A Rare Gift: Harlequin Valentine by Neil Gaiman and John Bolton
Reviewed by Erin Donahoe
11 February 2002
Neil Gaiman and John Bolton have come together to create a graphic novel that deserves to be given as a Valentine's Day gift. Harlequin Valentine is a beautifully illustrated book, telling a modernized version of the commedia dell'arte relationship between Harlequin and Columbine. Gaiman's words depict a strange and wonderful kind of love story, which is enriched by Bolton's photo-realistic paintings.
The tale begins on February 14th, when Harlequin nails his heart to the door of Missy, a woman he has decided is his Columbine. While Missy sees the heart, and removes it from her door to place it in a plastic sandwich baggy, she cannot see the capering Harlequin, who stalks her footsteps as she tries to discover the source of this rather unusual Valentine's Day present. The subsequent events revolve around what Missy does with Harlequin's heart now that she has it, while Harlequin follows her around and falls ever more deeply in love. Harlequin is portrayed as capricious, whimsical, and romantic, while Missy, his Columbine, is practical, realistic, and no-nonsense. As we are led through the measures of their adventures, the characters dance through a world of muted greys and browns, where Harlequin is by far the brightest spot of color.
Gaiman originally published this narrative as a short story in the program book of the 1999 World Horror Convention, and it was later published in both The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Thirteenth Annual Collection, and The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror: Volume Eleven. Gaiman's grasp of descriptive language is that of an iron fist, but his finesse and subtlety are the velvet glove, as he deftly combines fancies from the long tradition of the commedia with the mundane sparkle of everyday reality. It is a tale ripe for illustration, and John Bolton plucks the fruit by skillfully matching Gaiman's words with his lavish and colorful paintings. His realistic approach to the work helps to tie the paintings to the words, and though Missy's coat is more black than the blue I had imagined it, and she cannot put the hat pin from Harlequin into her "lapel" since she is wearing a tank-top, these are very minor details in a large set of stunningly rich images. The book is dedicated to Lisa Snellings, a sculptor with an eye to the elegantly macabre and a penchant for harlequin figures, and it is easy to see a touch of her influence in Bolton's vision of Harlequin.
This story is a bizarre and tragic romance, in which Harlequin sees the characters of the Pantomime in many of the people he spies. The British Pantomime consisted of several stock characters whose relationships were defined by convention, varying only slightly from tale to tale, or more precisely, from play to play. First, of course, there is Missy, whom Harlequin sees as his Columbine. Later he finds characters who he believes are the Doctor and Pantaloon, and he comforts himself with that knowledge and treats each accordingly. There are several mentions of Pierott, another of the Pantomime archetypes, who was often hopelessly in love with Columbine, and unsuccessful in his pursuit of her. At one point Harlequin comments to himself that he is feeling "almost pierrotish, which is a poor thing for a harlequin to be."
Those who are unfamiliar with the sixteenth century commedia dell'arte and the later British Pantomime (or Harlequinade) will not feel left out, despite the importance of these dramatic forms to the story, because Gaiman gives each reference enough context to make its significance clear. For those who want to reread and delve deeper into the meaning of the text, the author has provided a three page guide to the Harlequinade, which includes a history of the Pantomime, descriptions of the role of several archetypes, and more of Bolton's splendid artwork. The book concludes with a beautifully written story about Bolton and a short biography of Gaiman, which I shall choose to believe are true.
Neil Gaiman has a gift when it comes to telling the short story which I have not seen come through in his novels. His shorter works, like the passing of a dream, forgotten as we awaken on a cold winter morning, leave us with a lingering sense of the mystical possibilities tucked away in dark corners of the world. Those possibilities hide between the pages of Harlequin Valentine, waiting to leap, laughing and capering, into the mind of an unwary reader. For those who enjoyed the Sandman series, it is also a pleasure to see Gaiman's work once more realized in graphic form. Some might argue that his greatest gift is the ability to communicate his visions so clearly that an artist can successfully complement with a brush or pencil what Gaiman draws with words.
Between Gaiman's storytelling and Bolton's lush, even lavish paintings, this book is nearly too magnificent for words. It should make it out in time for Valentine's Day gift giving, and is being published in a lovely forty-page hardcover. If you like tales of the fanciful and the horrific then this is definitely a book for you. You may devour it in under an hour, but you'll be digesting it for years to come.
Erin Donahoe currently resides in the hills of Appalachia with a black bundle of cat dander named Sierra. She has had several poems accepted for publication, and plans to Dominate the World by 2003. Erin's previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive. Visit her web site for more about her.