Once upon a time girls spent their money on stories of love and heartbreak in a bounty of romance comics that could be found at every news stand and corner drug store. The romance comic genre was conceived nearly 70 years ago with the first issue of Young Romance by Captain America’s Joe Simon and Jack Kirby for Prize Comics and other publishers were soon following suit. As successful as they were in the first decade of their existence, not everyone was a fan of them. The notorious Frederic Wertham wrote the following on page 40 in his Seduction of the Innocent: “Flooding the market with love-confession comics was so successful in diverting attention from crime comic books that it had been entirely overlooked that many of them really are crime comic books, with a seasoning of love added. Unless the love comics are sprinkled with some crime they do not sell. Apparently love does not pay.” True, Wertham saw crime themes everywhere in comics, even in Superman, but Wertham was right in a way about love not paying though twenty plus years would pass before the last remaining romance comic, DC’s Young Love, was canceled.
Flash forward decades later and Janelle Asselin decided the time was right to try romance comics again and she assembled writers and artists to create a handful of stories and soon after Asselin’s Rosy Press launched a crowdfund. Now through an arrangement with Oni Press these stories are collected in a print volume for everyone who missed out on the Kickstarter.
Thank god this is not one of your grandmother’s romance comics! Don’t get me wrong — I love old romance comics when I can find them on the cheap but they can be cringe inducing when thinking about how girls and young women may have been affected by their outdated views on gender roles and Eisenhower era values. Gracing the print edition’s cover is Marguerite Sauvage’s illustration of Sarah Kuhn and Sally Jane Thompson’s The Ruby Equation. The Kevin Wada cover for the original digital first issue is tucked inside the book’s front matter. This volume has a new bonus short story by Kieron Gillen and Christine Norrie in addition to the original four stories (School Spirit, Ruined, The Ruby Equation, Beauties) and roundtable discussions with the creators talking about their process and influences to round things out. The creative teams really delivered on the fresh aspect of the anthology’s title with a variety of settings (high school, period England, a coffee shop in Anytown, USA, a fantasy kingdom, New York) and engaging and self aware characters who deal with tense and adverse situations. Also, kudos to making many of the characters people of color or queer. Certainly beneficial is the freedom to tell longer form stories whereas old romance comics typically ran 3 or 4 short stories featuring a rotating cast of female mannequins with interchangeable features, plus a hoaky 1 or 2 page advice column. Then along comes Gillen and Norrie’s piece as a perfect example of how a writer and artist can convey a sense of a character’s life in all of four pages. One observation I have regarding the respective stories as they’re formatted in the collected edition is that they flow naturally without the necessary and somewhat awkward chapter breaks that were an unintended consequence of the original run.
Kate Leth loves to write about relationship dynamics and here she teams up with artist Arielle Jovellanos to tell the story of star crossed millennial lovers, friendship, and honesty in School Spirit. Sounds straightforward enough, right? All except the part about honesty because four close friends have devised a plan to hide their relationships from their parents for fear of disapproval. See, Justine and Malie pretend to be in a love triangle with Miles when they’re really in love with each other while their mock rivalry repays Miles for being their beard so that he and Corrinne can secretly date. Miles and Corrinne’s relationship is an even bigger one than Justine and Malie’s and she definitely wants to keep her two dads from finding out as long as possible. And about Malie’s two dads….there’s got to a good story to tell about how they met and fell in love! Kudos to Leth for making Miles a real gentleman when his jock friends step over the line with teasing him about his two girlfriends. But you know the saying about best laid plans! Hijinks, tears, and laughter ensue as the charade quickly begins to unravel especially when Justine takes Corrinne’s advice to “go get the girl, jerkface” in a grand, romantic and very public kiss that goes viral in minutes.
Jovellanos is a great match for illustrating Leth’s teen drama. She has a flair for crisp, clean, and energetic lines and her wide ranging facial expressions are a real delight! The artist also displays a keen interest in putting the characters in distinct outfits. Amanda Scurti’s well balanced palette of warm and cool colors vibrantly enhances Jovellanos’ pencils.
