[History] From Eroica with Love is the 1970s gay thief caper you never knew you needed

The year is 1976. Dashing and romantic art thief Dorian Red Gloria, codename Eroica, rescues the young supergenius psychic Caesar Gabriel (who is desperately in love with him, of course) from NATO. He’s pursued by the dogged agent Major Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach to the frozen edges of the earth, where the newfound rivals find themselves stranded and at a stalemate. Forced to bunker down together while waiting for rescue, Dorian realizes that he has far better chemistry with the prickly Major than his unspeakably bland love interest. And thus 40 years of unresolved sexual tension begins in earnest.

From Eroica With Love suffers a similar curse to Lupin III: it’s a 1970s manga that maintains steady popularity and is still published (albeit sporadically) in Japan to this day, but it’s basically unknown here in the West. Perhaps fitting, given that Eroica also centers on a found family of thieves and their episodic shenanigans whilst they’re pursued and sometimes allied with an agent from an international police agency. (Heck, the first chapter of Eroica even features a Zenigata clone, and Sayo Yamamoto later borrowed the character design of Dorian’s assistant James for Lieutenant Oscar in The Woman Called Fujiko Mine.) But while Lupin was kept from U.S. shores largely because of the extremely angry estate of Maurice LeBlanc (a story for another day), Eroica’s obscurity is a bit more circumstantial.

comparison, Oscar (The Woman Called Fujiko Mine) and James (From Eroica With Love)

The obvious first question is: “If it was so popular, why wasn’t there an anime?” After all, the manga’s episodic nature would’ve lent itself well to the same structure as the ‘70s Lupin anime, and there was certainly a built-in audience for it. The answer is a simple and exceedingly depressing one: the manga artist, Yasuko Aoike, dislikes anime. We’re talking one step above “anime was a mistake.” Her distaste for the art form as a whole meant that Eroica never got greenlit for adaptation. The closest we’ve ever gotten, and probably ever will, is a crowd cameo of Dorian and James in Project A-Ko and the gift of voice acting in the form of a drama CD.

Which takes us back to the manga and its journey overseas. The manga actually did enjoy a brief heyday of popularity in the U.S. in the 1980s and early ‘90s when really hardcore fan translators, led by Lily Fulford, took the first few volumes and distributed them as zines, created by hand and taking as long as a year per volume. There were even fanfic crossovers with western fandom zines (including The Professionals, of which Fulford was also a fan, and Starsky & Hutch) in an attempt to expand the series’ popularity. Some of the early Internet shrines still exist, including Eroica Fans and Belladona, complete with that eye-blistering late ‘90s web design.

Dorian kisses his accountant, James

After the publishing of the last zine in 1995 (which included “Nosferatu,” the first Eroica story published after the manga’s 1988-1995 hiatus), the western fandom was left high and dry for almost a decade. The next translators to step to the plate were CMX Manga, a division of DC Comics, who started translating Eroica in 2004 and managed to put out 15 of the 30-odd existent volumes.

Despite lacking the money to print the full-color pages as they originally ran in Princess magazine and choosing a hideous bright orange border for the first few covers, CMX turned out a loving release of a comic that was always going to be a niche among niches. Their reasoning for having the German Klaus use British slang (“bloody wankers,” etc.) remains an eternal mystery, but I applaud the decision to use relatively tame language for the insults slung Dorian’s way (usually by Klaus). “Degenerate” goes down a lot easier than the loaded, harmful slurs the fan translations generally went with.

Sadly, all good things must come to an end. When CMX closed its doors in 2010, the modest-selling-at-best Eroica went with it, and while used copies of the volumes they translated are fairly reasonably priced compared to some other out-of-print titles, the odds of the series ever getting picked back up here in the States are slim to none.

Which is a shame, because Eroica is an absolute treat. It’s often recommended based on its delightfully out-there narrative elements: a group of short-lived teen ESPers (it was the ‘70s, okay?) who had a member with the honest-to-God name “Leopard Solid”; the fact that Dorian and his two closest underlings are modeled after Led Zeppelin; that one time Dorian stole the Pope; etc. And Aoike’s art, which looks a bit plain compared to its contemporaries, now benefits from capturing the aesthetic of 1970s shoujo while also having comparatively clean and easy-to-follow visuals.

Dorian steals the Pope

But none of that quite compares to getting to see a gay protagonist star in a comedic spy thriller. As you probably guessed from the title, the manga has its roots as a James Bond parody, albeit one that splits the role between its two leads: Dorian wears the fantastic clothes, flirts with beautiful people, and excels in stealing intelligence (often while playing Klaus’s “Bond Girl” of sorts), while Klaus gets sent on missions for NATO, has shootouts, and punches Nazis and KGB spies.

The fact that it’s a comedy manga can’t diminish the extraordinariness of Dorian’s existence. Eroica’s contemporaries were Song of Wind and Trees (1976) and Heart of Thomas (1974), after all, two genre-defining stories of tragic gay longing ending…well, tragically. And while non-romance-centric titles with queer leads like Banana Fish (1985-1994) occasionally came along, they were generally dramatic stories. Even the modern BL genre is overflowing with that “but you’re/I’m a boy!” business; or, if we’re talking the ‘90s/early 2000s, “I’m not gay, I just love [X]!”

