As a lover and reviewer of romance in all forms, it became acutely apparent to me that there seemed to be a dearth of romance comics geared specifically toward women in the American marketplace. However, when you look at the success of the romance paperback market which has total fiction market share of 34 percent and an estimated total sales value of 1.08 million in 2013 this fact seems a little strange. It’s not that women don’t read comics either since GraphicPolicy points to women comic fans outnumbering men under 18 and among the older demographic time after time. What I have seen though is a lot of young girls around high school age turn to manga where Japanese publishers have fostered an industry focused specifically on the female market. It isn’t an altogether uncommon sight to see many girls sitting on the floor of a Barnes and Noble, thumbing through the newest manga featuring high school girls just like them discovering love and relationships. But still, where are the romance comics from an American perspective, and why aren’t mainstream publishers capitalizing on this demographic? The more I looked into it, the more I found that at one point in time American romance comics used to be, and in some cases still are, the most popular comics ever sold. So what happened?
How They Rose to Prominence
It all started after the end of World War II, when the Golden Age of comics was starting to come to an end. During the war, superheroes had been a mainstay in the comic industry, fighting crime, upholding morality, and acting as a way to promote American values in the face of the rise of Fascism from Europe. But after the war, many soldiers were returning from the battlefields and trying to rebuild their lives. Stories of crime, war, and superheroes started to lose their interest. They had seen enough villains overseas. In a few short years, superhero comics were pushed to the wayside to make room for humor and stories about everyday life.
Archie was created around the end of 1941 by MLJ Comics who went on to change their name later to reflect their most successful publication. Looking to appeal to younger audience, Archie also found a readership among those that had grown tired of the superhero genre. From there, it sparked a flood of imitations that swept the market, filling in the gap that superheroes had left. One of these was Patsy Walker, created by Marvel (then Timely Publications) to rival the success of Archie but for a female audience. It quickly became a hit, and by the end of 1958, 20 percent of Marvel’s titles featured her and her friends in some fashion. (Love on the Racks, 18) To some collectors and historians, the success of Patsy Walker and teen comics in general helped spark the creation of the first romance comics.
The post-war period was one of intense activity and change. As men came home from the war, women, who had been called on to fill the jobs left empty by the draft, were forced back into the more traditional roles of homemaker. Young girls were also starting to grow up and that brought along with it the natural curiosity about love. Combine this with the lifting of paper rationing, and now publishers had more freedom and resources to try out new genres on a new captive audience. But it wasn’t until Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created the first true romance comic that publishers started taking older female readers seriously.
Joe Simon remarks in his autobiography that “It had long been a source of wonder to me that so many adults were reading comic books designed for children, and now I was finding myself increasingly wondering why there was such a dearth of comic material for the female population.” (The Comic Book Makers, 110) That was pretty much true, as fewer than 50 of 832 issues in 1940 involved themes other than sheer adventure, fantastic or otherwise. (Love on the Racks, 22) Until Simon and Kirby’s first issue of Young Romance, stories dealing with relationships and love were relegated to the pulps (cheap magazines), slicks (high-quality magazines), confessions magazines (containing stories written in diary format), and hardcovers. Their creation was a huge hit and spawned a sister comic from the same publisher Young Love as well as an estimated 600 other imitations. Some of the notable titles include: My Romance (Marvel), My Life (Victor Fox), and Sweethearts (Fawcett) all coming out a short while after in 1948.
Researcher and collector Michelle Nolan remarks that, “No new genre in the history of comics from the 1930s through the 1970s ever so dominated the racks.” (Love on the Racks, 62) The Jack Kirby Museum has a great graph picturing the overall ascent and descent on its website, showing just how dramatic the growth actually was. This was partly because romance comics offered something new to the market. Never before had so many comics focused on “real-life” situations. In an era where people were trying to forget about war, seeing characters act out scenarios that could, but usually didn’t, happen in real life was refreshing. But publishers also found that romance was very versatile and quickly combined genres together to form such titles as: Cinderella Love, Wartime Romances, Cowboy Love, and Teen Confessions. They often also played to the times, giving us nice time capsules into cultural movements, with stories such as: “Hot Rod Crowd”, “Gang Sweetheart”, “How Can I Love a Member of the Establishment”, and “His Hair is Long and I Love Him”.
