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Whatever happened to Romance Comics?

Did you know that there was once a thriving genre of comic books targetted at adult women in the English-reading world? I didn't discover this fact until my own research on Japanese comics books for girls and women led me to look into the history of comics in the U.S..

Young Romance #1 Cover

It seems the genre was created by the legendary cartooning team of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon back in the fall of 1947 in Young Romance #1. If neither of those names rings a bell, then I'll bet you don't know much about American comics (and there's certainly nothing wrong with that). Jack Kirby, who passed away in 1995, is revered by comics fans for his bold, stylized artwork, primarily in the genre of superhero comics. If the titles Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer, or Mighty Thor sound familiar, chances are you've seen his work. Joe Simon is (with Kirby) co-creator of Captain America and countless other characters. (I have a feeling I may get e-mail from Simon/Kirby fans quibbling with my all-too-brief characterizations.)

The genre seems to have thrived between in its emergence in the late forties through the mid-fifties, but, like any comics with any adult content, romance comics all but disappeared with the introduction of 1) television and 2) the Comics Code Authority, a system created by the comics industry itself in order to avoid government censorship during the anti-comics furor of the mid-fifties. The genre managed to survive until the late seventies, but by then it had already lost most of its readers.

In his book, FROM AARGH! TO ZAP! Harvey Kurztman's Visual History of Comics, the late creator of MAD magazine (for whom the coveted Harvey Awards are named) wrote:

Here's a measure of how much the comic-book world changed after [World War II]: The very first romance comic-book, Young Romance, in 1947, was the brainchild of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby—the same team that had brought so much vitality to the super-hero comic books a few years earlier. So far had the mighty fallen.

The caption Kurtzman appended to the image (above) of the cover of Young Romance #1 reads simply "The talents of Kirby and Simon were wasted on romance titles." (A much more positive assessment of Kirby's career in romance comics can be found at the Jack Kirby Collector site.)

Notice that Kurtzman (and let's keep in mind that his second most famous creation, next to MAD magazine, was Playboy magazine's "Little Annie Fanny"!) does not bother to elaborate. In his mind, the term "romance" itself is pejorative. Much of the book is Kurtzman waxing romantic (so to speak) about Golden Age superhero comics. Kurtzman's message: muscle-bound men wrestling each other in technicolor long-johns is high art; stories set in the real world about people in love are tripe. Any questions? Mind you, I have nothing against superhero comics per se. I just want to point out the irony in fans of one popular genre dismissing another popular genre as "stupid" without offering any rational argument. (Fans of romance fiction are no doubt dismally accustomed to this kind of condescending attitude.)

Cover of Modern LoveCover of A Moon, A Girl...Romance

My Point (And I Do Have One), is that this kind of attitude among mostly-male editors, critics, and fans of comics has led to the current dismal state of affairs: whereas "classics" of the superhero genre are preserved in numerous reprints (such as D.C.'s "Archives" series and Marvel's "Essential" series), very few romance comics have ever been reprinted.

Very notable exceptions are Gemstone Publishing's hardcover "Library" editions of the EC titles Modern Love and A Moon, A Girl. . . Romance. They cost $35 each, or $80 for the set with a slip case. If you're a collector of E.C. comics or romance comics, you may find it worth the money (I did), but be warned that almost all the artwork is by Al Feldstein, and bears his trademark woodenness. The various essays included in the set are more interesting than the comics themselves, but do not alone justify the cost.

DC published an anthology titled Heart Throbs: The Best of DC Romance Comics in 1979, and Eclipse Books published Real Love: The Best of Simon and Kirby Romance Comics 1940s-1950s in 1988. Unfortunately, both of these books are out of print, so the best place to look for them is using BookFinder, which maintains a database of large networks of used book stores. I have yet to get hold of Heart Throbs, but I did track down Real Love, and am glad I did. With Simon & Kirby, you're gauranteed a certain minimum of quality, and this is no exception. It's too bad, though, that the publishers didn't splurge on better paper.

Finally, Malibu Graphics published a tongue-in-cheek anthology titled Teen Angst: A Treasury of '50s Romance in 1990. They seem to have chosen the works based on the quality of the artwork, which is fine, but the introduction and commentary are condescending, flippant, and just poorly written. The cover, too, is dumb. If they wanted to go with an ironic tone, they could've chosen stories accordingly. Heaven knows there are enough romance comic stories that are begging to be mocked, but the stories they chose are actually all pretty readable, and defy the editorial tone. One comes away with the impression that the work was all reprinted without the permission of whomever may own the copyrights, but then again, the copyrights may have been abandoned long ago. Like the Simon & Kirby volume, this is printed on cheap newsprint.


