Love on the Racks

Love on the Racks

Michelle Nolan, frequent contributor to such publications as Comic Book Marketplace, presents “A History of American Romance Comics” in Love on the Racks. Her long-running research on the love comic genre has been collected in this thorough presentation.

Those seeking to learn more about an under-appreciated genre will find this book a goldmine. At their peak in the 1950s, 20-25% of all U.S. comics sold were romances, but due to their primarily female audience, traditional comic collectors, dealers, and fanzines have mostly ignored them.

While I appreciate the intent of remedying that ignorance, the biggest flaw here is that the book has relatively few images. I suspect that’s due to a combination of its quasi-academic approach and the difficulty of obtaining permissions from publishers. The sturdy, 200+ page hardcover, a bit pricey, has one eight-page color section, and everything else is black-and-white, with maybe two pictures in a 12-page chapter or four in a 20-pager. That’s not nearly enough to give an accurate portrayal of the genre and eras discussed, especially since many of the included images are merely covers, not internal pages, and they don’t have nearly the same impact without color.

As a result of this omission, often the text is given over to simply describing covers or stories. Space is given, for example, to retelling the first story in the first romance comic, Young Romance #1, when a page reproduction would have been so much more effective. No stories are included here, so readers will have to turn elsewhere to find examples of the actual genre. There’s also a section on how one no-longer-existing publisher had particularly lurid, sensationalistic covers, but with no examples shown, it’s hard to know what that meant during the 50s.

Love on the Racks

The twelve chapters are organized either by decade or trend, beginning with the comics’ origins in the pulp magazines and their connection to teen humor titles, such as those from Archie Comics. Given how little is known about many of these titles, some chapters become surveys, listing book titles with brief descriptions and publication histories. Others are filled with story summaries or listings of forgotten publishers.

Particular chapters cover the “Love Glut” of 1950, when everyone jumped on the romance bandwagon, and the short-lived trend of the often photo-covered Western Romance. As the book continues, titles are introduced and cancelled while publishers go out of business or sell properties to competitors. The effects of the Comic Code in the mid-50s are considered, and there’s a brief section on types of advertisements found in the comics. Charlton continued pumping out romance titles in the 1960s, while DC Comics experimented with serials before publishing the last of the classic titles in 1977, when Young Love ended. There’s a great deal of data based on Nolan’s extensive collection and those of two other dedicated collectors, including a ten-page appendix that lists all known romance comics published between 1947 and 1983.

Sometimes the stats make reading a little dry, but with frequent headings, it’s easy to skip to sections of more interest to any particular reader. It’s good to know that the data is there if I need to look it up at some future date, and the book seems aimed at being a reference more than a good read, as the author shares her knowledge. I suspect that some of the “rah rah you should collect these” sections were originally published as part of her Comic Book Marketplace articles, since the tone is well-suited to the audience for that former publication, who were looking for deals on comics to buy and “invest in”.

For another perspective, Jacque Nodell has written about this book at her blog “Sequential Crush”. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

(I had an argument with myself over whether I should mention that author Michelle was born Mike. I think it’s relevant, given the comments she makes in the text about how popular culture treated women at various periods, the genre stereotypes, or what girls’ roles and interests were assumed to be, since she would have a unique perspective on the matter. Some of her early articles have also been recently reprinted under her former name. I would be fascinated to read an interview with her about her life and how it interacts with her interests and the material she covers.)

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