In the October 1949 issue of the romance comic Hollywood Confessions, the protagonist of the story “Too Ugly to Love” describes himself as so ugly that he resembles a “menace from a horror picture.”1 Jon Koslo has “accepted … [his] ugliness philosophically!” when a film producer spots him and “exploits [his] ugliness” by giving him a role as a villain in a movie. Disturbed by his new circumstances and spurned by the women around him who call him a “freak,” Joe finds comfort and companionship in Gina. When Joe is burnt beyond recognition in a fire, Gina stays by his side. Plastic surgery and the skill of a doctor transform Joe’s appearance, and the story ends with the two protagonists looking to a happy future.
As florid and formulaic as it might be, Joe and Gina’s journey to a “real and genuine love” is characteristic of the romance comics of the 1940s and 1950s.2 Much like other contemporaneous comic book genres, romance comics captured in sharply lettered relief the romantic and sexual zeitgeist of an economically prosperous post-war society that was experiencing rapid and uneven social and cultural change.
Since comic books emerged as a distinct medium in the 1930s, they have always been far more than Wonder Woman or Captain America. They have served as anti-Communist propaganda and political satire, entertainment and education, horror fests and true crime narratives, social commentary and cultural critique.3 The US government routinely used comics for a variety of purposes. The army, for instance, used comic books to train soldiers in everything from local cultures to personal hygiene, machine repair, and rehabilitation after injury.4
Series like Marvels of Science imagined and explored the possibilities of science in this world and others through science fiction.5 Religious organizations published series like Catholic Comics and Oral Roberts’ True Stories in the 1940s and 1950s. The comic books of the Archie (of Riverdale fame) universe capitalized on the growing teen market, at which romance comics were also aimed.6
The romance comic originated in the illustrated romantic magazines of the 1920s and 1930s. In the 1940s, it was transformed in the hands of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, creators of some of the most iconic comic book characters of the twentieth century, including Captain America. Kirby and Simon produced the series Young Romance and Young Love for Crestwood, which enjoyed spectacular sales.7
Their success spawned copycats across the US for over two decades until demand waned in the 1970s. Certainly the medium was an accessible form of entertainment; a ticket to the movies cost between 40 and 60 cents in the 1950s, while a comic book cost only 10 cents.8
Many of the storylines (the authorship is not always clear but was predominantly male) were narrated in a confessional format, describing the search for a suitable partner, the journey to marriage, and life after marriage. What resulted was a complicated set of narratives on gender, marriage, and the domestic sphere. Romance comics telegraphed ideals of the normative feminine and masculine. This effort is seen both in the storylines that prized and rewarded certain kinds of bodies and behaviors, and in the advertisements for clothes, “fat-fighting” devices, advice columns, letters, and recommendations for being the “ideal partner.” Further, as Jeanne Gardner points out, romance comic books also attempted to shape adolescent ideas about sex, desire, and romantic love.9
Many of these comic books were cautionary tales and salutary lessons about whom, how, and when to love. In “Masquerade Marriage,” the sixteen-year-old protagonists and best friends are tricked into fake weddings by their older boyfriends.10 Both couples spend their “honeymoon” night in a seedy motel after eloping, and in the morning, the two young women discover the deceit and return in shame to their parents.
Their abductors go to prison, but the girls pay a social and personal price: “None of the nice fellows ever ask us for a date now.” Romance comics reinforced the message that if women failed to live by the rules for social and sexual conformity, they could expect to be punished with the public taint of promiscuity and the private punishments of isolation and grief.11
The long shadow of WWII and the Korean War means that the soldier and veteran made frequent appearances in romance comics. This figure was constructed as especially deserving of fidelity and love despite the difficulties of navigating separations in wartime relationships or marriages. For instance, “I Was a Lonely War Bride” warned readers that fleeting companionships or the “forbidden thrill of stolen kisses” offered nothing to compare with the steady devotion of a soldier-husband, even if that husband was in Korea.12
Anti-communist sentiments also influenced Cold War romance comics. For example, stories like “Love Thine Enemy” set up communist Chinese characters as anti-capitalist, sexually rapacious caricatures.13 In the May, 1956 issue of Girls in Love, Gladys Lynn suspects that her boyfriend Tom is a “Red … mixed up with Communists”, filled with “hateful, un-American ideas!”14 Despite being in love with Tom, Gladys reports Tom and the underground communist club he is a part of to the FBI, who instructs her to gather intelligence on the group. She does so, and the story ends predictably with Tom revealing himself as an FBI agent and thus proven worthy of Gladys’ affections.
