An important thing you need to know about me is that I love love stories, but I don't think I like romances. Or rather, I don't think that romances like me.
I am fascinated by love stories because I am fascinated by relationships as containers for the people that create them. Individuals enter relationships and become something else in their union. The context of their relationships to the Self, the Beloved Other, and the External World dictate the shape those containers take. These containers catch, shelter, and may yet eventually spill over with the feelings held within them, the lives held within them.
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The love story is plastic. It can live and die in a single summer or reign a thousand years. Its contours may be rounded by loving hands and pleased sighs or made jagged by acts of violence. The love story is as grand as it wants to be or as intimate as the palm of the Beloved Other's hand.
Romances, however, escape me.
I didn't come to love stories through romance books, either, but rather Japanese animation and comics in my teens. Beginning in my 20s and well into my 30s, I began cycling through periods of heavy romance and erotic romance comics readership. Mostly Japanese, sometimes Korean or American, whatever I could find. Anime, too. From the sweet to the raunchy, that's all I would read.
I often found myself reading voraciously despite the common popular romance conventions and archetypes, not because of them. Sure, I like the intimate setting of the office romance, the heightened tension of the illicit yakuza affair. Monstrous or demonic lovers are always appreciated. I'll read about the romances of actors or rock stars, manga artists or sex workers if you put them in front of me. Historical romance or contemporary slice of life? I'll take it. But they don't draw me in because I specifically want to see Personality A paired up with Personality B, even as the stories assured me that's what I want. I could never want Personality C with Personality A, I'm told. And Personality D with Personality B was right out.
There are rules here, after all.
And if the characters have no chemistry, no spark, no reason to be together? It’s okay. It’s a romance. They’ll get together, anyway.
It has always been something of a self-imposed challenge to find romance comics that genuinely captivate me beyond escapist entertainment or wish fulfillment. As a reader, I don't just want to be pacified by stories. I want to feel something. Whenever I was in a reading mood, I sifted through piles of comics, sometimes in physical but mostly in digital. I plucked at the threads spanning entire bodies of work, tracking down comics through different subgenres and conceits. My search was fueled by the way a particular artist explored a facet of physical intimacy, or presented the complexities of unique, eccentric, and lived-in relationships. But those ubiquitous, perfectly serviceable romance stories, with all of their rules and archetypes, were a source of friction.
What comforted and entertained everyone in the comments section left me feeling cold, confused, or at times totally alienated.
Often, unsure quite as to why.
I love love stories, right? I must love romance. Romances are supposed to be entertaining. Comforting. Affirming. They are supposed to provide you with the fantasy, the aesthetic experience, of true, transcendent love. They can be dramatic, maybe melodramatic or even melancholy, sure, but their edges are supposed to be sanded down for those really rough spots. You know that it ends in Happily Ever After; the joy is in the ride, the comfort of familiar story beats and the safety of a positive outcome.
But is it a joy?
Can I ever get real joy from this?
It's a weird question, right? Why would I even want an answer? Because I clearly don't get it. I don't go here, and I'm not welcome here. Romance will never love me back.
But there's something I haven't explained yet.
It turns out that this entire thing was a ruse, because what I really wanted to do is tell you that I've recently gotten really into the comics of Claire Napier.
Full disclosure for the sake of transparency: I've known Claire online for several years, first as a canny critic and editor, then later as a cartoonist. This is not exactly a proper review, let alone an impartial one, but I don't write those, anyway. If I were smarter and managed my time better, I would have written this while Claire's crowdfunding campaign for her latest comic was still underway, but I never claimed to have my life together. Apologies for late arrivals and poor timing.
Napier's most recent endeavor, The Magic Necklace, arrived in my DMs as if by a spell. (Mostly, I was talking trash on Twitter and it facilitated a conversation.) I was grateful for the opportunity to read it early. It is a riotous, rapturous interrogation of The Bad Boy. The Man-Trap. But even saying that sells The Magic Necklace short. Positioned as a Horror Romance, Napier touches on things I am so desperate to see in romance stories.
