Thursday, December 29, 2005

Love Is in the Air

Recently, there have been some articles on various comic news sites about comics from the 80s: specifically, Strikeforce: Morituri and Spider-Ham. It wasn't really surprising to me that the comment sections after both articles featured scores of people proclaiming how great these were, how much they missed them, how much they'd love to see something new. The crazy thing is (well, it's not so crazy) is that these series sold terribly. As I mentioned before, I worked in a comic shop during the time these were published, and they were always at or near the worst sellers Marvel had.

I honestly don't remember either series' storyline, although I think I read both. They were not, to me, memorable in the least.

Now I'm not saying that they weren't good, but neither really made me think twice when they were cancelled.

But people are going crazy about them. (One person said he can now die happy that they had a Spider-Ham cover. Do I sound that silly when talking about my own hobby?) I wonder where were these people when it was being published 20 years ago? Were they collecting comics? And, if so, were they buying the series? Because not many people were.

I mention this because I wonder if there was any outrage when DC stopped publishing their romance books in the late 70s. Were there letters to the editor? Were there young girls weeping at the newsstand when the next Young Love failed to arrive? Even the most popular comics of the 60s and 70s only got around 50 letters to the editor each month; I can only imagine if, by the time the romance comics began to die, anyone even cared.

I think the one thing that I (and possibly you, the reader) take for granted, however, is that we've all been reading comics for a long time. In my case, more than 20 years.

Nobody who wrote, drew, or published comics in the 40s-60s ever thought that they were doing so for people who had been reading them for two decades. They didn't think they needed much continuity in their stories; they didn't think that a hero's origin or powers or sidekick need be there every month, because you probably weren't reading the title 5 years ago when these things were introduced in the first place.

Yes, there were numbers on the comics, and they certainly made it seem like they had been around for a while, but very few readers actually cared what happened before. And most didn't read them long enough for it to matter if stories were retold or reprinted. People didn't know the difference.

How times have changed. (I sound like an old man, don't I?)

If I write an article for Newsarama about romance comics, how many people do you think will write, "Oh man, romance comics! They were awesome! If they start publishing them again, I could die happy!"

Sunday, December 4, 2005

Edit This!

For the past several years, I've been a writer/editor. (Amazingly, this doesn't pay my bills. Can you believe it?) I work in the medical and pharmaceutical field, and in my job I take information that seems complicated (such as medical things are wont to do) and I try to edit and rewrite it to make it less complicated. It's all a very exciting thing.

Comic book editors, though, do something a little different. Today, editors are there to plan out the future of the titles they're given to work on, deciding such things as who will write and draw them, what the general direction of the stories may be, and controlling how those stories fit into the general "universe" in which they live (such as the DC and Marvel and Image universes). To me, this is much more exciting than doing research on cystic fibrosis.

Editors of the past, however, often did much more than just help out the storytellers. They would give the writers the story. So, Julius Schwartz would have some of his writers come in -- a John Broome or a Gardner Fox -- and he'd say, "I want a story about the Flash where he saves the world by making everything full of static electricity." The two would then hammer out a plot and Fox or Broome or whomever would go back to his house and type of the script. He'd return, and it would start all over again.

In other companies, the editor was much more hands off. Stan Lee at Timely/Atlas would gather scripts from his own group of writers, edit them as needed, and then keep them in a pile for when his artists came to the office to drop off work and pick up something new. Not so much control there. Of course, in Lee's situation, he was nearly always the only editor on staff, and he alone had to control dozens of titles.

DC (going back to Schwartz) had it much different. Editors would often control groups of titles. Mort Weisinger controlled the Superman titles in the 50s and 60s. Schwartz had his hand in all of the non Superman/Batman titles. Robert Kanigher had the war books and Wonder Woman. And so on.

The romance titles were shuttled about among different editors for a while, including Schwartz and Kanigher, until Phyllis Reed came on the scene in late 1957. There were few women in comics at the time, and even fewer working on romance comics, but Reed lasted for 5 years at DC, at a time when their line expanded with the influx of the Fawcett and Prize titles that came their way (Heart Throbs, Young Love, and Young Romance). This was also the time when, I think, the DC romance titles were at their peak. Artistically, with the likes of John Romita and John Rosenberger and Jay Scott Pike, the books looked tremendous. The stories were also really emotional -- not too cheesy or silly or immature.

I mentioned that she passed away not too long ago, and I did some research to try and see what she did before and after DC, but I couldn't come up with anything yet. While there was plenty of comics fandom going on at the time, unfortunately none had to do with romance comics, and her legacy, compared with Schwartz or Kanigher or Weisinger, seems to be lost.

A shame.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Why Must They Disagree With Me?

Comic Book Artist was (and is, whenever they decide to put out new issues) one of the best magazines about comics ever. Not as literary (and not full of Ken Smith) as The Comics Journal, it was the best of many different worlds -- comic history, current creators, interesting interviews, etc. When CBA left TwoMorrows (for some reason that I really don't know and don't want to) and moved to Top Shelf, TwoMorrows (also the publisher of the equally good Alter Ego and Jack Kirby Collector) replaced it with Back Issue.

Back Issue, edited by Michael Eury, focuses mostly on comics from the 70s and 80s, with plenty of interviews with their creators, and some "lost" art (usually from fans' sketchbooks). To me, it is the Wizard magazine for those over 30, and like Wizard, it is not very good. The articles are thin, the scholarship (if you can call it that) is weak, and it seems that in every issue I've read (about 4 of them) the questions that seem most important never get asked.

I hadn't bought or read an issue in about a year until I saw the ad in Previews for the most recent issue, #13. They were going to have an article on the death of romance comics.

I had to buy it. And I did.

The article, "The Terrible, Tragic (>Sob!<) Death of Romance (Comics!!)" (all punctuation theirs), was written by John Lustig, the Last Kiss creator. In its seven pages, Lustig illuminates why he (and others) think that romance comics stopped being published. There are numerous reasons he cites, many of which are backed up by romance comics fans or those in the industry. Some, like Dick Giordano or Michelle Nolan or Richard Howell, I've heard of. Others, I have no real clue about what makes them any more of an expert than my wife. (Boy, I sound real bitchy here, don't I?)

Anyway, the big reason Lustig says romance comics died was television.

Virtually everyone who was interviewed for this article blamed TV (at least in part) for the decline in comics readership in general and romance comics in particular. To find romance and sex all you had to do was turn on your TV. And if you watched some of the increasingly racy soap operas... you'd learn more than you could get out of any romance comic.

Why does everyone blame television for the demise of comics? Since the beginning of comics, there was competition. Radio, movies, TV -- it was always there. But somehow, in the mid-70s, it hurt romance comics.

Joe Gill, prolific writer for Charlton, said in the article, "Television changed all the values of the (subsequent) generations... enormously. They found out about sex and drugs. It was pretty sordid. And these harmless little comics had no place in their lives." That is an argument you hear every year: that kids and teens are getting too adult, that they're too mature, that they won't like things that their parents did or their parent's parent. Bull. You don't have to be a sociologist to know that people like the same types of things, regardless of the era, and that we are no less moral, less innocent, than those living in the 50s.

So while the "values" argument is bunk, what about TV itself? Well, while I'm not so sure that outside media help the sales of comics (the Spider-Man movie didn't really increase the sales of the Spider-Man comic), it didn't hurt it. In the 50s, Westerns on TV were huge. My mother loved them. Couldn't get enough of them. What was the most popular time for Western comics? Why, the 50s! So why didn't Westerns on TV ruin Western comics?

Who knows. But we know they didn't. So I don't see any evidence that soap operas on TV would make people less likely to buy romance comics.

Other reasons given in the article were the proliferation of Harlequin romance books in the 60s, underground comics, the demise of the newsstand, and romance in super-hero comics. Those reasons just don't fly with me.

By the 60s, when Harlequin romances were first flourishing, the romance comics readership was almost completely teens and younger. You could tell by the stories within the comics -- they focused on teenage girls or those just out of high school. They were not competing with Harlequin romances. It's almost like saying crime comics in the 50s were competing with Jim Thompson or David Goodis. That's not competition. It's the same genre, in a different medium, going after a different audience.

Undgerground comics were not competition. I don't know how else to say it, but Zap and its ilk did not make people less likely to buy Young Romance. How do I know? Because by the time that underground comics made their way out of the head shops and into "normal" society, romance comics' fate had already been sealed.