The comics themselves were certainly a product of their time, sometimes showing what we would today consider very sexist imagery and stories. Fawcett seemed to be the main publisher of stories that were sexist in nature, commonly featuring stories where a woman is plagued by guilt from falling in love with an older man or delinquent, but almost always having a happy ending when the woman is absolved of her “sins”. Victor Fox’s publications, notorious for being sleazy, also commonly featured sexist imagery, but more violent or racy in nature. However, there were some titles and authors who tested the limits of social acceptance with their stories, such as Simon and Kirby’s “Different” where they featured a thinly-veiled discussion of antisemitism without mentioning the word Jew. Timely/Marvel also tried to spice up the genre with its blending of themes such as their story “Black-Out!” Seemingly inspired from an Alfred Hitchcock movie, the main character becomes more and more convinced that her husband is going to murder her.
In the second half of 1949, 256 romance issues were published by 22 companies with over one thousand stories. (Love on the Racks ,43) To look at it another way, one in every 5 comics published during that time period was a romance. But sometimes too much of a good thing isn’t the best, and with all of the new titles popping up during that time, the market was starting to get flooded. Take another look at the graph by the Jack Kirby Museum above. As 1950 rolled around, the romance market started to flounder, and titles were dropped one after another. It’s estimated that 80 percent of romance titles during that year failed. (Love on the Racks, 30) So why such a dramatic drop off? Nolan calls it the “love glut”.
How They Died a Slow Death
By 1950, the comics industry had shot itself in the foot with romance comics. So many imitations were out that readership couldn’t keep up. Their rapid ascension to prominence on the racks was met with an equally rapid decline. To put in perspective, from January to June of 1950 332 issues of romance comics were published. From July to December there were only 150, with a total of 61 from October through December of that year. (Love on the Racks, 63) Marvel and Victor Fox suffered the most with Marvel losing 25 of its 30 romance titles and all 21 of Fox’s titles dieing along with the entire company shortly thereafter. Twenty companies during that short span felt compelled to cancel at least one of their romance titles.
However, with the excess titles gone, publishers could now consolidate their romances and the industry began to even out again. As publishers continued to drop titles, five companies stepped in and took control of the market: Marvel, DC, ACG, Prize, and Charlton. Charlton was by far the strongest publisher in the genre with its ability to keep their personal printing presses running constantly to churn out new content. While many publishers continued to falter during the 50’s, Charlton kept chugging along as evidenced by The Kirby Museum’s third graph. It would take another two decades before romance comics disappeared for good, and this is partly to do with Charlton’s tenacity.
Resentment for the genre had also always been present, but it was about to come to a boiling point as Frederick Wertham added fuel to the conservative values of the 50s. His most notorious article “Seduction of the Innocent” was making its rounds in 1954, offering now debunked evidence that comics led to juvenile delinquency. His evidence was enough to spark a Senate hearing which dragged through the mud the works of publishers such as EC Comics, Marvel, DC, and many others. Wertham’s claims sparked such outrage that comic burnings were organized and the comic industry retreated into self-censorship to try and save its future. Thus the Comic Code Authority (CCA) was born that proceeded to lay out the ground-rules for any and all future comics that were to be published. These rules included: the elimination of crime plots, nudity, violence, bad girl/boy stories, suggestive poses, illicit sex, the disrespecting of parents, and talking about divorce in a humorous or desirable light. The code looked to eliminate all controversy, emphasizing the value of the home and sanctity of marriage. As Michelle Nolan comments, “The rules of ethics were so pure they would have done a nunnery proud.” (Love on the Racks, 129)
The Comics Code lasted surprisingly until 2011 when the last of the major publishers finally broke away, but the damage was already long done and the overall impact of comics on American culture never really recovered. The romance and horror genre suffered the worst of it, with EC Comics closing and romance comics losing their appeal. Most publishers, including Marvel, held on post-code using generic stories while trying to supplement it with great art, but even art can’t hold reader interest for long in the wake of increasingly homogeneous stories. Due to this pressure from the CCA and general backlash, companies began to falter taking the romance genre with them. Between 1955 and 1958, St. John Publications, Harvey, Fawcett, Ziff-Davis, Ace, Superior, and Ajax/Farell all left the romance genre or comics in general. Quality followed soon after, selling its titles to National/DC in 1956. With Marvel facing an implosion during 1957 because of distribution troubles the company was significantly hobbled during this time as well. Charlton was still chugging along though as their 15 titles became fully half of the romance genre in 1959. But the CCA was not the only problem for romance during those decades.
