For much of today’s less sophisticated content consuming set, the topic of love is typically broached in just three ways: characters having or the pursuit of sex, characters uttering or their obsessing over saying the words “I love you”, or the hard sacrifice, usually of one’s less favored child. Yes, much like the naive acolytes of political idealism who believe that promises shouted in trisyllabic rhythms equal action, those who yearn for ‘happily ever after’ as their end-goal are bound for disappointments.
As move lovebirds will tell you, it’s only after surviving the shallowness of sexy times, word obsessions, and when there’s no children left that the real business of ‘love’ really gets started. There are no ‘happily ever afters’ here.
In the world of Ares & Aphrodite, the latest graphic novel collaboration between writer Jamie S. Rich and artist Megan Levens, there’s a few things you should know. First, absolutely everyone here is gorgeous, from the lowliest assistant to aging movie stars to the story’s leads. Second, the very word “love” is misused here, despite being in the book’s subtitle. Judging from the way characters throw the word around you’d think they were talking about stock options and commodities. Love is a thing to be had, to be called, in this candy-coated world. I guess that works for toddlers and preteens, but not for respectable adults trying to forge adult relationships.
Meet Will Ares: single, tall, with a smoldering sexiness that resembles a more handsome John Krasinski – and he loves his cat. He’s also a divorce attorney, which means vapid women won’t date him and everyone else seems to hate him. He also shares a last name with a certain Greek god of war, Ares, which is convenient.
Meet Gigi Averelle: single, blonde, blessed with the killer body of a personal trainer and the face of a young Meg Ryan. While Gigi may not have a goddess-quality surname to call her own, she is, in fact, something of a love bringer: she co-owns a successful wedding consultant business named – wait for it – Goddess of Love Nuptials.
Another difference is that while the mythological Aphrodite was something of a player (let’s just say the goddess certainly got around), Gigi is a solid paragon of virtue. She’s also too busy for love, at least in finding love for herself. Instead, she throws herself entirely into her work, which just happens to be helping cement love for others. Can’t you just feel the love, love, love?
Her new client, Carrie Cartwright, is a young actress who graduated from starring in the Disney Channel-sounding ripoff “Summer Camp Sing-A-Long” series to feature films, and is now set to marry a rich and powerful Hollywood producer, the philandering Evans Beatty, who looks like a fat Charles Bronson, minus the cool moustache and artillery.
It turns out Evans Beatty is set to divorce his second wife, screenwriter Eileen, whose sole role here is to rant and install doubt in the mind of Evans’ future bride, Carrie, before disappearing from the frame – never to be seen or heard from again. Evans needs a divorce attorney, so in comes Will to the picture. But Evans is getting married to Carrie, so let’s bring in Gigi while we’re at it.
Eileen’s melodrama and hysterics also serve another purpose – they bring Will and Gigi face to face, discussing their mutual client’s pre-nuptial agreement – or lack thereof. You’d think Evans own divorce attorney would know the answer, but Will doesn’t, which is really quite shocking when you think about it (“I handle the marriages when they’re over, not when they’re beginning.”). I’m not sure if that’s how these things work…
Anyway, it’s not long before these two impossibly good-looking single people decide to make a wager: if Evans Beatty and Carrie go through with their marriage, then Carrie agrees to go out on a date with Will. No marriage, however, means Gigi gets to create an online profile for Will and set him up with three blind dates, apparently to prove “there is no love, no fate”, that the universe is random. Setting up an online profile sounds kind of the opposite of random to me, but sure, let’s go with it.
“You think there’s a gooey caramel heart under this hard candy shell?” she asks, questioning whether he’s misjudged her. “You’re obviously an insufferable pain in the ass,” he says, but then adds “But you’re also smart and funny and absolutely driven.” Conflict City, here we come!
As per the gods of romance fiction dictate, slight conflicts arise to make readers second guess whether the marriage will take place or not. Subplots concerning a sleazy tabloid, a disgruntled ex-wife, and plenty of banter between the two leads about love lost, love gained, and finding the love of your life.
I get it: this is a love story, so there should be talk about love. But as described here, the very idea of love couldn’t be anything further from true romance. Jamie S. Rich creates an entirely friction-free existence, eliminating every possible roadblock that would keep these two beautiful people from realizing they were made from each other. As main characters both Will and Gigi are the whitest white bread you can imagine; if you made sandwiches from them they’d have no crust. They’re completely, utterly, and without question a pair of boring people. There’s no reason to root for them because they have everything most of us would kill for already, and their supposed ‘love connection’ feels more like an entitlement than actual romance.
