Thursday, July 28, 2005

You Can Judge a Book by Its Cover (Part 2)

It's cooled off in Chicago, so I've been able to get to the various comics I want to talk about in my cover "lesson" (leaving my thoughts on the demise of romance comics for another day).

The photo cover was utilized by publishers mostly the first few years of romance comics' life, and I suspect they were used to more resemble women's magazines like Vogue or Bazaar and confession magazines (which the comic stories were based on) like True Story or True Confessions.

I also think that the publishers thought these covers looked better -- isn't a photo more impressive than a line drawing? -- and many companies, Dell in particular, put photo covers on their comics, especially those titles related to movie or television.

To me, however, photo covers are not particularly exciting. As I mentioned earlier, they were mostly stock photos that the company had likely used in another publishing capacity or had purchased for the sake of putting it on the cover, with no regard for what was going to be inside.

Young Romance #18 featured a lovely brunette (who surely could've done with a little cosmetic dentistry) smiling away, while the blurb below says "Look into the heart of a woman who knows she is losing her man! Read 'Just No Good'". Jeez, if she's losing her man, she certainly isn't letting on any. The story "Just No Good" is about a clarinetist in a jazz band who isn't a good enough fellow to marry the stunning, red-headed singer. No brunette. (The story, drawn by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, isn't one of their best. The last one in the issue, "Mother Tags Along," is great; I always loved the mama's boy tales.)

So, yes, the cover's neat and appealing, and, yes, the girl is certainly attractive and wholesome, but overall I'm not sure if this would make me want to buy this over another comic.

These are the most common type of photo covers. The best, though, are those that feature a little story to them.

For example, Romantic Affairs #3. In it, there's a story ("My Lips Were Too Willing") that featured a doctor (Lee Barrett if you're following at home) who must choose between sisters Claire and Betty Satterlee. The great thing about the cover is that it shows us something, tells us something about what's going to be inside. You pick up that comic and you think, "Oh, that poor girl! Who is it that's coming in? The doctor's fiancee? A nurse that he was dating? And what of the look on the doctor's face! He looks pissed!"

There's someting going on! There's a story there! And, if I had to choose between the two, I think I'd go for Romantic Affairs. (There was a good chance they were both on the stands at the same time, by the way. Young Romance was cover dated February 1950, while Romantic Affairs was March of that same year.)

Of course, it seems that I would've been the only one. Young Romance was by that time one the best selling comics on the stands and would continue to be published for another 25-odd years. This was the only issue of Romantic Affairs.

See what I know, eh?

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Goodbye, Sweet Romance

Last evening was again a scorcher in Chicago, so instead of fishing out some good painted covers, I'm going to start what will be an off-and-on "feature" where I suggest reasons why romance comics died, why they did it when they did, and why they never have come back.

The last romance comic DC published was Young Love #126, cover dated July 1977 (so it was likely on the stands in May). Young Romance, the first ongoing romance comic title and the longest-lasting, had been cancelled a year-and-a-half earlier, and Charlton's last 7 titles all ended with either the November or December 1976 cover date (a few titles re-appeared in late '79 into '80, but they featured no new material and were very sparsely -- even for Charlton -- distributed).

By the mid-to-late 70s, the comic book industry had changed. Much of the variety was gone, and titles and genres that had either dominated the scene in decades past were quickly being cancelled, all replaced with either super-hero titles or more of the same from niche publishers (Archie, for example, was publishing just that -- Archie and his gang -- and even a short-lived entrance into super-heroes was a "safe" bet).

Why was this?

The obvious answer that many people would give you is "sales"; romance comics, never a great seller since their early-50s heyday, were selling less than nearly all of the other titles at Marvel and DC (and elsewhere). But while I think that certainly was a part of it (and it's something I'll talk about in a later post), I really think the main reason why romance comics (and war and Western and humor) were leaving the scene was this: the people who were writing, drawing, and editing comic books weren't fans of genres other than super-heroes, sci-fi, or horror.

