Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
Michel Gagne, ed.
The tall, chiseled man takes
his love into his arms: “Toni—I love you so much! Do you think you can marry a bum who’s gone straight?”
The woman—red-lipped, her jet black hair cascading over her shoulders, swoons, “Of course I’ll marry you—you sweet wonderful palooka!”
This is the world of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Young Romance 2, the second collection of pre-code romance comics from the late 1940s. Though Simon and Kirby invented the genre of romance comics and worked on nearly 200 combined issues of Young Romance and Young Love, this work has languished in near-obscurity for decades. Of course, the contemporary comic book industry has always had issues with Young Romance’s target audience—young women.
“Ever since I returned from military service, it bothered me that there weren’t any comics specifically for older girls,” Joe Simon is quoted in the introduction. But thankfully Fantagraphics and editor Michel Gagne are giving these comics the lush restoration they deserve.
Vintage romance comics have often been reduced to the stuff of kitschy refrigerator magnets or Roy Lichtenstein knock-offs, but the stories reprinted in Young Romance 2 are pulpy, melodramatic delights, like a complete Douglas Sirk film told in eight pages. Jack Kirby’s artwork speaks for itself. His men have jaws as rock-hard as their punches, and his women are determined, steely-eyed beauties with eyebrows that would make Joan Crawford reach for her axe.
Far from being sentimental mush, the seventeen stories collected in Young Romance 2 are dynamic and edgy. “I Was a Pick-Up!” proclaims one title, and another heroine tells us “I Fell in Love with My Star Pupil!” (don’t worry, this isn’t a Lifetime movie, her pupil’s just the adult man she tutors on the side). “Was Love to be My Sacrifice?” stars a young showgirl, and Kirby’s leggy, glamorous chorus girls are a sight. Despite the sensationalistic titles, happy endings are never in question. Of course the girl cruelly labeled a “pick-up” by a roadhouse punk will find true, redeeming love in the arms of a good man.
True love must be fought for to be won, and the female protagonists must deal with prejudice, malicious gossip, class issues, disapproving parents and sisters, and even the law. In “Unwanted,” a former gun moll tries to go straight after being released from prison, and the male narrator of “I Stole for Love!” embezzles from his job to give his wife a taste of the high life—only to finish telling his tale in a jail cell. (“I’m sick of hearing about people in trouble over money! Try reading the comics for a change!”)
The dialogue is pulpy, punchy, and occasionally hilarious: “You’re the sweetest little whip-cracker in the world!” But the characterization is surprisingly authentic, and the female protagonists are not interchangeable, teary-eyed ingénues. These women—teachers, students, factory workers, chorus line dancers– know what they want, and make hard choices along the way. Their struggles feel genuine, and it’s understandable why these romance comics were an enormous hit with female readers when they were originally published.
If you’re a fan of Simon and Kirby, golden age comics, and romantic drama so thick you could bite into it, read Young Romance 2. And if you’re “Too Wise for Romance!” (I love these titles), check it out anyway.