A Romantic Anthology Of Comically 'Agonizing Love'

Originally published on May 23, 2012 11:54 am

Romance comics — those sappy, dramatic serials from the 1940s and '50s — were designed for girls who grew up craving honeymoons and marital bliss in the years following World War II. Michael Barson, a middle-aged pop culture writer from New Jersey, certainly wasn't the target audience for romance comic books, but in the early 1980s he found himself amassing a sizable collection of them.

"I had already worked my way thorough big collections of superhero things and war comics and other manly pursuits. But then I was in a store in New York ... and they had just gotten in a big collection of early romance comics from the late '40s and early '50s," he says. "I'd never really seen a big box of them before. I started looking through them, and I guess you could say I fell in love."

Barson collects some of his favorite melodramatic, tear-stained minidramas in the anthology Agonizing Love: The Golden Era of Romance Comics. His favorites have titles like Was I a Wicked Wife? and Kisses Came Second — but all of them, he says, play out like portable little soap operas.

"Each one had a particular problem — maybe it was a jealously problem, maybe it was a faithfulness problem, maybe it was an insecurity one — but it would be covered in seven to eight pages, and then some sort of ending would be resolved and those characters would be done," he says. "And you go on to the next story and the next problem."

Most of the romance comics from the late '40s and early '50s were written for women, about women — by men. Comic creators Jack Kirby and Joe Simon were most famous for creating Captain America. (Kirby also went on to create the Incredible Hulk and the Fantastic Four.)

"Joe Simon and Jack Kirby were very canny," Barson says. "The superhero craze of the '40s had started to die down by the time the war ended. So in 1947, they took a crack at the soaps that were all over the radio, and it was a bonanza."

Romance comics sold more than 1 million issues every month throughout the early 1950s. By the early 1960s, their numbers had dropped off considerably. A decade later, they had almost completely disappeared, Barson says.

"That's the mystery to me," he says. "In 1955, there were a kajillion of these. But there were also movies and TV and magazines like Seventeen Magazine. And all of these things ... still flourished in the 1970s, but romance comics became extinct like a dinosaur. ... I don't know why."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

What's the opposite of superhero comics? Maybe it's romance comics, illustrated dramas of young love, jealousy, betrayal and heartbreak that also featured advice about things like how to kiss. The titles give a good sense of what romance comics were like. "My Confession," "My Desire," "My Secret Love," "My Secret Marriage," "My Intimate Affair," "High School Romance," "First Romance," "Love and Marriage," "Love at First Sight," "Love Confessions."

My guest Michael Barson is the author of the new book "Agonizing Love: The Golden Era of Romance Comics." It features covers and excerpts from romance comics of the 1940s and '50s.

I asked him to read an excerpt from one of the romance comics, but I realized to really bring it to life I had to add my own dramatic skills and do the female part.

Okay, this one is from "Young Romance." And it's from - what's the date of this one?

Mr. MICHAEL BARSON (Author, "Agonizing Love: The Golden Era of Romance Comics"): This is from 1948, "Young Romance" number eight. A couple was dancing at a party with other couples sitting around. A little old-fashioned record player is spinning. And they each are thinking their private thoughts. So these are thought balloons. And the man's thought is: I wonder what makes Sue so different from the rest of the crowd. Why does everyone call her wallflower?

GROSS: And she's thinking: I'm not the most popular girl in town, yet Tommy keeps dating me. Is it because of love or pity?

Is that a theme for them?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Love or pity?

Mr. BARSON: Well, they, love and pity get mushed together a lot in these, Terry.

GROSS: So Michael Barson, why did you start collecting romance comics?

Mr. BARSON: Well, I guess I'm a little atypical in that, you know, these were not really made for 59-year-old men. But, I got interested in them in the early 1980s. I had been a comic collector for at least 15 years already and already had worked my way through big collections of superhero things and war comics and other manly pursuits.

But then I was at a store in New York called Forbidden Planet and they had just gotten in a big collection of early romance comics from the late '40s and early '50s. I'd never really seen a big bunch of them before, never paid attention. I started looking through them, and I guess you could say I fell in love.

GROSS: With what?

Mr. BARSON: Well, the stories are little portable soap operas each one, seven pages, eight pages, and they put together an issue or two and they don't exactly resolve it but they let it play out as if you're watching a little, I don't know what it would be, a 10 minute TV show or something of that nature. And they're goofy, but there's something, to me at least, irresistible about them. And, of course, they're from a period long ago, but some of the issues and some of themes really still resound today.

GROSS: Jealousy is timeless.

Mr. BARSON: Jealousy's timeless. Misery is timeless.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARSON: I guess pity is timeless.

GROSS: So would you describe what the basic packet was of a like your typical romance comic?

