America’s postwar fling with romance comics



With over 100 issues, ‘Young Love’ was one of the longest running romance comics series.
Gary Lee Watson Comic Book Collection, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina Libraries, Author provided

Michael C. Weisenburg, University of South Carolina

Last year, comic book enthusiast Gary Watson donated his massive personal collection to the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of South Carolina.

As the reference and instruction librarian, I’m tasked with getting to know the collection so I can exhibit parts of it and use the materials for teaching. One of the great pleasures of assessing and cataloging Watson’s collection has been learning about how comic books have changed over time. Sifting through Watson’s vast collection of 140,000-plus comics, I’m able to see the genre’s entire trajectory.

Before World War II, superheroes were all the rage. Reflecting anxieties over the Great Depression, the rise of fascism and the march to war, readers yearned for mythical figures who would defend the disenfranchised and uphold liberal democratic ideals.

Once the war ended, the content of comic books started to change. Superheroes gradually fell out of fashion and a proliferation of genres emerged. Some, such as Westerns, offered readers a nostalgic fantasy of a pre-industrial America. Others, like true crime and horror, hooked readers with their lurid tales, while science fiction comics appealed to the wonders of technological advancement and trepidation about where it might lead us.

But there was also a brief period when the medium was dominated by the romance genre.

Grounded in artistic and narrative realism, romance comics were remarkably different from their superhero and sci-fi peers. While the post-war popularity of romance comics only lasted a few years, these love stories ended up actually having a strong influence on other genres.

Romance comics’ origin story

Though today they are most famous for creating “Captain America,” the creative duo of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby launched the romance comic book genre in 1947 with the publication of a series called “Young Romance.”

Teen comedy series like “Archie” had been around for a few years and occasionally had romantic story lines and subplots. Romance pulps and true confession magazines had been around for decades.

But a comic dedicated to telling romantic stories hadn’t been done before. With the phrase “Designed for the More Adult Readers of Comics” printed on the cover, Simon and Kirby signaled a deliberate shift in expectations of what a comic could be.

While most scholars have argued that romance comics tend to reinforce conservative values – making marriage the ultimate goal for women and placing family and middle-class stability on a pedestal – the real pleasure of reading these books came from the mildly scandalous behavior of their characters and the untoward plots that the narratives were ostensibly warning against. With titles like “I Was a Pick-Up!,” “The Farmer’s Wife” and “The Plight of the Suspicious Bridegroom,” “Young Romance” and its sister titles quickly sold out of their original print runs and began outselling other comics genres.

Issue #1 of ‘Teen-Age Romances’ (St. John, 1949).
Gary Lee Watson Comic Book Collection, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina Libraries, Author provided

Other publishers noticed the popularity of the genre and followed suit with their own romance titles, most of which closely followed Simon and Kirby’s style and structure. By 1950, about 1 in 5 of all comic books were romance comics, with almost 150 romance titles being sold by over 20 publishers.

The rage for all things romance was so sudden that publishers eager to take advantage of the new market altered titles and even content in order to save on second-class postage permits. Second-class or periodical postage is a reduced rate that publishers can use to save on the cost of mailing to recipients. Rather than apply for new permits every time they tested a new title, comics publishers would simply alter a failing title while retaining the issue numbering in order to keep using the preexisting permit. To comics historians, this is a telltale sign that the industry is undergoing a sudden change.

One striking example of this is when comics publisher Fawcett ended its failing superhero comic “Captain Midnight” in 1948 with issue #67 and launched its new title, “Sweethearts,” in issue #68. In this case, the death of a superhero comic became the birth of a romance comic.

Issue #3 of ‘Bride’s Romances’ (Quality Comics, 1953).
Gary Lee Watson Comic Book Collection, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina Libraries, Author provided

With so many new titles flooding newsstands and department stores, the bubble was bound to burst. In what comic book historian Michelle Nolan has dubbed “the love glut,” 1950 and 1951 witnessed a rapid boom and bust of the romance genre. Many romance titles were canceled by the mid-1950s, even as stalwarts of the genre, such as “Young Romance,” remained in print into the mid-1970s.

There was the brief popularity of the sub-genre of gothic romance comics in the 1970s – series with names like “The Sinister House of Secret Love” and “The Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love.” But romance comics would never approach their brief, postwar peak.

Gothic romances – like this issue of ‘The Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love’ – had a brief run in the 1970s.
Gary Lee Watson Comic Book Collection, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina Libraries, Author provided

A brief boom, an enduring influence

Among collectors, issues of romance comics are less sought after than those of other genres. For this reason, they tend to go under the radar.

