Laughing at the Classics

By Poison Ivy,

Romance comics were invented in the 1940s and hit their peak in the early 1950s. They continued to sell well into the 1960s but died a miserable death in the early 1970s when the majority of young women in America simply did not want to think of themselves as anguishing over a date, or a first kiss, or a marriage proposal the same way they had been just ten years before. Of course they still anguished. But doing so was not fashionable. Especially as the women’s movement had revved up. There was some serious fronting.

Romance comics could be silly, but in the early days at least, they often dealt with real problems. Whether to stay in a dead-end job in a dead-end town, for instance. What to do about that pesky sister or best friend who kept stealing your boyfriends. Whether to risk an office romance, when maybe you were being conned by some married coworker who didn’t wear his wedding ring. Chances of that happening weren’t good in a small town where everybody knew everybody. But in a big city, it often happened. It still happens today, but women have a new line of defense: they can check guys out on the Internet. They read their Facebook or MySpace pages, or their blogs. They Google the guys to see if old girlfriends have written unflattering reports, or accused them of being players.

Of course the biggest lies told in a romantic relationship are the lies you tell yourself. Sometimes, you just have to laugh at the absurdity of it all. Or else you’ll cry. Or smash something. And that’s when laughing at romance comics is a welcome idea.

It is easy to laugh at old romance comics because they became a cliché. They were drawn in a very distinctive, lush style and often were overwritten and thus extremely emotional. I’ve complained before in this blog that dissing these romance comics is like shooting fish in a barrel. Too easy, and basically a cheap trick. Dated material that you read with no sympathy always comes across as stupid.

While reading these comics, I’ve often wondered if real girls and women ever behaved this way. Since the stories were 99.9% written by men, and long before I was around to see the same world they did, the jury is out on that speculation. The writers may have been accurately describing what they saw. They may have been far off base. They may have been copying what they saw was popular in other media, such as in romantic movies or romance novels. Who’s to know for sure? Robert Kanigher, for instance, wrote many issues of many comics, Wonder Woman chief among them. And even though he was responsible for some of the silliest Wonder Woman comics—the ones that defied science or logic because they featured three iterations of Wonder Woman at once: herself as an adult, herself as Wonder Girl, and herself as Wonder Tot, all together in adventures with “their” mother, Queen Hippolyta—well, even though Robert Kanigher perpetrated these on the world, I loved them when I first read them. And I still love them. Kanigher had tapped into a genuine female family dynamic. He had a family of his own to draw ideas from, of course. You don’t have to be a woman to write credibly about the women you have known, including your own wife, daughter, or sister.

That said, I was attracted to Truer than True Romance, published in 2001, a romance comic spoof, because the wiseacre text that replaces the original text was written by a woman, not a man. And the project had the full cooperation of DC Comics, which opened its vault to provide the original art that allowed author Jeanne Martinet to make mock of the romance comic genre.

Although there are some hilarious moments, this concept is better in snapshot form than in story form. Individual panels can be totally killing, for instance, the one about the girl with the very short haircut who is having an extreme bad hair day. Entire stories, stuck with the visual continuity of a straight romance from the past, tend to come across as bizarre. Martinet tries her best to write new text that takes advantage of the excesses of this old genre. But the whole isn’t bigger than the parts most of the time. Except when the heroine of one story, now titled “Loving Gay Men,” apparently has a psychotic episode and imagines a happy ending love scene with a swan. Now that was weird enough to be interesting. The woman with the fetish about not checking her luggage on an airplane was kinda neat, too. Surreal and funny. But 15 pages about a girl who is very pretty yet empty inside dating a guy who is the same? It was hardly a hoot on the first page and it never got any better. And of course, that’s the problem. These rewritten romances are bad romances to begin with. Try rewriting a good one. That might be very interesting.

With the technology available even on cheap PCs today, we all can rewrite any old comic to our heart’s content. We can even snatch panels from other comics and create our own pastiches that have the romantic moments for which we often wait in vain, comic books being what they are today. Imagine taking a romantic moment from an old comic and just dropping it into the middle of a new one. You don’t have to draw to make comics anymore. (Just don’t publish them. Art is subject to copyright.)

I’m looking forward to the day when I can make this happen with movies, too. The movie makers already can. But I want to do it at home for fun. I’d make Han Solo tell Princess Leia that he adores her. Maybe even in the first Star Wars movie. Definitely in the second.