Roundtable Review: Fresh Romance, Vol. 1

Fresh Romance Vol. 1, cover by Marguerite Suavage, Oni Press, 2016Fresh Romance, Vol. 1

Rosy Press via Oni Press

Did you read Fresh Romance when it came out digital or is this your first time reading it?

Melissa Brinks: I backed the Kickstarter and read the first three issues or so as they came out, but I wasn’t able to keep up on buying subsequent issues. Since I prefer to have physical copies, I backed the print Kickstarter and waited for that to arrive instead, so I’d read a chunk of each story, but not the complete version.

Ginnis Tonik: I really, really don’t like reading digitally–comics or books. I decided to wait for physical copies, as well, so considering the struggles that Rosy Press faced, I was delighted when Oni and Rosy teamed up to create a hard copy volume.

Kayleigh: This was my first time reading it. Fantom Comics hosted a Fresh Romance book club in August, and while I read digital comics, I didn’t want to be the totally gauche person reading comics on my iPad in a comic book store!

Clara Mae: I read “Ruinedand “School Spirit” digitally about a month ago. I love digital comics because being able to screencap them makes it easier to boost them on social media, but I also love having a bookshelf of actual physical books.

Ray Sonne: I backed the original Kickstarter, so I got the first three issues or so as they came out digitally.

Fresh Romance, Beauties, by Marguerite Bennett, art by Trungles, Rosy Press, 2015Why did you decide to check out Fresh Romance?

Melissa: I’m a sucker for a good love story, but a lot of popular romance fiction doesn’t appeal to me, and I don’t know where else to look. Seeing a lot of creators whose work I enjoy attached to Fresh Romance, especially with it being talked about as an inclusive collection made me desperately want it, so I was happy to back the Kickstarter!

Ginnis: I am very particular about romance stories, and I enjoy the legacy of romance comics, so I was all about revitalizing romance comics, which have often been disparaged due to sexism, for a more current and diverse audience.

Kayleigh: I was intrigued by the mix of creative teams. I’ve loved Trungles’ art for a long time, and a Kieron Gillen/Christine Norrie collaboration sounded perfect. (And it was!) It was also a great opportunity to check out creators I hadn’t read before, like Sarah Vaughn. And, you know, what does it mean for romance to be “fresh?” Does that mean more queer representation? Modern takes on classic stories? It’s a concept with unlimited potential, so it would be nice to see it thrive.

Clara: I’m a sucker for romance. And I was particularly interested in Rosy Press, as I think it’s run by all women, and they seem more committed than most to hiring diverse creators to tell diverse stories. It’s really important to me to support any publishers who give marginalized creators a space to tell their own stories, especially if they’re happy and sappy ones.

Ray: It seems absurd that even though the 1940s the comics industry boomed with romance comics (a period sometimes known as the “Love Glut”), romance comics have not made their return after the end of the Comics Code Authority. For me, a new launch of romance comics is a very exciting move, because romance stories primarily appeal to women and nonbinary people. It’s a genre about as far from the boys’ club love of masculinity you can get. That and I really love Janelle Asselin and all the good work she does, so of course I was going to support her newest project!

Have you read romance comics before?

Melissa: I don’t think so! I’ve read comics with romance in them, but never anything centered on romance. It’s definitely a genre I wanted to get into, but like so many aspects of comics, I just didn’t know where to begin.

Ginnis: I read Archie growing up, which has a lot of romance in it and is similarly disparaged as not “real” comics, at least historically. When I got back into comics in my twenties, I found Jacque Nodell’s blog Sequential Crush, and loved how she explored romance comics from a perspective of love and care, but also as a scholar. So I hunted down published trades of old Marvel comics.

Kayleigh: Shojo manga made up roughly 80% of my high school reading material (Sorry, 11th grade English teacher I had a crush on!), and romance stories like Mars, Kare Kano, and Peach Girl kept me interested in comics at a time when Marvel and DC weren’t appealing to me. When people think “romance comics” they might think of that retro “beautiful crying girl” aesthetic that Roy Lichtenstein swiped, but romance comics proved to me that there was a seat at the table for women who want to read and make comics.

Clara: Echoing what Kayleigh said. I grew up heavily reading shojo, and was very much into stories where the girl pines for the guy or the couple has to overcome insurmountable odds to be together. My earliest comics I ever read were by CLAMP, Yuu Watase, and of course Sailor Moon. I love that manga has a niche clearly carved out for women readers, and that’s something I struggled to find in American comics growing up.

Ray: I have read (and am currently again reading because this roundtable gave me some thoughts) some Young Romance comics by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. They’re really cool from a historical perspective, but I also think that their content has a lot of elements that prove universal about what makes romance stories good across all media.

