Roy Lichtenstein was an artist in the sixties, and while that doesn’t mean ‘artist’ in the way that it usually would in a column about comics, it also kinda does. Because what he did was make full size oil on canvas painting reproductions of comic book panels. Yeah, this was the same art movement that gave us Andy Warhol and Peter Max, so it’s not exactly bulletproof against accusations of being just a little bit pointless.
But not so this argument! For behold, gentle reader, this page of google image search results! Examine it with the eye of patience, reader, and then answer me truly: do you see any superheroes?
Because I sure don’t. I see a lot of women with their hair in disarray, many of whom seem to be leaking a clear viscous fluid from their eyes. Corn syrup, is what I’d say if I had to guess.
That’s because the comics he was, let’s say, homaging weren’t superhero comics. They were romance comics, which in our day and age are nigh unknown.
Sure, romance is a common enough plot element in Manga, what with all the Senpai-chans always noticing people. And romance is a common subplot in the superhero genre. And in the existential “slice of life” fare you tend to get from indie comics, you spend plenty of time talking about romance.
I’m talking about romance as a genre, with the Tempted Hearts and the Heaving Bosoms and the Ripping of the Bodices and the Shirtless Scotsmen. Romance comics used to be huge. They were the strongest competitor for the superhero genre. Then one day they were gone. What happened?
Well, look what was going on back in the day: you can probably date the comic genre from Young Romance by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, yes, THAT Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Superheros were seen as ‘for kids,’ due mostly to something called the Comics Code Authority, which was a self-imposed rule to which publishers adhered to assure parents that their children weren’t reading anything that might transform them into gay communist drug-fiends. So Superman had adventures about Jimmy Olsen dressing like a Tarzan or Lois Lane turning giant for some reason, and once you were thirteen you maybe started losing a little interest.
And what do thirteen year old find interesting? Why, hormones of course!
In a culture that thinks of a whole medium as ‘for kids,’ the quickest way to sell an alternative is to make that alternative clearly not for kids. And the easiest way to do that was to make it something which you could prove you were an adult by being interested in. It’s the same sort of thing as a young Disney Incorporated Brand pop-starlet hitting her later teen years and suddenly releasing the dirtiest and most shocking music videos she can manage—one flaunts one’s sexuality not because it’s amazing in and of itself, but because having a sexuality is the proof that one is no longer a child.
Of course, with these comics we’re talking about a very 1950’s kind of sexuality, because even in the sixties, it was still the fifties in comic books. That was what they had the Comics Code Authority for, after all. But the tameness of the sexuality wasn’t the point, just like the modern raunchiness isn’t the point. The point is having a sexuality at all. Because that’s what gave the product a tone of ‘we know you’re an adult, and we take you seriously.’ There’s very little that will sell better to teenagers than telling them that they are adults and you take them seriously.
In the end, that was what spelled doom for the romance comics. The flying men in spandex started catching up. By the time Spider-man was having dead girlfriends and Speedy was getting addicted to heroin, romance comics were on the way out. They couldn’t compete. The superhero genre had grown up too; it was more than capable of carrying the ‘you’re adults now, we take you seriously’ burden while still having awesome space fights. The romance comics didn’t tend to have regular characters, and even when they did, they were interchangeable and unmemorable.
Stories of bland ladies weeping corn syrup because “My fiance was seen SPEAKING… to HER…! How can I go on?!” just weren’t needed anymore. Romance comics vanished back into the primordial mists from whence they originated, and were largely forgotten.
There were remnants. If you remember reading the comics page out of your grandfather’s newspaper, you might remember Apartment 3-G, which was laid to rest earlier this year.
Or remember Rosario Dawson on Daredevil and Jessica Jones?
She’s playing a character called Night Nurse, though they haven’t said the name yet. This character originated when Marvel tried the experiment of having a romance title that was in-continuity with its superhero titles.It was three nurses who worked the night shift, dealing with boyfriend troubles in between doing Nurse Things. Just like with your modern hospital drama TV shows, the medicine was little more than window dressing for the sexy subplots. When the title went under, Marvel turned the character into this secret identity support staff who helped out Daredevil and Dr. Strange, which, hey—not the worst idea!
But in the end, romance comics made mostly the same impression as the pop art movement that fed off them: remembered not for what they did, but to wonder why they existed in the first place.
And A Shirtless Scotsman Sing Thee To Thy Rest,
-The Guy Who Wrote This.