Monday, November 28, 2016

The Four-Color Throb of the Secret Heart

I always keep a couple of DC romance comics on my prized spinner rack — there among the superheroes, the monsters, the machine-gunner GIs and the spacemen — in order to mimic the actual effect of some newsstand in 1960.
Romance was a fresh sales gimmick created to supplant superheroes when they “retired” after World War II, evil presumably having been finally vanquished.
Jack Kirby and Joe Simon inspired the trend with Young Romance (Sept.–Oct. 1947). The first issue, purportedly aimed at “The More ADULT Readers of Comics,” sold 92 percent of its print run.  
The title was shortly selling a million copies a month, a figure guaranteed to inspire a whole genre devoted to the themes of “…romantic love and its attendant complications such as jealousy, marriage, divorce, betrayal and heartache,” Wikipedia noted.
The swiftness of the shift in the combat-weary public’s tastes is illustrated by a single title from EC Comics. Moon Girl and the Prince, starring a Wonder Woman-ish super heroine, debuted in the fall of 1947. By the 9th issue, in October 1949, the comic book was retitled A Moon, A Girl … Romance.
It occurs to me that I find romance comics kind of silly and superhero comics kind of serious, and that that attitude is, in itself, sublimely silly.
It also occurs to me that my ambivalence about the genre may have had something to do with the fact that romance comics tend to be about weakness and vulnerability, while superhero comics are of course about uncanny strength. So more than gender separated those two audiences.
Yet just scratch the surface, and you find that all stories about strength are necessarily also about weakness, and vice versa.
“A sissy wanted girls who scorned him; a man scorned girls who wanted him,” wrote Jules Feiffer, recalling the attitudes of the superheroes’ first fanboys in the 1930s and 1940s. “Our cultural opposite of the man who didn’t make out with women has never been the man who did — but rather the man who could if he wanted to, but still didn't. The ideal of masculine strength, whether Gary Cooper’s, L’il Abner’s or Superman’s, was for one to be so virile and handsome, to be in such a position of strength, that he need never go near girls. Except to help them. And then get the hell out.
“Real rapport was not for women. It was for villains. That’s why they go hit so hard.”
This new stylized, abbreviated, four-color medium first offered individual combat and the triumph of justice. Then it offered anguished relationships and the fulfillment of yearning. The popularity of both genres proved that the ten-cent fantasy was to become a permanent feature of the American landscape.

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