Romance comics, however, featured work by pioneering artists like Lily Renée and Matt Baker, both of whom worked on first issue of “Teen-Age Romances” in 1949.

Baker is the first-known black artist to work in the comic book industry and Renée was one of comics’ first female artists. Prior to working on “Teen-Age Romances,” they both drew “good girl art” – a set of artistic tropes borrowed from pinups and pulp magazines – for several titles. Their work in both genres exemplifies how earlier pulp magazine themes of desire and seduction could readily be applied to newer genres.

‘But He’s the Boy I Love’ was one of the few romance comic to feature black characters.
Gary Lee Watson Comic Book Collection, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina Libraries, Author provided

After the “love glut,” sub-genre mashups nonetheless emerged. For example, cowboy romances were briefly popular. Later, in response to the civil rights movement, Marvel published the 1970 story “But He’s the Boy I Love,” which was the first story in a romance comic to feature African-American characters since Fawcett’s three-issue run of “Negro Romance” in 1950.

Even after romance comics largely fell out of fashion, the genre’s visual tropes and narrative themes became more prevalent during what’s known as the “Silver Age,” a superhero revival that lasted from 1956 to 1970. Titles such as “Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane” often borrowed heavily from romance for their plots to generate intrigue and tension in the hopes of driving up sales.

Issue 89, in which Lois marries Bruce Wayne, is a prime example of such marketing techniques. Issues such as these were often situated as “what if” narratives that offered readers speculative story lines, such as “What if Lois Lane married Bruce Wayne?” Though they’re generally thought of as separate from the superhero canon, these love stories show that comic book writers had internalized the main narrative techniques of romance comics even if the genre itself was in decline.

But other comics didn’t merely use romantic themes for the occasional gimmick issue. Instead, they made the love lives of their characters a central plot point and a fundamental aspect of their characters’ identities. Comics such as the “Fantastic Four” and the “X-Men” rely heavily on the heated emotions and jealousies found in group dynamics and love triangles.

Take Wolverine. Presumably tough and stoic, he’s so enamored of Jean Grey – and so envious of her love interest, Scott Summers – that you could argue that unrequited love is one of his primary motivations throughout the series.

Thanks to romance comics, even stoic superheroes got bitten by the love bug.

[You’re smart and curious about the world. So are The Conversation’s authors and editors. You can get our highlights each weekend.]The Conversation

Michael C. Weisenburg, Reference & Instruction Librarian at Irvin Department of Rare Books & Special Collections, University of South Carolina

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Shades of green: What gig economy workers can learn from the success of romance writers


Chris Larson, University of Colorado

When “Fifty Shades Freedopens in theaters on Feb. 9, fans will no doubt flock to see bad boy Christian Grey (played by Jamie Dornan) bested by naughty-but-nice heroine Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson).

A less racy but equally thrilling story, my research shows, is how romance writers are getting ahead in the digital era.

While economists and labor scholars wring their hands over the rise of the precarious gig economy, these freelancers have developed innovative business practices over the past four decades that have set them up for success in the digital era.

Romancing the gig economy

Although few have reached the flabbergasting success of “Fifty Shades” author E.L. James, a former fan fiction writer whose net worth now totals more than US$58 million, I found that the median income for romance authors has tripled in the e-book era. And more and more are earning a six-figure income.

‘Fifty Shades Freed’ is the third film based on the steamy trilogy that originated as a self-published work of fan fiction.
CC BY-SA

This uptick occurred as other types of writing became less profitable. During the same period, a survey of 1,095 Authors Guild members found that their median income from writing fell by at least 30 percent.

Clearly, romance writers know something that other authors, and many struggling freelancers, don’t. The one-third of American workers toiling in the gig economy can learn a few lessons from them.

Some 57.3 million U.S. workers freelanced in 2016, according to research firm Edelman Intelligence. Economists Lawrence Katz and Alan Krueger found that 15.8 percent of Americans work in “alternative work arrangements” (freelancing, contracting, temp work, etc.), up from 9.1 percent in 1995. In fact, they found that all net job growth in the U.S. from 2005 to 2015 came from such work.

If you’re not already freelancing, you may be soon. Edelman predicts that given current growth rates, more than half of the American workforce will freelance by 2027.

Experts don’t agree whether this trend is good or bad for workers and the economy. The freedom is nice but freelancing often pays poorly.

While few writers are getting rich off books alone – I found that half of romance writers earned less than $10,000 in 2014 – more and more are able to support themselves. While only 6 percent earned at least $100,000 in 2008, more than 15 percent did in 2014. Most gig workers, including authors, patch together a living through multiple occupations.

You might speculate that romance writers’ succeed because smut sells. But that doesn’t explain why romance writers are faring better than their peers with digital sales.