It quickly became apparent to publishers in 1956 that superhero comics were again gaining popularity, and thus started the Silver Age of comics. By the 1960s, only National/DC and Charlton were competing in any meaningful way in the romance genre, and dropping it to only 8.82% of the industry in that decade. (Love on the Racks, 184) There were a lot of smaller reasons as well that caused the romance genre to fade into obscurity other than the effects of the CCA, including: the rise of the feminist movement in the 60/70s, the rising popularity of television, the widespread publication of cheap paperbacks, the lack of women writers and artists on staff, and the rise of comic specialty stores that refused to carry them. The CCA guidelines were the turning point for romances, but these smaller issues also proved too much for the genre to handle. Women were leaving mainstream comics, turning to whatever else was available whether it be paperback romances, television, or the underground comics movement. The romance genre had its last year of real impact in 1973 when it was less than 7% of all issues before dying out completely. But its death passed many comic readers by unawares as the mainstream comic industry returned to its superheros and — as they figured it — a male-dominated audience.
Why Nobody Cared
In the course of my research it became apparent that there was not only a lack of romance comics from an American perspective, but that there was also a lack of research on the subject of the romance comics genre. So far, I’ve found two books that deal fully with American romance comics, Love on the Racks and Agonizing Love, and a few that had at least one chapter devoted to the genre, The Comic Book Makers and From Girls to Grrrlz. There were a few web articles as well, but I’ve had to rely for the most part on Michelle Nolan’s comprehensive analysis for most — if not all — of this article.
In Love on the Racks, she makes a few points about the relative popularity of these romance comics post-mortem, noting how little worth they are given in comparison to other comics from the same time period. Even though the romance comics of the 40s and 50s effectively revitalized the comic industry, specific issues of titles such as Young Romance only go for around 10 or 20 dollars compared to the several hundred, if not thousands, you can get from other — mostly superhero — issues. Today, #71 of Young Romance is selling for just 25 dollars on Ebay. In the end, this may come down to the fact that most of the collectors from the 60s onward were men, who tended to find romance comics too repetitive or boring for their tastes. While I don’t find this particularly surprising considering the original intended audience, the art alone from these comics can be said to be worth something. With artists such as Jack Kirby, John Romita Sr., John Buscema, Dom Heck, and Matt Baker among other famous names, romance comics of that period tended to show off the creative talent each publisher cultivated.
The lack of attention collectors and historians had for romance also showed in the reprints and other related books that came out after the end of romance comics. DC had always had reprints being published of their older comics since the 1970s, but their romance titles didn’t get their own book until Heart Throbs: The Best of DC Romance Comics came out in 1979. This was the only title devoted fully to romance comics until 2003 with John Benson’s Romance without Tears that looks specifically at the comics from St. John Publishing. Most recently, we have a few volumes of Weird Love from IDW that deals with the strangest stories to come out of the genre. For those that didn’t fully deal with the genre, the old mainstream romance comics were relegated only a few pages here and there. Les Daniels DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World’s Comic Book Heroes had just two pages and 300 words out of 256 pages to talk about romance. Even Joe Simon, co-founder of the genre, saved only four pages out of his 208 page autobiography to talk about love.
According to Trina Robbins, author of Girls to Grrrlz, “As far as the mainstream publishers were concerned, boys were in and girls were out.”(77) But the need for comics geared towards a female audience persisted, and while some of them went back to reading things like Archie, many turned to the underground comics scene with zines like Tits ‘n’ Clits, Pandora’s Box, and Wimmen’s Comix. While many mainstream comics have included romance in their stories and have become better at widening the scope of the comics they produce, the fact still remains that most still target a generally male audience even when over half of their readers are female. The romance comics of the 50s and 60s will probably never make a resurgence, but for now the shoujo manga market is leading a huge boom in manga sales in the U.S. and we’re seeing interesting stories coming out of the webcomic and indie market.
Michelle Nolan. Love on the Racks: A History of American Romance Comics.
Joe Simon and Jim Simon. The Comic Book Makers
Trina Robbins. From Girls to Grrrlz
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