There have always been female fans of comics, even if the business hasn’t played to that audience very faithfully. But for a brief moment, teenage girls and young women were one of the biggest demos in the industry. Specifically, during the 1950s boom in passionate, dramatic, tear-stained romance comics.
“In the ’50s, every publisher had some sort of romance title,” explained Jacque Nodell, who blogs about the genre at Sequential Crush, in an interview. “They were some of the best selling comics.” And they were a mainstay through the 1960s and into the ’70s.
“One of the enduring American pop cultural myths is that Superman and Batman created the greatest explosion of comic book success in the industry’s history. That’s not quite true,” wrote Michelle Nolan in her history of the genre, Love on the Racks. While there had been a vogue for teen comics with romantic elements in the early ’40s (think Archie and a horde of imitators), what’s considered the first proper romance comic—Young Romance—-premiered in 1947, the work of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, the team also responsible for creating Captain America. The conceit took a year to percolate, but then the new concept exploded, wrote David Hadju in The Ten-Cent Plague:
In 1948, there were only three new love titles: Sweethearts, My Romance, and My Life. By the end of 1949, there were some 125 romance comics, and, a year later, 148 from twenty-six publishers. Fox alone published My Story, My Love Story, My Love Life, My Love Affair, My Love Secret, My Secret Affair, My Secret Life, My Private Life, My Life, and more than a dozen other titles of their ilk.
By 1950, he added, nearly a fifth of comics published were romances. The boom was partly a matter of market forces. Superhero comics had cratered as World War II ended, and the business was looking for something new. But even after an initial boom and slight correction, the genre held steady through the ’50s, which was a famously marriage-obsessed era. The average age of marriage dropped; in 1960, 45 percent of adults 18 to 24 were married. Romance comics fit with the prevailing cultural winds. “Notwithstanding the bloody Korean conflict of 1950-53, American was a relatively placid, prosperous land with an increasing emphasis on personal fulfillment, including romance. The explosion of both soap operas and situation comedies on television during the 1950s reflected this secure feeling, in a way not possible today,” wrote Nolan.
Nodell—who specializes in romance comics of the 1960s and ’70s—outlined the typical romance comic for me: “Usually they would contain a longer story and then some featurette pages, so some fashion pages, letter columns, and then a few shorter stories. And all the stories pretty much revolved around dating, marriage, friendship—teen girl things.” While she’s never uncovered anything outright stating their target audience, “from what I can tell, they were going for probably from 8 to 12 to early 20s or so, and they were writing for young women.” Young men read them—she knows because occasionally they wrote into the letter columns, and sometimes modern fans and more recent writers mention having read them—too, but in smaller numbers.
Some stories were about good girls who fell for bad boys; some were about competing with other women for the same man; some of them were classic love triangles where the girl just can’t pick. Some were about young married couples. Some romances ended happily, others with heartbreak. Almost always there were tears—buckets and buckets of beautifully rendered tears.
Despite being passionate to the point of becoming overwrought, and despite dealing with the doings of rather adult-looking teenagers and young adults—even newlyweds—the romance comics couldn’t really touch the subject of sex except obliquely, especially after 1954 and the introduction of the morality policing Comics Code, the industry’s own version of the Hayes Code. “Any sort of graphicness would have not gotten through,” said Nodell.
Which is not to say the stories were scrubbed completely clean of any romantic physical contact: “They would park and kiss and pet and neck and all that good stuff they called it,” explained Nodell. There are also a suspiciously high number of scenes where heroines hang around in negligees or lingerie. “They’re just in their bra and underwear, lounging around, and friends sitting together in their bras,” notes Nodell. “I can only guess this was the primarily male artists drawing for themselves. Nothing too scandalous, but there is definitely a certain sexiness about a lot of them.” Perhaps it was adult straight men tucking away some Easter eggs for themselves, but it’s also worth noting that tween and teen girls have always been interested in idealized adult versions of themselves—teen magazines, even ones named Seventeen, have always been for girls a few years younger than their theoretical audience, and then of course there’s the iconic postwar children’s toy, Barbie, with her thunderous proportions and zebra-striped cocktail attire.