Like other mid-century comic book genres, romance comics typically featured a predominantly white cast of characters, with occasional, often unrealistic and unflattering appearances by non-white characters.15 Interracial relationships held a significant degree of ambiguity and contradiction. Non-American men in general were usually depicted negatively, but Mexican men in particular were often portrayed as hyper-masculine, violent, and inherently devious.16
In “Love in Bondage,” the brutish, lewd, and rough Brazilian character Pablo competes with the sensitive and strong American protagonist John for the love of Perdita, with predictable results.17 Asian women were also often represented as sexually attractive but deceptive and devious. In “Beloved Enemy,” the antagonist Chia-San who steals the heroine’s object of affections is described thus: “I’ve never seen such deadly beauty.”18
There are some significant exceptions to these representations of race. Take Fawcett Comics’ short-run series “Negro Romance,” which was illustrated by Alvin Hollingsworth, the first African-American artist hired by Fawcett. The storylines featured black, middle-class, college-educated protagonists whose lives (and loves) were largely interchangeable with white protagonists. And yet, this genre could also occasionally challenge and subvert existing narratives of race. In the November 1963 edition of Three Nurses, for instance, the story “Color Her White” explored race within the intimate social worlds of the hospital, examining the racism confronted by an accomplished black cardio-surgeon. Another subplot detailed how a mixed-race nurse sought to “pass” as white in order to help her lawyer-husband get ahead in life.19
While the main protagonists were still white, these comics reflect the period’s struggles around race, identity, and civil rights. But the most notable example of a counter-narrative comes to us from Jackie Orme’s Torchy comic strips in the Pittsburgh Courier. Ormes is widely acknowledged as the first African-American female comic book artist and author.20
In her later work, Torchy’s romantic adventures include nuanced commentaries on environmental racism and industrial pollution in the post-war era. Ormes used her characters to critique school segregation, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and US military involvement across the world, which was possibly the reason her FBI file amounted to nearly 300 pages.21
Romance comics are easily dismissed as “junk” culture aimed at adolescent female readers, but they are intriguing as historical sources and cultural texts, especially for those interested in post-WWII society. The power of the comic book format was acknowledged at the time by physicians, parent-teacher associations, and preachers across the country. Congress was not immune, and it held hearings on whether the supposedly lurid content and illustration of some comic books could “ruin” healthy, normal children and lead them into delinquency.22
Like other genres of comic books, romance comics reflect prevailing social anxieties about race, gender roles, and Communism in a nation struggling with the aftermath of two wars and the ongoing Cold War. And yet, they are so much more: while the advertisements touting everything from skin creams to fat and leg reducers to muscle enhancers for male readers are clear prescriptions for the physical normate, the simple, formulaic storylines were also lessons in love, warnings about (extramarital) sex, and manuals for marriage.
- Robert Bernstein, “Too Ugly to Love,” Hollywood Confessions (October 1949): 14-21. Return to text.
- Bernstein, “Too Ugly to Love.” Return to text.
- Chris York and Rafiel York, eds. Comic Books and the Cold War, 1946-1962: Essays on Graphic Treatment of Communism, the Code and Social Concerns (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012); Trischa Goodnow and James K. Kimble, eds. The 10-Cent War: Comic Books, Propaganda and World War II (Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi Press, 2016); Marc DiPaolo, War, Politics and Superheroes: Ethics and Propaganda in Comics and Film (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011). Return to text.
- Cord Scott, Comics and Conflict: Patriotism and Propaganda from WWII through Operation Iraqi Freedom (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2014); Richard Graham, Government Issue: Comics for the People, 1940s-2000s (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2011). Return to text.
- Bert Hansen, “Medical History for the Masses: American Comic Books Celebrated Heroes of Medicine in the 1940s,”Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 78,1 (2004): 148-91; Roger Cooter and Stephen Pumfrey, “Separate Spheres and Public Places: Reflections on the History of Science Popularization and Science in Popular Culture,” History of Science, 32, no. 3 (1994): 237-67. Return to text.
- Michelle Nolan, Love on the Racks: A History of American Romance Comics (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2008); Bradford Wright, Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003). Return to text.
- Jeanne Gardner, “Dreams May End, But Love Never Does:’ Marriage and Materialism in American Romance Comics, 1947-1954,” in Matthew Pustz, ed. Comic Books and American Cultural History, An Anthology (Continuum Books: New York, 2012), 94-110. Return to text.
- Nolan, Love on the Racks, 43-4. Return to text.
- Gardner, “Dreams May End.” Return to text.
- Dana Dutch, “Masquerade Marriage,” Teen-Age Temptations, 8 (June 1954): 16-25. Return to text.
- Jeanne Gardner, “Girls who Sinned in Secret and Paid in Public: Romance Comics, 1949-1954,” in York and York, eds. Comic Books and the Cold War, 92-102. Return to text.
- “I was a Lonely War Bride,” Romantic Adventures, 15 (July 1952): 3-10. Return to text.
- “Love Thine Enemy,” Love Letters, 30 (April 1953): 11-17. Return to text.
- “My Wrong Boyfriend,” Girls in Love, 54 (May 1956): 3-12. Return to text.
- “Introduction,” in Sheena A. Howard and Ronald L Jackson, II, eds. Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2013); Paul Hirsch, “This Is Our Enemy: The Writers’ War Board and Representations of Race in Comic Books, 1942- 1945,” Pacific Historical Review 83, 3 (2014): 448-86; Deborah Clark Vance, “Racial Stereotypes and War Propaganda in Captain America,” in Goodnow and Kimble, eds. The 10 Cent War, 133-149. Return to text.
- “Mockery of Love,” and “Mexican Madness,” Love Diary, 10 (November 1950): 11-21 and 25-35; “Romance in Mexico,” Lovers’ Lane, 35 (July 1953): 1-6. Return to text.
- “Love in Bondage,” First Love Illustrated, 16 (January 1952): 23-28. Return to text.
- “Beloved Enemy,” Diary Loves, 8 (March 1951):19-26. Return to text.
- Joe Gill, “Color Her White,” Three Nurses, 21 (November 1963): 1-10. Return to text.
- Nancy Goldstein, “The Trouble with Romance in Jackie Ormes’ Comics,” in Howard and Jackson, eds. Black Comics, 23-45. Return to text.
- Goldstein, “The Trouble with Romance,” 24. Return to text.
- “PTA Quiets Fear of Comics, Radio, Films Hurting Children,” Los Angeles Times, July 25, 1948, p. D1; “No Harm in Horror, Comics Issuer Says,” New York Times, April 22, 1954, p. 1; “Many Doubt Comics Spur Crime, Senate Survey of Experts Shows,” New York Times, November 12, 1950, p.1. Return to text.