Harlequin Valentine
Neil Gaiman, writer,
John Bolton, artist
(Dark Horse, 2002)

Writer Neil Gaiman has created yet another beautiful tale, this one about a love-struck Harlequin. John Bolton, of Books of Magic fame, provides sumptuous artwork that accompanies the story perfectly.

For those who are encountering Harlequin for the first time, be advised that this is not the same character from the animated TV series and DC Comics who haunts Gotham City with Poison Ivy and matches wits with Batman. This Harlequin is the sprite of the early Italian comedy, a contemporary of Mister Punch, who became a staple of Restoration theater in the second half of the 17th century.

The role of the harlequin is to act as a spiritual trickster, a sprite who plays in the fields of desire and lust. He is invisible to all but his inamorata, the source of his unrequited love. The retelling of this legend is as charming a love story as Neil has ever produced, with a bit of a modern twist at the end. It is a story of a buffoon so in love he gives his heart away, literally, to the modern incarnation of his love, Missy, who is oblivious to his gift. She takes the poor fool's heart all over town with her until it meets a typically Gaimanesque end: bittersweet but charming at the same time. Not a story to be read over dinner!

Readers familiar with Gaiman's work will recognize this as a short story that first appeared in the 1999 World Horror Convention program book. Later it was published in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror. But what may seem like a horror story really is a mixture of tragedy, comedy and romance. It crosses genres with the same dizzying grace as most Gaiman tales seem to do, telling a fantastic tale in simple words that flow like butter over hot vegetables. When asked why he liked to revisit ancient tales, Gaiman said we have the right to retell the old stories "because they are our stories." In this elegantly spun poem, Gaiman lyrically reworks the old commedia dell'arte and transforms it into a metaphor for all lovers whose infatuation dooms them to heartbreak. Gaiman is comfortable in the arena of obscure folk tales, and here he seems as at home in this story of tomfoolery as he is in his customary black leather jacket.

Though the small print may hurt some eyes, rest assured that dreamy, clever prose is well worth the squint you may have to employ to read the finely detailed text.

Any work by Neil inevitably educates the reader, as it tends to be a jambalaya of archaic bits of history, myth and folklore. Harlequin Valentine does not disappoint in this regard; it also provides a history lesson at the end about the nature and origins of the harlequin as a character and a theatrical form. Informative as it is, it will leave you wanting to know more. Only Gaiman could make a history lesson about an obscure pantomime fascinating.

John Bolton's artwork is a surreal mixture of digitally enhanced photo realism and painting. The characters stand out brilliantly against dull backgrounds. Fans of Bolton's work will appreciate the incredibly human looking quality of the artwork. It has the same transcendent feel to it as Bolton's work in the first Books of Magic series. It's almost as if the characters are moving in an underwater landscape, a quality that lends itself neatly to a story that has the feel of a dream.

[ by Mary Harvey ]
Rambles: 18 May 2002

Buy it from Amazon.com.