Instead, three surprising practices set romance writers up for success: They welcome newcomers, they share competitive information, and they ask advice from newbies.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/r0E4m/7/

Welcoming newcomers

Faced with rejection and ridicule from other writing groups in the 1970s, romance writers formed their own professional association, Romance Writers of America. It now has some 10,000 members.

From its start in 1980, the group embraced newcomers. Unlike other major author groups – and most professional associations – this one welcomes anyone seriously pursuing a career in the field. Newcomers may join once they’ve completed an unpublished romance manuscript.

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Similar groups, including the Authors Guild, Mystery Writers of America and Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, limit full membership to published authors. In some cases, these groups only accept members whose work has been published by specific companies or who have earned a specified amount of money in royalties.

Unlike Romance Writers of America, most traditional guilds, unions and trade associations only admit established professionals.

These barriers to entry can stultify and stagnate industries, especially with today’s transitions. Network theorists Walter Powell and Jason Owen-Smith, for instance, found that the most successful biotech companies in the 1990s formed strategic alliances with newcomers.

This phenomenon isn’t new.

Political science professor John Padgett of the University of Chicago found that upper-crust families in Renaissance Florence who allied themselves with new, upstart families prospered, while members of the elite who shunned newcomers lost influence over time.

Like the protagonist of this series, romance novel writers are pretty smart.
Kate Haskell, CC BY-NC-SA

Sharing competitive information

A strong tradition of mentoring pervades the culture. Romance Writers of America runs contests for unpublished writers and schedules conference tracks for newbies, and informal Yahoo loops, Google groups and meetups help newcomers get oriented.

These networks proved valuable when new digital self-publishing avenues opened up 10 years ago.

Numerous self-published romance writers, including blockbuster author Bella Andre, known for her Sullivan family books, shared their mistakes and successes with other writers as they tried new digital methods of publishing and promotion. Marie Force, best-selling author of the Gansett Island series, started an online self-publishing advice group. Some authors, like Brenna Aubrey, whose romantic stories are about geek culture, even declare their earnings.

This radical transparency that propelled many romance writers to digital success can work in other fields.

For instance, openly sharing local rates and best practices could prove valuable to workers who find jobs through sites like Upwork and TaskRabbit, many of whom set their own prices.

Getting advice from newbies

The openness of romance writers has yielded an unexpected side benefit: access to innovators. The most successful romance writers I studied were experienced authors who asked newcomers for advice.

Using social network analysis tools, my colleague Elspeth Ready and I looked at advice patterns among 4,200 romance writers I surveyed.

While you might presume that novice writers would seek advice more often than anyone else, this wasn’t the case. While 72 percent of unpublished authors in my survey sought advice in the past year, a subset of established writers asked advice just as often. These were established authors interested in shifting to self-publishing.

Many of them did, successfully. I found that, by 2014, traditionally published authors who had added self-publishing to their portfolio out-earned all other romance writers: These so-called “hybrid” authors had a median income of $87,000.

Of course, most writers weren’t earning nearly that much: Half earned less than $10,000 a year. And my survey relied on self-reported income, which can be imprecise. Still, as a whole, these writers saw their prospects improve as the digital gig economy grew and other authors were earning less than before.

The ConversationAt a time when work is becoming increasingly solitary, it only seems fitting that a model involving mutual care and support comes from the freelancers who earn a living from imagining successful connections.

Two samples of this genre.
Daniel Oines, CC BY-NC-SA

Chris Larson, Assistant Professor of Journalism, University of Colorado

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

To the mattresses: a defence of romance fiction


Elizabeth Reid Boyd, Edith Cowan University

Taking up a sheet of paper, he propped it against the easel. With a stick of charcoal in his hand, he flexed his muscled arm, and began to make strong, bold strokes, glancing back and forth at her all the while. She became transfixed by the way he held her in his sights, put his head down to draw, then came intently back up again, in a single movement, like a breath…

You think you’re watching me, Mr Benedict Cole, when in fact I’m watching you. She smiled inwardly.

~Enticing Benedict Cole: Eliza Redgold

There are not many literary genres as loved and loathed as romance fiction. For all its millions of female readers for hundreds of years, it’s been dismissed as sentimental, sappy and trashy, as well as mad, bad and dangerous to read. Yet romance fiction, written by women, published by women, read by women, and researched by women, remains one of the most popular and powerful genres on the planet.


goodreads

I’m a romantic academic. I teach and research in gender studies. Under my pen name, Eliza Redgold, I also write romance novels, published by Harlequin (Mills and Boon).

