APRIL 18, 2020
WHAT IF WE REMEMBERED Jack Kirby not for Captain America or Galactus, but for the romance comics that he and Joe Simon produced during the late 1940s and early 1950s in their wildly successful titles Young Romance and Young Love? Kirby’s work in the genre, which he and Simon invented, are marked by Wellesian compositions and subtle character studies. They’re the equal of Kirby’s best superhero stories. Twenty thousand romance comics were printed in this period. One billion copies were sold.
Imagine an issue of What If…, Marvel’s late 1970s series imagining alternative timelines for their characters, in which the romance genre’s fans never disappear. In the 1960s, Kirby moves to Marvel and he and Stan Lee create a universe not of superheroes and mutants, but of heartthrobs who dress like Steve McQueen and strong women who look like Jean Seberg. In the mid-1980s, Frank Miller and Alan Moore produce gritty, revisionist graphic novels that revive the genre for a more cynical era. Moore’s Watchwomen tells the story of a dystopian America in which Richard Nixon vanquished the Vietnamese thanks to a romantic intrigue involving a Minnesota housewife and Võ Nguyên Giáp. Romance, the culture understands, is best suited to the comics medium, and supermarkets don’t sell romance paperbacks.
In the early 2000s, Hollywood, after several false starts, produces lush big-budget spectacles based on classic romance comics. Franchises are born. Film snobs compare the current crop of blockbusters unfavorably to the saturated melodramas of Hollywood’s Golden Age. “Where is our generation’s All That Heaven Allows? Our Written on the Wind?” they write in The New Yorker. “Cinema is dead.” But ticket buyers don’t worry too much about the elites’ complaints. The movies sell toys and video games and they do well in China. Comic-cons are dominated by fans who think they’re rebels for performing romance cosplay.
Academics hold conferences where they argue for the cultural legitimacy of the romance comics genre. Professors teach Chris Claremont’s classic run on Heart People alongside Pride and Prejudice. Salman Rushdie declares himself a fan of romance, and Michael Chabon turns his own fandom into a career. Romance comics face a reckoning in the 2010s, when a disgruntled fan base points out the genre’s long history of racism and sexism. The major publishing houses introduce a new set of romance comics heroes and heroines who are more representative of the country’s demographics. An alt-right backlash ensues, but Marvel, to its credit, keeps the new characters. Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay contribute story lines about classic romance comics’ few black protagonists. Fantagraphics and Drawn and Quarterly, meanwhile, publish indie superhero comics read by only a select few. The spring box office in 2019 is dominated by the Russo brothers’ Young Romance: Growing Older and Closer to Death. Think pieces in The New York Times, NPR, Slate, and the Los Angeles Review of Books point out connections to the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, the war on terror, and climate change. Alan Moore declares the romance comics genre morally indefensible. Martin Scorsese makes superhero films.
In fact, it’s even more complicated than that. A society in which the culture as a whole reads romance comics is also a society more interested in women’s stories, and thus a society slightly less dominated by men. The industry includes more women creators. It is Margaret Atwood and Zadie Smith, not Rushdie and Chabon, who champion mainstream fare. Hillary Clinton is elected president in 1992 and proves just as inadequate as her husband did in another reality.
In our own world, only a very small percentage of vintage romance comics have been reprinted. And the few that you can find are advertised as exceptional, either for their aesthetics or their ideology. In 2003, Fantagraphics released Romance Without Tears, a collection of work written by Dana Dutch for the independent publisher Archer St. John. Several of these comics are drawn by Matt Baker, a gay, black man who was one of the few African-American artists of the comics’ Golden Age. John Benson, who spent years compiling the volume, argues in his introduction not so much for the stories’ aesthetic brilliance as for their proto-feminism. “Dutch’s protagonists,” as opposed to those in other romance comics, “were lively, active young women who, though often naïve and inexperienced, had character, a sense of self worth [sic], and a great deal of common sense.” In 2012 and 2014, Fantagraphics published Young Romance and Young Romance 2, a selection of Kirby and Simon’s work. In the introduction to the first volume, Michelle Nolan calls Kirby and Simon’s issues “some of the most dramatic and emotionally powerful comics of their time.” She also commends the creators for their qualified progressivism, noting that “[t]o this writer’s best knowledge, Simon and Kirby dealt with virtually every type of social issue except the still-forbidden interracial romance.” Twenty-first-century readers accept, even celebrate, this sort of didacticism. Comics should be nutritional, they say. They should make us good, or at least less bad.
