(This Week’s Episode: In which our manga explorer considers an old English teleseries and the vagaries of the shojo readership. . .)
Several months back, I noticed that BBC America was running old episodes of the Roger Moore teleseries, The Saint, as part of its Friday night lineup. I was never a big fan of the show when it first ran (was more of an Emma Peel lover), but I did remember it as being a moderately entertaining British adventure series. A few re-viewings of the show, though, and I was thoroughly disabused of even that modest assessment. Viewed thirty-plus years later, the show was completely lame: rote crime stories told as turgidly and sketchily as possible, over-relying on a faded type of 60’s faux continental “glamour” and Moore’s winking performance to mask its unoriginality. Unlike some 60’s artifacts, The Saint had not aged well.
At one point in the first volume of Yasuko Aioke’s From Eroica With Love (CMX), I recalled those dated episodes, a comparison that at first surprised me, but ultimately held through my reading of the rest of the book. According to a site of English speaking Eroica fans, Aioke’s series first began in the late seventies, continued into the early eighties and then went on hiatus until the early nineties while the artist presumably worked on other projects. The first volume reprints the initial three episodes from the 70’s, and you can definitely see the era in the artist’s vision of moneyed Europe. But are the results as out-of-time as The Saint?
From Eroica With Love focuses on the adventures of Earl Dorian Red Gloria (a.k.a. “Eroica”), a decadent aristocrat who doubles as an art thief. It’s Eroica who graces the cover of the first volume. Willowy, with long blond curly tresses and big dream eyes, bedecked with a large unsubtle lavender corsage and beads, he’s presented from the get-go as an unambiguously gay hero, though – unless I glazed over it – the word “gay” is never used. (The book’s packagers attempt to sidestep the issue, of course, by calling him “flamboyant” on the back cover promo text.) Originally published in the Japanese shojo mag, Princess, the series appears to fit within the manga sub-genre of series written for adolescent girls (the book is labeled “Teen”) that openly focus on male/male relationships. Not a topic I would’ve expected to find in DC’s Comics’ opening wave of translated manga titles, but apparently the company isn’t as cautious with its new line as I would’ve guessed it’d be.
Volume One opens on a trio of characters who apparently will become superfluous as the series progresses: Sugar Plum, a sixteen-year-old art student; Leopard Solid, a stunt man and Caesar Gabriel, an eighteen-year-old dreamy blond art expert and instructor. All three of these figures are gifted with extra-sensory perception (they can communicate telepathically, while Sugar also gets premonitions), though aside from the first story, the only member of the trio to get much face time is the wispy Caesar, who himself resembles one of the stunningly beautiful male figures from classical sculpture. (In the first story, in fact, he is used as the model for a statue that’s improbably sculpted by Sugar and Leopald to set a trap for the Earl.) Caesar is described as virginal and extraordinarily naïve about all matters sexual (“He’s so late blooming that it’s a miracle,” we’re told. “He’s never had a crush on anyone in his 18 years of life!”) With that kind of introduction, you just know that Caesar’s virginal proclivities are gonna be put to the test – and indeed they are.
Eroica and Gabriel meet at a party being held by a matronly art collector who is destined to fall victim to the Earl’s gang of art thieves. Surrounded by his gang of immaculately dressed and well-coiffed underlings, Eroica is as bedazzled by the sight of Caesar as he is a painting by Vermeer (“The face of an angel, a lithe body, an amazing mind,” he thinks as he sets eyes on the art instructor for the first time). Though Eroica’s infatuation sparks the jealousy of at least one of his gang members – a tight-fisted accountant – he flirts with the befuddled Caesar, who is eventually flees to his bed with a copy of a book entitled How to Deal With Unwanted Gay Romances by his side. Subtle, Aioke is not.
While set in the world of international art thieves, Eroica is less concerned with the mechanics of its caper storylines – which come across as sketchily perfunctory as anything Roger Moore assayed in his pre-Bond days – as it is the extensive “come hither” moments between Eroica and Caesar. With the introduction of Major Klaus Eberbach in the second episode, a strained triangle is introduced (and third wheel telepaths Sugar and Leopard get rather quickly shuffled offstage).
