Well, Valentine’s Day was this week, which means my thoughts turned to romance … romance comic books, that is. It reminded me of a dichotomy I noticed several years ago between the covers to romance novels and the covers to romance comics, a difference I’ve never seen anyone mention. And so I figure I should mention it to you here now so that you can go, “Oh, Scott, you dummy, where have you been, everyone already knows that!”
It started for me back in 2006, as Irene and I were approaching our 30th anniversary. I decided that, because of Irene’s love of both romance novels and comic books, I’d buy her the original art to a romance comic book cover for an anniversary gift. What I soon discovered, as I studied all the art then for sale from dealers, was that romance comic book cover art was terribly sad, and not at all suitable to celebrate three decades of love!
Somehow, even though our house has always been filled with both romance novels and comics, I’d never noticed this.
They depict (or seem to anyway, since we have no idea what the characters are really thinking) people in love. And more than just in love, happy in that love. What you’re seeing is the aspirational goal of a romance—its, yes, “happily ever after” loving conclusion.
Romance comic book covers, on the other hand, don’t do that, and never have, not since the beginning, when Joe Simon and Jack Kirby invented the romance comic.
Take a look at the first cover to the first issue of the first romance comic book ever—Young Romance #1 from 1947. As you can see, the cover illustrates a soap opera problem, as opposed to a romance story conclusion.
I should have known this. My seemingly impossible search for a comic book cover that delivered the bliss of a romance novel cover shouldn’t have been surprising. Because the romance comics published during my teens, back when I read any comic I could get my hands on, continued that trend.
Oh, I’m sure there must be a few exceptions out there, but as far as I can see, there is no happiness to comic book romance covers, only fear, remorse, anxiety, regret, guilt, and a host of other prickly emotions, none of which would sum up thirty years of a loving marriage, and none suitable for an anniversary gift.
And the strangest thing is … I had, and still have, no idea why.
I was about to give up on my quest for a cover I felt would embody my love for Irene, when one dealer asked whether I’d instead consider the original to an interior page. I rather unenthusiastically agreed to take a look, and was stunned when it turned out to be the perfect gift. It was the final page to a four-page story from Love Tales #73.
In its six panels, it depicts what is the perfect fantasy conclusion to a genre romance (and yes, I know, that though that’s so for many, it’s not so for all; don’t worry, I’m not at all judging your particular fantasy)—a marriage, a return to a shared home, a new job, a bright future, and a promise that “it’s going to be all good from now on, darling!”
An added bonus was that the page had been drawn by John Tartaglione, someone Irene and I had worked with and, more importantly, both liked.
So the problem of a 30th anniversary gift had been solved, and the page now hangs on the wall of Irene’s office. But that didn’t solve the issue that’s been puzzling me since I began my quest.
Why is it that comic book romance covers (and I’m about to use the past tense here, because as far as I know they don’t exist any longer) pulled readers in by visualizing the messy process, while only the covers to romance novels were allowed to be aspirational, promising that what you see can (at least for a short time in fantasy) be yours? What’s the reason for such a schism?
I feel as if there’s a doctoral thesis demanding to be written comparing the two. (For all I know, one’s already been written.)
So—now it’s your turn. Anybody out there want to take a stab at explaining this to me? Has the reason for this competing style already been analyzed to death, and I’ve somehow managed to miss it all? Or is everybody else as puzzled as I am?