New York Review Books has just added a new collection to this list of romance comics reprints, Return to Romance: The Strange Love Stories of Ogden Whitney. Departing from earlier collections, this volume contains stories that are very good, but that may not be good for you. Whitney, one of the industry’s more mysterious figures, is best known for a goofy superhero named Herbie, a.k.a. the Fat Fury, that he co-created in the early 1960s for the American Comics Group. But he also spent these years drawing and writing romance comics for ACG, a few years after the romance genre’s heyday. The cartoonist Liana Finck begins her introduction to the NYRB volume by condemning Whitney’s misogyny:
The women in Ogden Whitney’s comics live to find love. If they are distinguished, or distinguishable from one another, it is only in order to offer a different spin on the tried and true form of the romance story. They are vivid characters, but their vividness exists solely to attract the attention of men.
In his afterword to the volume, however, Dan Nadel, who co-edited the volume with Frank Santoro, ignores this issue to focus on the stories’ formal qualities. Nadel’s description of the stories suggests a kinship with Whitney’s contemporary John Cheever, although he compares Whitney to the filmmaker Michael Haneke:
Nearly every panel is a matter-of-fact depiction of an outlandish or distressing moment, psychological events drawn so precisely in frozen space that they add up to scenes that seem as though they could last forever, like an absurdist farce. They appear drawn by someone intent on finding the middle ground between all human characteristics. That blankness lends itself to reader projections, sure, but his stories of humiliated or doltish men, jeering crowds, tough women, and outsiders in love confirm his vision of romance as men and women either terrorizing each other or consoling each other against all societal norms.
Romance, by definition, is a genre in which women live to find love. If they didn’t, these stories would not exist. And Whitney’s men are no more distinguished or distinguishable than the women.
With this in mind, we might argue that Whitney’s take on the genre is not just strange for the sake of strangeness. Rather, it serves as a means of locating the depth of pain women suffer at the mercy of men who find seemingly countless ways to abuse them. In this way, Whitney’s stories anticipate 21st-century graphic novels and graphic memoirs created by women. The collection’s subtitle tells us these aren’t “normal” comics. But in another respect, they’re also more familiar to our sensibilities than Kirby and Simon’s oeuvre. We live in a universe in which smart people only accept romance if it’s weird. And angry. And mean.
Whitney’s comics are not didactic. They are not nutritional. They simply depict a society that uses terms like “love” and “romance,” while ignoring the equally important word “kindness.” They don’t tell you how you should regard women or men. They tell you how our society regards women and men. They don’t make you any better, but they remind you that the rest of the world is just as mediocre as you are.
The history of American comics is littered with eccentrics with incomplete biographies, lonely men who reveal their entire selves in their work and leave a scant record of their lives otherwise. As of this writing, Ogden Whitney’s Wikipedia page opens with “Ogden Whitney (born 1918; died early 1970s).” In the afterword to Return to Romance, Dan Nadel has pieced together a slightly fuller outline of Whitney’s life, including the fact that he died at the age of 56 at Saint Barnabas Psychiatric Hospital in the Bronx on August 13, 1975. He was born in Massachusetts and grew up in Minneapolis. His father was an accountant and his mother was an artist. In 1935, the family resettled in the Bronx, where his sister worked at a newspaper and he worked at the paper’s print shop. He enlisted in the army in 1943 and was stationed in the Philippines until his discharge in 1946. When he returned home, he lived with his mother. His brother committed suicide. He married, at the age of 40, a woman who was two years older. A colleague described him as “very correct. He seems to me to have been kind of withdrawn. Not a socially amiable, but not unamiable person. Someone who might be coming in like an accountant.”
Through it all, there was the work. Before Whitney joined the army, he drew some of DC’s now long-forgotten superheroes, including Sandman. In the late 1960s, he was the artist for a Western series at Marvel. And there were the stories he churned out for ACG. He lived the most tragic of American stories, that of the talented, but uncharismatic man, working at the margins of an industry that underpaid its workers, swept aside and forgotten because the free market considered him unimportant. What traumas did he witness in Southeast Asia? Did he ever come to terms with his brother’s suicide? After everything he suffered, did he just want to disappear?
