The first original Romance comic was created by two of the most unlikely creators: Jack Kirby, and Joe Simon. Best known today for their incredible contribution to superhero comics, Kirby and Simon also created the first full Romance Comic to hit the newsstands, and by doing so effectively created a new genre of comic book: the Romance Comics. In 1947 the pair released Young Romance, published by the Crestwood Publications imprint Prize Comics, it ran for 124 issues under Crestwood. When Crestwood ceased operation, DC would continue to publish Young Romance from issues #125 to #208 before DC stopped publishing the comic in the 70’s, bringing an end to the the genre’s Golden Age from which it has never recovered.
So what happened to the Romance Comics?
Romance comics came into prominence after the Second World War when adult readership of comics increased, and although it’s almost unthinkable now, the popularity of the superhero was dwindling. Romance comics attempted to offer something that the teen humour comics did not; more realistic stories generally told in the first person featuring a frequently changing cast with the heroines often being in their late teens or early twenties. When Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created Young Romance it was an immediate hit. The new genre had arrived, and romance comics became incredibly popular.
But why create a romance comics? Joe Simon: “I noticed there were so many adults, the officers and men, the people in the town, reading kid comic books. I felt sure there should be an adult comic book.” He would choose the love genre for an adult comic book because “it was about the only thing that hadn’t been done.” Coming up with the name Young Romance, the “Adult Comic Book,” he teamed up with Jack Kirby to develop the first issue of the comic. As with any new trend in the comics industry at the time, within 18 months other publishers would flood the market and soon there was an abundance of titles. Despite the amount of romance comics available, though, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby still dominated the market and at the peak their books were selling millions of copies every month.
For a genre that had a lot of firsts (Young Romance marked the first time that the comic’s creators received a share of the comics’ earnings), and was aimed toward older readers, romance comics escaped a lot of the backlash that crime and horror comics received during the fallout from Fredric Werthams book Seduction Of the Innocent. But, once the Comics Code Authority arrived courtesy of the Senate hearings resulting in part from Wertham’s book in 1954, the industry began to self censor a lot of the more controversial and risky content, opting to instead play it safe. Gone were the more confessional tales of illicit affairs and love affairs consisting of a choice between two men, replaced instead with more traditional tales of marriage, patriarchal ideas of gender roles and the behaviour of women. Needless to say the genre took a bit of a dip in quality after the self censorship began, and although it plodded along for nearly twenty years (which, really, is a rather long time to simply plod along), once the sexual revolution of the 1970’s began questioning the depictions of women within the typical romance comic, well, the end was nigh for the genre began by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby thirty years before.
Unlike horror comics, however, romance comics never really made a come back. There have been a few manga inspired adaptations of Harlequin novels, and one long running series called Strangers In Paradise that won an Eisner award in 1996, and as one reviewer for Cold Cut Distributions said it tried “to single-handedly update an entire genre with a new, skewed look at relationships and friendships.” Strangers In Paradise stopped publication in 2007.
You can still find some of the romance comics from the years before the Comics Code censorship in your Local Comic Shop (if they have a large enough back issue selection), or in mere handful of reprinted volumes; 2011 saw Harper Design publish an anthology edited by Micheal Barson entitled Agonizing Love: The Golden Era of Romance Comics. In 2012, many of Simon and Kirby’s romance comics were reprinted by Fantagraphics in a collection entitled Young Romance: The Best of Simon & Kirby’s 1940s-’50s Romance Comics, edited by Michel Gagné.
IDW are currently publishing Weird Love which reprints some of the best (and weirdest) stories from the golden age of Romance Comics, with the next issue due to hit in November.
Romance Comics may be nowhere near as popular as they once were, in fact with so few having been published in the last decade they’re effectively dead, but for a time they were key to encouraging adults to continue reading comics. As a genre they’re all but forgotten now, lost beneath brightly coloured spandex, but without them there’s no telling what the comics industry would be like today.
Just because we’ve fallen out of love with romance comics, that doesn’t mean we should forget they existed.
Joe Simon quotes from Great American Comic Books