I will admit that while browsing the anthology my interest seemed less piqued by Sarah Vaughn and Sarah Winifred Searle’s Ruined than the other stories. Give in to being seduced by Vaughn and Searle’s languorous pace as I did and you’ll be rewarded with an emotionally tense story of a young woman caught between romantic love and familial obligations that women of the time were burdened with. The woman in question is Catherine Benson as she reluctantly allows herself to become the wife of Andrew Davener as arranged by her parents. It is their wish to put Catherine’s scandalous romantic dalliance with a male suitor, of whom we see only a glimpse, and the ensuing gossip behind her, by which I mean to restore the family’s good name. “Onward!” as Catherine’s stoic mother reminds her. What Catherine – and the reader – learns to her dismay in the days following her arrival at the Davener estate is that her new family has its own rather closely held disarrays and intrigues, all of which are deliciously skirted about with some Regency period shade in Vaughn’s elegant dialog.
Searle’s style is stylistically decorative in a manner similar to Japanese ukiyo-e prints in which space and form are rendered flat. Searle’s art has an all together different aesthetic from Japanese print masters and her contour line work here is the perfect match to Vaughn’s dialog to illustrate the artifice of appearance and manner upon which these English families build and maintain their reputations. There’s a quality about the way Searle draws the shapes of the characters makes them feel as if only their genteel clothing can barely contain all their secrets and inner desires. Searle is also the colorist and her simply rendered palette feels evocative of this bygone era.
In this story’s roundtable Searle mentions working on an upcoming project, Sparks, which is set in Edwardian England and about two working class women who fall in love and have a “Boston marriage”. It sounds really promising, and Vaughn is writing a revival of sorts with DC’s gothic romance Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love featuring Deadman which will begin later this year.
Sarah Kuhn and Sally Jane Thompson bring readers The Ruby Equation, a playful and philosphical look at the approach of love. Ruby is an inter-dimensional matchmaker sent to earth where she plies her skills on the sly as a Cafe au Love barista under the watchful eye of her mentor Clarabella. Much to Clarabella’s chagrin, Ruby has adopted the adage of “math trumps chemistry” in an attempt to streamline her required 10,044 matches she’s been tasked with by her matchmaking agency. Unsurprisingly, Clarabella embodies the opposite “chemistry over math” approach that requires patience and a willingness to be vulnerable and open. Savanna Ganucheau’s sense of color is just lovely, being simultaneously decorative while subtly working to convey emotions of Ruby and her friends and customers.
Marguerite Bennett, well known for her writing at DC, Marvel, and Aftershock, teams up with artist Trungles for Beauties. Readers familiar with Bennett’s work know she’s committed to writing queer characters and happy to subvert paradigms. Here Bennett puts her mark on the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale by exploring what love means to different people and how people come to possess beauteous and beastly virtues While Beauties may lack outright queer characters it stands as a metaphor for queer love with the youngest princess (yes, she’s named Beauty) rejecting social conventions when she falls in love with Krasna, whom everyone else regards as an unnatural beast to be owned and tamed. Artist Trungle was the perfect match to evoke this make believe tale. His style recalls the fanciful imagery from a time when magazines and books were lavishly illustrated by such artists as Edmund Dulac, Rose O’Neill, and Harry Clarke – a detail handily shared by the artist in the story’s roundtable discussion. It’s a shame these artists aren’t more well known today, but I digress.
As briefly alluded to above, Kieron Gillen and Christine Norrie’s First, Last, and Always is the new story as well as being the shortest. This little piece is a hauntingly impressionistic sketch of a woman whose first kiss creates a singular deja vu like experience for her. Norrie uses a sly trick to underscore the woman’s psychological state by rendering the present moment sequence in lush, painterly strokes and crisp linework to evoke memories. Very nicely done job here!
A shout out to Hilary Thompson for her design work! Loving your color sense!
Good news! Skipping ahead to the end pages I see more Fresh Romance comics are teased with samples of a trio of stories! If you’re like me, anthology titles can be hit and miss. You pick it up for the theme and find a couple stories you really love and maybe a couple that leave you cold. Happily this wasn’t the case for me this time because I found myself enjoying all five stories!
Amazon’s list price is identical to cover price though the Kindle version is $14.99. Consider supporting your local comic shop to purchase this book unless you can’t find a copy. The Diamond order code is APR161829.
Creator credits as follows:
School Spirit: Kate Leth, writer; Arielle Jovellanos, artist; Amanda Scurti, colorist; Taylor Esposito, letterer
Ruined: Sarah Vaughn, writer; Sarah Winifred Searle artist; Ryan Ferrier, letterer
The Ruby Equation: Sarah Kuhn, writer; Sally Jane Thompson, artist; Savanna Ganucheau, colorist; Steve Wands, letterer
Beauties: Marguerite Bennett, writer; Trungles artists & colorist; Rachel Deering, letterer
First, Last and Always: Kieron Gillen, writer and Christine Norrie, artist