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Fine Books Review

Reading the Romance

For just a few decades, romance comics attracted female readers by the millions By Deborah Burst Deborah Burst is a freelance writer and photographer living in Mandeville, Louisiana, specializing in the arts, travel, and historical architecture. She grew up reading magazines and comics books and still does.

Courtesy of HarperCollins

Agonizing Love: The Golden Era of Romance Comics

By Michael Barson
Harper Design
208 pages
paperbound
full-color illustrations
$29.99

Growing up reading Glamour and Cosmopolitan magazines, I spent many hours studying their fail-safe rules for romantic interludes penned by so-called experts. It’s not a new angle but rather a timeless score in exploring relationships between the sexes.

A half-century ago, romance comics dominated the magazine racks, capitalizing on women’s desire to find true love (or what publishers perceived that desire to be). The first printing in 1947 sold out completely, and subsequent printings increased from three hundred and fifty thousand to a million copies per issue. As the decades folded, so did the comics subgenre, with its last printing in 1977.

Although author Michael Barson, an avid comics collector, wasn't the target audience, he amassed a sizable collection of romance comics in the early 1980s and has recently published Agonizing Love: The Golden Era of Romance Comics, an anthology that highlights some of his prized issues. Diving into the collection he stores in his New Jersey basement, Barson describes the golden years of lusting females searching for happily-ever-after, and the result is a handsome coffee-table book with two hundred pages featuring comics illustrations and key stories. Besides the sappy, tear-stained mini-dramas, romance comics offered entertaining excerpts, such as quizzes and advice columns on how to choose Mr. Right, how to kiss, or how to handle your in-laws. Each issue is a time capsule in artwork, fashion, and mid-twentieth-century social dynamics.

Although the comics were marketed toward women, it was superhero writers Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (Hulk, X-Men, Fantastic Four, etc.) who created the series, just as soap operas were beginning to saturate the radio. They drew material from the romantic couples of the 1930s, the humorous antics of Archie comics, and the popular Andy Hardy movies played by Mickey Rooney.

In Agonizing Love, five chapters cover the gambit from enchanting engagements to jealous brawls with quirky titles: “With Open Arms (bliss),” “Love Vampire (jealousy and betrayal),” “It Was Too Late For Love (despair),” “Heartbreak on my Honeymoon (marriage hell),” and “Gang Sweetheart (class struggles).” Each is prefaced with Barson’s witty and whimsical commentary lending more evidence that affections of the heart have changed little over the last sixty years.

From the candy-coated proposals to the cutthroat jealousies, romance comics have fairy-tale endings. One of my favorites, “With Hate In My Heart,” follows a familiar tale opening in a publisher’s office where two writers receive book rejections. Only this time love blossoms as they agree to drown their sorrows with a liquid lunch. As the relationship builds, jealousy and betrayal begin to boil, closing the love story with an interesting twist.

Barson admits that the demise of the romance comics is somewhat enigmatic but does attest to their inability to keep up with the counterculture movement. “No matter how many headbands and tie-dye T-shirts appeared on the characters in those pages, readers must have been able to sense that something inauthentic was afoot back at the storyboard.”

Agonizing Love preserves that age as well as a photo album. Multiple generations will enjoy the long look backwards that it offers in a colorful and amusing way. As Barson points out, “These comics may be a half century or more old, but their wisdom remains timeless.”

Deborah Burst is a freelance writer and photographer living in Mandeville, Louisiana, specializing in the arts, travel, and historical architecture. She grew up reading magazines and comics books and still does.
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