Demise of the newsstand? Nah. When did the direct market begin and when did it become viable? The former in the mid-70s and the latter in the late 70s. No romance comics then, people. Not a factor. (In fact, growing up in Bethlehem, PA, population 80k, I bought my comics at Matz's newsstand until 1985, when Dreamscape Comics opened up.)

Romance in super-hero comics? Well, they were there, that's for sure. Peter Parker's love troubles were often the key to the issues, but I'm not sure how that would've affected romance comics sales. For one, by the time the Marvel Age came around, romance comics were already in a severe tail-spin, with only 4 publishers even doing romance comics (Marvel, DC, Charlton, and ACG). For another, while girls were reading Marvel super-hero comics more than others, I can't see that a person reading romance comics would stop collecting them because you could find them in that month's Fantastic Four. Perhaps that would make them read FF as well, but I doubt if they would be at the expense of Secret Hearts.

Lustig does touch on our shared idea of the new creators of the 70s, who grew up on super-heroes, would be less likely to want to create romance comics, but he relegates that to end.

The article ends with a question: Could anything have saved romance?

Dick Giordano answers: "No, I think the time for romance comics was past and no amount of doctoring could change that."


I can think of a lot of doctoring could've saved them. Just like I think things could've saved sci-fi comics or Westerns or any of the other genres that disappeared once the people in charge stopped caring about them and focused only on super-heroes.

It was a good shot by Lustig, but I think he took the easy way out. Why romance comics died in the mid-70s have more to do with why they became less popular in the late 50s than in the late 60s, but he skips that completely.

Not to worry, though. I'm on the job!

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Now where was I...

It's been a hectic month. This new job... well, let's just say that I'm actually required to do work. The nerve of these people!

Anyway, a few snippets of things that I'll be expanding on in the next few days:

1) We have a winner for the romance comics contest. There were about a half-dozen entries, and I wrote everyone's names out on a small piece of paper, put them in a brown paper bag, and had a co-worker pick one out. The winner is Penny Kenny (who I have to e-mail and get her address to mail them). Congratulations, Penny. I hope that you'll have the time to write up a bit of a review in the near future of what you think.

2) Recently, former DC romance editor Phyllis Reed passed away. She edited the line from the late 50s to the early 60s, and oversaw some of the last great DC romance stories (and, as I stated elsewhere, my favorites). Yes, they were squeaky clean, and yes, they were very one-dimensional. But the art was terrific, the stories weren't dumb (just hokey -- a difference), and the packaging was top notch. One of the interesting things about DC's from that era is that you could always tell who the editor of the comic was just by looking at the indicia on the bottom of the first page. So, you could tell what Julie Schwartz edited or what Jack Schiff edited (although, they weren't always accurate). I'll try and do a little more research on Ms. Reed.

3) Back Issue magazine came out today with the "Why Romance Comics Went Away" article. Written by John Lustig (who you'll hear about later and who I've written about in the past), I glanced through it a bit at lunch, but there were so many things that I disagreed with, I'll want to spend a full post just taking it apart. There were a couple of things that jived with my own thoughts, but for the most part, a lot of the premise of his thesis is based on incorrect information.

4) Marvel Comics' latest solicitations came out yesterday, and there are numerous romance comics-related info. They're putting out a series of comics called "I (Heart) Marvel", which they describe thusly: "Sometimes, your favorite super heroes just need a little love. Help us pay homage to the romance comics of yesteryear with five two-fisted, love-centric one-shots in the Mighty Marvel Manner. They're all perfect to share with that special someone this Valentine's Day." Sigh... romance comics with super heroes. The titles are "Web of Romance," "Outlaw Love," "My Mutant Heart," and "Marvel AI" (which I take to be manga super-hero romance). I've spoken before about this need for everything not super heroes (especially from Marvel) to somehow involve super heroes and how they're completely missing the point. Marvel does not equal the big picture.

They're also beginnin a 5-issue series where they Lustig-ize old romance stories. Lustig-ize is a word I made up where new dialogue (obviously uber-hip) replaces the old, "tired" original. I hate this crap. I really do. I think it demeans what was done in the past, making the creators from the 40s, 50s, and 60s play the part of the fool. I'll get into this a lot more later...

Marvel also is putting out a 176-page trade paperback, "Marvel Romance" (who comes up with these titles?), where they reprint stories from "LOVE ROMANCE #89 and #101-104; MY LOVE #2, #14, #16 and #18-20; TEEN-AGE ROMANCE #77 and #84; OUR LOVE STORY #5; and PATSY WALKER #119." If you'll notice, all of these stories are from the 60s on, long past when Marvel was producing its best stuff. I realize it sounds like I bitch and moan at whatever Marvel does, but really, would it have been so difficult to publish something before super-heroes (all of these comic stories were from post-Marvel Universe)?

Anyway, I'll be writing more about all this.

And I'm sure glad to be back.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Reminder and Apology

Three weeks ago I started a new job. My last job was one where I did little or nothing for days at a time. It wasn't because of my slacking off. It was because they had no work for me to do.


So I would blog. And blog. And write e-mails. And blog.

This new job is a little different in that I actually have work to do. Go figure!

So until I get everything sorted out and find time in the evening to put up new romance comic-related posts, they will be a little sparse. I apologize.

But I do want to remind you of my "free romance comics" giveaway. I've had several e-mails and posts, and I know that there are more of you out there. Next Monday is the cutoff.

Also, I mentioned Bill Draut in my last post, and I got an e-mail from Mr. Draut's daughter asking me if I knew him personally. I did not, but perhaps you did. He worked for the Simon/Kirby outfit for many years, mostly on the books they packaged for Prize Comics. If you knew him, e-mail me, please, and I'll get you in touch with his daughter.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

You're Ugly!

Jack Kirby is, without question, one of the greatest comic book artists of all time. He helped create some of the seminal characters of the last 60 years of pop culture, and his style was influential in moving comics from a bunch of newspaper strip rejects to its own art form.

But, boy, does he draw some ugly women.

Which only makes his contribution to romance comics more puzzling (maybe puzzling isn't the word... astounding?).

Kirby’s strength was his dynamic artwork. Not constrained by the smaller comic strip format, Kirby was one of the first artists that exaggerated the action, using all of what the comic page would allow (other great early examples are Lou Fine and Will Eisner). Punches flew off the page. Cars and spaceships hurtled through the void. (Corny, isn’t it?) Yet by the late 40s, not even 5 years after drawing the "Manhunter" and Boy Commandos for DC, Kirby was drawing romance comics, where there were no spaceships, no punches, nothing flying through space.

And while Kirby (and his partner Joe Simon) saw the opportunity in romance comics and they both produced them for years (with Kirby returning to them in the late-50s and 60s when he came back to Marvel), I don’t think their work was all that good. Yes, there was emotion there, and yes, they were some of the most mature things ever produced in comic book form, but they were wordy and stiff and, again, not so attractive. (At least the Simon/Kirby stories in those comics.)

John Romita, the artist on dozens of romance stories for DC during the 50s and 60s, drew beautiful women. Matt Baker drew sexy women. Alex Toth drew a very mature woman. Jay Scott Pike drew a woman with flair.

Kirby? He drew a woman that always seemed on the brink of either a screaming fit or just plain screaming or being severely constipated. (I have to admit that he drew good “bad” guys – you know, the fellow who the girl should dump so she could instead date the nice fellow.)

Other artists working for Simon and Kirby illustrated early stories in their Young Romance-family of titles, including Mort Meskin (one of my favorites), Jerry Robinson (a studio-mate of Meskin), Bill Draut, Bruno Premiani (of Doom Patrol fame), and many more. Most of these artists were not as adept at drawing super-hero fisticuffs, but they had Kirby beat with the ladies.

The covers to Young Romance and Young Love (Simon and Kirby's first two series) were line drawn at first. Very soon after their launch (issue #13 for Romance, issues #2-11, then #23-53 for Love), they started to have photo covers. Why they changed seemed pretty cut and dried.

When Timely/Atlas (which later became Marvel) jumped into the romance arena, the immediately published photo covers (which pre-dated the first Prize photo covers by a couple of months). Likely, Stan Lee (and later the publishers at Prize) wanted to make the romance comics look more like the ladies magazines on the stands (I always wondered why they didn’t make them magazine sized). It’s a good marketing tool – make your product look just like something the same potential customer would buy. (Timely/Atlas was also publishing crime comics with photo covers, another genre with numerous magazine counterparts.)

