Just in time for Valentine’s Day. we take a brief overview of the rise and fall of romance comics. ALSO: New research further calls into question the already-tarnished reputation of Fredric Wertheim’s Seduction of the Innocent.
As we get nearer and nearer to that one day of the year where the over-eager (or desperate) romantic consumer pretty much makes the annual overhead for the local florist and greeting card distributor, I can’t help but wonder where the romance comics of the previous century have gone. Sure, we now live in a world that has seen quite a bit of change socially and culturally from the era (1947–1975) when romance comics were a flourishing commercial comics publishing concern in North America, but judging by contemporary trends in popular entertainment—for one thing, romantic comedies are still good box-office for the most part despite a decline in rom-com fortunes in recent years and the romance novel business is proving to be a recession-proof growth industry—most people harbor notions of romantic love that are in many ways unchanged from the ones of generations past. Did the readership for romance comics suddenly disappear during the late 1970s, or did the major comics publishers simply abandon the romance field like they did other comics genres in favor of focusing solely on superheroes?
A very strong argument can be made that the very first romance comic published in North America was the short-lived My Date Comics, a “teen-humor” comic book with a strong romance bent, created by the Captain America team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby and published by Hillman Periodicals in the summer of 1947. What isn’t up for debate however, is the fact that the success of My Date led to Simon and Kirby creating the bimonthly anthology series Young Romance later that same year while successfully negotiating a then-unheard of 50% split of profits with publisher Crestwood Publications (which published Young Romance under its Prize Group imprint).
Young Romance was a newsstand hit right out of the gate, with the the first issue selling over 90% of its print run and circulation hitting the one million mark by the third issue. To put those numbers into context, Captain Marvel Adventures, the top-selling comic book of the Golden Age era, routinely sold about 1.3 million copies on a twice-weekly publishing schedule. In 1949, the book switched to a monthly publishing schedule and received a spin-off title called Young Love. 1952 saw the launch of Young Brides, which was soon followed by other titles. At their peak, the monthly circulation for the Prize Group family of romance comics was estimated at about five million.
A large reason for Young Romance‘s success was that its readership extended beyond the preteen male readership commonly associated with the adventure, crime, superhero, and horror “kid comics” of the Golden Age era. As quoted by Ron Goulart in Great American Comic Books, Simon, while serving in the US Coast Guard during World War II, “noticed there were so many adults, the officers and men, the people in the town, reading kid comic books. [Simon] felt sure there should be an adult comic book.” Young Romance turned out to be that book, with the first issue’s cover boldly proclaiming that it was “designed for the more ADULT readers of COMICS.” Simon and Kirby gambled on the untapped potential posed by the first generation of grown men and women to grow up with comic books, and with their pioneering profit-sharing deal with Crestwood (who “made millions” from the Simon-Kirby romance comics, according to Kirby), their earnings from Young Romance and related titles allowed them to buy their own homes.
As with just about all other comics genres outside of superheroes, the moral panic that prompted the implementation of the Comics Code in 1954 had a negative impact on romance comics. In his anti-comics screed Seduction of the Innocent, Fredric Wertham decried romance comics as trading in “false sentiment,” “social hypocrisy,” and “titillation.” Wary of the fate that befell horror comics publishing giant EC Comics, romance comics publishers opted to self-censor their publications’ contents to fall in line with the safe, simple moral and narrative sensibilities of preteen readers, despite the fact that the most successful romance comics were intended from the beginning for a more mature audience. Crestwood Publications decided to leave the comics business altogether, selling the rights to Young Romance and Young Love to DC Comics predecessor National Periodical Publications in 1963. Romance comics began their slow but steady decline in sales and pop culture relevance not long after—by 1973, circulation numbers for Young Romance fell to just under 120,000—as social mores and expectations in America underwent significant shifts during the Sexual Revolution. As Charlton and DC Comics artist and editor Dick Giordano noted:
[Romance comics were] too tame for the more sophisticated, sexually liberated, women’s libbers [who] were able to see nudity, strong sexual content, and life the way it really was in other media. Hand holding and pining after the cute boy on the football team just didn’t do it anymore, and the Comics Code wouldn’t pass anything that truly resembled real-life relationships.
Growing reader disinterest in romance comics couldn’t solely be blamed on the Comics Code, of course. The romance comics of the Golden and Silver Age were created almost exclusively by men writing from a patriarchal perspective, and the overriding theme of many formulaic romance comics stories was the perils of female independence or how helpless and incomplete the single female is without a husband. It isn’t much of a stretch to imagine that past a certain point, older female readers—a very significant segment of the romance comics-reading population—would have migrated to material and media that better addressed their concerns and interests, with or without the Comics Code bowdlerizing content.
All this isn’t to suggest that romance in comics disappeared as romance comics faltered in circulation and popularity in the post-Comics Code landscape (the last issue of Young Romance was published by DC Comics in 1975). Even before the Comics Code came into effect, indeed, even before My Date Comics came into being, teen humor comics such as Archie already shared many features and readers with the romance comics genre. Silver Age superhero comics often featured strong romantic subplots (although many of these portrayed women, even super-powered women, as fickle, helpless creatures).
Many contemporary “slice-of-life” comics that focus on interpersonal relationships such as Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise and Los Bros Hernandez’ Love and Rockets prominently feature complex and psychologically believable romantic relationships and the same can be said of certain modern superhero comics. In addition, the international popularity of romantic-comedy manga such as Rumiko Takahashi’s One-Pound Gospel and more serious romance manga fare such Ai Yazawa’s Paradise Kiss reminds us that while comics that focus on romantic relationships occupy a small niche in North America, they are still of great interest to many readers across the globe. Marvel and DC have tried their hand at producing romance comics in recent years, although these have generally tied into their superhero lines. Will we ever see “traditional” romance comics—updated to reflect modern social and cultural sensibilities, of course—make a comeback and achieve anything resembling the type of success that transcends gender and age barriers that romance comics of the 1940s and 1950s had? It’s difficult to say, but comics creators and publishers would be foolish not to try to get a piece of the romantic fiction pie: Romance novels generated $1.37 billion in US sales in 2008 and romance novel readers are the biggest and fastest growing e-book market in America. Adult readers’ love affair with romantic fiction is one relationship the comics industry cannot afford to neglect if it is to thrive.
Speaking of Dr. Fredric Wertham and Seduction of the Innocent…
… Carol Tilley, a researcher and instructor from the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science has uncovered evidence that the late psychologist distorted and outright falsified much of the data that appeared in Seduction of the Innocent, the sensationalistic, proto-pop psychology book that helped fuel the anti-comics crusade of the mid-1950s. Tilley noted that the discrepancies between Wertham’s notes and the final, published text of Seduction of the Innocent showed that
[Wertham] would take things from different days, from different parts of a transcript, reorganize them, omit words, make small changes that, in effect, change the kids’ arguments or change their viewpoints. He did this in so many instances that it’s hard to overlook.
Another interesting thing Tilley found out in the course of her research: During the 1940s, the biggest audience for comics outside of school-age children were people in the armed forces, which neatly aligns with Joe Simon’s observations during his time with the US Coast Guard as noted above and is further proof that the 1954 campaign to clean up comics for children was based on a poor understanding of reader demographics.
On a final note…
A hearty kung hei fat choi to those of you who celebrated the arrival of the Lunar New Year this past weekend (and even to those of you who didn’t). May you find new and lasting prosperity in the weeks and months to come.