Agonizing Love: The Golden Era of Romance Comics

This affordable softcover coffee table book offers a selection of romance comic stories and covers for enjoyable browsing of a kitschy genre. With content dating mostly from 1947-1957, you’ll get a glimpse of a very different time and its expectations for love, romance, and marriage.

This isn’t a work for scholars (unless they just want to read it for entertainment). The reprint material is captioned only with title, issue number, and cover date. No writers or artists are listed. (With two exceptions, both Western stories. Best Love #36 had art by Bill Everett, and Rangeland Love #2 had art by Russ Heath.) Bizarrely, some few items are credited as “Unknown issue, circa (date)”. I don’t understand how you reprint material without knowing where it came from — didn’t you have to find it somewhere?

But this isn’t intended to be academic. Instead, it’s a fun book to flip through, and where else are you going to be able to easily read a selection of romance comic stories? The pages are shot with yellowed borders, and some of the covers reprinted show spine roll or other flaws, making it a realistic version of flipping through someone’s comic collection. I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of some of the letter columns, quizzes, house ads, and other short fillers (but no fashion pages), to give a full flavor of the books. I did find it a little odd that the writer insisted on telling us, several times, how happily married he is to his wife. It’s ok, Michael Barson, you don’t have to prove your status to justify being a guy writing about girls’ comics. (It does seem a little weird when he’s authoritatively stating what “young women” were doing and thinking in post-War America, but he’s trying to give a flavor of the times, speaking in wide generalities.)

After a lengthy introduction about the history of comics, cribbing from Love on the Racks, including the creation of the romance comic genre by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, the reprint material is grouped into five themed chapters: Bliss, Jealousy, Despair, Marriage Hell, and Class Struggles. Much (all?) of the content comes from Barson’s personal collection, but he’s done a good job selecting material that’s enjoyable to read today, either for its portrait of the times or universal appeal. People today still wonder about

  • when to propose (or how to get him to propose)
  • how to balance work and love
  • whether they risk losing a beau for being too jealous of his time spent with others
  • how to balance saving and responsible spending
  • whether they can put up with a controlling mother-in-law who doesn’t want to give up her son

Well, maybe that last one is a bit stereotypical, although it occurs here several times. I also rolled my eyes at the story about a flighty young newlywed who finally learns to stay home, cook, and take care of the house (instead of going out with her college sorority sisters) only when her husband winds up in a wheelchair because she left the laundry on the stairs. The later story about a woman we’d today call a bridezilla who has to learn that it’s the marriage that counts, not the wedding is much more palatable.

An early favorite of mine here features a couple of aspiring writers. I enjoyed seeing her attempts to create and make a career for herself, although the ending, where he manipulates her into good results (because he knows her so much better than she knows herself) is definitely retro. One of the Western tales is about going to Reno for a divorce, and a young lawyer who believes people shouldn’t break up because marriage is sacred. It’s an interesting perspective, especially read in a world where the “defense of marriage” bigots are picking on the wrong people.

The last chapter is the most significant, with stories about teaching parents that couples that cross religions can be ok, and the classic “rich girl loves poor working boy” setup, and even one about a girlfriend learning to accept her war veteran boyfriend who returns home without an arm. I’m glad I got a chance to check out this book, because it’s a terrific time capsule of what popular women’s entertainment looked like sixty years ago. I hope that there will be a sequel, this time focusing on the weird and wild romance comics of the 1960s, when publishers struggled madly to be relevant and quite often failed miserably. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

9 Responses to “Agonizing Love: The Golden Era of Romance Comics”

  1. JennyN Says:

    Thanks for the review, Johanna – I bought the book last week and it sounds as enjoyable as I’d hoped. Though even flipping through it, I’d noted a few awkwardnesses, some of which you mention: the persistently jocular tone, especially (which whatever Mr Barson’s intentions, tends to come across as an attempt to ward off the dreaded girl cooties). I also find it interesting that although several images by the truly fabulous Matt Baker are reproduced on splash pages, Barson neither prints any of the stories he illustrated – mainly in titles published by the St John company – nor references either of the titles about Baker / St John by John Benson, published by Fantagraphics. If he’d looked at Benson’s “Romance Without Tears”, Barson would have read that a number of those devouring the St John titles appear to have been young *men*, especially soldiers in or waiting to ship out to the Korean war zone. (A look at the letters page of any St John comic of the era confirms this).