Yet another part of me wants to say that S/K realized that these line-drawn covers just weren’t cutting it, that other publishers who were coming into the romance biz had artists that were able to draw a little sexier or prettier (or in the case of Fox, smuttier).

It's difficult for me to fault the guy when it comes to his art. Kirby was terrific, one of the best.

He just didn't draw very attractive women, is all.

After Simon and Kirby split and Kirby eventually returned to Atlas (a company he hadn't worked for since he and Simon left in the early 40s after a dispute over monies owed for Captain America), he jumped back into the romance ring. Still, it wasn't great stuff, and Stan Lee realized this. Kirby only did a handful of these stories, and Lee had him drawing more of the monster and suspense (and eventually super-heroes) stories.

Yet even when he returned to a bit of the lovey-dovey stuff (I'm thinking of his Sue Storm/Reed Richards romance or Johnny/Crystal), the women still didn't look all that great. Over in Amazing Spider-Man, John Romita was drawing those drop-dead gorgeous gals, Mary Jane Watson and Gwen Stacey. There was no comparison.

Pardon my rambling, but I'm trying to be as gentle as possible. You don't want to badmouth a king too much, or you're likely to find yourself in the dungeon.

Sunday, October 9, 2005

Free (Romance) Comics!

A couple of blogs that I really enjoy in the recent past have offered a free comics stunt. I "won" Epileptic (by David B.) from Yet Another Comics Blog (their monkey covers are tops), and I also got a nice manga book from Tangonat (I'll get around to reading it soon, I promise), and in both cases, it seemed that these people wanted to spread the word on some of the comics they enjoyed.

Well, I'm doing the same.

I'm going to give away a pack including one romance comic from the 50s, 60s, and 70s (and one Charlton, so you can understand why I don't really care for them). I'm not sure what they're going to be, but they'll probably be some half-decent stuff, stuff that I think people who don't regularly read them will enjoy.

Send me an e-mail or post something in the comment section about why you want to read these romance comics. It doesn't have to be a 1,000-word essay, but I also don't want it to be "Put me in the raffle for the comics". Now the winner isn't determed on whether or not they write a good entry; it's more that I want to separate those who want to win from those who just want to enter. All entries will be picked out of a fishbowl by the wife (an unbiased person if I've ever met one). I'd like someone who is truly interested in reading them to get them, and I'd also like for that person to then write why (or why not) they liked them. I'll post that on the blog as well (as long as the winner okays it).

So get to it, people! I know you want to! E-mail me or post something in the comments section. You have 2 weeks (until Sunday, October 23).

Monday, October 3, 2005

Some People...

I have a counter on my site. I added it because I already have an account with StatCounter (a free site that I like quite a bit) and it was easy to do. I'm mostly interested in my business Web site (Chicago Comic Conventions), to see how many people are clicking on it, where they're coming from (to see if my advertising is effective), and how many pages they look at.

With this site, though, I don't really get enough hits in the day to make it so interesting, and this is not a money-making enterprise (well, to tell you the truth, neither is the convention). But the one very cool thing the counter does is that it will tell me what keywords people use to get to this site. There have been a few for "romance comics" and a lot for my post on ACG's "Truvision", but the majority have been for (and I'm sure you'll never guess what)... porn.

Well, not porn so much as "booty". I used the word as a title for my Wizard World Chicago purchases, and man... there's a lot of people looking for booty (and I bet most of them aren't interested in my kind).

There have also been some for interracial porn (I don't know how they got here from that), 50s porn, and, of course, manga porn.

Who would've guessed that there were that many people looking for naked pictures on the Internet?

(That's sarcasm, people.)

Of course, with this post, even more people are going to be coming here looking at this site.

My mother would be so proud of me.

Saturday, October 1, 2005

Dizzy Love

In the late-90s, Vertigo (under the editorial thumb of Axel Alonso) released several different anthology titles. One, Flinch, was an ongoing series that lasted around 13 issues. A few others, however, were 4-issue mini-series: Gangland (crime stories), Strange Adventures (sci-fi), Weird War Tales (horror-war), and Heartthrobs (one word, surprsingly, and, of course, romance). Anthology titles (at least from Marvel and DC) had become nearly extinct. Marvel for almost 7 years published Marvel Comics Presents, a series that featured four 8-page stories an issue, many of which lasted for several issues, telling a longer story. They also published Marvel Super-Heroes, a reprise of their 1960s title, that would publish inventory stories that never made it to the regular series.

Neither of them (with some exceptions) featured anything particularly good.

DC last tried the anthology genre (I believe) in the 80s, with Time Warp, a short-lived sci-fi title that had some nice Mike Kaluta covers.

I think both companies understood that people would much rather read the continuing life of a specific character. Or maybe that's just what they wanted to write and draw. Who knows.

But they're not around much any more, although several smaller companies have tried it (Dark Horse Comics Presents is the first one to come to mind). None to much long-lasting success.

I suppose that Vertigo was as good a place as any to try them again. They were cutting edge there, not afraid to try different things. And while some things didn't work, they at least tried them. And I, in turn, try out their titles a lot. I'm much more willing to buy a trade from Vertigo now or buy the first issue of a series than many other publishers or imprints. They've earned that right.

The problem with some of their titles, though, is that they're quite aware of their own brilliance. There's a delicate balance between being clever and trying to be clever. Sandman was extremely clever, if not intelligent and at times quite beautiful. Rachel Pollack's Doom Patrol (and she had a unenviable task of having to follow in Grant Morrison's steps) was a mish-mash of annoying and just trying too damn hard. It fell flat.

So it was with these anthology titles -- especially Heartthrobs. It seemed that many of the writers hurt their shoulders by patting themselves on the back, these tales were so darn clever.
Yes, there were plenty of good things about them. The first issue had a story about a young, gay man who is "changed" into straightness (written by Robert Rodi and drawn by Phil Jiminez, two of the few comic creators who are "out"), the third had a cool story by Peter Milligan and a pre-100 Bullets Eduardo Risso ("Death of the Romantic"), but most of the stories were odd. And not good odd. I like odd. I'm all about odd. But these were not compelling odd (compelling odd, to me, is Crispin Glover in Back to the Future; compare that with Crispin Glover in Willard -- see the difference?).

Also, there were too many romance stories that weren't really romance stories. They were crime stories or sci-fi stories. I'm sure most of you have read various EC Comics before. You know how there would be stories about a man who loved his wife so much he had her killed and stuffed? Or people who fell in love with space aliens who then just watned to eat them? Well, to me, those are horror and sci-fi stories. Because they're about the murder or the alien. They're not about the love.

Same goes with these stories. They're not romance stories.

And I guess that's okay. I mean, look at that cover for issue #2. That doesn't really say love to me. Of course, my S&M phase was a long time ago.

I kid.

I'd just like comics to try to have straight romance or straight war or straight Western titles again. They can be good, I know it. And they don't have to try and be so damn clever.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Some Things to Think About

An upcoming issue of Back Issue magazine (published by the nice folks at TwoMorrows, who also publish the Jack Kirby Collector and Alter Ego, among others) is going to feature an article called "The Death of Romance (Comics)". The biggest thing you should know about this is that I didn't write the article. I have no clue who did, actually, but I'll still be buying it, and after reading it, I'll likely review it and give it my thumbs up or thumbs down.

I was thinking about the lack of minorities in comics the other day, and specifically in romance comics (but not exclusively). The thing is, while minorities are underrepresented in comics (everything from super-hero comics to sci-fi comics), I'm not so sure that comic fans are racially underrepresented. Go to a big city convention, and it's not as white as one would think (just as it isn't as male or overweight male). I know of a comic shop owner who has opened a couple of shops in areas that are racially mixed in Chicago, whose client base swings more toward non-white (black, Hispanic, Asian, etc.) customers than white ones.

However, I think if (no, be positive, WHEN) romance comics come back full swing, they will have to deal with less of what was going on in the 50s-70s (you know, either suburban white couples or wealthy, urban couples, not a black or Asian or Mexican face to be found). Why? Because super-heroics don't have anything to do with real life. Yes, Spider-Man has money problems and Superman's married, but the whole thing is based in almost complete fantasy.