Romance novels and I began as childhood sweethearts. I didn’t know they were a form of fairy tales, but they worked magic on me. In my twenties I flirted with romance fiction, but we drifted apart. My desire re-emerged when women’s studies, my adored discipline, fragmented in the academy.

I sought solace and attended my first romance writing conference. To my surprise, the scene was all too familiar: predominantly female participants and presenters, a collaborative leadership model, a supportive atmosphere, and lots of violet.

The rest is herstory. I progressed with my purple prose and discovered that the romance writing landscape had changed – roles and rules were being broken as women were engaged in reshaping the genre, along with a concurrent rise of “love studies” that emerged in the wake of women’s studies.

Romance brought me back to academia, full circle. In retrospect, this sounds unproblematic. In truth, the relationship between the two brought me face to face with my pride, and prejudices.

Trashing the genre and gendering the trash

Her skin rippled as his all-encompassing artist’s gaze lingered over her. “Let me just say the painting will be somewhat – revealing. It will not merely be of your face; what I have in mind will require I make a study of … your form.”

“I see.” Her stomach gave another of those mysterious lurches. “To what extent would my … form … be displayed?”

Because I call myself both a feminist and a romantic doesn’t mean they are two hearts beating as one.

Romance has represented a dilemma. Scholars including Germaine Greer have considered it a form of deception that deliberately prevented women from recognizing their oppressed and subordinate roles in patriarchal society. Tania Modleski dubbed it mass-produced fantasy.

Still, postmodernists such as Diane Elam have emphasized its subversive nature.
Val Derbyshire of Sheffield University recently argued that Mills and Boon romances deserve literary attention as feminist texts. And Anja Hirdman writes that Harlequin

seems nowadays to construct a feminine viewing position once thought not to exist at all. Harlequin narratives produce a mix of femininity, desire and power by simultaneously using the familiar formula and making it unfamiliar, by re-writing its gendered implications and by turning the gaze around.

This is not without personal and political challenges. In a Gender and Society journal article entitled Sneers and Leers, Jennifer Lois and Joanne Gregson describe how outsiders apply stigma to romance writers in two ways “by conveying blatant disapproval through “sneering” and inviting writers to display a highly sexualized self through “leering.”

Writers interpreted outsiders’ sneering as slut-shaming rhetoric and responded discursively to manage the stigma; leering, however, sent a more complicated message that was harder for writers to manage.


Goodreads

I spent the publication day of my first romance novel, in 2013, in a darkened room.

It wasn’t possible to pretend I wrote it by accident, mistake, in irony, or to put it down to research. There are many things a woman can fake, but you can’t fake a Mills and Boon.

But consistency, wrote Emerson, is the hobgoblin of little minds. As I lay on my bed, dichotomies and dualisms crowded in – Bad/Good, Feminism/Femininity, Sexuality/Spirituality, Naughty/Nice – forcing me to confront my own freedoms, limitations, inconsistencies and desires, in the confines of my life and the page.

In an academic context, I made no attempt to hide my double identity, but wondered (a.ka. worried) whether the reaction might be disapproval. My expectations were confounded: most were supportive. “I’ve been reading the wrong genre,” said one female colleague. I also couldn’t predict responses based on gender – while a couple of female colleagues rolled their eyes, some male colleagues proved helpful. In turn, being a romance writer has informed my work as an academic.

Why do I write romance? Today, I can better answer that question. For the pleasure of readers, and my own. To reclaim my body. To explore my emotions. To expand my mind.

Once more unto the breeches: embracing the fight for love

He stood up and pulled her into his fierce embrace. The feel of him, the strength of his powerful arms, would be home to her now. Deep within her, she knew he would hold her like this for the rest of her life, his kiss, sure and loving; never to fade.

In a world where women’s rights are under attack, it may seem that romance novels might be slapped again with a warning label. In a sea of pink pussy hats, does purple prose have a female part?

Freedom is created when we are liberated from oppressive thought. This is the most powerful freedom of all. It allows us to create new ways of thinking, being, knowing, speaking, writing, and belonging, of loving, and new kinds of relationships. Every act of bravery encourages another, whether it’s made standing up, marching, sitting-in, or lying down.

Romance novels in a Filipino supermarket.
Arlen/flickr, CC BY

Romance fiction invites us to constantly recreate a language of love. It is the not yet said, not yet imagined relationship between and among women and men.

How do we create this language? We try something old, something new. We write. We revise. We share our sameness, delight in our difference. We philosophize, we ponder, we laugh, we discuss, we converse, we explore. We honour our bodies; we divine our souls. We stand beside. We turn to each other.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

In solidarity. With love.

The Conversation

Elizabeth Reid Boyd, Senior Lecturer School of Arts and Humanities, Edith Cowan University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.