True, honest to God fear.
I read Napier's 2021 comic Take Me To The Place I Love and found it to be such a strange delight. Loose, scrawling pages portray lovers undone by deceit, shaped around a tale of dreams and devilish propositions. It's a fun, understatedly funny, and genuinely chilling comic that draws on elements of pulp horror and fantasy to contemplate love, trust, and intuition. Horror Romance is a fitting genre amalgamation for Napier's work. She pulls together threads of desire, glamor, and distrust in her construction of love, giving these concepts the ambiguity they deserve. Feelings as large as love and betrayal are never quite so neat and tidy. I love that her conception of relationships is expansive enough to grapple with these feelings through heady lines and sensual dreamscapes.
In The Magic Necklace, I think Napier really hits it on something special. Protagonist Ann-Rita lives her life within the containers men create for her. Be it by the blood bonds of family or the physical bonds of romantic and sexual relationships, she is a woman contained. Ann-Rita has the right reasons to fear men, but today, she is bold. Today, she wants a man for herself. The one she chooses is terrible for her, and she likes it.
The threat of interpersonal violence is heavy in Napier's fine, scratchy cartooning. Claustrophobic black fields are pierced by intermittent shocks of pink and heart halftone to create the sense of discord. Ann-Rita's soft, pleasantly round forms intersect with the harsh lines of her erotic object, this trap in the shape of man, visually threatened by his jagged construction. He can destroy her, but she wants to yield her destruction to him, insofar that he can.
Ann-Rita is changed, after all.
Napier moves deftly through the gradations of fear, desire, and power, wielding the pen like a sword. Her marks are more bold and confident here than I have previously seen to create amorphous, dreamlike sequences that are anchored by palpable tension. Ann-Rita's interiority is portrayed in surreal, funny, and sometimes uncomfortable ways as she thinks through her encounter with her chosen man. It is uncomfortable in the ways that desire is often uncomfortable. She wants him yet is afraid of him, afraid that she isn't sexy enough for him, but knows that he wants her and cannot hurt her. It's a chaotic push and pull between self-preservation and self-indulgence, navigating the internal clashes of wanting and fearing.
I think my favorite part of the comic is that sex scene. So many wonderfully cartooned dicks. Billy, her man, is not classically handsome in that clinch cover kind of way, but his sharp angles and rough, dirty style come together to fascinate and excite Ann-Rita. He's hot and she wants him. Billy takes out his dick and begins to seduce her with filthy talk, cementing his domineering role in their brief courtship as Sexual Actor. Ann-Rita performs her role as conquest, as taken object, as unwilling participant to his wanting even though she wants it, too. She wants it more. Her enthusiastic consent is brushed aside as Billy talks at her as if he's corrupting her, ruining her, taking something from her. But Ann-Rita is getting everything she wants.
What is being negotiated here? Has anything been negotiated here? What is he thinking he's doing to her? Should that color her desire for him? Would it color your desire if you were in her place? It's a lot to think about.
There is a twist (and a twist and a twist) to The Magic Necklace that I won't spoil because it deserves to be experienced firsthand. It took a few readings to fully untangle its shifty nuances, and you should just read Claire's comic for yourself. To paraphrase my unofficial blurb on the Zoop crowdfunding page, The Magic Necklace is a gnarly little piece of cartooning about the intersections of fear, power, and desire that fears nothing.
I am, unironically, obsessed.
See, you probably expect me to say that I like it simply because this is a horror book. Because Ann-Rita isn't like those other girls. The romance girlies. But she is. Ann-Rita is absolutely a romance protagonist in a romance story, and her Billy is the representation of The Bad Boy. While fairly down to earth in terms of class and desirability, Billy is the dark stranger. He is the devilishly smiling man in a fashionable coat who haunts our collective consciousness. Billy is the object of erotic desire because he is an agent of potential (and realized) danger. Napier is deeply in tune with romance tropes and conventions, which is what makes The Magic Necklace's exploration of these ideas so compelling to me.