You can't have that with reality-based stories dealing with love and lust. You need to have real people (even if they're in fiction).


You know, you guys can comment if you want. I know there are a few of you who read this, and I'd like to hear your opinions, whether they're about romance comics or just my crazy ramblings.

And while you're commenting, click on some of those Google ads. Those things add up... 8 cents here, 12 cents there... next thing you know, I'm getting the wife a nice gift!

Monday, September 26, 2005

Wag That Tail!

Sorry for the long time in between posts. I started a new job today, and I had to spend a lot of time last week doing last-week-of-job things.


If you haven't read this article yet ("The Long Tail" by Chris Anderson), do so right away. If you have any interest at all about comics, specifically the comics industry, it's something that should be very telling about why the standard American comic book industry is dying and the manga industry is thriving.

To sum it up (if you decide not to read it, and if so, shame on you), industries do better when there is a greater selection, regardless of how few the lowest selling product sells. For example (and an example that Anderson uses), and iTunes sell a lot of the top 10 books and albums. A ton of them. But that's not where they make their money. They do so by selling a lot of different titles. While Amazon sells 2 million (a guess) copies of the latest Harry Potter book and counts their money for weeks doing so, they make MORE money selling the bottom 100,000 titles, titles that may sell only 1 or 2 or 3 copies a year.

A lot of comic book stores -- the majority I'd say -- are Short Tail establishments. They sell their copies of Spider-Man and X-Men and Identity Crisis and what not, but if a comic sells only a copy or two an issue, they'll often stop carrying it completely (in fact Diamond Comics, the industry's main distributor, is following suit). It's as if something doesn't make a lot of money, it's not worthwhile, when in fact, those comics and graphic novels that sell only a copy at a time (instead of handfulls) make you mucho dinero over the months and years.

The industry used to be Long Tail. In the 50s, when romance and crime and horror were kings, sales varied widely between the best selling and worst. But companies didn't give up very easily or quickly on low-selling titles, because they knew that there were enough people out there buying them, that a larger and more varied publishing output was good for the industry. Marvel/Atlas of the 50s is a perfect example. They published a lot of titles and they published everything. From romance to sci-fi to cartoon characters to teen humor. And while they weren't the most popular titles on the newsstands, they never felt the need to stop publishing comics. You can't say the same about Fawcett or Quality, both of whom routinely outsold Marvel titles.

Fast-forward 50 years, and the largest and most popular publisher in comics, Marvel, is now your classic Short Tail publisher. Super-heroes, super-heroes, and more super-heroes.

Contrast that with their main competitor, DC, who is a Long Tail kind of place. They publish Cartoon Network titles, Vertigo, Wildstorm, and super-heroes. And while titles like Fables and Y, the Last Man (both excellent, by the way) fall near the bottom of the top 100 (this most recent month, they're 90 and 96), I suspect they make DC a lot of money through their trade paperbacks.

(Same goes for other DC/Vertigo titles that weren't top sellers when they were published on a monthly basis: Sandman, Preacher, and 100 Bullets have done extremely well in the trade format, making many multiples of what they earned when coming out as periodicals.)

And manga (and I group manga as one entity, instead of by individual publishers, which probably isn't really the best thing to do, but, oh well) has an incredibly wide variety of genres out there. Action, sci-fi, humor, romance, etc. And while some likely sell many multiples of others, they're still published, because it's a good business idea. Because if you sell 100,000 copies of your best title and 150,000 copies total of your worst 10 titles, you're a) making the same amount of money and b) entertaining a much larger audience who may come back and buy more of your books.

DC needs to stretch its Tail and add some romance titles. And Marvel needs to grow one.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

They Just Grow Up So Fast Nowadays

This is installment three of the "why romance comics vanished" tutorial (you can read the first two here and here), and this time, I want to talk about the "changing times" (when I say things like changing times, I feel really old).

The influence of the late 60s and its counter-culture has been both over- and under-stated. It's been overstated because the whole summer of love and the Haight/Ashbury scene was just that -- a summer. (It reminds me of the Old West; the era of cowboys and indians, which has been captured in countless movies and books and TV shows and comics, lasted for only a couple of years, but you'd never know it from all the stuff out there.)

So while those no-good hippies and their funny cigarettes had their height of popularity (or whatever you'd call it) in the summer of '67, they quickly faded (the Woodstock festival in '69 seemed to be a swan-song of sorts) and were replaced with whatever came next (what did come next? what's between hippies and punks/disco?).

But many of the things that people associated with them -- sexual freedom, drugs, etc. -- became more accepted. Pot wasn't just a hippie thing any more, and drug use in general moved more into the mainstream. (While I don't think that marijuana is a gateway to other harder drugs like cocaine and heroin, I do think that a sociological acceptance of marijuana made those other drugs more likely to be tried by your white-collar executive and become more popular.)

Same goes for more openess of sexuality. The Stonewall riots of '69, while probably didn't make the gay lifestyle more accepted, brought things to light and created a greater legal (if not social) equality. Sexual promiscuity lost much of its taboo. It was free love, man!

And kids and teenagers knew about this. Parents, no matter how hard they tried, couldn't hide their children from these perverts and druggies and booze hounds. It was mayhem!

All exaggeration aside, it's obvious that society had drastically changed, and a lot of things couldn't keep up. One of those was comics.

Now super-hero comics are one thing. While Spider-Man's best pal Harry Osborn dropped his fair share of acid and Green Arrow's ward Speedy had a problem with smack, for the most part drugs were not a big problem in the super-hero universes of Marvel and DC. They didn't have to, because those guys (even the more down-to-earth Marvel heroes) fought larger-than-life criminals. Drugs and loose women aren't larger than life.

So yes, Superman wants to keep the drugs off the streets, but he goes about that by fighting Braniac, who has discovered a new, highly addictive opiate, not by shutting down the local street dealer. It just wouldn't work.

Romance comics are another story, however. They deal with the everyday life. Everyday life in the late 60s and early 70s was sex and drugs. But you can't talk about sex and drugs in a comic book. Not then at least. (Well, you could in Zap Comix or other underground titles, but that's a different thing altogether.) I really don't think that, as much as Stan Lee was a liberal thinker, he'd be willing to publish a story in Our Love where Suzy gets the clap or Jenny loses her boyfriend because she spends all her time high as a kite. The Comics Code wouldn't allow it, and I'm not sure if he'd even want to publish that.

And, yes, there were some drug stories published in romance comics in the early 50s, but they were few and far between, and they were relegated to smaller publishers (nothing from Fawcett or Marvel or DC, for sure).

And I think the readership just lost a lot of respect for romance comics. They were still telling stories about malt shoppes and dances, things that 12-year-old girls know about and care about, but they were just so saccharine sweet.

I really think that an ideal time to reintroduce romance comics to the market would've been in the Reagan-era 80s, where the drug and sex culture (while still there, obviously) was being pushed to the side, being portrayed as being deviant rather than just a part of American life. What better time to bring back the wholesome romance comic (and I'm not counting Angel Love, thank you very much)?

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Derby Days

When I was around 10 years old, I remember seeing my first roller derby match on television. It was amazing. Seeing those men and women spin around the banked track, beating each other to submission, made me want to go out, strap on my own roller skates, and take out my sister.

I don't remember seeing more than a few episodes of it, as it seemed to be a quick and passing fad. At least to me. It was the early 80s, and I had no idea that roller derby was once a really popular spectator sport. (I also had no clue how they scored -- I was too busy watching people fly 10 feet in the air, landing soundly on their behinds.)

From what little I could find out about the original roller derby leagues, it began in the mid-30s as a dance marathon type contest (where couples had to complete a certain number of laps) and then slowly evolved into a game, with a male-female team, a combination of offense and defense. (Check out some history here.)

It seemed that the roller derby hey-day was in the post-War era of the great American boom. People would try anything, it seemed, and there were enough people around (and more coming every day) that niche sports like roller derby could do very well. It straggled on for a few more decades, but sputtered out in the mid-80s. Since then, there seems to have been a few attempts at reviving it (and how can we forget the movies Rollerball [1975] and Rollerball [2002]? Oh, you've forgotten them both? Huh, me too), but they've either all failed or become a very insignigficant blip on the sports scene.

