance collecting? Or are there books you secretly lust after?

Published by Steve Ammidown

I'm a mercenary archivist interested in genre fiction, physical and digital usability in archives, and telling the stories held within the records.

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