Dorian and Klaus talk at cross purposes

Meanwhile, Dorian Red Gloria. An openly gay thief who’s the star of his own series and the leader of a found family of thieves who adore him; who walks away the victor more often than not; who, despite being a terrible shot, is a competent foil for rival Klaus in both physical and mental acuity (before the hiatus, anyway…a lot of things changed after the hiatus).

Dorian Red Gloria, who hasn’t managed to kiss Klaus in 40 years because the rules of will-they-won’t-they dictate that once they get together the story is functionally over (see also: Ranma ½ all the way up to Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid), but has snagged his share of perfectly consensual kisses with other male characters. This is a manga that, way back in the ‘70s, took care to point out that Dorian is only interested in adults and, despite his love of flirting, has never tried to pull any of that seme “overcome with lust” sexual assault bullshit.

Klaus and Dorian steal a gun from their captors

Dorian is the protagonist I’ve longed for in modern anime: his queerness is a visible part of his character, but it’s also not the entirety of it. He’s well-rounded, competent, and compelling. And I’ve not even gotten into some of the manga’s other endearing quirks, like Agent G (one of Klaus’s underlings, who’s termed a “crossdresser” given the time period but reads pretty clearly from a modern perspective as a trans woman) or that Dorian’s dynamic with his gang has proto-Team Rocket shades.

It’s not perfect, of course. That old misapprehension that gay men can’t stand to be around women is a running undercurrent, and it can be frustrating to see Klaus only incrementally improve his (internalized) homophobia over many, many volumes. The expense and effort of procuring the manga is a factor too, along with the built-in discouragement that there’s a basically zero-percent chance of seeing an adaptation that would welcome in new audiences, even in the event of Aoike’s death (since the series is so very of-its-time at this point).

Then again, maybe that’s what makes me recommend it all the harder. Because it’s a terrible shame to imagine a series so vibrant and endearing becoming little more than a historical footnote. And if shouting my feelings from the mountaintops holds the slightest possibility of stirring up interest and possibly getting those official translations republished in a digital format for more people to enjoy, then I’m officially throwing my hat into the ring.

Dorian and Klaus have a bonding moment after a mission

 

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Vrai is a queer author and pop culture blogger; they find James unbelievably relatable. You can read more essays and find out about their fiction at Fashionable Tinfoil Accessories, listen to them podcasting on Soundcloud, support their work via Patreon or PayPal, or remind them of the existence of Tweets.

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  • Brainchild129

    I will join you in shouting on that mountaintop towards the publishers begging for an Eroica rerelease, Vrai.
    I fell in love with from the first volume and went to the effort of hunting all those CMX volumes down. Thankfully, it is very reasonable save for those last few volumes. I felt lucky to score them for $20 apiece. Anyway, you pretty much hit every nail on the head as to why this manga is still so wonderful to read even all these decades later. The jet-setting adventure, the running gags (ranging from the obliviousness of the English secret agent to James’ stinginess to Klaus’ eternal threats to send his team to Antarctica), the endless yet ever-so-satisfying cat-and-mouse dynamic between Dorian and Klaus, it’s all just so wonderful.
    Also, does anyone else interpret Klaus in their own head as being asexual or is that just me?

    • Vrai

      I think reading Klaus as ace is a totally legit take on the material. The reason I didn’t include it isn’t because I often see the idea of ace Klaus used as a blunt NO HOMO cudgel on his and Dorian’s relationship (look no further than the TvTropes page).
      Which, the very basis of a satisfying outcome of a “will they or won’t they” type story is that, yes, eventually they will. It’s just part of the needs of how reader expectation work in that kind of story. I completely buy that Klaus would still be either indifferent or averse to sex after working out his repression, but I DON’T believe that it can be credibly said he’s not repressing at least romantic attraction to Dorian.

  • Moni

    If this manga ever gets a wide release in the west I’ll definitely buy a volume or two. This actually looks super funny.

  • lmd84

    I’m sure I saw a volume of this somewhere, years ago, but I don’t think i actually read it. A shame, as it turns out, because this sounds like a lot of fun. Thank-you for the article!

  • Elena M. Aponte

    This was a great article! I really enjoyed it. The story of this manga reminds me of another super obscure title called “Bananafish” an 80s shonen title written by Akimi Yoshida. Very similar in concept, only the main characters are a cop and a criminal, respectively.
    Your article has inspired me to look more in for From Eroica With Love-it seems very interesting and endearingly kitchy with a great narrative undercurrent.

  • Anna

    Heh. I’ve had this thought before, that only a new anime adaptation could get people interested in an old manga that I wish people talked about more. But I guess that’s a fallacy: they wouldn’t be talking about the manga, they’d be talking about the anime adaptation. And what if the anime adaptation isn’t even good? Then a lot of people would be talking about the wrong version of the story! Torture! =P
    It’d be nice if there was simply a bigger market/audience for older and more niche manga in the west. I mean, I wish it wouldn’t take an anime adaptation for people to start considering a manga worth their time.

    I’ve heard about Eroica, but I’ve never read it – just not available here, and hunting down the CMX release would be expensive and a major hassle. I do like the idea of suave gentleman thieves doing crazy things!

  • Certainly looks interesting.

    I wish I could get into reading more Manga, but the not Colored in aspect still subconsciously makes my mind think of it as to Cheap to care about.