guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

February 2006


 

Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, et al., Marvel Romance (Marvel, 2006). $19.95 TPB

by Jared Gardner

I was excited when I first learned that Marvel was going to publish a collection of their romance comics from the 1960s and 70s. As an avid young Marvel reader at that time, I was always intrigued by these tear-stained pastel comics, which occupied an increasingly smaller corner of the comicstore shelves as each year went by. But as a Marvel reader who happened to be a boy I wasn’t allowed to buy them without risking endless taunting from my ten-year old peers (of course, looking back on what we were reading openly at the time, such taunting now seems misplaced to say the least). I snuck quick reads when the opportunities arose: the issues that my friends’ sisters might leave around, solitary moments in the newsstand. But they remained largely a forbidden mystery, one that it was hard to explore even in older years because by the 1980s the form had all-but vanished from the stands and remained uncollected, lost to the trashbin of comics history.


In 2003, Fantagraphics published a splendid collection of 1950s romance comics, all written by the idiosyncratic and talented Dana Dutch, and all of them flying in the face of the expectations that many readers bring to the genre. Here the stories tend to be darker, the heroines stronger, and the subject matter more adult and intense than what followed a decade later. In these 1950s romance comics--like the EC horror comics and the Lev Gleason True Crime comics of the same period--we see what comics were maturing into before the Comics Code and corporate collusion shut out the independent voices in the medium for nearly a half century. The excellent introduction by John Benson, along with the coherent collection of strong and compelling stories, makes Romance without Tears the essential volume for anyone looking to see what the genre was in its heyday.


Marvel’s collection of their entries from the Stan Lee era into this genre is, necessarily, a diminished thing. By the 1960s, the audience for romance comics had all but vanished, in large measure because the adult themes had been largely censored out of existence. In Marvel Romance, the stories almost always have happy endings, and when they don’t, the heroines risk no lesson more brutal than the dangers of being a snob. Not ruined reputations, unwanted pregnancies, drug problems or other realities of romance-on-the-streets here.


Unfortunately, the stories selected lack the coherent editorial vision of Romance without Tears. Indeed they seem to have been largely selected with two criteria in mind: they must either a) display the work of a Marvel artist legendary for work in more familiar superhero genres, or b) be easy to make fun of in Marvel’s companion project, Marvel Romance Redux--a mini-series in which stories from these romance comics are “re-dialogued” for comic effect. Neither of these criteria shows much respect for the genre, and the lack of any introduction or contextualization for the work at hand only makes the whole thing feel fairly half-hearted.


Fortunately, the printing and colors are vibrant and the work stands on its own and challenges the lack of respect of its publishers. Jack Kirby’s work is especially exciting here, and his heroines bring an energy, a wildness to the eyes, that harkens back to the origins of the form. In fact, throughout the 1960s stories reprinted here, the artwork is fascinating, often foretelling some of the devices and vision of Tomine and others engaged in contemporary realist work. I would have much rather seen a more comprehensive volume of the early 1960s work, one put together with an eye toward archiving the best and most significant work in this lost genre. But I am happy to settle for seeing any of this historical work back in print, even if Marvel, it turns out, did not respect it in the morning.