But back in the 40s and 50s, it seems like people actually made a living off of this. This includes Gerry Murray, one of the sports all-time greats. (You can read more about Gerry here and here, and would you believe she had her own hair bows.) This issue of Boy Loves Girl (published by Lev Gleason in December of 1954), features a roller derby story where Murray helps out a fan who loves two things: roller derby and Rick French, a member of Murray's team. (I couldn't find a Rick French listed as a roller derby-ite, so he's likely made up.)

The story and art (both unsigned) are pretty good, although nothing to write home about. There is a happy ending, however, and Gerry is happy to tell us the love-birds married and had three kids, all destined to be roller derby stars.

The cover is the worst part of the comic, though, and really has nothing to do with the story inside (the trouble is between two guys, not two girs). Lev Gleason's late-40s/early-50s romance comics usually has terrific photo and painted covers, but by then (nearing the end of the companies existence), they had resorted to line-drawn ones, and not very good ones at that.

Of course, if you're a roller derby fan (and who isn't?), I'm sure you're fine either way.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

This Is Not My Beautiful House

In my post on manga, a lot of you gave me a little lesson on what I should read, and I greatly appreciated it. A couple of you suggested Maison Ikkoku, by Rumiko Takahashi (also known for her very popular Lum*Urusei Yatsura and Ranma 1/2 -- both of which I have read a little of), so I clicked on my link (which you should too) and ordered the first volume. (I also ordered the first Boys Over Flowers, by Yoko Kamio, but more on that later.)

A few things before I get into my evaluation of Maison Ikkoku (and whether or not it's a romance comic). First, I really enjoyed reading it left to right, back to front. It was different, and while I don't know how necessary any of it really is, I liked doing it. I must admit that after reading for a couple of minutes I got a bit queasy and had to put it down. You're used to doing something (reading) one way for your entire life, it's not so easy making the change.

I also didn't mind the size, which is significantly smaller than US comics, and is a complaint I hear about manga, at least the bound, reprinted books. I was able to read everything easily, and I don't feel as if any of the art was blurred by it.

As for the story...

Well, after finishing Maison Ikkoku Vol. 1, I thought to myself, "This is a sitcom, but without the jokes." All of the characters are charicatures. The two love-birds are foils -- the studious house manager and the the flighty tenant. There is the bossy mother with the bratty kid. There is the smarmy and perverted guy who usually only gets a zinger or two in each chapter. And there is the ditzy waitress always there for a drunken pratfall.

But there are no jokes per se. Nothing to make you laugh out loud.

One of the things that I never liked about the romantic television sit-com is that the back and forth between the guy and the girl, the "will they or won't they" gets old really fast. In only 200 some pages of this comic (and it seems like it goes on for over a dozen volumes), I've already lost interest in whether or not the widowed Kyoko and the love-struck Yusaka will ever get smoochy.

Now I want to emphasize that this is not a "I don't like manga" or a "I don't get manga" argument. I do like it (it's comics -- what not to like?), and I do get it (ditto). I just don't really like this.

And is it a romance comic? I don't think so. Although love is there (well, lust and yearning and the hope for love), it's not what the comic is about. Maybe it become more romantic as the comic continues -- I just don't know if I'll be buying any more of the books to find out.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

My Romantic Adventures #104

Class plays a big part of romance comics, just as it seemed to (and still does) in the rest of popular culture. The rich girl, poor guy (or vice versa) scenario dates back to Shakespeare, and probably earlier. Victorian novelists like Dickens and Trollope and Gaskell were all about class and money, as it was an easy, built-in conflict.

So too with romance comics. A wealthy guy comes into town (usually visiting an aunt or uncle for the summer) and falls for the daughter of the town soda jerk. Can their love survive the evil, rich father? Or a gal goes on a summer vacation (usually lasting the ENTIRE summer) and falls for the guy who works at the ranch. Is her family's money and his love for the simple country life a match made in heaven or hell?

This cover (and the first story, "Taxicab Romance") is your typical class story. (Since we're just talking about the cover, however, we'll leave the inside for another time.)

The things I like about this cover are its logo (see previous post about good/bad logos) and its overall composition. The logo is terrific, just as the other 2 ACG romance titles (Lovelorn [later Confessions of the Lovelorn] and the short-lived Search for Love), as the heart around the "My" is a nice touch. As for the composition, well, there are nice things here. The hand gently touching his cheek. The hat pushed to one side. He sitting in the back of the cab, she in the driver's seat. It's well thought out.

The problem, though, is in the execution. The art by John Rosenberger (I think it's Rosenberger) is not his best. If it is Rosenberger, he did a lot of work for Atlas (Marvel) in the 40s and early 50s, and later on did plenty of romance comic art for DC (see my Girls' Romances cover of a couple of posts ago); a lot of it was good.

This seems like it was thrown together one night, fighting a deadline. There is little depth to the characters, and the details are scarce. The coloring, usually bright on most ACG covers, is also very plain.

This was published long past the romance comic's hey-day, and perhaps it was already being pushed to the back as far as time and quality were concerned. It's a shame, because the idea behind it to me seems very cool.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Darling Love #1

I'm a terrible artist. Not only can't I draw, I can't compose, and I can't design. I'll often picture something in my head for something I want to create (a Web site, for example), and it either comes out completely different than how I wanted it to, or I can't find a way to even comprehend how I wanted it in the first place.

And logos, well, I'm just as bad. I've tried to create them several times, and they've all come out looking like crap.

But while I can't do this stuff myself, I do know a good logo when I see it. In super-hero comics, the Amazing Spider-Man used to have a great logo (not so much now), and the Avengers always had a pretty dumb one. The Superman logo is classic -- simple, yet dynamic.

A lot of romance comics logos are pretty boring. Standard block type is the norm. Sometimes they would go crazy with a cursive script, but not often. But nobody was going out on a limb.

Different type is good. That Western Love cover the other day had a terrible logo. But this Range Romances one? Well, who doesn't like rope and log fonts?

So it goes with Darling Love. Along with Darling Romances, this was one of only two romance titles published by Archie Comics. And while neither lasted particularly long, they had, what I feel, is the best logo in romance comics-dom. I mean, it stood out. It seemed that the designer actually tried to do something different rather than just the same ol', same ol'. And while there are about 3 too many different fonts on this cover, the logo really stands out.

Both of the Darling's (Love and Romance) had a large logo and a photo, with some text running down the left-hand side, and the layout was not award winning. But that big LOVE... Man, it's something.

I'm not sure if that font is made up specifically for the titles or if it was taken from somewhere else, but whoever created it deserves a pat on the back.

(Cover courtesy of this eBay auction.)

Saturday, September 10, 2005


Sometimes when I'm writing this, it's on the fly. And the problem is that I make mistakes. Big mistakes. And I hate making mistakes. But if I do, I want to correct them.

Here are some of them:

  • In this post, I said that Archie and Harvey never made romance comics. I couldn't have been more wrong. Archie had a couple of series (Darling Love, being one of them), but Harvey had a ton, including First Romance, First Love, and High-School Romance, all which lasted more than 50 issues. I don't know how I screwed that one up.
  • I still haven't read any of the manga I bought, but someone wrote a comment saying that Fruits Baskets is not a romance comic. So I'm sorry about that. And I do promise to read some of this stuff, although I can't promise I'll like it.
  • When I wrote about the Fox Comics romance titles here, I said that Victor Fox, the owner and publisher, worked for DC before starting out on his own. Well, that's just an old wives' tale. According to the book, Men of Tomorrow (which is excellent, by the way, and highly recommended), a history of the very beginnings of the comic book industry, this is bunk. Fox never worked in the comic book industry before he started up his own company.
That's all the mistakes I know I made -- if I've made some more, please post a comment. I'd much rather be corrected than be wrong.

Thursday, September 8, 2005

Western Love #3

I've talked about Western romance comics a couple of times before (notably here) and I talked about photo covers here, but Western Love #3 seems to meld all of the things that are creepy about the two genres into one. But to me, there are just too many unflattering things going on in this cover, so much so that I have to place it in the "not-so-good" column.

First off, who are we supposed to think that cowgirl is falling in love with? She's sure as heck not smiling at a cowboy. So we're to think that she's smitten with the horse, right? The horse!? Even in the sweet and innocent 40s and 50s you'd have to think something fishy was going on. And that smile. It's just plain creepy.