Indeed, while they were consumed largely by young women, the vast majority of creators were men. In fact Nodell’s grandfather—who created the Green Lantern—did a turn as editor and art director on a few issues of Miss America, which spun out the character Patsy Walker. “He actually drew fashion and dating advice and etiquette columns,” said Nodell. “I just think it’s so funny, picturing my grandfather, when he was in his 20s and early 30s, writing this advice for teen girls. I can only imagine he asked my grandma, ‘what do I put?’”
David Hajdu spoke to Joe Simon about his and co-creator Jack Kirby’s approach to Young Romance and its followup, Young Love. He explained:
It was supposedly very risky to put out love stories for children, but we knew that a lot of comic-book readers were high-school age and, as a result, they wanted to read about people a few years older, so that’s how we approached Young Romance. We never talked down, and we were very realistic and very adult. Nobody else knew how good we were doing for a couple of years, and then they caught on, and everybody started copying us. The kids really liked what we were trying to do, I think because we didn’t treat them like kids. We were practically kids ourselves, you know, so we didn’t look down on them.
“I thought romance is a complicated subject, and young girls are pretty smart, probably smarter than boys. So I tried to give them something worthy of their attention,” another writer, Walter Geier, told Hajdu. An editor once told him not to worry overmuch about the craft of his stories, as he was writing for “the chambermaid in the hotel.” He said it bothered him and he ignored it, as “I don’t know much about chambermaids, but I was still pretty young then, and the young girls I knew weren’t stupid.”
“I think for the most part they did a pretty good job,” said Nodell. “There’s definitely some stories where you’re like, whoa, a guy wrote that. But there were definitely some stories that you could tell they were going off experiences from having women in their lives.”
Romance comics continued to thrive through the 1960s, with the company we now know as DC acquiring Young Romance, the publication that started it all. But as the ’70s wore on, the genre essentially died out. One possible explanation is that the sexual revolution rendered quaint these depictions of young romance, which had already taken a hit in 1954 when the comics code was implemented and were still hampered by those rules. Teens just weren’t spending as much time worrying about “parking” and “petting”; why stay home and read about relatively clean teens when you could be smoking weed and trying to sneak backstage at a rock and roll show?
Nodell isn’t sure that’s the whole story, though. For one thing, superheroes returned and increasingly became the focus of the industry’s energies. Distribution also shifted from newsstands to specialty stores. But she wonders how much if it simply that the comic companies weren’t putting them out anymore: “I don’t know if there’s a really good reason other than they stopped producing them. And they thought, oh, women don’t read comics.”
“But had they kept making them, do I think they would have done well? I kind of think so, yeah,” she added. The irony is that the comics industry gave up on genre just as romance novels were taking off and would spawn numerous attempts at teen offshoots.
Today, the genre is probably most familiar through the work of famed pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. (Though one artist who drew them, Everett Raymond Kinstler, was dismissive to Hadju: “No comics publisher would have hired Lichtenstein—he wasn’t good enough. Romance comics dealt with a range of emotions, some of them quite subtle and sophisticated, and they called for real storytelling ability.”) When they’re remembered outside of the world of dedicated comics fandom, it’s largely as a curious, campy footnote to the story of the caped crusaders who are such a prominent feature of our blockbuster summers and Decembers.
Lately, there have been prickles of new possibility in the genre. There have been reissue collections dedicated to classics of the form like Young Romance and publisher Archer St. John, and Marvel has recently played around with the genre, putting out Secret Wars: Secret Love #1, a version set in the superhero universe, as well as a recent series starring Patsy Walker, a character who’s had many lives but started out as a teen rom com star. There’s Fresh Romance, a kickstarted anthology series, and Riverdale is reinvigorating Archie. But it’s nothing compares to the absolutely massive cultural currency that superheroes can currently claim, with their utter dominance of the multiplex.
But meanwhile, modern teens have their own version of the form: manga. “Every time I go to a Barnes and Noble there’s young teens splayed out in the manga aisle,” notes Nodell. Indeed, there will always be a market for emotionally charged stories of longing among teenage girls.