When I was a teenager and first reading poetry, I inherited (basically stole) my mum’s copy of The Penguin Book of Love Poetry. It’s from the 1970s, has her name written in the front in blue pen, and the cover focuses on a detail from Bronzino’s Allegory with Venus and Cupid. Here’s a photo of a more recent edition—slightly closer crop, but same emphasis. I’ve never thought much about this cover until now, but it’s fitting. (The tweak of the nipple, the woman in front selling the book to us.) Even my lack of thought about it until now is fitting. This is not a book for me; it’s just been sold to—well, not me. But to women. By men. Ask anyone: who’s love poetry being sold to? Just don’t ask them who that sale benefits. It’s not the female reader.
I always think of the lines in Archibald MacLeish’s poem, “Not Marble Nor the Gilded Monuments”—“What is a dead girl but a shadowy ghost / Or a dead man’s voice but a distant and vain affirmation.” In writing a poem that’s meant to show the vanity and folly in men’s poetry about women, claiming to give them immortality, he shows the limits of his imagination. He tells other men off for using women in their writing while he enacts the same erasure. In fact, much of the poem consists of a dressing-down of the figure of the woman he’s speaking to. But she never gets a voice. He doesn’t even seem to realise what he’s saying about her. The poem is full of hatred, and it doesn’t even realise.
I like romance novels. I read a lot of (romantic) fanfiction. And I enjoy watching films from the 30s and 40s, even those with primarily romantic plots. So I like romance, but also I’m used to reading things that are against me and finding a spark of interest there that maybe goes against the message. But the thing is, in these films, there’s always an actual woman there. Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Jean Harlow, or whoever. They’re so present, and so human, and even under the Hayes Code they do their best to be people. Interesting. Not just a lifeless part of a moral tale. Jean Harlow looks at Clark Gable and you don’t doubt that she wants him, even though acting on the attraction is not the “correct” course of action.
I also like to read comics on Comic Book Plus. It’s a website with scans of public domain golden-age and silver-age comics, and some other oddities. There are lots of romance comics there, and new ones are being scanned and uploaded all the time.
Romance comics are often entirely—or almost entirely—without creator credits. Sometimes people on Comic Book Plus have lists of the artists who worked on individual stories. I have never seen a woman named among them. The writers are never credited, either. But I have to say, that with the tiniest handful of exceptions, I find it hard to imagine women writing these stories. Which isn’t to say that I don’t think any women were involved; women have been making comics for all of the years that men have. But women don’t get the credit or creative control. And the thing about romance comics is that they’re emphatically not for women. They’re just sold to us.
Here’s the formula for a story in a romance comic: a girl (the comics tend to focus on young women between the ages of about sixteen and twenty-four or so, but they’re all written the same—as girls who haven’t yet learned how to be women) meets a boy. He’s either charming and decent or a dissolute rake. If he’s the latter, she’s already got a charming and decent guy hanging around, waiting for her to marry him. She dates the guy, and they get engaged. If he’s good, then at some point she takes part in some risky behaviour that makes him doubt whether or not she is a good prospect for marriage (i.e., she refuses to quit her job once they’re married; she’s too close to her mother; she wants them to save for a nice house that they can’t easily afford; she wants to party too much; she likes dancing with other men; she won’t put up with living with his big family; or she’s lied about some aspect of her past). If he’s bad, then she realises at some point that he’s not right for her. He’s not responsible, not decent. She chose him over the other poor sap because she had a crush on him. Or because he promised her a life that she couldn’t otherwise have. He’s an artist. Or he’s cute. Dangerous. He wants things, and this lets her want things too. The decent guy stands in the corner, just waiting until he gets a chance to scold her.
They always scold her. I’ve read a comic where a husband takes his wife over his knee and spanks her. The comic says that this is just and right and does not position it as kink. Just look at this panel! It’s from Teen Age Love #49, and they’re meant to be at school together, but he looks like a teacher or an authority figure. There’s no sense that they’re both kids, learning about themselves and each other and mutually fucking up and working it out on the way. She fucks up because she doesn’t stick to the path, a path that only he can see, that only he has mapped out. She fucks up because she thinks, briefly, that there might be more for her than just … marrying this guy with an Action Man haircut and never leaving the town she grew up in. She has dreams, and her own desires, but not for too long.
Eventually, she comes to her senses, and she either gives up the risky behaviour that was putting her engagement in jeopardy—she stops spending so much time with her mother, learns to cook, doesn’t go to parties, and stops dancing—or she leaves the dissolute bad-boy behind and goes back to her constant, boring, steady, good guy, who scolds her just enough and then bestows the gift of forgiveness by kissing her. He has to forgive her, you see. She ran off with the wrong boy! And now she doesn’t deserve the right boy, but he’ll forgive her and then marry her anyway. The moral of this story is—it always is—that the girl needs to learn that she must give up her own desires, her own self, in service of her marriage. She will be subsumed by it. By marriage, this societally-sanctioned desire, that is meant to replace all the rest. Her ultimate goal is supposed to be to vanish. To become just—service for her husband, who is allowed to remain a person. So this is what I mean when I say these comics are not for women; they’re just sold to us. They’re for men—in that they are agents of men and of men’s authority.