Now while I don't much care for Westerns (movies, comics, what have you), I do like the Western wear (I have a few spiffy plaid shirts with mother-of-pearl snaps), but this lady is a little over the top, don't you think? Make-up, painted nails, hair done just right. Yeah, that looks like a real cowgirl to me.

And then there's the logo. It's practically half the cover (and even repeated right below the "W" in Western, which I can only assume would be for people to see the title when most of the cover would be obscured on the newsstand), and it's black with yellow trim. It just sits there, not standing out from the crowded competition nor from its own background. In fact, most of the cover text is either the title or selling of the title ("The Original Young Romance Group" and "Big 52-Pages of Real-Life Comics - Don't Take Less" and "True-Life Ranch Romances"), none of which really draw you in.

Luckily, the inside has a story by John Severin and Bill Elder (who also did some great stuff for Prize Western, and, of course, later for EC).

I think this is the biggest problem with photo covers -- they're just there. And I'm not sure if it's there enough for me to have wanted to buy it off at the local newsstand.

Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Girls' Romances #103 (For Lack of a Better Title)

To me, the DC romance comics of the 50s and 60s always looked very nice, and I use that word very much as a complement. They had very pretty (but not particularly sexy) women on it, and very handsome men either running after them or hugging them. They were emotive, but only of happiness or sadness: never anger. And they were full of bright, primary colors. Even in night scenes, there was something very alive about the covers.

Like I said, nice. Safe. Pretty.

Then, right around issue #100, something changed. Perhaps there was a new editor (I'll have to snoop around and do some research), perhaps they were just catching up to the mid-60s and realized that not everything still had to have the Donna Reed flair. But whatever it was, the colors began to be more garish (also in a good way), more alive. The dialogue became more rough around the edges. And so did the art. Even though it was still the DC stable of artists (joined by new-to-the-fold John Rosenberger and Gene Colan), everything stopped being so damn perfect. (If you don't believe me, check out the cover gallery over at the Grand Comics Database. Look at the pre-100 and post-100 covers.)

Issue #103 reminds me a bit of the monochromatic covers that Marvel did during that same period (you can check them out here), but the lack of any in-panel shading make it even more outlandish. And the dialogue -- "I never want... to see you again... after what you did to me!" -- is really very harsh. This isn't just an argument between two teenagers. This is something much worse. And she shows it, each panel getting sadder and sadder, more despondent, more depressed. And each color gets harsher -- yellow to orange to red.

Covers are meant to make you want to pick up the comic, and if I were browsing the racks in the summer of 1964, I think I would've picked this one up.

(The GCD attributes this art to Gene Colan, but I don't see it. To me, this is John Rosenberger, who has a similar style as Colan, but without the exaggerated fluidity, and while there is a Colan story on the inside [the cover story, "Too Late for Tears"], even Gene Colan's own Web site says that he didn't do the cover art.)

Tuesday, September 6, 2005

I Feel Pretty, Oh So Pretty

I spent a good part of the holiday weekend trying my best to re-design this blog, to make it seem more interesting, more "of the subject". I don't think I did a very good job as I lack any and all ability to design anything that actually looks half decent. It may be because of the way blogs are designed -- the code is CSS (which I don't understand very well), not HTML (which I've been able to teach myself with some success) -- and this lack of knowledge really sent me for a loop.

So in honor of my own lack of artistic ability (and coding skills), for the next few days I'm going to be posting different covers -- good and bad -- and saying why I (the artistic novice) think they're good. This includes layout, logo, art, text -- whatever.

I'll take suggestions, too, if you're so inclined.

Sunday, September 4, 2005

Revisionist History

I'm not a "real" historian in the sense that I never studied history (other than those 4 required classes in college) and I don't really do research for a living (I write boring pharmaceutical documents, whose research is whatever thousand-page tables and graphs they plop down in front of me), but I am an observer of historical research, both inside and outside of the field of comics.

And in both arenas (the large banner of HISTORY and the very small piece of it comics history), there seems to me to be a sense of constantly wanting to discover new things, often times at the expense of accuracy and common sense. And often times it gets to the point that the historical discoveries of someone or something becomes more important than what that someone did or something was. Who Shakespeare was, for example, seems much more important to some than what Shakespeare wrote. Abraham Lincoln being gay is a recent one (or at least recent to my ken), in that several new biographies' successes seem to hinge on proof that Lincoln locked up the wife in the West Wing of the White House not because she was nuts but because he enjoyed the company of men better.

And comics is no different, although sometimes I wonder if our scholarship is based less in the need for new discoveries and more on the need to increase the value of previously non-important comics.

About a decade ago, the Marvel prototype craze hit comicdom. No longer was it good enough to buy the first appearance of The Hulk, that giant, green-skinned thorn in General Ross's hide, but you also had his first first appearance, when he was a hairy gray beast in an early issue of Journey into Mystery. No matter that it really wasn't anything like the super-hero Hulk -- no green skin, no gamma radiation -- the mere fact that they shared the same name and company was good enough for people to yell "prototype" and suddenly a $20 comic was an $80 comic. (Tom Lammers did a terrific job of outlining what was and wasn't -- with even the was group being tenuous -- related to the later Marvel Silver Age heroes in several issues of Alter Ego, beginning with #29.)

Now you're obviously thinking to yourself, "Not romance comics. There were no prototypes of them, were there?" And, to me, the answer is a clear no. To others, however...

Most people (and I'm assuming most who bother to read this blog, even though I haven't directly mentioned it) know that Joe Simon and Jack Kirby produced the first romance comic, Young Romance, which was published in mid-1947 (a September-October cover date). They caught off guard the rest of the comic publishing world so much, they didn't have a competitor (other than their own Young Love) for nearly 2 years, even though it was selling exceptionally well. So you'd think that this would be a slam dunk, then. Cut and dried, Young Romance #1 was the first romance comic.

Well, not entirely, at least for some. Romantic Picture Novelettes showed up on newsstands in 1946 (I'm not sure when, exactly, as it has no specific date on its cover or indicia). Well that sounds like a romance comic, I'm sure you're all saying to yourselves. The cover showed a couple, sitting lakeside, with the fellow leaning in to grab a smooch from his pretty date. And the word "Romantic" is in the title, for crying out loud. But if you look more closely (by that I mean, look on the inside -- and on the blurb in the lower right-hand side of the cover) you'll see that it says "A Complete Mary Worth Adventure".

As some of you may know Mary Worth was (and is) a comic strip, starring a busy-body old woman (Mary Worth, naturally) who's always poking her nose in other people's business. Said business often included the love stuff. (Mary Worth is still being published today, with art by comic veteran Joe Giella. Yes, after nearly 70 years in newspapers, that Mary is still alive and kicking.)

But newspaper reprints have never really been that important to the comic book other than helping start up the format. Comics on Parade, Famous Funnies, et al., were crucial to getting comics on the newsstands, but their content rarely was. The content (at least the most popular) in comic books was original (although quite derivative).

But that hasn't stopped the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide from having Romantic Picture Novelettes as the first "Love Comic. To me, its claim to fame is that it's yet another comic strip reprint that failed on the newsstand. And that's not much of a claim.

Another Overstreet proclamation (and it seems that they are one of the worst in creating dubious comic history) is that My Date was a romance comic. My Date was a Simon and Kirby-produced comic released by Hillman (known mostly for their Airboy title), which was a teen-humor title in the vein of Archie and others of its ilk. It did, however, have a feature in it called "My Date -- Unusual Dates as told to Jean Anne Marten, 'My Date's' famous young people's counselor". The 6-page story (the only issue of the titles I own is #2, so that's all I can talk about with any confidence) featured art by Dan Barry, and while it was about a date and had romance and did end with a peck on the cheek, it was still funny.

Was this a romance story? Sure. Does that mean that My Date was a romance comic? I don't think so. The rest of issue #2 features the cover feature starring Swifty Chase, another starring Violet, an awkward girl who doesn't know the right way to impress her beloved Merril, Ginny, a takeoff on Quality's Candy, and The Rosebud Sisters, "Those 70-Year-Old Teen-Agers".

The first issue of My Date was cover-dated July 1947, a couple of months before the first Young Romance, and while I think that Simon and Kirby certainly had the latter in mind when doing the former, I'm pretty confident in saying that it's not a romance comic. To put it in a super-hero perspective, it's what Challengers of the Unknown is to the Fantastic Four. There are similarities, but one is a sci-fi/adventure series, the other is a super-hero series.

