I’ve been collecting comics for something approaching 40 years now (argh), yet there’s always new stuff to surprise me. Lately, I find myself besotted with, possibly a little in love with, one of the most maligned genres of comics – the romance comic book.
Romance comics haven’t been cool for decades. Yet for a comics fan looking for something novel to distract themselves during these plague days, there’s something inescapably alluring about the kitsch-soaked, tear-stained pathos of the romance comic.
And romance comics were bloody HUGE back in the day. According to Love On The Racks, a very entertaining overview of the genre by Michelle Nolan, more than 6000 titles were published between 1947 to 1977. Then they basically vanished, gone like the westerns and war comics that also thrived back then.
To be fair – these comics offer up a fair bit of cringeworthy sexism, the people mostly were white and protestant, and the only sexuality is heterosexuality. Yet in between the cliches and cuddles, there’s a lot of subtle statements on life in America in the last century. They’re theatrical pageants for a world that never actually existed. They’re history writ broad in four-colours and cartoon tears.
A lot of the romance comics were just dire, cookie-cutter dramas. But for me, many of the most enjoyable romance comics are the ones where women take their own agency and slap back at the stereotypes. I admit to being particularly partial for the romance comics of the swingin’ 70s, where feminists, hippies and biker dudes sit a bit uneasily with the traditional tropes of the genre.
I’ve added several romance comic collections to the ol’ library in recent years, each of which is well worth seeking out to take a dip in the waters of this almost-forgotten genre:
Young Romance was the very first major romance comic, by the legendary Jack Kirby and Joe Simon. The best of its 1940s-1950s run was collected in two nice thick tomes by Fantagraphics a while back. While Kirby’s art is rawer, looser than it later became, “Young Romance” holds up very well, mainly because the stories are surprisingly edgy and less sappy than many romance comics became.
“Marvel Romance” and the long out of print 1970s DC Comics collection “Heart Throbs” collect the best of each of those publishers’ romance comics from titles like My Love, Secret Heart, Young Romance and more. They’re less eccentric than some of the smaller publishers, but these comics often featured absolutely stunning art by the likes of John Romita, Sr.
“Return To Romance: The Strange Love Stories of Ogden Whitney” is an utter hoot. One of the great off-the-wall comics in history is Odgen Whitney and Richard Hughes’s Herbie, the surreal adventures of an obese young boy with a magic lollipop. The rare romance comics by the same creative team were recently released in a book and they are far out, romance comics as if they were done by John Waters and David Lynch working together. They zig when you expect them to zag and they’re always highlighted by Whitney’s dazzling, crisp and expressive cartooning.
Two other excellent post-2000 compendiums of random romance comics are “Romance Without Tears” by Fantagraphics and “Agonizing Love” by Harper Collins, both of which present a great assortment of stories and commentary on the era.
Weird Love was an utterly fantastic reprint series by Yoe Books that ran for 24 issues up until last year, collecting the strangest love stories from the medium’s history – it was one of the kookiest, best comics in years, featuring at least TWO separate stories about women falling in agonising love with circus clowns.
I won’t say that romance comics are the creative peak of the medium. Yet perhaps more than any other subgenre of comics, superheroes included, they’re a time capsule of the era they were created in, and if you don’t mind how dated they might be from a 2020 perspective, they’re still often a swingin’ good time.