School Spirit by Kate Leth, art by Arielle Jovellanos, Rosy Press, 2015Did you have a favorite story in this volume?

Melissa: “The Ruby Equation,” for sure. I love the artwork and colors a lot; they’re bright and cheerful, and the designs are so unique for each character. You can really feel each character’s personality in their stances, facial expressions, and outfits, which says wonderful things about Sally Jane Thompson’s artwork. I’m a sucker for those “Love isn’t real!” characters who find themselves suddenly and irrevocably in love with somebody (Gosh, it’s almost like I’ve been that person at some point in my life!), so this was right up my alley. It was super fun and sweet and a perfect bite-sized look at this universe.

Ginnis: I think it’s a tie between “School Spirit” and “Ruined.” The sexual chemistry between Justine and Mali was electric! And I also enjoyed the magical element (total sucker for that), and the metaphor of magic versus non-magic people for discrimination. And again being a sucker, “Ruined” as a Regency Era romance, but not really a romance, has “me” written all over it. I liked the gender politics it was dealing with, the art was perfect for the era, and the non-romance was nicely against the grain. When it was over, I was dying–WHEN IS THE NEXT PART COMING OUT?!

Kayleigh: “Beauties” was, surprise, beautiful. Fresh retellings of fairy tales are very hard to do; worst case scenario, you end up with something ugly and snarky like Shrek. But “Beauties” is very elegant and touching. It’s amazing what a simple switch of the gender roles can do. “Beast” being a captive of “Beauty’s” wicked family (instead of Beauty forced to live under Beast’s power) changes the character dynamics in an interesting way. Trungles’ art is like the illustrated storybook of my childhood dreams; every strand of hair and sweep of fabric is perfect.

Clara: “Ruined.” I think the art is gorgeous and conveys so much tension and longing without needing much dialogue. I also love how much emphasis is put on Catherine’s consent and how respectful Andrew is of her. Honestly, if I was only allowed to read Regency romances until the end of my days, I would be happy.

Ray: “School Spirit,” I guess, because of Arielle Jovellanos and Amanda Scurti’s art. But honestly? None of the stories grabbed me all that much. “School Spirit” has a lot of writing flaws, I see why people like “Ruined,” but as a 19th-century literature buff, I would rather go back to the real thing, and I barely read “The Ruby Equation” because the protagonist and tone irritated me.   

What is something you would like to see in upcoming volumes?

Melissa: I really enjoy what’s there so far, so I’m looking forward to see what a fresh crop of creators will do. I’d love a little more diversity across the board in terms of the relationships represented, the story genres, and the races and gender identities of the main characters in the stories. I think volume one is a great start, and I’m excited to see how Fresh Romance continues to develop and expand.

Ginnis: Historical romance with queer plotlines and people of color! I love historical romance. Also, I loved the magic storylines in this volume, so yes, more magic please.

Kayleigh: More short stories like “Beauties” and “First, Last, and Always.” My biggest issue with the longer stories “School Spirit” and “The Ruby Equation” is that they felt more like pilots for OGNs rather than self-contained 60-page comics. They try to do too much and come out bloated and uneven. I’d also like more stories that aren’t sci-fi or fantasy–I was surprised that “Ruined” was the only story without magic or aliens! But the fun with an anthology series like Fresh Romance is that there’s no limit to what you can do.

Clara: More variety of body types and ages would be awesome. Honestly, anything that Fresh Romance does that fills in a hole left by a mainstream book, comic, or film that lacks proper representation will be fine by me. Give me queer wizards, mermaids of color, Black princes, and historical romances set outside of Europe. There’s so many stories Fresh Romance can explore, and I’m excited to see where it takes us.

Ray: One thing that Fresh Romance needs to learn from soap operas, fanfiction, and, yes, Simon & Kirby’s Young Romance, is that it can be trashier. I don’t necessarily feel that fearlessness from Fresh Romance in as much as I see very basic lovey-dovey storytelling. Frankly? I want more drama. I want more screaming, I want more crying, I want more fights and cut-to-the-core insults and fucking. There needs to be more rage and hatred. Love needs to be the conclusion and solution to those things, a catharsis that comes after characters have spent ages wanting each other so bad they want to claw out of their own skins. Romance stories should bludgeon me so hard with their feelings that I can’t feel mine anymore. That’s what I want to see from Fresh Romance in upcoming volumes.

Ginnis Tonik

Ginnis Tonik

Smashing the patriarchy with glitter, pink lipstick, and cowboy boots. You can follow her on Instagram @ginnistonik