I think it's important that we call things for what they are, and not for what they might be. And Romantic Picture Novelettes and My Date aren't romance comics.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Water Damage

I made a vow to myself that I wanted this blog to be about romance comics, only romance comics, and not let the real world or my own life get in the way. And while I was the only one to know about this vow, please allow me to break it and talk a bit about what's been happening in the world (specifically the Gulf area of the U.S.) these last few days and try and have it relate to comics.

In September of 1999, I was living in a first-floor apartment in Manville, New Jersey, a town known mostly for its asbestos factory and the numerous deaths and lawsuits that came from it. My apartment looked out onto a park and the small river (a stream, really), the Raritan, that ran through it. It wasn't a great view, by any means, and not a great apartment.

But it didn't much matter because Hurricane Floyd came through on the 16th of that month, dumping inches of rain on the region, saturating the ground. That night, as the hurricane passed, high tide pushed millions of gallons of water from the Atlantic back into the Raritan, making what was just a lot of water into an immense flood. By midnight my apartment had 5 feet of water in it. Half of Manville was submerged. The neighboring town of Bound Brook had it even worse.

Other than my cats, my roommate's computer, and a few boxes of my most valuable comics, I lost everything.

I realize that my plight, as devestating to me as it was (and it was quite devestating), seems to pale in comparison with what's happening in the wake of Katrina, but this week has brought back a lot of really bad images and memories, much of which I'd like to never have to think of again. And while those in Louisiana and Mississippi who lost their lives or whose family members perished have pain worse than I could ever feel, I still feel a great sense of personal empathy with them.

I know what it was like. I saw and felt the muddy, cold water. I did unrealistic things thinking I could save my things, putting myself in harm's way.

The comics I tend to collect, the old ones at least, are for me to read and are not for investment. I don't really mind if they have tears or pieces missing or tape, just as long as they're complete and readable. I don't have the money (nor the urge) to buy pristine copies of things when I could use the same amount of money to buy 20 different copies of comics in lesser condition (I don't begrudge those who look for condition, however, as we all have our peculiarities).

But since 1999, I won't buy a comic with water damage. I won't buy a book with a water stain. If an album sleeve has water-related problems, I'll put it back. When you walk into your apartment and see your things completely water logged, dozens of boxes of comics, numerous bookshelves full of books, hundreds of CDs and records, all which had been under water for 24 hours, you tend to want to avoid that sort of thing, even if the damage is miniscule in comparison.

It also bothered me very much that many of the comics that were destroyed in my flood (I'm very possessive about it) I had had in my collection for 20 years. They were mine. They never had another owner, and if they had survived, they likely wouldn't have had one for many decades to come. They all had a personal history.

That's why when now if I see two copies of the same old comic, same price, same condition, if one has a name written on the cover, I'll take that one. Because some kid (or teen or adult) bought it (or traded for it or had it passed down from an older sibling) and thought enough of it to write their name on it. It's mine. Forever. (And for a kid, forever really isn't that long at all.)

I never wrote my name on my comics (and I never have), and I don't even write my name on the inside of my books (as some people do), but it doesn't bother me at all when I buy a used book or comic that someone had done that to.

It's history.

I feel terrible that the people in the Gulf have lost their personal history, at least their material history. I know it's how I felt when I lost my own.

If you have the means and the urge, please donate to the Red Cross or Operation U.S.A.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Turn Off That TV and Read a Book!

This blog is something of a continuing research project for me. What I'm going to do with this is unknown (a book? long article? a musical?), but the more that I look at the history of the genre, the more that things tend to not clear themselves up and instead become even murkier.

Take television's relationship to comics, for example. I always assumed (and I think a lot of other people, as well) that the introduction of the TV into more American homes made comic circulation drop. Yet as the number of TVs increased (44,000 in the US in 1947, 2 million by 1949, and more than 23 million by 1953), comic circulation seemed to also surge (Walt Disney's Comics and Stories, the perennial leader, had a monthy total nearing 3 million in 1952, compared with just under 2 million six years earlier).

And I always assumed that television soap operas dragged the housewife (which was romance comics' earliest market) away from the printed page and instead placed her in front of that tiny little screen, causing the first major romance comics purge in the early 50s. Now I'm not so sure.

Soap operas of the 50s were nothing like those of today. The first soap operas were broadcast in 1951 ("Search for Tomorrow" and "Love of Life"), yet they were only 15 minutes long (and didn't expand to a half-hour until '56). I'm not sure if a couple of 15-minute television shows could have that much of an effect on house wives deciding on whether or not to buy a comic book.

Plus, throughout the 30s and 40s (and even well into the TV age), there were many radio soaps that outnumbered their TV counterparts. Why would they have been that much less of an issue, even though there were many more of them?

If you look at the incredibly informative list of romance comics that Dan Stevenson produced, you'll find that nearly 1/4 of all comic titles began and were cancelled before the first television soap opera even aired. Whole companies (like Fox) weren't around to challenge the soaps, and in some cases, other publishers (including Ajax-Farrel and Charlton) produced the majority, if not all, of their work in the post-TV era.

So what was it? Well, I think we've overestimated the number of housewives who bought and read romance comics in the first place. Yes, Young Romance sold extremely well. And yes, Atlas produced dozens of romance comics geared to the housewife in the late-40s that likely helped keep their company afloat. But by the early 50s, well before the TV soap had fully controlled the minds of American woman, it seems obvious to me that they had stopped reading romance comics at the rate at which they first did. Why do I say this? Look at the stories. Comic stories were less about married couples or even girls looking to marry and more about teenagers looking for that first love, first kiss.

Of the popular Simon/Kirby produced comics, which one had the fewest issues published (and never broke that bi-monthy schedule)? Young Brides. And one of the most successful romance comic of the early 50s (at least sales-wise) was Fawcett's Sweethearts, which featured stories mostly of the high-school and slightly older set.

I think we've overestimated the whole housewives thing. Yes, it was there. That is obvious. But its impact on the success of romance comicsmay have been on its earliest period and quickly faded away, replaced by teenage girls, who suddenly had a disposable income and a lot of free time.

Were comics' dominance squeezed out by TV? Probably. Was that the biggest issue? Maybe, although the anti-comics backlash of the mid-50s likely had a lot to do with it, if not more than TV. And what of TV's effect on the romance comic? I don't know, but it's becoming more obvious that it had a lot less to do with than many previously thought.

Friday, August 26, 2005

MJ and Me

Marvel Comics yesterday announced that they planned on publishing a new Mary Jane comic. They had two previous series in the past two years (the first was an ongoing, cancelled after the fourth issue; the second was scheduled as a 4-issue mini-series), both written by Sean McKeever and drawn by Takeshi Miyazawa, and I bought and enjoyed them both.

I'm not a Spider-Man fan, however. I think he's a pretty interesting character, but when my best friend and I both started collecting comics at the same time many years ago, we each chose certain titles that each of us would collect. Exclusively. So if I chose Daredevil (which I did), he didn't buy Daredevil. He could always read mine and sometimes we traded, but for the most part we stuck with those original choices.

I didn't "get" Spider-Man, and I've never much read him since. Nothing against him. Just wasn't in the cards.

But I had read McKeever's A Waiting Place, and I liked it enough to try Mary Jane, and it seemed as if Marvel was really trying to do something new and different.

Like I said, they were good, if not a little slow moving (although that seems to be happening a lot in comics these days; both 4-issue series would've been shoved into an 8-page story in Love Adventures 50 years prior, but that's not much different from how comics were paced then and now).

So I was excited to see that Marvel had greenlighted a new ongoing series. The sales for Mary Jane had been some of the lowest at the company, and it was good to see them trying to make something work.

But then I saw the new title.

Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane.

The first 2 Mary Jane series (Circle of Friends and Homecoming) had Spider-Man swing through now and again, but he appeared in the comic as much as his alter-ego, Peter Parker, did. Which was very rarely. It was mostly about MJ, Liz Allen, Flash Thompson, and Harry Osborn. And while Mary Jane had a big crush on the web-swinger, it was a secondary storyline to something that seems more real -- the pettiness of high schoolers.

Now, however, it's Spider-Man and Mary Jane. Together. Swinging on the cover, for crying out loud.