Mr. BARSON: Sure. The romance issue in general would have four or five stories, each one a self-contained mini-drama that had a particular problem. Maybe it was a jealousy problem, maybe it was a faithfulness problem, maybe it was an insecurity one. But it would be covered in seven or eight pages and then some sort of ending would be resolved and those characters would be done. You would not meet them again. These were not continuing characters and you go on to the next story, the next problem.

And the filler material would be little quizzes and little vignettes that were semi-advice columns or semi-educational that actually were among the best things in those books. So that in the end you got quite a bit for your 10 cents out of these early romance comics.

GROSS: These romance comics were written for women. They were told or girls. They were told by from the point of view of young women, but they were created by two men - two men in fact who are most famous for creating "Captain America" - this is Jack Kirby and Joe Simon. And didn't Kirby go on to create "X-Men" and "Fantastic Four" and "Hulk" with Stanley?

Mr. BARSON: Yes. Years later in the early '60s, he launched the whole superhero revival with "Fantastic Four" and even helped draft the first "Spider-Man" and then "The X-Men," "Avengers," and "Iron Man," so on and on - all of whom are to this day extremely popular and have begat movies every year or two. So...

GROSS: So if you think of superheroes and romance comics as opposite ends of the comic book field, how did these two guys, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, end up creating romance comics?

Mr. BARSON: Well, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby were very canny. They were working out of whatever the popular genres were of the day. One of those was Westerns and they tried their hand at those, but it didn't really catch on much as a comic book. "Boys' Ranch" was one of those, and the superhero craze of the early '40s had started to die down by the time the war ended.

So in 1947, they took a crack at the popular soap operas that were then all over the radio, and converted it into a comic book format with "Young Romance" and it was a bonanza. It immediately found an audience and quickly grew to a million issues a month.

GROSS: My guest is Michael Barson. His new book, "Agonizing Love: The Golden Era of Romance Comics," has just been published. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Michael Barson. His new book, "Agonizing Love: The Golden Era of Romance Comics," includes excerpts from the golden age of romance comics, the late '40s and the 1950s.

Now one of the regular features of a lot of romance comics was advice columns. And you reprint an advice column that I think is just really interesting and so in a way revealing of its time.

And I'd like you to read this is actually not exactly an advice column, it's a quiz to see "Are You Ready for Marriage? A Game of Make-Believe." But the answers basically give you the advice of how you should behave, because it gives you like three possible answers you should have to each of these questions that are set up and then it tells you which the right answer is. So it really is an advice column, even though it's a Q and A quiz. So would you read a few frames of this and I'll try to get the right answer.

Mr. BARSON: Okay. This is from "Boy Meets Girl" in 1950 and it's called "Are You Ready for Marriage? A Game of Make Believe." And it gives you these illustrated scenarios, as you just described. The first one: when your husband tells you his favorite oft-repeated joke to your guests do you, A, remark in a stage whisper, there he goes again and he thinks it's funny?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARSON: B, leave the laughter after the story has been told? C, interrupt to correct him whenever he isn't telling the story the best way?

GROSS: That's my favorite, the interrupt him and correct him part.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But I know that the answer is B...

Mr. BARSON: Well...

GROSS: Leave the laughter after the story has been told.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARSON: In this scenario the answer is B. I'm not sure my wife would agree with that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARSON: But nonetheless, it is B. You are right again, Terry.

GROSS: Always. Do another one.

Mr. BARSON: Okay. This is a cooking scenario. The husband is looking at a plate being brought to him and says to the wife, what on Earth is that? And she says, I started making fricassee but I wasn't quite sure how to do it so I fried the chicken. I think that's very resourceful of her, but...

GROSS: But we have to describe. On this plate it's like a piece of blackened...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...steaming, dead-looking chicken. I mean...

Mr. BARSON: Yeah, it's chicken au poivre, I guess. But this is now after you've slaved for three hours preparing dinner, your husband says, but this isn't the way my mother fixed chicken.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARSON: How many times have we heard that? Do you say A, why don't you go back and eat hers then? I think that's the correct one. B, I spent three hours in that hot kitchen fixing this dinner, sob, and you don't even appreciate it. Or C, she's a wonderful cook, dear. The next time I write, I'll ask how she fixes chicken.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARSON: Right before I shove it down your throat is what she's thinking. And, of course, the correct answer for that is the last one because back in this period, 1950, we don't allow our emotions to run away with us.

GROSS: Okay. Let's do one more.

Mr. BARSON: Okay. So one more of these in the same "Are You Ready for Marriage" quiz: The job your husband has is Greek to you. But when he starts to talk about what happened during the day, A, you listen sympathetically and ask a few intelligent questions. B, you go to the kitchen calling over your shoulder, so you closed that big deal. That doesn't get dinner on the table.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARSON: C, you play it dumb by asking constantly, what do you mean? What's a contract?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So the...

Mr. BARSON: And these are...