And yet! And yet. Women read these comics. They were a popular genre for decades. Which is interesting when you read a lot of them and realise how relentless the hatred and the moralising is. They’re social control masquerading as something more. Golden-age and silver-age romance comics were mostly anthologies, and they’d usually have three or so of these longer stories along with some odds-and-ends—one-page stories, short stories in prose, advice columns, and lots and lots of adverts. The adverts are for clothes, toys, collections of books, weight-loss, weight-gain, spot removal, Beatles memorabilia (when you get into the 60s), records, Christmas card selling schemes, and so on. The ads are among the most interesting parts of reading these comics now, because they’re excised from reprints and restorations of other comics. The early comics that people care about—Golden Age Marvel comics or Batman or whatever—are taken out of this context, because they matter. By which I mean, because they’ve been subsumed into the dominant narrative. Comics are for boys. Comics are boys’ things. They’re separated from the ads, the signs of who they were being sold to. Because that’s how you can tell. The adverts. Men’s comics are just neutral now. Haven’t you heard?
But the joke’s on the men: We can look back and see what we were being sold. Because, again, the adverts are what women were being sold. Diet pills. Or pills to make women less skinny. To make over their bodies in service of men (because that’s always how it’s framed). It’s interesting to look at the ads, and it’s interesting because they’re are explicitly aimed at women, but—it’s all still hostile. But then, the comics are hostile from the very beginning. Just take the covers. At best the women look bored, and at worst … They’re abject in front of men. Pathetic and sad, and sexualised for it. It sets them up for saviours. Poor girls, unable to take care of themselves. If only nice men, men who are sanctioned agents of authority, could come and save them.
So reading old romance comics can feel like excavation when it doesn’t just feel like willfully causing myself harm. Excavation of a women’s world. Even though it was largely built by men. Did you know that Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created romance comics? Well, that’s how the story goes. I wouldn’t be surprised if women had been doing it first, though. We got to love poetry first, after all. Sorry, boys.
You have to take pleasure where you can, and there is still a lot of pleasure to be found in these comics. In the art! In the clothes! The clothes, and the hair, and the furniture. Style. And also in the way the characters talk. And the cute boys and girls, dancing around, and kissing. The attempts to tackle contemporary—now historical—problems. One of the interesting things is that these romance comics have to show that women have desires, that they do want to do things. They don’t start with their spirits crushed—they just end up that way. If you cut off the ending, you can just focus on that feeling.
Of course, the men don’t want us to cut off the ending. The ending is the whole point. They want us to enjoy the clothes, the focus on feelings, on girls, and then show us exactly where we strayed, exactly where we went wrong. They want to dupe us, make us feel cared for, like we’re reading something made for us. But it’s not, it never is.
There are ways in which being able to read like this is still a privilege—these comics are almost always about straight white cis women. There are rarely mentions of women of colour that can even be excavated from these comics. They have been written out of the stories altogether. While there are no queer women in the comics, in order to find them, we have to look more widely at—desire. How it’s figured and where. How it’s figured as wrong. There we can find their ghost, traces of them.
It’s an imperfect act. It’s still a way of reading that hurts us, that hurts women, that hurts many different types of women. It’s not a shield. It’s just another model for engaging with something painful, but it’s one I need to make it through the history that surrounds me.
So, these women are created to take part in, well, an act of social control, basically. Men prop them up to fail. Straw-women. Cautionary tales in pretty dresses. I start reading a comic, and pluck out a panel of a girl saying I HATE MEN! Or… I WANT TO BE A STAR. I WANT TO LEAVE THIS TOWN BEHIND ME. And I want to hold her hand. I want to scribble a love heart around her. I want to say yes. The comic ends with her learning that she’s wrong. Or the best we can hope for is that she’s wrong just to a point. That she still has something of herself left.
The men are such bores and scolds, invariably. They’re never any fun. The girls? The girls with all of these wrong feelings and bad crushes? They’re fun, and wild, and they want things for themselves, and so for that they win. But you have to read against the comics. You always have to read against them. They’re not for us, and they never were. I sent a panel from the comic about how new wives need to learn to spend less time with their mothers to my mum and we laughed at it. And we’ve both spent time poring over her anthology of love poetry. We don’t bother with the MacLeish poem. There’s always something to grab onto elsewhere. There’s the Thomas Wyatt poem that uses a deer that can’t be hunted as a metaphor for a woman—specifically for Anne Boleyn—because she belongs to the king. Gross, right! But I have found something in it to love.
Noli me tangere, for Cesars I ame;
And wylde for to hold, though I seme tame.
What’s there to love? It’s the crux of the poem. The full odiousness of what it’s saying comes to light. But it sounds beautiful, and although the words are written around her neck, they give her a voice. They are in the first-person. What she says is: Do not touch me. Or: Do not tread on me. The king is not there with her. She runs wild. I read this poem and although it’s written by a man (and although it’s kind of a translation of Petrach, another man!), and although the deer would not have written these letters around her own neck, although it turns a woman into an animal—although there’s so much there, mediating the woman at the centre, trying to silence her—I can feel her voice. I can feel a heart beating. Wylde for to hold. What does this say? She can’t be kept.
This is what I mean by excavation: pulling out what we can. When we read the comics, then we do it, even if what we can salvage is just the clothes, the hair, the panels of girls swooning over The Beatles, or a motorbike. Even if what we’re left with is just kitsch, without the comics’ heart. The heart is rotten, and I don’t want anything to do with it. I don’t love these men, and they don’t love me. But I love all of the girls all the more fiercely for being told that they’re wrong.