Let's Talk Comics

 
 
Let's Talk Comics
With Rob Lamberti
Now boys, don't fret. It's okay to collect romance comics.
 
In the post-war period and into the 1950s, they literally sold millions of copies per issue. The genre, first drawn by artistic team of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, also showcased many other significant artists, including 1960s and ‘70s genius Jim Steranko.
 
But also just as important, they are maintaining their value - and collectability - in the comics market. Granted, nothing in the romance section brings in the dollars today like an Amazing Fantasy 15, the first Spider-Man, but I challenge anyone to find a Night Nurse 4 in high grade with a low price tag.
 
There are a few problems about romance comics, though. They were so well read that finding a mint copy, especially from the ‘40s or ‘50s, could be an onerous task. And because there were so many titles, be wary of the poorly drawn art and poorly told stories.
 
Having the Overstreet Price Guide with you while scouring romance books is a good way of separating the hot from the homely.
 
In the 1940s, the comics market weakened as the boys returned home from fighting in Europe and Asia. Super-heroes were taking a beating after the war. How could super powered He-Men possibly settle for bank robbers and mad scientists after defeating the Axis Powers? Besides, people were a little more sophisticated and demanded storytelling in their comics.
 
In the late 1940s and 1950s, comic artists sought other subjects - such as westerns, crime and sci-fi/horror - to put into the four-colour funny papers. And if comics are the food of love, scribble on, dear Jack and Joe.
 
The comics industry seemed to launch a thousand titles and the story lines played to the morals of the day. Most of the time. Stories dealt with heartbreak, conniving men or women trying to steal hearts and, of course, good girls gone bad and of good girls struggling to remain wholesome.
 
It was the powerhouse duo of Kirby and Simon - creators of Captain America - that created the romance comic genre shortly after the Second World War. They were working for McFadden Publications when they made what is believed to be the first “romance” comic, My Date, says comics writer Mark Evanier in his book, Kirby, King of Comics.
 
There were four editions of My Date under the Hillman Publications stamp. They were drawn in a humourous vein, but once it hit the stands, the concept of romance comics shook an industry that was on shaky ground and looking for new ideas.
 
Within months, S&K, as Simon and Kirby are affectionately known in the comics biz, sold Young Romance to Crestwood Publications’ Prize Comics. It was the first real serious romance comic, a title that was also ground breaking because the creative team kept 50 per cent of earnings.
 
To emphasize the sophistication in story content, the subhead on the Young Romance cover read, “Designed for the more ADULT Readers of Comics.”
 
The first edition of Young Romance sold more the 90% of its print run and soon reached a circulation of one million copies. Let's be clear: That’s one million copies per month. If success means anything, it means spin-offs and soon Prize and S&K issued Young Love and the two titles hit two million in circulation.
 
Of course, other comics’ houses responded. Marvel came up with My Romance, while Fox Features responded with My Life. The best title had to be E.C.’s A Moon, a Girl … a Romance, which was spun out of Moon Girl Fights Crime, and prior to that, simply Moon Girl.
 
By 1950, the newsstand was crowded with about 150 romance comic titles. The romance genre outsold superheroes and the confession magazines. The genre was also mixed with others, in particular, westerns. E.C. published Saddle Romances, Superior had G.I. War Brides and D.C. published Sinister House of Secret Love.
 
While S&K books are prizes among collectors, the most sought-after artist of the genre is Matt Baker. His graceful lines put the ooh in ooh la la.
 
But alas, all good things …
 
The formula story - mostly written by men - was based on the American ideal of a middle-class woman whose life was incomplete without a man, that is, a husband. She almost always got her man by the last panel.
 
With the ‘60s, women’s perspectives changed and so did the concepts of romance, family, and sex. Circulation fell and romance comics more or less faded from the market by the mid-1970s.
 
Women turned away from the genre and the few remaining comic companies refocused their attention to super-heroes, sci-fi, swords and sorcery and horror.
 
Even Night Nurse’ Linda Carter was brought back as a supporting character in a super-hero comic.
 
Sigh.
 
Next column: Regrets about comics not purchased.
 
Let's Talk Comics with Rob Lamberti, who started collecting comics when the going price was 12 cents an issue and Peter Parker really was a teenager. He dabbled in the comic convention circuit in the Toronto area for a while, but stopped to concentrate on his career as a not-so-mild- mannered crime reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, where he hoped he managed to record a little bit of history the past three decades.
 
You can reach Rob at lamberti@cogeco.ca
 
 
 
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