Romance as a Bad Habit

By Poison Ivy,

We all develop bad habits. These are defined as repetitive behavior that harms us in some way but also delivers some reward to us. For most of my life, my favorite reading material has been defined by society as a bad habit.

When I first started reading comic books, I was the age when most children stop reading them—eleven, and just leaving elementary school to go to junior high school. Just beginning to be an adolescent. Just having my whole life turn upside down because from then on socializing would be based on something more complicated than merely meeting girls my own age. It would involve forms of competitiveness with those girls. It would involve boys.

I picked up the comic book habit just like a drug addict picks up that habit, except there was no pusher involved other than house ads in each issue telling me about upcoming stories in the next issues. I’d seen comics around and read them at other kid’s houses, but they had never been in our home. And then I bought some for myself and was hooked.

But my parents did not approve of my new habit, and they talked me out of it. They considered comic books to be utter trash. (Does this remind you of what some people say about romances?) There I was, still a child but on the cusp of change, who had just found this source of great reading pleasure, and my parents told me it was a degraded form of literature. Useless, below our intellectual standards, ephemeral—take your pick. It was unworthy of me and I should stop. So I did. I even took my little stack of comics to the back yard and started to burn them in a bonfire. Whereupon my best friend begged to have them instead. So only a few comics actually were consumed on the pyre. No collector’s item classics. They were all DCs.

A few months later, I was back reading them again. I simply could not give up the habit. But because I could not give it up, I had to ask myself why. Because I had to justify it to my parents. And to myself. And I realized that comic books spoke to me in a way that nothing else I had ever read spoke to me. I loved the color, and the adventure, and the passion. Comic books made a true connection to me. Over the years, I came to believe that any art that does that cannot be trash. You could argue that if I felt a true connection to porn, that would not make porn art or change it from being useless trash. I’m not here to debate that with you. Just to tell you why I read comics. And romances. And why I respect myself for reading them.

But let me return to my story. I don’t remember how I talked my parents around, because at the time I did not fully understand how comics had such a firm grip on me. Still, my mother yielded to my pleas, and allowed me to buy comics again. But she put her foot down and said no romance comics, as they were the most worthless and shallow of the lot. (Romance are worthless and shallow? Where have we heard that before?)

Then one day I decided that I wanted to read a romance, the very thing that everyone around me derided. Not a book with literary merit that might just have a romance in it. Not a piece of historical fiction that included the love life of a Tudor or Plantagenet. A romance: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. I had never read a romance. I found one at the public library, a place from which my parents allowed me to pick any book. And so I found Emilie Loring, who had been writing straight contemporary romances since the 1920s. And who was dead when I first read a book with her name on it. And who actually did not write that book. But there was love at first sight and a Romeo and Juliet kind of dilemma and a happy ending. It was a romance, and I was hooked. Again.

And hooked I have remained to this day. I added to my comic book collection. I even went to work in the comic book business. But I also read all of Emilie Loring, and Mary Stewart, and Victoria Holt, and Dorothy Eden and paperback romances by Arlene Hale and Elsie Lee and lots of more obscure writers who did nurse romances and gothics and Regencies and historicals. And much older books by Jeffrey Farnol and Georgette Heyer and Rafael Sabatini, and Ethel M. Dell and the Baroness Orczy, too. And Roberta Leigh and Charlotte Lamb and Anne Mather and Margery Hilton and Betty Neels. But I have to stop listing these authors, because you know that reading romances involves a very long list of authors, because it’s a lifelong habit. Sure, I read plenty of other kinds of books. But the consistent emphasis on emotions keeps me coming back to romance.

Eventually, I added opera to my other habits, and then I realized that the color, drama, and passion that opera delivers are similar to that of a comic book or a romance. Funny, though. Nobody tries to argue me out of opera as a bad habit.