    Though personally I’m waiting for the day when someone thinks to survey the old ladies who were once young girls, and put the question I’ve never seen any recent writer on romance comics ask: What did YOU think? What did *you* enjoy, and why? Were there any writers or artists you looked for especially? Etc, etc. I can only assume that’s much too simple for either fanboys or pop-culture gurus…

  2. Johanna Says:

    I hope you like the book – I did. The question of what was chosen to reprint was interesting — I noticed that no DC content (other than covers) was included, either. When it comes to audience and the like, it’s not a deep investigation, but one that relies on assumptions, true. I’d love to see someone do the survey you propose, but it would be difficult, given that the audience would be in their 70s or older at this point, and tracking down readers could be a struggle.

  3. Jacque Nodell Says:

    Very nice review, Johanna. I did an interview with Barson before the book came out, but haven’t had a chance to read it yet. Looking forward to it though!

    Speaking of a study of women who were romance readers! I have informally started querying women about reading them (mostly readers of the ’60s and ’70s romance). Usually I find them by accident, just by chatting! But that helps illustrate their prevalence at the time these women were young girls. I have found their memories of the romance comics to be on the general side — which has so far prevented me from conducting official interviews. I better get on that!!!

    And don’t worry, Johanna… while I have no idea if Barson is going to do a sequel of the later material and though it is a little ways off yet, I am in the early planning stages of a book version of Sequential Crush!

  4. JRB Says:

    “Bizarrely, some few items are credited as “Unknown issue, circa (date)”. I don’t understand how you reprint material without knowing where it came from — didn’t you have to find it somewhere?”

    From issues with had lost their covers, perhaps? I have this problem with some early magazines I collect; they’re only dated on the cover, so if you get an issue with no cover, you’re stuck unless you can find another copy to compare it to.

  5. Johanna Says:

    Oh, wow, Jacque, that would definitely be a book to read! Good luck with that project. I find it interesting that, just based on anecdote, the male fans of the genre tend to prefer the oldest romance comics (like here, where Barson sticks to work pre-1957), while female fans like the kitschier later stuff.

    JRB, perhaps, or from clippings, or even found on the internet without proper citation. But these listings don’t even have series titles attached to them! I dunno, it just seemed weird for this kind of book.

  6. Jacque Nodell Says:

    Yeah, I don’t know if male fans are drawn in by the Simon and Kirby origin and that is why some prefer the earlier books or what? I personally enjoy the later romance issues because there is a very distinct youthfulness to the stories and the art stemming from both the implementation of the Comics Code and the increasing notion of “teenage-hood” and youth culture in the ’60s and ’70s.

    Thanks again for the great review!!!

  7. TonyJazz Says:

    As we know, the creators of these books were men. In fact, were ANY of these stories/series of comics written by women? (Did he touch upon that subject?)

    I get a kick out of the fantasy of woman’s intuition. I remember learning it from the Dick Van Dyke show growing up, and it took years for me to realize what a silly concept it was!

  8. Johanna Says:

    The author didn’t consider any questions related to creators, beyond the Simon/Kirby history in the introduction, but that wasn’t his purpose — he was approaching these comics as artifacts.

  9. Grant Says:

    This would make a nice companion to the “Marvel Romance” collection…

    ..which does have full credit listings for each story. The stories range from 1960 to 1972 and has some pretty great artists like Kirby, Steranko, Colan, Starlin and Giordano.

    Also, I really like Love on the Racks. Michelle Nolan’s encyclopedic knowledge of all comics from the late 40s and 50s is unparalleled. I really enjoyed her columns in Comic Book Marketplace and Alter Ego.

    All three books would make a nice “romance comics” collection.




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