Yes, I realize I haven't read it, and yes, the press release said the title was "tentative", but it still seems to me that comic companies (at least the big ones) still feel that all other genres must tie into super-heroes. I talked about it a bit in this entry, and it's something that I expect to see over and over again. Western? No way. Western with cowboy who can shoot beams out of his eyes? You bet! Romance? Pass. Romance where the character falls in love with a super-hero? I want 5 copies!

I suppose Marvel wants this series to be a stepping stone for people who usually don't read their comics to try this and then buy some others, but I'm not sure what else they'd want to buy (certainly not the other teenage girl comics they have out now -- Arana and X-23). Is Mary Jane the obvious predecessor to Spider-Man? I don't think so.

And this is nothing new from Marvel. Patsy Walker, the main character in many a teen-humor comic from the 50s and early 60s (along with her "friend" Hedy Wolfe) became The Cat (and later Hellcat) in the 70s (and married Son of Satan!). What will become of Millie's red-headed rival, Chili? I suppose she'll flame on like the Human Torch.

Genre can still work in and of itself if it it is only allowed the chance. I'm sure of it.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

P.S., I Love You

I remember reading an interview with either Paul McCartney or John Lennon about how they wrote the lyrics to their earliest songs, and a point was made that they always wanted to have a personal pronoun prominently in the title and chorus. They though (and rightly so) that it made the person listening to the song more in-tuned to it.

She Loves You
Love Me Do
From Me to You
I Want to Hold Your Hand

And so on and so on.

They eventually changed their songwriting quite a bit, and their lyrics (and titles) became more introspective, less about the listener and more about themselves, but those first couple of albums were full of the stuff.

And, in case you didn't know, they were pretty sucessful.

That connection with the listener (reader) is similar in to what one romance comic publishers did a decade before the Fab Four. Fox published 21 different romance titles (not including a few that were merely rebound copies of older issues, with a new cover slapped on). Of those, 19 featured the word "My" to begin the title, and there was one "I" (the other was Women in Love; the publisher must've been out the day they decided to name that one). The titles were:

I Loved
My Confessions
My Desire
My Experience
My Great Love
My Intimate Affair
My Life
My Love Affair
My Love Life
My Love Memoirs
My Love Secret
My Love Story
My Past
My Private Life
My Secret Affair
My Secret Life
My Secret Romance
My Secret Story
My Story
My True Love

That's something, eh?

Here's what I know about Fox. I know that Victor Fox, the founder, worked for DC (then National Periodical Publishing) in the beginning of the Golden Age, possibly as an accountant. Rumor has it he saw how much money Harry Donenfeld was making from the new Superman character and raced and hired someone (Will Eisner) to create a super-hero comic that could be rushed to the stands. Donenfeld sued and won, and Wonder Comics (featuring Wonder Man) was cancelled (well, changed to Wonderwold Comics, sans Wonder Man).

Fox went on to publish several popular super-hero titles in their early-40s hey-day, including Blue Beetle, Mystery Men Comics, Big Three, The Green Mask, and more. But as the super-hero age started to fade away by the mid-40s, Fox got out of the hero business and into other genres, including crime, humor, and, of course, romance.

When I think of Fox, two things come to mind: 1) The covers were as provocative as you could get for comics. (Check out those Matt Baker Phantom Lady covers here if you don't believe me.) 2) The interiors were very subpar. Fox paid some of the worst page rates in the business, and many of his artists were either not very talented or just getting their toes wet and couldn't demand good money. Wally Wood did some of his first (and certainly his worst) work for Fox.

The printing was not very good (if you look at the covers to the two comics in the post, you'll see how there are odd red splotches -- they seeped through onto the other side of the cover as well; that's not a printing error, per se, just a bad printing job), and the inside comics often had off-register coloring or the plates were crooked.

Fox also did something odd with where they started their stories. The first page of the first story was published on the inside front cover, usually in either black-and-white or in 2-color (black, white, and red). I'm not sure why they did it (if anything, they gave up a cushy ad page), but it made it espectially odd when they published their reprint giants.

Fox took old, unsold issues of their comics, slapped four of them together, put a new cover on them, and sold them as for 25 cents. That Exciting Romance Stories is an example. While other companies did similar things (those EC giants being a good example), with Fox that inside front cover made for a problem. You see, for the first story for each of the four re-bound comics, you didn't get the first page! It just began with page #2!

I'm not sure if Fox or his editors cared much, frankly.

The stories themselves are some of the more adult-themed romance comics -- many involving women getting knocked around or threatened to, and many involve crime. (Fox also published at the time a couple of comics revolving around the no-good ladies -- Crimes by Women and the western Women Outlaws.) But they always tended to still end up with a happy ending, the guy who threatened his girl with a gun is either knocked unconscious by the man in the white hat or runs away, making the decision easy for which guy the gal should choose.

By early-1950, just a few months after they started their large publishing push, the largest in the company's history, they stopped their output completely, with all 21 romance (and another couple dozen crime, western, jungle, and humor) titles cancelled. Why? I'm not sure, and I have yet to be able to find out. Maybe the poor quality made for poor sales, and it caught up with them. It was before the more-serious comic witch hunts of later in the decade, so I don't think it was outside pressure.

Maybe if they would just have thrown in a "Your" now and again in the title of the comics, it would've changed everything.

"My" sounds so selfish, doesn't it?

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Love Is Not Funny!

Millie the Model is not a romance comic.

Neither is Sunny or Candy or Mortie or Leave it to Binky or any of the other dozens of Archie rip-offs that started to flood onto the newsstands starting in the early 40s. While they preceded romance comics by nearly a decade (Archie first appeared as a back-up in an issue of Pep Comics in 1941), there really isn't a correlation between the two. I mean, romance comics weren't an off-shoot of the teen humor genre. (I'm not sure who dubbed these comics "teen humor", but they hit the nail on the head.)

Romance comics were a reaction to the popular romance and confession pulps and magazines, and the earliest issues were aimed squarely at adult women. That they changed (rather quickly) into being geared toward teen-age and younger girls is for another segment of "Thirty-two Pages of Love" (I'm sure you can't wait).

Anyway, Bob Montana (or, if you believe Archie publications, John Goldwater) created Archie in the early 40s as a comic book version of the very popular Henry Aldrich. Aldrich, a character in the stage play What a Life, in 1939 became a very popular radio show and was quickly dubbed "America's Favorite Teenager". His character, portrayed on the radio by Ezra Stone, and then on the radio and in movies by Norman Tokar, Dickie Jones, and others, was extremely successful, and the radio show lasted a very respectible 14 years.

Archie, however, surpassed Aldrich, both in comics (a Henry Aldrich series published by Dell starting in 1950 lasted only 22 issues) and longevity (Aldrich is now all but forgotten, while Archie Andrews is still a popular comic and licensing tool).

And while these types of comics preceeded and outlasted romance comics, they have certain characteristics that make them very different. First off, the style is much more cartoony. Montana, Dan DeCarlo, Bill Woggin, and others drew in the gag-strip style of exaggerated eyes, flailing limbs, and birds circling the head of an injured character. Also, romance comics didn't have a punch line. The final panel of Young Romance usually was either the loving embrace of a guy and his gal or a dejected, crying young woman watching her man walk away, arm in arm with her rival. Nothing funny about that!

Teen humor titles featured (obviously) teenagers, and such grown-up things like love, marriage, or even divorce were never mentioned. Instead, stories focused on getting some money to buy a malt or out-foxing your teacher or sneaking out of the house after your parents had grounded you.

Even titles that featured older teenagers (or early twenty-somethings) like Millie the Model rarely had anything to do with a serious situation (unless you call wearing the same dress as your rival to the Spring formal serious).

And lastly, romance comics never (or, rather, very infrequently) featured the same character month after month (the exceptions, like the two-issue Molly Manton's Romance or the soap-opera stories of the late 60s DCs, are blips on the radar). Once the story was over, the love won or lost, happiness or sadness, it didn't seem necessary to meet these characters any more. Their stories were powerful enough as they were. Those Riverdale kids, however, are back again and again, month (or week) after month, for 60-odd years.

I like some of these comics. I have my fair share of Patsy and Hedys, and the humor titles from Harvey (Stevie, Mazie, etc) have nice art and off-beat stories, but these feel likel the stepping stone from Disney comics to romance comics (and novels). As if you wouldn't read these comics long enough to get bored with the characters.

But they're not romance comics.