The early-70s saw, for the first time in a decade, an influx of new creators. Artist/writers like Jim Starlin, Walt Simonson, Barry Smith, and others came in and changed turned the industry on its head. But, unlike many of the creators of the past whose influences and role-models were often comic strip and fine artists, these young guns looked not to Milton Caniff or Noel Sickles, but to Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Neal Adams, Gil Kane, and other artists of the Silver Age.

These guys were fans and, unless I've completely missed something from one of their bios, none of them were fans of romance comics.

When Roy Thomas took over the editorial chores from Stan Lee in 1972, he was likely the first fan to head a major comic book company. At the time, Marvel was publishing 2 romance titles, My Love and Our Love. By '72, they featured one new story and 3 or 4 reprints from comics of the 50s and 60s (the earliest issues were mostly new content). By end of the titles' runs (they lasted 39 and 38 issues, respectively), the only thing new was the cover.

(This wasn't unsimilar to other genre titles; after leaving a restrictive distribution deal that limited the number of titles they published, Marvel began numerous titles in the late-60s featuring horror, sci-fi, and humor, things they had for the most part abandoned a decade before. As with the romance titles, the first few issues had new stories in most of the comic, but by the end, it was all reprints -- and not great reprints at that. Many stories were heavily edited, sometimes with 2 pages being lopped off.)

My question is this: would the new guys coming into the industry want to write and draw romance comics? The newer stories in Marvel's 70s romance titles were done by long-time industry veterans like John Romita and John Buscema, artists who had done romance comics in the past and were more likely to do another because comics were a job for them -- as opposed to a passion. Would Jim Starlin, having a choice between Captain Marvel and My Love, take a romance title? Not likely. And it seems like new artists weren't even being forced into those situations; they were going to the more established artists.

At Marvel, and increasingly at DC, where the suit-and-tie atmosphere was slowly losing its grip, the inmates were running the asylum, and those who were committed to the nuthouse of comics certainly didn't want to draw anything about that mushy stuff like love or heartache (unless it involved spandex and a bolts shooting out of your hands).

(I feature the cover to Romantic Hearts #12 not for anything to do with today's post, but more because a) I like it, and b) the "Too Old For My Man" blurb made me think of how I old I am. Birthday's are a bitch.)

Monday, July 25, 2005

Old King Cole

This past week has been very hot in Chicago and, unfortunately, a lot of the comics that I wanted to scan and post that had to do with my cover "themes" were in places that would require a lot of lifting and sorting and sweating (things I'm not very fond of, frankly), so I'm going to hold off until Wednesday when the weather man promised it would cool down.

But in the meantime, I wanted to talk a little about one of the most popular romance comic book artist who, frankly, baffles me.

L.B. Cole was in the comic book business for a long time. By his own accounts (and repeated in numerous places on the Internet), he drew more than 1,500 covers, many which have become very popular and collectible. (Others, like Criminals on the Run #7, are just plain odd.) To me, though, they are pretty stiff.

I think, however, at least with his romance work, a lot of his covers would look a lot better today, with better printing processes. If you look at the cover to Confessions of Romance #7 (seen above), it seems that Cole's use of very florid and feathery lines doesn't come through as it probably did on the inked page, especially when you consider that Star Comics (Confessions' publisher owned by Cole) wasn't large by any means and likely didn't either have the best printers or engravers (the printing's even worse on the inside). To make matters worse, the coloring is always particularly garish (I've yet to meet anyone whose skin was the orange/pink that the woman on the cover has).

Popular Teen-Agers Secrets of Love #17 (man, what a mouthful) is another Cole cover from Star, and it has some of the same problems as Confessions. Odd composition, bright, contrasting colors, sup-par printing. There's something complelling about it (as in most of his work), although I'm not sure I can move my opinion of him from compelling to love (or even like).

It's this odd combination of realism and abstraction. I think it would sell a comic, however; much moreso than what was on the inside.

I met Cole once at a convention in New York City in the late 80s. Golden Age comics (and romance comics especially) were the furthest things from my mind then, but Cole was a guest, and he and his wife had a table full of art and lithographs of some of his more recent paintings. I shook his hand and smiled, but I wish I had spoken with him more.

