A few months ago, I stumbled across a lovely little gem at my local used bookstore, a collection of Marvel romance comics. Being a comic geek and recovering academic, this obviously began a spiral of research into romance comics. Along the way, I stumbled across Jacque Nodell’s blog Sequential Crush. Jacque is a romance comic historian, and her blog is a treat. You can find interviews with the writers and creators of romance comics, short reviews of various romance comics, often obscure ones at that, and longform pieces that explore and analyze themes found in romance comics. I was so enthralled, I reached out to Jacque for an interview, and she was kind enough to oblige.
So how did you come to be a historian of comics? And more specifically, romance comics?
My entry into the world of comics was at an early age. I traveled to comic book conventions with my grandparents (my grandfather was a comic book artist), and grew up surrounded by comic books and pop culture. I am very thankful for this family history, and proud and excited to “carry the torch” for my family.
Romance comics came into my life later, although I always had a proclivity for “girl” comics. I have a distinct memory of being given a stack of Millie the Model to keep me quiet during an adult dinner when I was around nine years old. I was entranced!
When I began graduate school, history of the Holocaust was my area of specialization. As time progressed, I realized that comic book history was where my passions were taking me. By the time I finished my formal training in history, I was reading romance comics like crazy. Sequential Crush grew out of my research interests concerning the portrayal of women in history, my fascination with all things 1960s and 70s, and my desire to work in the comic book industry.
How did romance comics come to be their own genre? Was it a specific ploy to draw in more female readers?
Like many other comic book genres, the romances were derived from a variety of sources—pulps, Hollywood confessional magazines, and teen humor comics like Archie. Joe Simon (creator of the genre, along with Jack Kirby) mentioned in his 1990 memoir The Comic Book Makers, that he felt the lack of comic books for women could be solved with the confessional-style romance comics which came into fruition in 1947 with the publication of Young Romance (Prize). Michelle Nolan’s Love on the Racks is a great resource for more information and statistics concerning the early days of the genre.
I love fashion illustration, and I adore the attention to fashion and decor in the romance comics. I also noticed that readers submitted their own fashions and hairstyles, which were then featured in the comics. Can you tell me a little more about that and how it worked?
I love fashion illustration too, and the romance comics are chock-full of gorgeous fashions, both in the sequential stories and in the filler pages. The majority of the romance comic fashion illustrations of the 1960s and 70s were created by the creative teams. Only occasionally in the romance comics do you see reader-submitted fashions. The reader-submitted fashions were primarily relegated to the teen humor books such as Patsy Walker. (Note: You may notice the name Patsy Walker. Marvel later transformed her into superhero Hellcat, a member of The Avengers team.)
Not long ago, I did a post on Tony Abruzzo, one of the primary romance comic book illustrators for DC Comics. He was actually a dress designer before entering into the comic book field, which helps explains his panache for all things fashionable.
(Note: Jim Steranko’s art on “My Heart Broke in Hollywood,” which is the only romance comic he ever drew, is also stunning and my personal favorite. Jacque also interviewed Steranko about his one and only romance comic.)
In my research, it seems many of the romance comics have a pretty conservative message regarding gender. Is this the case for most of the romance comics? Is there more to it than that?
On the surface, yes, it looks like romance comics have a conservative outlook on gender roles. Romance comics, like most popular culture through the ages, reflect and mirror society around them. It should also be remembered when reading the romance comics that these were comic books that were in the majority, created, scripted, and illustrated by men.
When you look at the stories individually, you start seeing anomalies to the rigid depiction of gender roles that is usually associated with the romance genre. There are many romance stories that buck the norm when it comes to the portrayal of gender roles. As the Women’s Movement took hold in the American conscience, elements of it popped up in the romance comics. The romance comics are far more nuanced than many people give them credit for, and at Sequential Crush I try to show a variety of stories—stories that both conform to prescribed gender roles of the time, and ones that flip those expectations on their head.
How did the romance comic genre change during the 60s and 70s? How did changing gender roles impact the genre?
The romance comics definitely mirrored society and other forms of popular culture. The Women’s Movement (or Women’s Lib as the romance comics refer to it as) was written into quite a few romance stories beginning in the early 70s, with varying levels of effectiveness. Stories from Marvel and DC tended to be on the more “progressive” side, while Charlton often upheld stereotypes of the movement.
Changing gender roles were depicted more subtly when it came to the occupations of characters. Though secretaries and flight attendants (stewardesses as they were called in the romance comics) were common even in the later issues, the romance characters of the 1970s began to have a variety of interesting careers from industrial designer to police woman. The 1970s also brought more racial diversity to the romance comics, and even, a few interracial romances.
Did women writing and/or drawing romance comics have an easier time in comics than women in other comic genres?
Romance comics were overwhelmingly created by men. The few women I’ve talked to about their time in the romance comics seemed to have had a very positive experience. Suzan Loeb for one, told me that she remembered the “laughter and camaraderie” of the Marvel Bullpen. For more information on the remarkable women of the romance comics, check out the interviews I did with them: Irene Vartanoff, Suzan Loeb and Elizabeth Berube.
When I think of romance comics today, the only thing that really comes to mind for me are the Archie comics, but I don’t even know if I would call them romance per say. Is there a contemporary romance genre in comics?
While there are definitely contemporary comic books with romantic elements and romantic fare from overseas, such as manga, American romance comics as they existed mid-century are no more. There have been a few revivals over the years, such as Marvel’s Romance Redux, but they tend to be reprint books that exploit the kitsch factor. I think it would be difficult to recreate the romance comics of days past, but I definitely think there is room for fresh interpretations of the genre.
If you don’t mind, I’ll take this moment to plug a new book from Oni Press, and do a little shameless self-promotion in the process! Jamie S. Rich and Megan Levens have crafted a beautifully illustrated, super sweet contemporary romance story with their new series, Ares & Aphrodite. The separate issues are available via ComiXology and the trade paperback version featuring an afterward by yours truly will be out in April!
What are some of your favorite romance comics?
I am undoubtedly a DC fan when it comes to the romance comics, if only because there are just so many more to love! I especially like the run of Young Love and Young Romance 100-Page Super Spectaculars. Though those issues contained a lot of reprint material, they also had a ton of new work from two of my favorite romance artists, Creig Flessel and Win Mortimer. The Marvel issues were great too, but contained a lot of reprints. The Charlton romances also stand out not only for the sheer weirdness of them, but also because of the huge variety of artists they employed. One Charlton title that I’m especially fond of is Career Girl Romances because of its strong theme of women in the workforce.
We’ve talked a lot about women in comics and obviously as our website—we are invested in that. As a historian, do you think it’s a problem to phrase these questions and concerns as an issue of women in comics? Is there a history there that’s just been ignored or erased?
I don’t know if the history of the romance comics has been ignored on purpose, but with the current resurgence of superheroes, the romance comics certainly aren’t on the forefront. It is my hope, and the primary goal of my work, that the genre is remembered and made accessible for current and future audiences.
If you aren’t following Jacque’s blog yet, then you should be. Even if romance comics aren’t your thing, Jacque’s work is an insight into comics in general and American culture.