Recently I was given a link to a comic book site that was knocking an old DC romance comic, Girls’ Romances #132, from 1968. It had a story inside in which the shy heroine literally never speaks to the stranger hero, who also never speaks to her. Even though at one point they sit at the same table with each other! Then, when all hope is lost, and she thinks she’ll never see him again, her family introduces him to her. And love is in the cards at last.
This is a version of the longing from afar that is a typical experience of adolescence. But without any personality to the characters, it can seem quite silly. There was a good deal of caustic commentary on the web site about this story. I tend to come down hard on these Internet pans, because I think old romance comics are just too easy a target. But I had to admit that “Funny Books: Dubious Moments in Comic History” had its hilarious moments. Especially when the writer referred to the unnamed romantic object of the heroine’s desire as “Bradley Interchangeable III.” Because to tell the truth, that’s exactly what that ilk of romance hero was. A guy who was vaguely upper middle class, who dressed like the squares did, and who had no personality. So little personality that when he is seated with an attractive girl his age, he says not one word to her. Lame. So old-fashioned, too.
Or is it? Don’t we see exactly this kind of behavior today, when we read the “Desperately Seeking” personal ads, in which people sigh over individuals they have seen just once on a subway train, or in a traffic jam, or walking down the street? Or with whom they exchanged 30 seconds of idle chatter over their dogs in a park? Or in passing at a bar? And now they’ve decided this is their one true love and they are desperate to find them again? The instant attraction that is not followed up at the moment, but is regretted later, is not merely fiction. An exchange of glances alone is enough to make today’s singles pay to place an ad in a newspaper (or online) on the very slim hope that the object of their inarticulate adoration will respond. So maybe this old comic book story is not quite as lame as the we’d like to think.
But back to the comics and the past. Dressing like a square. Technically, “square” is an earlier term, applied during the beatnik period and after it in the 1950s. It’s used in “West Side Story,” for instance, which debuted as a musical in 1957. But how else to describe the chasm between dressing like a hippie and an adult in the late 1960s? Oh, that’s right, they were called “straights.” But later on, that term came to refer mostly to sexual orientation.
There was a huge generation gap between young people and older people in the late 1960s. It had many components, most of them political. And it was symbolized by clothing and hair styles. Some young people advertised that they were going along with the establishment program by dressing like younger versions of adults. Thus, Nancy Sinatra in her go-go boots and Jane Fonda in her sex object movies. And other young people showed in their dress that they weren’t: Thus the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper look, and the scruffy one after it, and college students wearing old fur coats from thrift stores and straggly long hair and beards. The Mamas and the Papas and other American musicians at the time sported bizarre headgear or costumes, but ordinary young people wore items just as outlandish and mismatched, a way of saying that they were not part of the establishment.
Romance comics were all drawn by the older generation, though. These guys might have started off as kids in the comics business in the 1950s, but by the 1960s, they were married men with mortgages who lived in the suburbs. They were members of the establishment. So they drew the romantic heartthrobs in romance comics to look like the young men they wanted their own daughters to date: Short-haired, suit-and-tie types whose financial future was assured and who wouldn’t be getting arrested during anti-Vietnam War protests. Never mind that just about any young man wearing a suit at that point was probably a suave con artist type you should never trust with your daughter.
Since there was a distinct political divide between young people, and style indicated politics, this meant that romance comics, all featuring versions of Bradley Interchangeable III, were only likely to please part of their potential female audience. Even when comic book stories tried to include the scruffy youth of the day, they tended to polish people up and match their clothes, and make them look far too fashionable. Again, not the visual style that would attract the counterculture part of the potential romance audience. And in most cases, those hippie types were portrayed as the loser villains, not the romantic heroes. Most romance comics in their last years of publication still featured boys or men who looked like the kinds of men Annette Funicello might have dated in a beach movie 10 years before. As popular as those movies were in the early 1960s, they were always inane. By the late 1960s the world had moved on, and by the early 1970s, when romance comics were in their death throes, everything was different.
(Romance novels didn’t have quite the same problem because a reader could ignore the cover and the initial character description and imagine that the hero looked like whatever she wanted. Still, lots of change was happening in the romantic novel field. But that’s another story for another day.)
Back to the beach. The clean cut, sexually-on-the-make, wink-wink hero in beach movies was a boring hero. The same type, sexually restrained by the censorship of the Comics Code Authority and by the bland personality conventions that still held in romance comics, was a boring comic book lover. So it was a double whammy: The guys were boring to look at, and their range of personality was slender. And that’s another reason why romance comics eventually just tanked. They were offering less and less, to a smaller percentage of the romance audience.
Does MyRomanceStory.com do a better job of offering a range of romantic heroes? We think so. We do like them rich or at least financially comfortable, and in a prior post I’ve explained why. But we’ve featured men who dedicated their lives to saving endangered species (Going Batty), men who risked their lives to help people in Third World countries (Coming Home), men working undercover to rescue a family member (Summer Love), geeky science guys who can’t get dates (Love Potion), men who have made mistakes in the past and now want to make up for them (Theater of Fright), and many more. We try to find interesting romantic situations between interesting people in interesting locales. We don’t just have one personality type for our heroes. (Nor for our heroines.)
I wonder if 40 years from now, someone will be holding one of our graphic romance novellas to scorn as they now laugh at 40-year-old romance comic books? But on what basis? Will people still be putting down romance just because it is romance? Or will male-female relationships change so much that even what we create today as honestly as possible will seem totally stilted and contrived? I don’t have a crystal ball. But it’s nice to think that romance will get better, isn’t it?
Of course, by then we might have live holographic “Desperately Seeking” ads spamming our homes. Ack!