Monday, July 18, 2005

You Can Judge a Book by Its Cover (Part 1)

In case you didn't realize it by now, I love romance comics. A lot.

But as much as I love them, they sometimes can be hard to read. They're often times too wordy, the stories (featuring one of 4 possible tales, featuring two of 6 possible characters) are predictable, and the art is often not of the highest quality (for every Alex Toth or Bernard Sachs or Jay Scott Pike there are countless unknown [unfortunately] and not very talented artists).

But what you could usually rely on is that the romance comic had a terrific cover.

Most of the early romance comics featured a photo cover, and they were usually stock photos that were either part of the publishing company's other publications (like with Fawcett or Atlas) or from movie promotional pictures (Prize), but they were for the most part rather boring and had little (or nothing) to do with the stories inside the comic.

There were others (such as the painted cover, which I'll talk about later, and the standard splash, which I'll also discuss), but my favorite of all is what I call the "panel" cover. For the most part, these covers were only on titles put out by Atlas, and they featured a panel culled from each of the stories inside, each placed on the cover with a description or title for each. The largest, usually from the first story of the comic, would be the largest, and it would often have a word balloon or a larger caption along with the story's title. (Sometimes, like in this issue of Justice, all the panels come from the same story.)

There was nothing particularly exciting about these covers, and most of the times it wasn't an artist who put the covers together but an in-house production person, but to me, they scream "value", as if you know there's going to be 4 great stories inside, 4 great tales about love and heartbreak, and even a guy who sometimes gets rough with his girl and only to get socked by the guy with a golden heart.

Certainly there isn't much to them, and they didn't last very long, Stan Lee and Atlas eventually going to the more common splash cover, but while they lasted and even today, they certainly jump out at you.

(Cover courtesy Atlas Tales, a terrific and informative site that any comic book fan should enjoy.)

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Modern Romance

The last continually published romance comics faded away in the mid-70s (although Charlton released a few in the early 80s that were merely reprints -- and not very good ones at that), and the industry has never really returned to the genre.

Well, not exactly.

The autobiographical comic first became popular in the late 60s when underground cartoonists started publishing their own work or publishing it through small, up-and-coming houses (like Kitchen Sink, Last Gasp, and others). Artists like Spain, Robert Crumb, Art Spieglman, and later Dori Seda (and many more) wrote stories of love and disappointment, not too far removed from the love comics of the 50s.

Of course, you'd never see a man humping a woman's leg in True War Romance like you would in one of R. Crumb's strips, but you get the idea.

But since then, and as the underground creeped above the surface and molded into indie (or indy, I never know which is correct) comics like Joe Matt's Peepshow and Jamie Hernandez's Locas stories, there is more romance in comics than there has been in the past 30 years.

The stories, both underground and today, are much more layered than your typical Golden or Silver Age story and they're certainly more adult, but the same thing that has attracted me to the love comics of old has made me want to read these comics of today. I want to see if and how and why people fall in love with someone else and whether or not it will have a happy ending.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Hide Your Children

As most anyone who collects older comics knows, in the late 40s/early 50s, there was quite the backlash against comics by parents groups, local governments, psychiatrists, and the like. It led to, among other things, the Comics Code, a scathing (and factually unreliable) book in Seduction of the Innocent, and a dip in sales.

For the most part, the attacks were against publishers of crime and horror comics (while EC is often seen as the poster boy for the anti-comics campaign, other publishers such as Ace, St. John's, and Harvey were publishing violent, horrific, and graphic stories), there was also the inevitable slam against the very popular romance comic genre.

From a Washington Post editorial dated January 24, 1950, entitled "Love Stuff":

How far the national preoccupation with romance will go is a question that has been raised by the invasion of comic books by what is called "love stuff." Recently the "boy meets girl" theme was found to be taking over many Western story magazines. Now in about one third of comic books, it is estimated, cartoon courtship has replaced slapstick comedy. Although directed at a teen-age audience, these love comics are said to be finding many followers among adults, the assumption being, as always, that frustrated housewives find them a means of vicarious romance.