One such scene is particularly ludicrous: Gil and Gigi, charged with finding and bringing Carrie back to Evans after she’d run away to a local hotel, find themselves with an empty room for the night after realizing that Carrie slipped past them. The two decide to make a night of it, with full dinner and a romantic walk on the beach. However, each hadn’t planned for such an event, and arrived only with small travel packs. Yet, come dinner time, each is decked out in stunning new threads appropriate for the situation.
Where did the new threads come from? Who cares – these are love wars! The romantic walk leads to even further narrative hand-holding, the type scientifically designed to lead to an exact, specific outcome with minimal damage. Gil explains why he’s attracted to Gigi, who by now is half-drunk on a pilfered wine glass from their glamorous dinner.
“You’re talented and you’re driven and you have your own life and can totally deal with the fact I do, too.” But, as if that’s not enough to get her heart all a’flutter, he adds the bombshell: “You’re also stunning.”
Not just stunning, but stunning in a totally real, totally non-Hollywood way. He goes in for the kill with the clincher: “You’re a wake-up call, a reminder of how real beauty is when there’s no silicone or airbrushing.”
How could he know this? Because she’s gorgeous? As I mentioned earlier, EVERYONE in this book is bloody gorgeous, even the background characters. To be honest, apart from her perfect looks and body (and they’re pretty perfect, I must say) Gigi’s biggest selling point for Will is that she didn’t turn a complete blind-eye after learning what his profession was. Again, she’s a total Meg Ryan (pre-2000 Meg Ryan, anyway). I guess that’s pretty good.
I couldn’t help but think of another famous ‘love’ story, that of modern audiences’ fondness for what they believe is the ultimate romance: Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, which shares not just an ampersand with this book but also a complete and utter misunderstanding of the difference between love and tragedy. If your potential mate thinks that a mislaid suicide pact is anything at all like romance, run! Run for the hills, because that’s crazy talk.
The best and most lasting relationships, the kind found outside the fantasy world of romance comics and rom-coms, anyway, are usually those built on characters persevering through their inherent flaws and imperfections.
Will and Gigi’s “romance” plays more like an innocent flirtation, one that may not even withstand the oft-mentioned date ‘prize’, let alone forever. Everything about these two is pitch perfect, from their impossibly rendered supermodel good looks to their successful careers to their impeccable fashion tastes. Their repartie even matches, as do their animal companions (he’s Team Feline, she’s Team Pooch).
Only this story clearly isn’t intended for little kids; it’s a graphic novel for adults, presumably the kind old enough to have lived through – and survived – the naive angst of teenage flirtations. The occasional language bomb makes it clear it’s not intended for younger readers (at least younger readers without really cool parents). But there’s no tension, no real intrigue, no dramatic tension of the sort. Reading through this is like waiting for a punchline to a bad joke that never comes. It just happens, and it’s boring.
An afterward by self-appointed love comics historian Jacque Nodell (whose biggest claim to comics fame is her grandfather, Martin Nodell, being the creator of The Green Lantern) seeks to resurrect interest in the stale and outdated romance comics genre by endorsing this one, which either speaks volumes to her own taste in comics – or questionable acceptance to change. She’s confident this book “will be one of the modern romance tales that leads the way for a true resurgence in the genre.”
If you can’t trust the advice of a comics ‘historian’ who only just a few sentences prior admits to her own “reluctance to embrace new romance comics” about choice selections in new romance comics, who can you trust? I guess being able to pimp one’s personal blog in the book could do that to a person. I’m sure she’s a lovely person who deeply cares for comics, but she’s wrong on this point.
The era she speaks fondly of is one that grew out of the heinous government crackdown and self-imposed censorship that infantilized the industry following the institution of the much-reviled Comics Code. Like mold. Why anyone would ever wish for a return to this emotionally stunted period is a mystery. To be fair, at least some cartoonists during this time were able to rebel (somewhat) by crafting zany and zanier stories that pushed tongues even further into cheeks.
Megan Levens’ artwork is good enough for this kind of story, clean and straightforward, giving these characters just the right facial expressions to match their actions. Her style is a little too Photoshopped for my tastes but it works here. I’ve read enough of Jamie S. Rich’s other work to know he’s above this kind of toothless fluff, but he does seems to enjoy drafting clichéd stories with clichéd dialogue.
Ares & Aphrodite is a love story with absolutely no bite or sizzle, offering up an entirely bland and flavorless ‘romance’ for those who think love is little more than an adjective. It’s also fairly innocuous and seems to have been engineered to not offend anyone. I realize there’s a decent market out there for innocuous phony-baloney romance novels, and this one fits the bill nicely. If you’re looking for a quick and painless readthrough with all the nutritional value of celery, here’s your snack.