Spotlight on: anthologies of 1950s romance comics

In the early days of my blog, I mostly wrote about things that interested very few people, like Tolstoy, Richard Yates, my own writing statistics, etc. But nowadays I’ve reached the point where if I’m going to write at all, I only feel compelled to write about things that are of interest to absolutely nobody.

Case in point, I’ve recently become very interested in romance comics. These are Western comics, usually published between about 1948 and 1972 with contemporary romantic plots. They were written by the usual comics regulars–the same guys and same companies that did crime / horror / superhero comics–but they were intended for an audience of women and girls. At one point they were extremely popular, and they’re now mostly for the extremely different sexual and romantic politics they showcase.

Visually, they’re most well-known through pop art satirization, as in this well-known Roy Lichtenstein image:

I first got into romance comics through an NYRB sale: curator Dan Nadel had put together a collection of Ogden Whitney’s romance comics, called Return To Romance. I immediately found the collection captivating. The stories were really odd. The pacing was always a bit off, a little like a Richard Yates short story. They came to unexpected climaxes and then lingered. Heroes turned out to be villains and vice versa. The politics were old-fashioned of course, but more striking was the dreamy, time-free quality of the narration.

Unfortunately I misplaced my copy of Return to Romance, so can’t show you some shots, but I was utterly gripped, and I immediately was like…must find more romance comics.

But what I found was most compilations of romance comics hadn’t exercised the taste that Dan Nadel had. See, there’s two ways of compiling a reprint anthology. The first is to select representative samples of the genre; and the second is to select striking or unusually good examples of the genre. The first is the academic or archivist’s path; the second is that of the real fan. Nadel had found a romance comic artist he thought was unusually good and reprinted him, but some of the other notable compilations, in particular Romance Without Tears and Agonizing Love, didn’t seem to have exercised the same selectivity.

I found the books disappointing and trite. A lot of times the stories felt extremely by-the-numbers and too often they relied on misdirection (like a story about a girl who’s seeing another guy while she waits for her fiance to come home from the war, and her friends all gossip about her, but it turns out she’s just learning to drive! The guy is just her driving instructor!) Or any story where it’s like, a girl really likes a guy, but he seems to like someone else, but really he likes her, and there’s nothing more to it. Also, both volumes were reprinted with glossy pages (romance comics were originally matte paper) and the images just didn’t seem right.

Recently, however, while I was shelving and organizing my library, I revisited the other collections I’d found and some of them were actually unusually good! So since I didn’t want anyone else to waste their time and money, I decided to write this blog on the off chance someone in ten years searches for "best romance comics anthology or compilation."

The Winners

The best compilation I found, besides the Ogden Whitney one, was one called Marvel Romance, which featured Stan Lee and Jim Steranko and John Romita Sr. and a bunch of the other usual Marvel guys, writing romance comics! What distinguishes these from any other collection is that all the comics are from the sixties and early 70s, so the sexual politics are liberated, the skirts are shorter, and everyone speaks in groovy, far-out slang. They’re a ton of fun!

This is about a high school kid who’s in love with her teacher.

This comic is from a story about a go-go party girl who gives up the love of her life!

The other compilation was one of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon’s work over the course of about ten years on a comic called Young Romance that was one of America’s best-selling comics. At one point, it was selling a million copies an issue, and it reputedly started the romance comics trend. There are some good ones here too, often featuring women who make mistakes, like the girl who sets out to steal another girl’s fiance. My favorite was the girl who’s choosing between two brothers, but her dad has a third candidate in mind (the foreman of his lumber mill), and she’s like nuhuh dad we agree on almost everything, but imma go my own way on this, and then eventually she’s like DAD YOU WERE RIGHT, FOREMAN HANK IS MY FAVORITE AFTER ALL.

The Kirby and Simon compilations (there’s another one called Young Romance 2 that’s equally good) are also the best put together, they’re printed on thick cream-colored matte paper, and they’ve been re-colorized and sharpened. They don’t look like scans, the way most of the other compilations do.

This story is about a by-the-book numbers guy, an accountant, who’s managed to find the perfect match–but he’s thrown off balance by the flightly sculptress who lives next door.

It’s hard to say what I like so much about the romance comics. The plots tend to blur together after awhile–ultimately the comics fell into two categories: diverting and unreadable. The unreadable ones I can’t tell you about, because I skipped them. The diverting ones were the ones where there was a hint of insuperable conflict at the beginning. Often this was a difference in social status. In one case, it was because the woman was an ex-con. In other, she was married to a former gangster. In one really good Kirby / Simon story (I believe), a high school girl was in love w her 10+ year older teacher.

But I also really enjoyed the art. If you look at it too long, the faces start to seem haunting and expressionless, which may or may not be a part of the appeal, but I liked that this was a nation’s dream about itself: all these brunettes with cinched-waists and wavy-haired blondes and ken dolls in swimming shorts. All these ambitious young men looking to move up while retaining their integrity. All these working women, longing for a husband. All the fast cars and soda shops, I don’t know, it was an interesting visual jumble.

And the narration also has a haunting, confessional quality. Every story (almost) is framed as a ‘true tale’ that’s merely being ‘told to’ the writer (who isn’t credited as a writer, the story is instead written ‘as told to’ Stan Lee or Joe Simon or whoever). On the first page the women often face the reader and describe their conundrum. Throughout the story you hear their internal monologue, the tone of their longing, as they go through their day.

I kept thinking someone should make a TV series that takes place in the world of fifties romance comics, but of course nobody would be interested in that (not even me, perhaps!) And also it would just look like the first year of Mad Men.

My father in law is visiting. I was like, when were you born. He said, "1950". And the comics I was reading were originally published in 1950. These comics were out-dated and passe even fifty-five years ago, when he was a teen. Now they are truly relics. But they’re still entertaining! Still worth one’s time not just on a sociological level, but also as works of art.

On a sidenote, it’s interesting that the two strongest compilations were those that were, essentially, trading on the reputations of writers better known for their superhero work. There were lots of other writers, like Ogden Whitney, who were best known for their romance comic work, and I do with someone would go through the thousands of romance comics published and find the best stories, irrespective of writer. But I have a feeling that the audience for that book would basically nobody. But maybe this forthcoming anthology of the best of British romance comics will prove to be what I’m looking for!

Honorable mention
Before I found the Kirby and the Marvel compilations, my favorite was this one from EC comics: Modern Love. The stories are good, but the paper is glossy, and I found the art style to be a bit exaggerated and not totally to my taste (example below):

This is about a woman whose aunt wants her to marry a rich guy.


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