If Not Superheroes, What? - Romance Comics?
One comics form, though it enjoyed a decades-long history, became a casualty to the changing mores of the culture (in addition to the other vectors that lead comics to extinction). The perceived obsolescence of the monogamistic ideal, as viewed through the selective lens of the sexual revolutionary, rendered tales that idealized old-school approaches to pair-bonding themselves obsolescent. Sometime between the fifties, romance literature (including prose and comics) would shift from fantasies about meeting and marrying Prince Charming to fantasies about husbands who conveniently die to clear the field for the newer, younger, and more interesting Prince Charmings (see publishers like Harlequin, et al). In the process, comics fans - which, over time, increasingly comes to mean superhero comics fans - came to view romance comics with a sneer, in spite of a much more solid grounding in reality and an overall greater relevance to readers even vaguely within the gene pool. Examined as literature, however, the romance comic does not necessarily have less to offer, storytelling-wise, than, say, the superhero comic; it just averages a more plausible wardrobe all around, a few less space aliens, and sound effects less likely to rouse the children from their naps. And, as with other specimens of the other comics - the pieces that once existed before superhero comics consumed the market - the romance comic generally played a variation of one of a set of fairly reliable themes.
<p>A great die-off of superheroes began with the end of World War II. The loss of military contracts to provide disposable reading matter to servicemen overseas ate into sales figures; the aging of a readership in a day when one generally considered teenagers too old for reading comics moved domestic patrons out of the market; and, of course, not all heroes had what it takes to create an enduring readership. If the superhero ailed in those days, comics creators themselves kept moving to attempt to present material that would engage readers and, therefore, move off the news stands. Sometimes existing genres rose into the vacancies created by expiring superhero material; sometimes publishers crowded out failing heroes to make way for other, theoretically more commercial material. In this era, we saw as a defining event the eviction of Green Lantern from his own title to make space for a wonder dog strip. After the end of the war, popular interest somewhat shifted from martial concerns (say, costumed heroes) to domestic ones (say, radio serials and movies dealing with romance). Radio, television, and theater consumed increasing chunks of recreation time in the decade immediately following the end of the War, and two innovative talents from the thirties and forties - Joe Simon and Jack Kirby - decided to test the waters of romance in comic book form in 1947. For its moment, the form would flower, even spawning sub-variants such as cowboy romance material and Black romance comics. And the flagship romance comic, Young Romance, would endure through over 200 issues and over 20 years, spanning more than one publisher in the decades of its existence.
<p>False confessions became an early conceit of the romance comics back in the day when the entire genre belonged to its creators, Simon and Kirby. Given the fictional device of first-person narration combined with the relentless maleness of the two creators, one can see as inevitable that a certain amount of fraud (of the kind absolved by willing suspension of belief) would originate with comics with female protagonists. Magazines with titles like True This and Real That led the way for this approach. Moralism also played a central role, as it would in a number of comics forms that predated the Code that arose to address the immorality of the form. Characters met bad ends in proportion to the bad deeds they perpetrated; blackmailers and scoundrels could expect disgrace, jail, or even death so reliably that one would assume moral laws drove the physics of comics. One may also note that, since the romance comics barely endured into the seventies, that the morality they depicted resounded with pre-sexual revolution themes. Hence a norm of hetero-monogamy prevailed. This provided the third key element: The monogamistic happy ending that stood as the Mecca all characters seemed to seek in the romance comics. In an age where Everyman seemed to view marriage as central to long-term happiness - certainly an arguable position - all tales sought, and either achieved or failed to achieve, this goal. With some combination of the three principle conventions of the form, romance comics furthermore explored tales which typically fell into categories such as Cinderella fantasies, near escapes, tragic endings, fantastic redemptions, and just deserts.
<p>A harsh commercial of an earlier decade featured a young girl, playing with some dolls, and babbling on about how a prince would someday take her as his wife and solve, once and for all, her material needs. This particular gem of advertising ended with the claim that the young heroine could expect to appear on the welfare rolls with a head full of such fantasies. While one might well invite the authors of such shock-and-naysaying material to lighten up or at least leave the pessimism at home a few days out of the year, the Cinderella Fantasy does still offer a sometimes-destructive lure to females in a variety of cultures. The fantasy tends to do its damage by training young people to expect a Prince Charming - a kind of deus ex machina but with money and big pectorals - to make everything right. While one focuses one's strategies on waiting for unlikely happenings such as the timely appearance of a Prince, one does not invest in a future made better through one's own efforts; and this applies across lines of sex, gender, or whatever folks call it these days. Preparing for the worst does more good than idling away time hoping for the best without human effort to back it up. The romance comic originated in a day where western culture offered many fewer opportunities for self-reliance for females, and quietly expired in a period that suggested new possibilities. Perhaps the perceived "corniness" of Cinderella-fantasy material helped bring the romance comics down; and perhaps such fantasy became less and less relevant. The publishers of the pure-prose bodice-ripper don't seem to think so, however.
<p>The near escape story enjoyed a flexible range of components, depending on the thing from which our protagonists - typically female - needed to escape. Their own pasts, simple bad luck, or the schemes of wicked rivals for a partner's affections (or of wicked contenders for their own) provided the raw material for the near escape story. Temptation frequently played a central role in stories of this sort. Partially because this helped real people to relate to fictional stories, and partially because too much strength of character can make players dishwater dull, our stalwart heroines risked falling into the gap between what they wanted, what they could have, and what they should have, a differential frequently thrown into contrast by desires for material security or simple devotion from a tenuous partner in love. However, the moral determinism of many comics - the poetic justice that could, if necessary, overturn natural law - ultimately righted wrongs brought about by the evil intent of characters in the romance comics. So, if one looks at contemporaneous material, one can see a common pattern of karmic retribution. The Comics Code Authority did not invent this morality; it just codified it as an editorial standard with the power of preemptive censorship for material that failed to comply.
