Various writers and artists, Clizia Gissoni and Craig Yoe (designers and editors)
A digital review copy was provided by the publisher
Close your eyes and picture a classic romance comic. Perhaps you see a mod, stylish young woman, drawn by Jack Kirby or John Romita Sr. Golden-haired and dimple-chinned, she tearfully embraces the lantern-jawed man of her dreams. A thought bubble hangs over her head like a storm cloud, worrying about broken promises, a secret engagement, or parental disapproval, but we know that by the very last panel love will triumph. Kitschy? Absolutely. But there’s something heartwarming about classic romance comics, in their beautiful, idealistic young heroines and the innocence of their love affairs.
It’s a nice image, isn’t it? Now throw it in the trash, because Weird Love is not that kind of romance comic collection. The fourth volume of IDW’s Weird Love scrounges through hundreds of romance comics from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, digging up some of the raciest, strangest, just plain unhinged love stories ever stapled together and stuffed into a newsstand. Some stories, originally published in books with names like My Past Thrilling Confessions and Youthful Romances, are unusual for their subject matter: a housewife mistreats her elderly in-laws; a member of the ASPCA falls for a bullfighter. Another story is strange because of who tells it: the narrator of “I, The House” is indeed a run-down, sentient house that hopes a nice young couple will move in and make it a home again. (It’s even better if you think of it as the prequel to The Haunting of Hill House.) The comics in Weird Love aren’t meant to warm your heart, but to inspire a different kind of visceral reaction.
With their focus on marriage, school, and family life, romance comics are a fascinating (if occasionally grimy) window into the social mores of the twentieth century, and Weird Love makes us cringe over what’s changed—and what hasn’t. Good girls are rewarded and bad girls are punished; if you play the vamp or nag your boyfriend, you better mend your ways or find yourself alone on the curb. The pre-Comics Code story “The Girl Next Door” provocatively flashes a bare breast as its heroine pulls on a sheer nightie, her thoughts fixated on the married man she plots to seduce. Though she eventually repents, it’s only after a bizarre plot twist that includes a deathbed confession: “I killed my husband.”
If there’s an unspoken theme in this volume of Weird Love, it’s conformity. The self-described “stout girl” in one story is humiliated and pressured into losing weight; sounding like every condescending “Well, if you just tried hard enough…” comment directed at fat women, the comic argues that she can’t find love until she meets a narrow, patriarchal standard of beauty. In one panel, her love interest says, “See this cake…you need to pass it up,” even though the art doesn’t depict any cake. The gaslighting bastard!
In other stories, mustachioed Arab and Mexican men are exoticized and then vilified, so that white women will learn they belong with the “All-American” boy next door. This ugly subtext becomes text in “The Prayer,” wherein a housewife from Central Europe nearly loses her husband over her spicy, “foreign” cooking. “If you’re going to live in America, why don’t you live like Americans?” he sneers. It’s depressing to think that this message of conformity—don’t be too fat, too foreign, too forward—was hoisted on a readership of young girls. (It should be noted that most of the writers went uncredited, but I’m probably not wrong in assuming most of them were men.)
Weird Love also includes some diamonds among the coal. The titular story “Jailbird’s Romance” is like a complete noir film told in twelve pages. Drawn by Ogden Whitney, “Jailbird’s Romance” is the best looking comic in the book, populating photo-realistic rooftops and gin joints with tough-talking hoods and beautiful women. With her waves of blonde hair, gangster’s moll Angela Morelli looks like the best character Barbara Stanwyck never played. When a creep tries to get fresh with Angela, she pistol-whips him, snarling, “Stick to bein’ a chauffer, rat–and don’t try to crash my league!” The story is surprisingly violent, pushing the limits of the genre; after Angela witnesses her boyfriend’s death and is thrown in jail, we’re treated to the darkest caption I’ve ever seen in a romance comic: “She’s back in her cell, vomitin’ at the memory of blood and oozin’ brains.” The rest of the story seems to follow a predictable formula, with ex-con Angela falling in love with an intended mark and unable to go through with her plans. Remarkably, “Jailbird’s Romance” doesn’t stop at what we think is the happy ending; the ironic twist on its final page is startling and audacious.
Gussoni and Yoe’s Weird Love has been my favorite series of comic reprints since their first volume. Describing some of these comics, I can only think of John Waters defining “camp” on The Simpsons: “The tragically ludicrous, the ludicrously tragic.” (Praise be to teen heroines and their overheated thought bubbles: “Who cares what she thinks…Roy’s got to know that I’m not the jealous fool I was before!”) Others inspire a more serious reaction. As a longtime fan of classic romance comics, it’s fascinating to read stories purportedly promoting an idealized vision of society–love, marriage, the house with the white picket fence–that unintentionally expose an underbelly of conformity and prejudice. While utterly, utterly gonzo, Weird Love proves to be an important cultural document–gangster molls, teen brides, talking houses, and all.