Also thin and long-haired in the manner of 70’s glam rockers, the Germanic Major represents super-ego repression to the max. Upon meeting the “flamboyant” Earl, Klaus immediately types him a degenerate “slime” – and he’s just as judgmental about the delicate Caesar, who he considers a “wimp.” (Hard to argue with that assessment, actually: the kid faints at the drop of an innuendo and is irritatingly weepy.) At first assigned by NATO to investigate Caesar’s putative telepathic powers, the chain-smoking Major enters a battle of wits against Eroica when the latter decides he wants a painting in that is part of the Eberbach family collection. (“If nothing else, I want that painting in order to thoroughly embarrass that thoroughly arrogant German,” Eroica proclaims after their first highly charged meeting.) This leads to a chase on the shores on the Northern Seas with all three men – Eroica, Klaus and poor frail Caesar – left stranded in a tank in the frozen north, forced to huddle against each other for warmth. Awkward? Not for Eroica.
In short, there’s a whole lotta tease in From Eroica With Love, much of it at the expense of either the ultra-nelly Caesar or uptight Major Klaus. In the book’s third and final episode, the German officer is assigned the task of retrieving a microfilm hidden under the skirt of a statue of Achilles, and there are several snickery moments when the Major considers the prospect of delving under a marble man’s skirt. Unfortunately, both the Major and the reader are kept from learning what is truly ‘neath that skirt since the steamship carrying it is hijacked at sea. At the same time, of course, Eroica has his eyes on the statue, stating that his love of art “demands” that he possess it.
We don’t even see a lot of Caesar in the third ep, though Eroica does take time out to visit the “comely” art instructor while he’s sleeping and plant a kiss on his face. With the Achilles statue still unclaimed and in London by the end of the book, though, one suspects that our young naïve object of desire will play more of a role in the story: we’re meant to see he’s dropping his young boy fear of Eroica and growing attracted to him. (“I can introduce you to a good counselor,” the Major offers after listening to Caesar, “he specializes in . . .growing pains.”) Hopefully, this game of pursuit and retreat will ultimately resolve itself: hate to think of these guys going over two decades without getting anywhere. . .
Aioke’s art is packed with the conventions of girls’ manga: at times, the floral patterns get so extreme that you wonder how any of the characters can breathe in the panels. The book’s male figures all stand around in sensitive or macho poses, while as much attention is paid to Eroica’s wardrobe as it is to storytelling. Occasionally, the various poses can go over the top – I couldn’t help snickering at a panel that showed the Major flanked by several underlings all grimly holding cigarettes in their mouths, for instance (even when he slugging a bad guy, the Major keeps a lit cigarette clenched in his mouth) – though it’s not much different from old American girl comics that used to halt the action for a full-panel shot of their heroine in a snappy, reader-designed outfit. At times, the artist’s reed-thin bodies threaten to float off the page; the only regular male cast member to show a different body time is a stock Interpol detective who inexplicably appears with floral patterns on his suit. I also sometimes found myself momentarily confused by panels where a character’s hair seemingly changed from black to blond (perhaps suggestive of different lighting?), a problem which was compounded by the fact that the three male leads all have similar thin aesthetics’ faces.
Do American girl manga fans buy this stuff as eagerly as Japanese readers? I wouldn’t be surprised to learn it was so: in a way, the book’s ongoing game of male/male tantalization presents nascent teengirl readers with the ultimate in non-threatening males. Eroica, though he may flirt nonstop, never gets beyond planting a single chaste kiss on the unconscious Caesar (who, nonetheless, recognizes that he’s been visited while he’s dreaming). Even when he holds Caesar captive, the most he does to take advantage of the situation is recite poetry to the boy. The surly Major regularly expresses his disdain toward either male or female who openly expresses their sexuality, while Caesar, of course, is just too clueless to be much a threat to the reader.
Though she vanishes halfway into the book, it’s sixteen-year-old Sugar Plum who brings us into this world, and she, quite pointedly, is shown to be nervous around any too-explicit sexuality. Confronted with a painting of Cupid and Venus kissing, she blushes when Eroica points out the work’s erotic elements. A stand-in for the shojo manga’s young reader, mayhaps? I wouldn’t doubt it.
As for my opening query – whether Eroica would age better than a faded Brit teevee series – well, considering that so many manga series feature protagonists who resemble a bastard child of Marc Bolan, the overall look of the series doesn’t seem particularly dated. I wish Aioke was as attentive to the mechanics of her crime plots as she is to the sight of a young man placing his hands on his hips, but, then, I’m clearly outside the primary demographic for this book. I do intend to read the second volume, though, if only to see if Major Klaus ever actually gets his hands under that skirt. . .