In a golden era of comics dominated by the superhero and crime genres, the explosion in popularity of a subset surrounding stories of so-called “real-life” love may seem surprising. Nonetheless, romance comics were hugely popular during the post-war and Cold War era from shortly after the genre’s inception in the 1940s until their decline in the 1970s. The genre, created for an audience of young women, explored themes of love, betrayal, heartbreak, and redemption; the comics also engineered and marketed a very particular brand of romantic relationship — together with certain, supposedly desirable, qualities of femininity. Through a retrospective lens, I will analyze these comics given both their historical context and their specific content, and attempt to parse what they may have meant to their readers at their peak of popularity.
First, some historical background information: comic books experienced a boom beginning in the 1940s, when they were “the most popular form of entertainment in America” and “reaching more people than movies, television, radio, or magazines for adults” (Hajdu 5). At the same time, as men returned from the war, U.S. culture began to place an increasing emphasis on societal stability—and the nuclear family as the foundation for that stability (Fraterrigo 18). Additionally, Alfred Kinsey’s famed report, Sexual Behavior of the Human Male, was released in 1948, prompting a widespread interest in love and sex (Hajdu 159); and adult confession magazines such as True Story, which began circulation in 1919 and contained purportedly true stories about romance, were wildly popular (Griffen-Foley 538).
Out of this background in the late 1940s were born the romance comics; 148 issues from twenty-six publishers were in print by 1950 (Hajdu 156). These publishers included such well-known companies as DC and Marvel. Like other comics at the time, these comics were ubiquitous: they sold for a dime and could be bought at grocery stores and newsstands.
With this background in mind, it might be best first to start by describing the visual elements of romance comics and then delve into their narrative content. While many artists were involved in the creation of romance comics, most romance comic drawings follow the same general stylistic choices (with some variations depending on the artist in question, of course): the characters are drawn with expressive faces and plenty of color, both of which reinforce the drama of the stories; men are quite masculine and women are quite feminine and conventionally beautiful, with full lips and thick lashes. The usual style, overall, is naturalistic, a calculated choice likely meant in part to differentiate the genre from its clearest counterpart and predecessor (which shared at least some of romance comics’ young adult audience): popular humor comics like Archie. Compare the Archie Annual Yearbook from 1950 to the cover of First Romance No. 1, below.
This distinction was clearly important to romance comic creators, who marketed the comics as a genre for “adults” (Hajdu 159). The relatively naturalistic visual style is also important because it helps push the idea of authenticity and “realness,” which is part and parcel of the genre—the slogan on the cover of every issue of Girls’ Love Stories reads “True to Life!”
Another important component of the comics’ visual style is that their pages are usually chock-full of type. Most of the stories are told from the perspective of the female main character; a huge amount of importance is placed on this protagonist’s constant inner monologue, enough that a lot of the comic pages end up looking like the one from a story in the 25th issue of Girls’ Love Stories below (“Friends…Not Sweethearts”). While I was looking through these, it sometimes felt more like I was reading an illustrated novel than a comic.
In general, conflict tends to arise in romance comics when the female main character begins to crave passion, often at the expense of stability within romance. This often manifests as a love triangle, which is probably the most common narrative trope used in the comics. I guess (some would argue) there’s no better way to quickly introduce drama into a love story. The trope is evident just from the covers of the magazines—see for yourself:
The oft-used image of a woman looking on in horror at a man with another woman immediately aligns our sympathies with the woebegone witness. As a cover device, this is clever; we immediately want to see redemption for her and are thus pulled into reading the magazine. Back to passion: typically, a woman will feel dissatisfied with some aspect of her life that is tied, at least in some way, to her relationships with men. The love triangles that result from this dissatisfaction tend to follow similar patterns. David Hajdu puts it this way: “The protagonists, invariably young women, found themselves torn between two suitors: one disreputable, a Heathcliff driving a white-walled coupe or playing in a swing band, who promised thrills and threatened heartbreak; the other stolid but dull, an Edgar Linton from the neighborhood, carrying the prospect of long-term security and social acceptability” (160). Almost always, the woman will either end up realizing the dull beau is the one she wanted all along, or that the bad boy is actually capable of providing a strong faithful relationship; either way, she’ll end up in a place of monogamous stability.
Love triangles involving two women and a man, while rarer, also occurred regularly in these comics. This form of love triangle tends to set the women against each other and centers on disparaging the protagonist’s opponent; this criticism often clues us into how women were supposed to look and behave in relationships and in general.
In the cover story from the 19th issue of Girls’ Love on the right, two sisters fight to win the affections of an attractive man, with the man ultimately going for the quieter, less disruptive girl who doesn’t chase after him (“Stand-In For Love”). On the left is a panel from a story in the first issue of First Romance, where Cathy (the sweet, docile feminine protagonist) is compared to Chloe (a cowgirl who is rowdy and aggressive and deemed an undesirable woman and wife) (“Love Taught Me a Lesson”).
The dissatisfaction and craving-passion duality doesn’t only exist explicitly within romance, but also sometimes manifests as women wishing for things like a more exciting career path. These goals, however, always exist in tandem with some romantic problem. A good example is the story of Lucy and Speed, from the first issue of First Romance (“I Was a Ballerina Without Love”). Lucy dreams of being a professional ballerina, but when she decides to follow that goal and go on the road, she has to leave her stable boyfriend Speed at home. The two vow to remain in their relationship even while they’re apart. However, they start having problems when Speed is convinced by another dancer named Tania that Lucy has feelings for her manager, Igor (creating the next step up in intensity from a love triangle—a love square).