<p>On one level, romance comics dared take a more adult approach than many other forms of comics, including the earlier and later superhero comics. Free from the burdens created by combining a shared universe/continuity model with an ongoing monthly publishing schedule, the romance comic could, if the story required, kill off major players (who, we must admit, probably never appeared before and almost certainly would never appear again anyway). This gave a freedom lacking from comics forms that use editorial models that claim to allow for or even require change yet must not dispose of the intellectual properties that move the books in the first place. A widow or ex-lover could relate the details of the event which forever separated her from her beau. The five-and-ten pager, after all, allowed creators to reach for effect rather than requiring them to build on a canon of stories. If the tone writers and artists sought required the Loving Husband to die saving the world from the Hun so that his bereaved could get maudlin and reflect on an idealized version of a short yet intense marriage, they could slaughter with impunity.
<p>Although wickedness tended to bring characters to well-deserved bad ends, plenty of stories allowed once-wayward characters a chance to redeem themselves from a past not always fully of their own creation. Variants of the Reform School Girl Romance and the Poor Girl Transcends Her Humble Origins made for a consistent fodder of the romance comics. In general, though, these stories deal with either reformed characters - meaning protagonists with a seedy past but a fairly upright present or those who, in the present, do little worse than attempt to conceal a long-past seediness lest it wreck their futures. And they also conveyed a moralistic, and frequently unrealistic, message about the concrete and external benefits due to those who reform on an abstract and internal level. With this kind of story, the wish-fulfillment element of the romance comics shows more strongly than in many of the other versions.
<p>Wicked women and scandalous rakes both appeared, as a kind of ferment, in many tales of the old romance comics. Without the Serpent in Eden, after all, the story amounts to little more than two people picking fruit off trees all day and trying to invent new ways to combat the ever-mounting boredom. Someone has to make trouble or nothing might ever happen. [Misbehaving beaux and belles, as staples of the form.] As well, the Just Deserts model of romance comics story served its wish fulfillment aspect rather well. People whom others have wronged, after all, may wish to see some of the suffering bad people inflict return to them rather than fall exclusively on the shoulders of the innocent and the exploited. Typical romance-comics offenses include mate-stealing; mate-killing, to replace an older model with a newer one; concealment of an ongoing lurid or criminal double life; and a repertoire of methods for ruining the lives of married couples for the sake of attempting to have more than one deserves. The moralism of the form makes itself well-felt here. Ignore the nihilism of twentieth-century classical prose pieces like Kafka's "The Metamorphosis;" the rogue and the vampire (in the old sense of the term, used to label a woman as greedy and parasitic) either found themselves alone, or in jail, or even dead.
<p><u>The Fate of the Form</u>
<p>A multi-tiered attack ultimately caused the romance comics, after a quarter of a century, to disappear from the news racks. No one of these forces killed off the form - indeed, it could resurface someday - but the combination of factors working against this genre ultimately smothered it under its cumulative weight. A changing morality made their moral emphasis appear quaint and dated (by modern standards, the emphasis on hetero-monogamy might appear positively malign); the reward of home and hearth began to seem irrelevant or even a form of bondage; across all genres, comics had suffered in the mid and late fifties from factors including growing disinterest and a censorship of prior restraint; the post-Stan Lee comics would preempt somewhat the romance theme by allowing superheroes solid romantic connections; and, finally, the superhero comic would come to dominate the aesthetic ecosystem of the form to the point of crowding out other material, regardless of genre.
<p>Names that one normally doesn't associate with the romance comic, since they attach to other, previous or subsequent, achievements, belong in the canon of romance comic talent, including its inventors, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Observers of the medium suggest that a number of canonical figures of fifties and sixties comics (or that got their start there) did so in the early romance comics, acquiring a different set of skills than required by the superhero stories that once propelled the medium. Names like Matt Baker, Frank Frazetta, Everett R. Kinstler, Jay Scott Pike, John Romita Senior, Leonard Starr, Alex Toth, and Wally Wood belong in this set (according to Jim Korkis in Teen Angst). Some would go on to distinguish themselves in other genres, including, but not limited to, the ubiquitous superhero form. We can add other names to this. Marie Severin, for instance, described one Marvel job she received doctoring old romance comic pages from the sixties to make the clothes more appropriate for 1970, installing details like flared trouser cuffs and pointy collars (a task of considerable tedium). A particular set of talents developed in the romance form, including skills not always acquirable in today's superhero-dominated comics market. In a romance comic, the credibility of characters and settings assumes an importance generally foreign to more fantastic genres: Anatomy that never occurs in nature, clothing that would violate the dress code of a circus, and facial expressions that fall into two categories (snarl and non-snarl) would all ruin the plausibility of a romance comic. So artists learned to bring out the nuances of emoting faces, the detail of conventional clothing, and human bodies that suggested the beautiful but not the impossible. Using Romita as an example - if an exceptional one - we can note that his assumption of the artistic role on Amazing Spider-Man saw an increasingly expressive set of characters and a definitely more beautiful female (and, for that matter, male) cast. Romita may not have worked in the wildly imaginative manner typical of Ditko on pieces like Dr. Strange stories, but he certainly brought a great deal to the books he worked on, regardless of the subject matter, and the best things he brought seemed relevant to his romance comics background. Owing to the small footprint that romance comics seems to have left on fandom - the superhero form dominates fandom in a way that leaves some of the once-diverse comics medium to the attention of scholarly historians of the subject - locating a canonical list of the artists and writers who made their careers on this material represents a problem of the very availability of the information.
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