Marvel Our Love Story #3: But Oh, My Lonely Nights!

Published between 1950 and 1980. Romance comics were first conceived after WWII, when the comics market was saturated with superhero properties, but low in sales. Comics with niche themes like true crime or science-fiction began to rise in popularity as a foil to costumed heroes, but most still catered to an adolescent male audience. In 1947, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (the “King of Comics”) published My Date—appealing to predominantly adult female readers, inspired equally by teen humor comics like Archie and explicit pulp romance novels—and a new genre was born. It didn’t last long. In 1954, in response to public concern over the dangerous influence of comics on young minds (a familiar narrative faced by most “new media” at one point or another), the newly formed Comics Magazine Association of America passed the Comics Code, a list of content recommendations for comics. In addition to banning any violence or profanity, sexual expression was restricted, and love stories were advised to affirm the "sanctity of marriage.” All the comics featured in today's issue adhere to the code, as noted by the stamp in their top right corner. Romance comics, despite initial titillation and complexity, quickly shrunk in scope—instead emphasizing domesticity and patriarchal gender roles. The genre persisted until the 1970’s, when the sexual revolution snuffed out any remaining popularity of the form and its tame depictions of romance. I’m fascinated by how these seemingly-cliche comics obscure a far more complex story of censorship and conformity. They serve as index fossils for a way of life that never existed; showcasing a dangerously simplified, racially homogenous, and heteronormative understanding of what love is, and what constitutes female desire. On the other hand… I find myself undeniably drawn to their campy Lichtensteinian compositions and bold colors. I'm curious how, as creative people and cultural consumers, we can learn to critically observe and place historical materials within a broader context, instead of taking them at face value as representative of their time. Is it possible to fully appreciate the aesthetics of artifacts like these while also recognizing the insidious damage they represent, or is appreciation diametrically opposed to deeper understanding? –Elizabeth Goodspeed