The Overwrought Allure of Golden Age Romance Comics

I’m reading a play by Anton Chekhov these days. What relevance does this have to comics? Let me explain. I don’t know about the so-called « mysterious Russian soul », but this particular play is histrionic. And the chief cause of drama, of course, is love. One woman tries to poison herself upon discovering her husband has a mistress and is preparing to run off with yet another man’s wife; others literally crawl around while trying to convince the rascal they’ve fallen in love with to condescend to granting them a small sign of affection; small children are threatened with deadly diseases; men launch into hair-tearing monologues, intermittently planning suicide or murder but never actually getting around to it; money is borrowed, and is immediately tossed in the air, friendships are shattered, insults are hurled and then profuse apologies proffered… and everybody, and I do mean everybody, goes hysterical.

Which brings us to Golden Age romance comics. Ha!

I’m not intending to suggest that *all* of them are ridiculously over the top. However, a lot of them are plotted like your average soaper – understandably, as these stories were written with a drama-hungry, lovelorn audience in mind. « Boy meets girl, everything goes well, they’re happy together » is not the kind of thing that moves copies.

Here’s a selection of covers I really like (for various reasons), depicting some common situations in a young woman’s life – like getting back-stabbed or pawed or pregnant while dreaming of some Perfect Love.

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Some gals don’t merely have to contend with vigilantes, but also wolves (of the animal *and* human varieties).

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Cowgirl Romances no. 10 (1950, Fiction House). Cowgirl Romances lasted for 12 issues, and usually featured strong heroines capable of defending themselves… although this one looks like she might need a bit of help. Read it here.
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Oh, never mind – she doesn’t need help after all. It’s a refreshing change from women who stand by doing nothing while their loved one gets pummelled… or try to help and end up conking the wrong man.

Speaking of wolves, we have this cozy scene with distinctly creepy overtones. Anytime someone mentions an “experienced man”, run the other way.

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A Moon, a Girl…Romance no. 11 (January-February 1950, EC). Cover by Al Feldstein.

Julie fought, but now she fought as much against her own hungry response as against his muscles. Try as she would, she could not keep herself from returning that kiss with all the fiery ardor of her wild loneliness.” Untamed Love is quite racy, as the title promises, and as much over-the-top as one could wish for. The cover story is about an evil seductress, but the rest of the tales all concern themselves with a love triangle of another kind, one in which a girl has to choose between two guys. This one’s for the ladies – it’s hunks galore!

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Untamed Love no. 1 (January 1950, Quality Comics). Cover by Bill Ward. “Scary” comes to mind more than “ravishing”! Read the issue here.

Here’s the “ravishing creature” in action, in case you’re interested:

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Alaskan beauties don’t understand English grammar, but they dig the language of love! Panel from “The Wrong Road to Love”: “Julie falls in love with truck driver Steve, but he moves to Alaska to become a fisherman. She follows him there, only to discover local resident Becky considers Steve “her man.” Julie is consoled by Steve’s partner Hank. Steve and Becky run off, taking all the money Steve and Hank have earned. Julie decides to go home, but Hank says she can stay — as his wife.

 

 

Another sentimental overload (though one would think that being at war was dramatic enough)? The redhead in the square on the right is in love with a gay man! (She was in love with a man’s fiancé, after all.) The girl at the dance is struggling to get away from a grabby asshole! (Unfortunately, all-too-common even today.) The girl in the green dress is faking it because she’s too polite to say no! (Ditto.)

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Wartime Romances no. 10 (October 1952, cover by Matt Baker).

“They were like two jailers, my pa and my brother Bill! At 18, I hadn’t tasted the sweetness of courtin’! And I was hungry for it… bitter hungry…” Things quickly get out of hand in this issue of First Love – a young maiden meets a charming young man who kills her brother (by accident), after which she gets shot by her dad (also by accident). The story concludes with the two lovebirds reuniting while the father realizes that “his soul is black with sin“. Geez, the things some people have to go through to reach a happy ending in a comic story.

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First Love Illustrated no. 34, 1953. Read the issue here.

This issue has plenty more “man-starved” maidens up for grabs…

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Panel from “Bad Girl”, illustrated by John Prentice.

… and one memorable male character, Alan, “the gay, vital, gloriously-alive lover”.

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Page from “My Heart Cried Out”, pencils by John Giunta, inks by Manny Stallman.

The next cover reminds us to never send our dates for refreshments (punch, you say? looks more like something out of a witch’s cauldron), for this is where femmes fatales lurk in hopes of snaring fresh prey.

