• Steven Heller

Romance Was His Metier

Harlequin is one of the world’s most famous book publishers. Originally founded in 1949 in Winnipeg, Canada, as a paperback reprint house, in 1953 it began publishing medical romances and by 1984 had become primarily known for romance books for women. Frank Kalan (1922–2003) was one of Harlequin’s prolific cover artists. He studied at the Institute of Art in Chicago, where he soon after got his start as Al Buell‘s apprentice. His early clients included Pyramid Books and Avon Publishers, and he was best known for his sweaty “bodice-ripper” book covers. During the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s he produced romance novel cover art for Harlequin Enterprises. Kalan’s website includes many of these illustrations, all done in oil on boards sized roughly 18 x 24, and produced at the rate of one or two per month.

Kalan’s archive includes many of his Harlequin art directors’ notes, model shots and final tear sheets to go along with the original art. About 350 covers remain in family possession, and approximately 70% have supporting materials to supplement the original art. Several examples appear on the process page and show how a book cover got made. Regardless of style (hot and racy, chaste and sweet or family oriented), the work always had to place the hero and heroine center stage, make an instant connection with the target market, cement the sale and provide an image the reader could return to while imagining the heroine’s life.

Recently, I interviewed Kalan’s daughter Christy Kalan about the artist’s career as creator of perhaps some of the most read books in the world. She is currently seeking a home for some of the archive art and a buyer for the rest of the rich documentation.

How did this 20-year career with Harlequin begin? In the mid ’70s one of the art directors at Harlequin was looking for additional artists, and Lenny Goldberg, a friend of my dad’s who was already on the roster, shared his name. Prior to being given an assignment he probably sent the AD samples of his work, talked with him on the phone, then met in person when the AD was in New York. Although Harlequin was in need of more artists for their increasing line of books, new artists had to prove themselves before being given that first job.

When doing Harlequin books, what is the formula? What are the dos and don’ts of the genre? Generally speaking the Harlequin framework consists of a one man, one woman love story that has a conflict, some level of sexual tension, an emotional commitment and a happy ending, all in about 200 pages. From there, story lines vary widely depending on the “line” of category romance, so a book can be racy or sweet, its heroine can be a vet or a vampire, and its setting can be a ranch or a Greek Island. The job of the cover is to create an image that telegraphs the story, taps into readers’ wants and closes the sale. It is as much an ad campaign as it is an illustration, and artists follow detailed descriptions from the art and editing team about what the cover should look like, including mood, setting, level of sensuality, props and poses. Harlequin editors know their readers, what attracts them, and what builds the book-buying habit.

How has the Harlequin style evolved in the 20 years that Frank freelanced for the company? To someone who has never read a romance novel it might seem that the genre never changes, but in fact it morphs continuously to reflect its publisher’s views, reader’s demands and generational shifts about what constitutes love and what’s worth putting up with in a relationship. Early Harlequins, for example, held to the Mills and Boone requirement of “no premarital sex,” and more often than not things happened to the rather chaste heroine rather than the heroine driving the action. During my dad’s time with Harlequin, especially in the ’80s, there was a decided shift towards modernism and realism, heroines became much more active, and themes expanded to cover topics such as divorce, merging of families, and how women’s newfound economic independence squared up with the desire for a relationship. Of course the sensuality factor got upped too and debates are ongoing about whether this reflects women taking more pleasure in sex or the continuation of alpha men acting like jerks (or both). Either way, Harlequin is said to have shifted towards a slightly more self-aware male hero. Cover art followed suit on all counts.

What, if anything, was the most challenging of the work(s) done for the brand? I think my dad had the genre formula well under control, so his challenges were more specific, like not getting a successful photo shoot, having to change models, or hearing from his AD that, for example, an author wanted a cat to appear in the foreground of a scene depicting a burning building where no cat would ever want to go. He did on occasion have to redo a cover to satisfy the publisher, but this was rare.

When addressing a Harlequin theme, is there a line of look and/or feel that can be pushed? Harlequin is phenomenal at knowing what the market wants (computers are their not-so-secret weapon in this regard) and in the ’80’s and ’90s used sales data and reader feedback to diversify their line of offerings at warp speed. This enabled experimentation and “pushing” within categories so a reader could choose between, for example, fun/sexy/steamy, paranormal romance, 40+ heroes and heroines, mystery, or menage. This enabled Harlequin to satisfy every taste. They could do something very hot or multicultural without offending those who preferred chaste heroines or the traditional medical romance.

How many of these images did he do in his two decades with Harlequin? Frank was one of many artists who pumped out one to two covers per month. We are in possession of 350 original oils; more were sent to Harlequin before it became practice to send 4 x 5 color transparencies in lieu of canvases.

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