Cover of Heart Throbs

Apart from this kind of occasional reprint volume, if you want to read romance comics today, you have to track down the originals, and the best place I have found to do that is eBay, "your personal trading community"™. It's a place to buy and sell almost anything, auction style, and all the merchandise is categorized. Go to "Collectibles > Comic Books > Golden (1933-1956) > Romance" or "Collectibles > Comic Books > Silver (1956-1970) > Romance". I think you'll be surprised at what you can find, and also at how cheaply they can be had—the one advantage of being obscure and unpopular! However, I do advise would-be bidders to protect themselves from paying too much by getting a basic education in comic book buying. The best way to do this is to get a copy of The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide (for example, from Amazon.com). Beware of sellers who describe a book as being in "pretty good shape" or "great shape." They're not trying to decieve you, but they don't know anything about "grading" comic books or they would be more specific. I'm also reluctant to bid on a book if no scanned image is supplied. Any book that looks fairly shabby in a scan can't be worth more than about five U.S. dollars at the most. Also, beware of comics published by Charlton! As Trina Robbins points out in her book (See below), they often have nice covers, but the content is almost always dreadful.

As someone interested mostly in the content, I feel a bit odd buying these as "collectors items," but it's true that there is something exciting about holding in one's hands a little book that was printed and purchased half a century ago, and then lovingly preserved so that it still survives largely intact today. Who owned it? How many hands has it passed through? Did the readers enjoy it? Did it make them cry? Did they think, "The last issue was better"? I'm particularly intrigued by these questions because it's difficult to imagine an "ordinary" woman today buying a romance comic book at a newsstand or drug store as casually as one might buy a romance novel in a bookstore. Yes, I know there are women today who read comics (I know many of them), but such women are very much aware that such reading sets them apart from the mainstream. Fifty years ago, it was very much a mainstream activity! Isn't that, as they used to say, "like, totally cool!?"

If you'd like to learn more about the romance genre than I can hope to offer here, check out Trina Robbins' From Girls to Grrrlz: A History of Women's Comics from Teens to Zines (Chronicle Books, 1999). (You can buy it from Amazon.com.) I've never seen a more extensive treatment of the genre, and the book covers other genres of female-oriented comics. In addition to being informative, the book has the added benefits of being fun and decorative! I also recommend two of Robbins others books, A Century of Women Cartoonists and The Great Women Superheroes. The latter can be bought at Amazon.com, but, unfortunately, the former is out of print. Don't give up, though! Look for it at Bookfinder.com!

On these pages, I'm trying to uncover the best of the romance comics genre, but I'm no apologist. If you read the original comics, as well as Robbins' analysis, you can't help concluding that the vast majority of these comics were dreadful, both visually and narratively. Of course, the same can be said of every genre of any medium, but I think the biggest problem in the romance comics was the fact that the stories were being written mostly by men in their forties and fifties. There were a few women doing artwork in the genre, but I don't know if any of the writers were women. (Surely there must have been a few.) Unfortunately, because very few of the romance comics include credits, we'll probably never have a thorough knowledge of exactly who was creating all these books. Trina Robbins, again, has found that such female artists as Ann Brewster, Ruth Atkinson and Valerie Barclay worked in this field (See A Century of Women Cartoonists), but there's no doubt that most of the creators were men.

In spite of the poor quality of most of the stories, though, there were many talented artists doing the artwork, including such reknowned artists as Alex Toth, Wally Wood, Frank Frazetta, Matt Baker, E.R. Kinstler, Neal Adams, Bill Ward, Al Feldstein. . . . in fact, almost every artist of note who worked in the late 'forties and 'fifties. To be sure, their work is good, but I can't help being annoyed by the fact that the "collector's value" of a romance comic is determined by whether or not it contains work by artists who made their marks in "real" (read "superhero") comics. The work of such an artist in female-oriented comics seems to be viewed largely as a novelty or an amusing footnote to a glorious career. Needless to say, the quality of the stories—and some of them were good—has no bearing on the value attributed to the books by most collectors.

So, what's the point of this site? To provide a central location for information about the genre of romance comics for anyone who is genuinely interested.

For the moment, this site consists only of:


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Matt Thorn ()
Cultural Anthropologist
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