There was a time when romance comics ruled the world. With superhero books flailing and the number of adult readers rising in the years following World War II, legendary creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby looked at the ‘true confession’ magazines that were ruling the newsstands at the time and, in 1947, they launched Young Romance. The book was an immediate success, leading to a slew of imitators from practically every publisher in the business. They largely shared both a similar formula – anthology books, featuring self-contained stories that starred an ever-changing cast of heroines in their late teens and early twenties – and similar success. Together, these books tapped into a sizeable older female audience that had largely been turned off by the crime, horror and action books that had dominated publishers’ slates since the beginning of the medium; by 1949, romance comics were outselling all others.
However, the implementation of the Comics Code in 1954 hit the genre hard. Over the next two decades, women’s liberation and the sexual revolution radically transformed what women expected from their relationships, but those depicted in the romance comics were stuck in a bygone era. Readers walked away, publishers followed suit, and – while it survived outside the U.S. to some extent, in the form of girls’ comics and shōjo manga – the genre was all but dead by the time the final issue of Young Romance was published in 1975.
And there it remained for the rest of the century. Superheroes ruled the roost again, women didn’t read comics (except for all those that did, of course), and anthologies were only for obscure black and white alt comix artists. However, the new millennium has brought big changes to the comic book industry, and while romance comics may be some way off from topping the sales lists as they once did, the genre has certainly emerged from its long hibernation.
The return of romance comics is impossible to separate from the explosion in the visibility of female comics readers and creators over the last two decades. Arrow Publications began publishing romance graphic novels amid the boom in trade paperback sales – largely fuelled by non-traditional readers buying in bookstores– in the early noughties. A few years later, Dark Horse responded to the growing popularity of romance manga in the west by launching an imprint dedicated to manga adaptions of books by the romance novel publisher Harlequin.
It’s the rise of crowdfunding and digital comics, though, that’s really paved the way for the romance comic revolution we’ve seen over the last few years. Together, they’ve created a thriving market for genres and formats that have long been considered unviable by mainstream publishing companies and opened the door for diverse creators and stories to reach wide audiences. As a result, romance (and their close cousin, erotica) anthologies have flourished. There’s no better demonstration of their popularity than the success of Rosy Press – Janelle Asselin’s publishing imprint dedicated entirely to digital romance comics – and its flagship monthly title Fresh Romance, which saw the release of its first print volume this month after a successful Kickstarter campaign.
In stark contrast to the conservative romance comics of the fifties and sixties, Rosy Press seeks to represent relationships in all their forms. The first story in Fresh Romance Volume 1, School Spirit, plays with the classic high school romance tale by having its two leading ladies pretending to be competing over the same guy in order to cover up their own relationship. It’s the kind of idea that makes you angry you didn’t write it yourself, and that’s before the guy’s own secret is revealed.
The book emphasises diversity in not just its characters, but also its stories and creators. The vast majority of the book’s contributors are women (including Panels favourites Kate Leth and Marguerite Bennet) and people of colour; their stories encompass historical romance, fairy tale, contemporary fantasy and more. Casting off the shackles of heteronormative, patriarchal domesticity that doomed romance comics in the last century, Fresh Romance uses relationships as a springboard to tell a dazzling array of stories.
Fresh Romance may be the biggest name (and only monthly book) in modern romance comics, but it’s joined by an ever-increasing number of anthologies in almost every genre you could think of. You can find science fiction romance in Speculative Relationships, queer paranormal romance in The Other Side, technological romance in Love Machines – the list goes on and on. Whether romance comics float your boat or not, the return of the genre represents a triumph for all readers that don’t see themselves and their interests in the books favoured by mainstream publishers. It’s a reminder that women have always read comics – in numbers great enough to dominate the market – and that books for and by women do sell. Romance comics are back – let’s hope that they’re here to stay.