Total readership of comics book is put at around 70 million. This means that at least 20 million readers are turning to comics for heart thrills. Since "love stuff" also dominates soap operas, movies, slick magazine fiction and popular songs, most of the population must be constantly engrossed in at least the chaff of love. Yet the decadence and violence of the times do not reflect such preoccupation. Or perhaps the times are promoting this escape into a world where human beings look even intermittently on each other with favor.

Is this unnamed editorial writer that dense? He/she mocks the idea that "most of the population must be constantly engrosed in at least the chaff of love." Well, no shit! Even in the conservative environment of the post-War era, boys were still falling for that swell gal down the block, girls were still swooning over that handsome fellow, and there was plenty of hanky-panky going on. It was the baby-boom after all.

I suppose, when it comes to "love stuff" seeping into Western stories, the writer still wished that the only thing that was kissed by the end of the tale was the horse.

Wednesday, July 6, 2005


I've never seen the appeal of soap operas. Even in college, when everyone would rather sit down for hours and watch All My Children and The Young and the Restless instead of studying or going to class, I would rather... well, it certainly wasn't studying or going to class.

It's undeniable, however, that they're popular. Millions of people watch them daily, mainly women, and they often will follow the same show, the same characters, for years.

In the 60s, Marvel revolutionized super-hero comics, and many of their stories became soap-opera-like. Romance, heartache, double-crosses. And, as it became very obvious, people loved them.

DC, by now not really the innovator that it was and would be again, tried their hand at the soap opera gimmick with a couple of their romance titles. In Heart Throbs, there were the "3 Girls", a storyline over 25 parts that followed the love lives of 3 Manhattan ladies sharing an apartment (and men). And in Secret Hearts, it was "Reach for Happiness," of which the above cover (issue 110) has the first installment.

The first two stories in the issue (If You Ever Leave Me Again and My One and Only Love) were touched up older stories (to modernize the hair and clothing styles), but the third, coming in at 15 pages, is the doozy.

Reach for Happiness, according to the opening panel, was "The day-by-day story of real people trapped in a whirlpool of life and death, love and hate, laughter and tears, as they reach for happiness", and it featured a group of California young men and women, many of whom either doctors or nurses (a romance comics staple) or actresses and models (another staple). The art was by Gene Colan (who did several romance stories after returning to comics, just before heading over to Marvel to draw Daredevil and Sub-Mariner), and it showed a lot of emotion. But for the most part, the characters, unlike their television counterparts, had little depth, and the story was predictible.

Although bother the Heart Throbs and Secret Hearts serials lasted for over two years, they didn't revolutionize romance comics, and only slowed down their eventual disappearance.

But it was a good try.

Friday, July 1, 2005


One of the best things about Golden and Atom (ugh) Age comics is that publishers tried everything. The thought up 100 different things, mixed and matched, threw them against the wall, and sometimes things stuck (Strange Adventures) and sometimes they fell to ground never to be heard from again (Camera Comics).

When romance comics started to sell, publishers quickly combined them with another popular genre -- Westerns.

(I have never really seen the appeal of the Western, whether in comics or other media. Other than a few Sergio Leone films, I've haven't been really interested in the stuff, and even Western "literature" like Cormac MacCarthy bores me to tears. And don't even get me started on Lonesome Dove and its ilk.)

Westerns had been popular in comics since the late-30s (Western Stars), and in the 40s, with Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger, Tom Mix and others gracing the movie (and then television) screen, it became even more popular, as many publishers, most notably Fawcett and Dell (Western) put out dozens of titles. Heck, Charlton even published the fantastically insane Space Western Comics.

So you'd expect that romance and Westerns would eventually meet, and they did, with such titles as Western Love, Cowboy (and Cowgirl) Romances, and Romances of the West. Most of them featured stories of either good cowboys conquering the villanous rancher and winning the love of the gingham-wearing girl or the occasional tom-girl who ropes her way into romance.

Few of the titles ever lasted more than a handfull of issues, and non for longer than 15 issues.

If only someone would've thought of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman 40 years earlier.