This year I’ve been working as the Graduate Assistant to the Center for the Study of Humanities, Culture, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Boston. One of my primary tasks has been overseeing the acquisition of the Center’s new Allan D. MacDougall Popular Culture Archive, donated by the widow of a man who collected thousands of CDs, records, comic books, music magazines, trade journals, newspapers, sheet music, event pamphlets, and related ephemera representing the history of U.S. popular culture in the late 19th, 20th, and early 21st centuries.
Needless to say the job has been, at times, overwhelming, despite having been able to hire someone to help in the process. (I should also say I’m not a trained archivist, even if I have an impeccable sense of organization and years of experience as a comic-book collector.) However, the year nicely culminated in a celebratory event to mark the opening of the archive. We brought together various popular culture scholars and community members to discuss the significance of the archive through the lens of individual objects. I spoke briefly on the collection’s romance comics, and thought I’d post the speech here.
As will become obvious, I love romance comics for all they have to offer, but also because they’re almost completely ignored in scholarship (aside from a few choice articles; the not-so-scholarly Love on the Racks: A History of American Romance Comics by Michelle Nolan, published by McFarland in 2008; and the occasional blog, like Sequential Crush by Jacque Nodell). Eventually I’ll have the opportunity to publish on romance comics myself, but that might not be for awhile, given the exciting lanes down which my research is pulling me.
Enjoy! (Or not.) And do leave comics if you have any, especially suggestions for further research into the history of the awesome, three-decades history of romance comics.
Sean A. Guynes
Center for the Study of Humanities, Culture, and Society
University of Massachusetts Boston
The Allan D. MacDougall Popular Culture Archive Reception
April 24, 2015
“Falling in Love #99 (May 1968): Romance Comics and the Popular Culture Archive”
In my capacity as Graduate Assistant to the Center for the Study of Humanities, Culture, and Society, I have had the distinct privilege of sorting and cataloguing the more than two thousand comics that Allan and Jo Ellen bequeathed to UMass Boston—really, to the popular culture studies community at large. The collection represent significant holdings of comics from the 1960s and 1970s, and is particularly strong in the areas of DC and Marvel superhero comics, horror comics, humor comics, and, as I’ll be talking about today, romance comics. The collection also features a number of Western, war, and underground comics, as well as comics from publishers that are rarely collected, among them Gold Key, Charlton, ACG, Harvey, Dell, and Warren.
The MacDougall Archive’s romance comics holding are all the more significant because romance comics are rarely collected. Unlike superhero comics, which are jealously guarded in the hope that one day they’ll turn a buck, comic-book collectors rarely hold on to romance comics. This makes them both difficult to find and also not particularly valuable.
But Allan collected more than two-hundred-fifty romance comics from publishers including Charlton, DC, Marvel, and Skywald—bearing titles like Romantic Story, Career Girl Romances, Falling in Love, Love Diary, I Love You, Night Nurse, Just Married, Young Love, Young Romance, Teen-Age Love, Teen Confession. You get the picture!
Some of these comics even blend genres: Modelling with Millie, for example, merged teen humor with romance; Haunted Love and The Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love, among others, intermixed Gothic horror—exceedingly popular in the 1970s—with the drama of love gone sour; and the early issues of Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane folded iconic hero Superman into the arms of intrepid “woman reporter” Lois Lane.
The MacDougall collection is an extraordinary representation of the three decades history of romance comics, all the more impressive because it boasts 125 issues published by Charlton Comics, a relic of the comics industry’s tumultuous economic fortunes that went bankrupt in 1985, but which published more romance comics than any other company. Our collection holds nearly a tenth of Charlton’s romance line, and 3% of the 6,000 romance comics published by all companies between 1947 and 1977.
In the context of celebrating the treasure trove of popular culture materials that compose the MacDougall Archive, it might seem strange that I am so interested in a small set of comics that comprise only a tenth of the comics collection—and probably less than 1% of the archive itself. But I want to convince you all of the cultural and historical significance of the romance genre in general, and of the importance of the archive’s romance comics to the academy.
The romance genre was launched basically overnight in the summer of 1947 by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, star artists who shaped comic-book art for decades. Their Young Romance series led the way for hundreds of other series published by forty-one companies. The romance genre in some ways imitated teen humor comics like Archie or Betty and Veronica, but instead vied for realism. Most romance comics are written in first person, confessional perspective. They narrate contained stories of romantic courtship for the “modern age,” and reflect their usually male creators’ perspectives on men and women’s social roles.
For the most part, it is believed that romance comics were read by adolescents and especially by young girls and teenage women. While companies weren’t great at keeping demographic records of their readership, the orientation of the comics’ narratives, their advertisements, and their advice columns give insight into the type of people reading the romance genre. The early romance comics were largely structured to explain how women should behave in the early Cold War moment of feminine containment on the homefront.
Most importantly, they were a sort of “how to” and “how not to,” with a greater emphasis on the latter. More often than not these comics were about how love went wrong, and how easy it could be for a woman to lose her virtue—both sexually and socially. I recall one Marvel comic, the plot of which was, that if a woman didn’t choose which of her suitors she wanted to date quickly enough, she’d have only one option in life: to become a go-go dancer, to live alone and be unhappy. After the superhero boom of the 1960s, inspired by Marvel Comics’ radical re-envisioning of the genre, there seems to have been a shift toward getting more young men interested in reading romance comics—creators figured out that they could be a “how to” for men as well as women.
To me, the most compelling thing about romance comics is what they tell us about their creators’ ideas about gender roles in post America—how they constructed teenage romance, what they thought about being a good man or woman, how courtship and marriage should work, and so forth. But the perception that romance comics are merely a tool of paternal male comics creators just trying to turn a profit is a bit shortsighted.
To me—and I’m sure to many of the reader of these comics, the romance genre was a way to literally envision the trials and tribulations of Cold War femininity. They may not have been outspokenly, if at all, feminist, but romance comics provided a way for young girls to understand the difficulty of life as a woman in a man’s world. Such an “against the grain reading” was probably obvious to both girls and boys—after all, it’s no surprise that adolescents are incredibly savvy readers of subtext in popular culture.
I’ve been talking all this time about everything but the comic I listed on the program, Falling in Love #99, which was published by DC Comics in May 1968. To be honest, I chose the comic more as a place holder than as a particularly significant example from the history of romance comics. Falling in Love #99 is nothing unique as far as a romance comic goes—though its psychedelic cover, swirling in neons and pastels out of the most stereotypical “Free Love” corner of the 1960s, is gorgeous. Falling in Love #99 is a physical, object reminder of the cultural and historical depth plumbed by the romance comics collected in the MacDougall archive.
As I mentioned earlier, romance comics are not easy to find. They were rarely collected, and even today, as comic-book companies are beginning to reprint vast caches of their older comics, the romance genre has been unfortunately ignored. The MacDougall Archive is therefore a project of recovery; its more than two-hundred-fifty romance comics represent a unique era in the history of American ideas about gender at a time when those ideas were being radically challenged, when the meaning of romance itself needed to be rethought.