How are Lucy and Speed’s problems solved? Lucy gets in a life-threatening accident that causes her never to be able to dance again. Afterward, all is forgiven, and she assumes her rightful role as Speed’s happy housewife.
Indeed, women changing themselves to conform to what a romantic interest wants is celebrated in these comics. A woman is defined by her relationship to men, after all! In a story in the first issue of First Romance, Betty is told by her friend that she should pretend to be interested in something that a boy is interested in to win his favor (“My Love Life”). She does so, he likes her because of it, and—that’s essentially the happy ending of the story (although there is a rather strange implication that now that she’s pretended to enjoy the boy’s interest, she suddenly actually enjoys it).
In terms of romance comic plots, then, here is the general pattern (again, with some exceptions): a woman desires something that she doesn’t have; often, this something is a departure from her stable life into something more wild and passionate, whether it be living a “loose” lifestyle, pursuing a new career, or falling for a dangerous beau. “Happy endings” manifest in a few ways which sometimes intersect: the woman is punished for pursuing something wild and dangerous at the expense of a stable relationship (as in the ballerina story); the woman goes back to her stable boyfriend after realizing he was what she wanted all along; or the woman enters a relationship or marriage with the prospective “dangerous” or passionate suitor after it turns out that he’s actually the stable option.
So what overarching ideas can we garner from these patterns? Generally speaking, as I said before, the comics came out of a post-war and Cold War culture that prized stability over all else and saw marriage as the foundation of the country’s stability. It makes sense, therefore, that the romance comics—geared toward an audience of young women—would engage in so much implicit finger-wagging, repeatedly pushing messages through their stories that women should mold themselves into a particular breed to appeal to men and desire the life of a happy housewife above all other pursuits.
The genre, as it turns out, began its true decline in the 1960s (NPR). This followed the 1954 adoption of the Comics Code Authority. The Comics Code was created by the comics industry as a form of self-imposed censorship in response to society’s moral panic regarding comic books and juvenile delinquency; it was believed that graphic comic books (especially those in the crime and horror genres but also extending to romance and others) were having an evil effect on the impressionable young minds who consumed them (Reed). The code outlined a set of restrictions on comics, which included not only the disavowing of various forms of violence and crime but also censorship of “indecent or undue exposure,” “suggestive posture,” and “illicit sex relations” (Comics Code Authority). According to the Comics Code Authority, “The treatment of live romance stories shall emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage,” and “Passion and romantic interest shall never be treated in such a way as to stimulate the lower and baser emotions” (Comics Code Authority). It is clear why the code was damaging to the romance genre: while the comics had always praised stability and marriage before the code was passed, the stories were entertaining because that conclusion had always come after a healthy dose of drama and passion. Now, the excitement and conflict of each narrative was stripped away, leaving bland and uninteresting stories behind.
Finally, in the 1960s, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and the sexual liberation movement pushed against the nuclear marriage and happy housewife ideals. In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan writes, “We can no longer ignore the voice within women that says: ‘I want something more than my husband and my children and my home’” (78). This kind of thinking ran counter to the values romance comics now exclusively touted; in the face of backlash from every side, romance comics could not survive.
Did romance comics’ readers look to the comics for lessons on how to behave and see sex and romance? Despite what the adults panicking about juvenile delinquency might have thought, the answer is clearly no; the comics merely reinforced the romantic norms of the era, and they were, after all, created and consumed primarily as a form of entertainment. I’ve spent this essay viewing the comics through a 21st century lens, but it’s important to note that while it’s easy to criticize the stories for being problematic and misogynistic, female readers at the time consumed them because they were exciting and relatable stories. And even to a weary modern feminist, these comics are fun to read, regardless of the themes they contain. Their pages are full of color and their stories are full of drama—and who doesn’t appreciate a good romance story now and then?
“A Romantic Anthology of Comically ‘Agonizing Love’.” NPR. NPR, 15 June 2011. Web. 29
Comics Code Authority, Comics Magazine Association of America (1954). Print.
“First Romance.” Vol. 1. N.p.: Harvey Comics, 1952. Print.
Fraterrigo, Elizabeth. Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America. Oxford:
Oxford UP, 2011. Print.
Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Norton, 1963. Print.
“Friends…Not Sweethearts.” Girls’ Love Stories Oct. 1953: n. pag. Print.
Griffen-Foley, Bridget. “From tit-bits to big brother: A century of audience participation in the
media.” Media, Culture & Society 26.4 (2004): 533-548.
Hajdu, David. The Ten-cent Plague: The Great Comic-book Scare and How it Changed America.
New York: Picador, 2008. Print.
“I Was a Ballerina Without Love.” First Romance Aug. 1952: n. pag. Print.
“Love Taught Me a Lesson.” First Romance Aug. 1952: n. pag. Print.
“My Love Life.” First Romance Aug. 1952: n. pag. Print.
Montana, Bob. “Archie Annual Yearbook.” Vol. 4. N.p.: Archie Comics, 1952. Print.
Reed, Patrick. “61 Years Ago Today: The Adoption of the Comics Code Authority.”
ComicsAlliance. N.p., 26 Oct. 2015. Web. 09 Apr. 2017.
“Stand-In For Love.” True Romance Oct. 1952: n. pag. Print.
This post is part of a series published by students in D. B. Dowd’s Spring 2017 course Special Topics in Visual Culture: The Illustrated Periodical.