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.