Why Gothic Romance Comics Stumbled

By Poison Ivy,

Gothics have been on my mind lately. The original Gothic novels were written in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in England and thus are part of a well-described literary tradition. Yes, they were popular novels, but the handful still being studied in colleges are considered literature. These include such classics as The Castle of Otranto, The Mysteries of Udolpho, and Melmoth the Wanderer. Then there was the mid-20th century Gothic romance vogue. While hardcover Gothic romance novels were making the bestseller lists and being bought by libraries in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, original and reprint paperbacks with Gothic heroines flooded drugstores and other nontraditional book outlets.

You would think there also would have been Gothic romance comic books. But comics seem to be inspired by a less literary take on popular culture, in fact a more visual take. They are much more likely to spring up after a successful movie or TV show or some widely-covered visual media event. Another possible reason for the dearth of romance comics about Gothic mansions and beleaguered governesses might be that at the same time as the Gothic novel vogue, there was the nurse romance vogue that came straight from hit television. Yes, the TV shows were about doctors, but it was easy to turn that around and do stories about nurses. So comics opted for the nurse stories instead of the Gothics.

There have been movies identified as Gothic—“Rebecca,” for instance, and “Leave Her to Heaven,” and “The Queen Bee.” But these were about female monsters. For instance, in “Leave Her to Heaven,” the main character is the murdering, conniving, crazy woman, not the sweet sister. And we all know that Rebecca, who dominated people’s lives even after her death, was a nasty piece of work. These stories written circa 1940 had their imitators, but they were not genre romances. It took another decade and more before Gothic novels as romances would evolve. Victoria Holt’s bestselling Mistress of Mellyn was optioned by Paramount, but the movie never happened. Worse, Mary Stewart’s lovely romantic suspense in Greece, The Moon-Spinners, was eviscerated and turned into a teenage adventure for Hayley Mills. And that’s about it for movie treatment of mid-century Gothic romances.

But there was “Dark Shadows,” the hit TV soap opera. It even had an imitator, “Strange Paradise.” (Yes, I watched it. It was bad.) But these were soap operas, not romances. When one thinks of “Dark Shadows,” one thinks of Barnabus Collins, the vampire, not of any female characters. So to get from soap opera about a vampire (and a werewolf, too, if I remember it right) to romance, the comics needed a romance paradigm. But it existed only in books. Instead, they copied the soap opera’s horror element and did stories about vampires. Thus comics, so sensitive to media that is visual, did not have any direct guideposts towards Gothic romances even as they produced more Gothic material.

Eventually, after the Gothic romance novel vogue was in its death throes, the comics started featuring some cover art by Neal Adams and others that referenced the Gothic novel cover style. The first was for House Of Secrets #88—but HOS was a horror anthology comic. No romance there. A few other HOS covers had a touch of the Gothic romance influence because they featured a woman in jeopardy. But also including a demon or a green ghostly hand gave a strong indication that horror was the focus, not romance. There’s a nice site called Cover Browser that shows these. But perhaps as proof of how obscure Gothic romance comic books were, that site does not list the several titles that eventually were published that were actual Gothic romance comics.

Finally, DC Comics launched The Sinister House of Secret Love and The Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love in the summer of 1971 (The cover dates say the fall, but comics always used to be printed with a cover date months in advance of their actual on sale date.) And Charlton Comics published Haunted Love in late 1972 with a 1973 cover date. To make these titles even more obscure, the Comics Code Authority, the comics industry’s self-censorship group, decided that the houses in the DC titles sounded too much like brothels. So the titles were changed to Secrets of Sinister House and Forbidden Tales of Dark Mansion. But it was all in vain. The audience that ate up Gothic romances a decade earlier was not looking for comic books to read, or even for more Gothics.

Even had the market timing of these three Gothic romance comics been right, they had other strikes against them. The covers tended to emphasize a woman in jeopardy from the supernatural, indeed, from the horrible. Most Gothic romance novel covers were far more restrained. Some just featured a large mansion, and others just had a woman and a dark cast to the cover. No heroes. The Gothic romance comics did have potential heroes on the covers, but only in the background as shadowy, usually unattractive, and often menacing figures. This was very different from the typical romance comic covers that would portray both a woman and the man she loved and describe a romantic dilemma in the accompanying copy. So these comic books were not signaling strongly to the female audience that already existed for romance comic books. Unlike nurse romance or other romance covers, there were few handsome men in evidence on the Gothic romance comic covers. Any kisses were usually “The Kiss of Death” and not shown. When the cover of Haunted Love #1 actually showed a kiss, it was from the villain—an old man—who was forcing a repulsive kiss on the heroine who says she hates him. This is not attractive. This is not romance, Gothic or otherwise. Some of the stories inside these comics were reasonable approximations of Gothic romance novels. But since Gothic novels were typically narrated in the first person, but these comics typically were heavy on action by the male characters, the effect was not the same. I can’t say that even one of those stories touched me, yet I can easily recall many other romances, Gothic and otherwise, novels and comics.

Looking back on the mistakes made by the comic book companies in totally missing the moment on the popular literary fashion, and then messing up Gothic romance comics, I realize that I have been blaming the dense all-male establishment that ran comics, including the artists and writers, too. Probably none of whom read Gothic romance novels. But what I did not understand until now was the importance of a visual medium crossover. During the many years I worked for the major comic book companies, I visited bookstores right around the corner from their offices on almost a daily basis. But in all those years, I ran into exactly two people from the comic book business in a bookstore. Contrast that to opening day on Broadway for any action/adventure movie. I could always find half a dozen comic book pros in line. They were visual, not literary oriented. It’s funny—maybe even ironic—but in this case, “lack of vision” actually describes the situation correctly.