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My Own Romance no. 26 (January 1953, Marvel). The irresistible team-up of two comic-field professionals who would later become terrible Archie artists: Al Hartley (art) and Stan Goldberg (colours). Is that teacup floating in her hand or what?
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Pictorial Romances no. 19 (May 1953, St. John). Cover by Matt Baker. Read the issue here. If I had to recommend only one issue out of today’s roster, it would be this one: there’s nice art, and the stories are actually detailed and interesting, and even boast a certain internal logic.
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It’s important to know the difference in different tinned meats. Art by Matt Baker.

If you want a lover who doesn’t resist, put her in a trance, first, and then Miss Smith won’t be able to help but say “yes!”

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Lovers no. 50 (June 1953, Atlas). This, again, is the handiwork of those two buffoons, Hartley and Goldberg. Look, she’s still holding the chloroform-dosed handkerchief he used to knock her out!

Romance comics love to pit a woman’s career against everything a female should strive for (i.e. marriage). Am I carping that romance comics weren’t very progressive in the 1950s? Ah, I wouldn’t be, if I didn’t know for a fact that Silver Age romance comics often don’t do that much better in that department.

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Romantic Marriage no. 23 (July 1954, St. John), cover by Matt Baker. “Companionship”, eh? Read the issue here.

What do we have here? Despite what one would tend to think, this necklace was stolen, not given as a romantic offering. Such are true life secrets: kleptomania, clandestine children, and double-crossed partners.

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True Life Secrets no. 25 (March 1955, Charlton). Read the issue here.

For an excellently written romp through the history of romance comics, read Tales From the Code: You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.

~ ds

Tentacle Tuesday: Splashing With the Octopus

It’s boiling hot in this part of the world, so I’d like to concentrate on soothingly cool covers for this Tentacle Tuesday. If we end up taking a dip in refreshing waters in our quest for relief from balmy temperatures, so much the better. Today’s roster brings us fashionable dames and their splashy encounters with octopuses!

Here’s the Queen of Fashions (and right now, queen of tentacles), and for once the cover doesn’t focus on her outfit – I understand it’s hard to wriggle out of a swimsuit while an octopus is holding your leg.

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Katy Keene was created by Bill Woggon, and introduced in Wilbur Comics no. 5 (1945). She was “America’s Queen of Pin-Ups and Fashions”, and readers were encouraged to submit drawings of outfits and other tralala such as designs for automobiles, boats, and whatever other method of transport Katy could glitter in. This is Katy Keene no. 60, July 1961, cover by Bill Woggon.

Mockery aside, I have nothing against Bill Woggon-era Katy – I like Woggon’s art, and the gentle humour of the stories is hard to dislike. After Katy Keene’s demise in 1961, she was eventually revived by Archie Comics in 1983. They should have let the dead rest in peace! Though several people were considered for the role of regular artist, that position went to John Lucas, whose style I abhor, recoil from and spit upon. I first saw his take on KK in those huge Archie digests you can get for pennies that reprint a bit of everything, giving readers a total pêle-mêle of different decades and different artists. I didn’t know who drew what at the time, but I quickly developed a preference for certain styles while finding others repellent… and John Lucas’ puerile art was top of my hated list, along with the half-arsed, anatomically asinine line-work of Al Hartley.

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Next, we have another beauty queen, although this time the stuff is quite a bit more risqué. It’s not for nothing that cataloguing websites classify Torchy as “adult” material. As for the octopus, it has impeccable taste, having determined that there’s no need to decide between blonde or brunette when you can have both.

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But Torchy, why are you wearing high-heel sandals in water? Modern Comics no. 97 (Quality Comics, May 1950). This is a page from « The Mermaid Gig », with scripted and art by Gill Fox. Fox took over from Bill Ward (Torchy Todd’s creator and writer) five years after her introduction, starting with Modern Comics #89 (1949). As far as replacement of Bill Ward, Fox did a truly excellent job, managing to preserve the mood and style of Ward’s stories. Read the mermaid tale (no more tentacles, sadly) here.

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Sometimes octopuses catch little girls, but occasionally a feisty little girl captures an octopus. Little Dot is going to be a handful when she grows up… but of course she never will.

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This polka-dotted octopus is a perfect catch for Little Dot in this soothingly green sea. Too bad the cephalopod fellow looks so disgruntled. He was probably in the middle of lunch or something. Little Dot no. 105 (June 1966); cover by Warren Kremer.

Those of you also inhabiting parts of the world where the weather has gone bananas (because it’s certainly hot enough for growing them in here), stay cool!

~ ds