The appeal of men like Billy is that element of danger. After all, a man can be dangerous. He can physically hurt you, sexually violate you, trap you through money, marriage, and a baby. Fear is ever present in romance for that reason, to construct that fantasy of a man who cannot harm you but can still perform menace. A man who can be made better through his love for you. Or, alternatively, an unattainable man now obsessed with you, hoping to possess you, and for you revel in that possession. It's facing the real potential for interpersonal violence in a fictional, fantasy context, processing it, and achieving catharsis through the redemptive power of love.
Beyond even the real or unrealized threat of the Beloved Other, fear is a very common and natural feeling to explore in romance. In the most stripped down, honest terms, love is scary. Love makes you vulnerable. It makes you expose yourself to someone, to allow them close enough to hurt you, regardless of gender, sexuality, or relationship style. Even the everyday fear of betrayal or rejection is a wrenching emotional experience.
You are right to be afraid of love! You are right to find the thrill of fear part of love and its most dizzying heights!
But while I understand the inherent romantic or erotic fantasy of bad lovers, I am so frequently confused by their portrayals. (This extends beyond heterosexual romance, but that’s where this discussion is going to remain for today.) Because the heroine is right to fear the bad lover, because he is so threatening, but that fear is always assuaged by the fact that the bad man loves the heroine. Though she is rightly afraid, and often excited by the danger he poses, whether implicitly or explicitly, the fear is so frequently just…flavor.
Seasoning to taste.
She stops finding his behavior scary. Or he simply stops being so scary at some point and she's fine with it. Or he continues to scare her, perhaps even hurt her, and it's just waved away. It's taken for granted like everything else in the text. They must be together because this is a romance, and because it is a romance, they must be together. These tensions are resolved by the power of love, no matter how brutal or dehumanizing the man’s love may be. The heroine may just accept that she is afraid, and that he can (and maybe does) hurt her, because this is love.
She isn't given the space to process that fear, or sit with it meaningfully. Neither are we as readers. It makes it all feel so…empty.
And Ann-Rita doesn't let that slide. Ann-Rita digs into her fear, her helplessness, her passivity, and explores those feelings. She takes them like reins and rides Billy for her own pleasure. Because, like the other girls, Billy can't hurt her. With Ann-Rita, it's through the clever trick of the story that she becomes impervious to male violence, rather than the agreed upon construction of the fantasy. The handshake between the author and reader that gestures toward these feelings but often doesn't honor them in any satisfying way. With that armor built into her story, she is allowed the full breadth of her feelings. We, the readers, are allowed to savor them with her as part of the courtship, not an extraneous detail or a passage begging to be forgotten.
Ann-Rita gets her happy ending, too. Her apotheosis is wrenched away from the men and taken on her own terms. Those terms aren't exactly Happily Ever After material, either, but this is what Ann-Rita desires. There is horror in that desire that we didn't see leading up to the conclusion, but you, the reader, must simply sit with it.
What is a romance without its happy ending, after all?
This is a wish fulfilled, even if the wish isn't yours.
All of this just to say that Napier's work is very good. Not because other things are necessarily bad, but because it's very honest. I find myself reacting so strongly to her comics because they satisfy my desire for something strange, uncomfortable, erotic, and yet still deeply rooted in the language of romance. If there wasn't something intriguing about the genre, I wouldn't be thinking and talking about it. I wouldn't keep digging through stacks of comics trying to find something to scratch that itch. I wouldn't keep writing stories about love, and falling in love with others' love stories.
Sometimes, I just think you want something a little gnarly to make the honey even sweeter.
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Love this whole aspect. Very easily described why I love stories where there is an interesting or unique relationship, but it doesn’t have the HEA/HFN people expect from romance.
As an aside, I think you also might have somewhat described what it’s like to be a kind of Aromantic. To enjoy love and intimacy without the romance, the niceties that society says are supposed to be hallmarks of a relationship.