GROSS: The advice we've gotten here is that in order to be ready for marriage you have to lead the laughter of your husband's jokes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: If you burn dinner you have to be really super nice about it and say, I'll get your mother's recipe, dear. And C, if you don't understand anything about your husband's work you have to pretend like you know what he's talking about and ask quote "intelligent questions" because obviously you're a wife, so you're stupid to too stupid to understand what his work is about.

Mr. BARSON: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARSON: These are all Stepford wife answers that you would only get away with being, you know, the polite subservient wife. But you can tell that the person who put this together was having some fun with what happens in real life even though he didn't give that as the correct answer.

GROSS: Yes, because the other answers are probably what you're really thinking.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARSON: No doubt. No doubt.

GROSS: So these sold really well, right, these love comics?

Mr. BARSON: Well, they were hugely popular from the time that Simon and Kirby started all the way through the 1950s. But once those 1960s got started they began to peter out a bit and I don't know why that is exactly. I mean there was the superhero renaissance that both Marvel and DC had with all of their hundreds of characters. The "Justice League of America," the "Fantastic Four," all these things - "The Hulk," "Iron Man," they all got popular all at once so you could say that squeezed these out perhaps from the marketplace. But it still doesn't really explain why teenage girls, who were the predominant consumers of these, I would think, just basically stopped entirely with them by the time the '60s ended.

GROSS: Well...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: There's the whole cultural revolution going on, the women's movement, clothing completely changed. I mean the whole premise of these comics, it was just the formula wasn't - not that suffering and jealousy had gone out of style but the format of the comic had.

Mr. BARSON: Well, but I'll tell you, you're right...

GROSS: Of this kind of comic. Yeah.

Mr. BARSON: You're right. Everything had changed. But this is, you know, a form of entertainment and it changed or tried to change with the times that you're describing. So you began to see hippie girl stories in some of the DC comics of the late '60s and early '70s. And you started to see, you know, peace signs on the covers and, you know, class struggles were really between a boyfriend who was a pot-smoking hippie and, you know, somebody who was wearing a suit to Wall Street or somewhere.

So they tried to roll with the changes of the times but it apparently didn't connect, because by the time you hit the middle of the '70s these were gone for good.

GROSS: So when romance comics died out were there new comics that replaced them designed for teenage girls?

Mr. BARSON: There were not. So that's the mystery to me. They were doing something, but everything else they could have been doing also existed when these were at their most popular. So if you say okay, in 1955 there were a kagillion(ph) of these in the newsstands all over America, but there were movies, there were TV shows, there were magazines like 17 Magazine, you know, all these things around the world of romance comics existed then. They still flourished in the 1970s in their own new styles, but these just became extinct like a dinosaur.

GROSS: Was there ever any implication in a romance comic that somebody was in the closet - that they were secretly gay they were trying to get married to cover that up?

Mr. BARSON: No. You see...

GROSS: And were tormented and wrestling with their true nature that they couldn't express?

Mr. BARSON: No. You never got to that point, but that's because these ended when they did as a popular pop culture form. If these had lasted and thrived into the 1980s, let's say, or certainly the '90s, you would have started to see those stories. But at this point, even the religion question was usually cloaked in these. So there was an issue called "Different" in one of the Simon and Kirby books, and they never really say what the different thing is about the guy, but clearly it's that he's Jewish. I mean anybody like me, who's Jewish, could read the story and say, oh, I mean yeah, that's what this is. But they don't come right out and say it because it was 1952.

So there were these allusions that there's something going on that's creating tension with the families and all this, but you have to read between the lines. So forget the gay stuff. That was something that would've had to come 25 years later. But by then there were no books 25 years later.

GROSS: So how did you figure out that this guy was Jewish and that that was his secret?

Mr. BARSON: I can't remember. There were a couple little clues. It wasn't like he was, you know, wearing a yarmulke or anything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARSON: Just some subtle little clues that he was, you know, an outsider at the school and, you know, I mean it could have been something else too, I guess, but that's the way I took it. Maybe I was reading too much into it myself.

GROSS: So you collect all kinds of pop culture, including teen exploitation film posters, Red Scare pop culture, these romance comics, superhero comics. I should really be asking this question to your wife. But what's it like to live with you? Like what kind of...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What kind of shelves and storage bins dominate your home?

Mr. BARSON: Well, I've been told it's an extremely rewarding experience, Terry.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Mr. BARSON: However, I have not been told that by my wife. No, my poor long-suffering wife Jean has exiled most of my stuff - and it is stuff -to the third floor of our house and to the basement. As well she should because that leaves only two floors to still leave in. But I try to keep this sort of under control, but my excuse is that it's too good to get rid of. So it is a source of tension, but I try to be a good boy about it to the capabilities that I am able, which is pretty limited, I must say.

GROSS: Well, Michael Barson, thanks so much. It's been a pleasure.

Mr. BARSON: Well, thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Michael Barson's new book is called "Agonizing Love: The Golden Era of Romance Comics." You can see a slideshow of some of the comics on our website, freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.