The title story of Return to Romance suggests that Whitney had very little regard for the world he left behind. In this story, a frumpy, round woman named Astrid Franklin is inexplicably married to a dashing fashion photographer named Stan. She spends her time keeping house while he lives the life of an artistic genius, admired by his subjects both for his talent and his looks. I was astounded by Astrid, a character with a terrible slouch and a bit of flab, carrying the weight of a thousand years of self-loathing: she is the sister of Daniel Clowes’s Wilson. After Stan leaves Astrid, she visits a plastic surgeon who refuses to put her under the knife. The dialogue is so shocking it elicits either a guffaw or a gasp. She asks if she’s just too ugly to benefit from surgery. “No — You’re too crazy! But you’re a mess, all right — Look at you! Overweight — Big glasses — That Stooped-over Stance — Hair like a Fiji Grab bag — Pasty complexion — Just About Everything’s Wrong with you!” But he gives her hope and some advice. Astrid spends many long hours torturing her body in exercise. She learns how to dance and dress. She gets a new hairdo. She becomes a vamp. Through a series of events too convoluted to explain, she ends up with Stan again. Astrid knows who was responsible for their marriage’s failures: “It was all my fault. That’s why I changed, darling. Let’s try over again — And this time, I’ll be both a housekeeper and a woman!”
Read quickly this story seems like a sustained exercise in unironic cruelty. But I read it slowly. I found myself staring at Astrid staring at herself in the mirror, studying every part of her body that was wrong, breaking herself down, piece by piece. I’ve rarely seen a more depressing portrait of how the American economy forces women to hate themselves. With this in mind, I want to read the story as shaped by covert strains of irony and empowerment. I like to think Astrid is in on the joke along with me. I see a hint of self-satisfaction once the transformation is complete. I see a woman that, despite her words, will eventually have sex with a man as much on her own terms as on his.
Of course, there are other stories where it’s harder to believe that Whitney is in on the joke. I am a sucker for right-wing camp, and find the unembarrassed reactionaryism of Whitney’s “The Brainless Type!” totally hilarious. Margie Tucker has spent her entire life incompetent at school and work, but can she cook! One day, a handsome young man named Joel Bentley comes to town to build a rocket engine plant. She puts him up in her house. And though he is initially interested in Margie, he ends up rejecting her for an older flame, with whom he mocks Margie for her lack of intelligence. When workers at the plant go on strike, Margie rises to the occasion, shows her spirit, and rallies them back to work. “Not only will [Joel Bentley] lose, but America will, too, because it needs the products we turn out. Would you rather let our enemies win out — and work even longer hours for practically nothing and not be allowed to complain? What do you say?” Joel comes to his senses, realizing that he was wrong to reject Margie, and the couple finally unites. In this world, a woman proves herself worthy by undermining union power and supporting the military industrial complex.
Whitney’s aesthetic choices in “The Brainless Type!” suggest both the difficulty and the plausibility of reading his work ironically. His compositions, here as elsewhere, look, as Nadel notes, like phone-book art. The backgrounds are block, plain colors. There is little depth. The drawing is austere and strikingly uncinematic. At a glance the comic looks like a cheap ad, but it tells a story of sex, love, mass violence, and labor exploitation. Whitney deploys the aesthetics of mass American consumerism to tell the story of a love built on the worst excesses of American capitalism.
I would like to stay in my alternate universe in which romance dominates the comics medium. A slew of writers and artists are inspired by Kirby and Simon, Dutch and Baker, and, yes, Whitney. The genre is still mad, histrionic, and Brechtian. But there is no Frank Miller or Alan Moore, no single moment of revision. The literature of romance, in comics, novels, movies, or operas, is nothing but a long history of revision and re-revision. When it comes to sex and love, anything written and done 10 years before you were born looks suspect. For Whitney, romance is about power, which is what it has been for every writer who has taken romance seriously. And the romance comics creators, particularly women, that arise in my What If… story understand the genre’s possibilities.
These creators start where Whitney left off. They create elaborate worlds with complicated women, men, and gender non-comforming folks. There are gay characters and bisexual characters and asexual characters. The stories’ casts are not uniformly white. The protagonists hate themselves as much as they love themselves. They allow other people to define them. Then they turn away and define themselves on their own terms. And then, once they think they have fully achieved a sense of self-worth, they find yet one more person to humiliate them. They live in a state of ambiguity, caught between the certainty of being in love and the utter confusion that is its opposite number.
In this world, comics are not driven by the cultural tastes of the young. Kirby and Simon’s romance comics were meant to be mature. Early issues of Young Romance carry the tagline “Designed for the more ADULT readers of COMICS,” which in practice meant young girls who had graduated from humor magazines, as well as young women. Whitney’s scenarios seem to have been dreamt up by a 10-year-old, but you need to have at least hit puberty to have an inkling of what he’s talking about. A divorced 45-year-old would really get them. These unwritten, undrawn romance comics and un-filmed blockbusters inspired by Whitney would have taught us something valuable. They would have forced us to grow up, instead of down.
Paul Morton is a lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Washington. He is currently working on a manuscript on the Zagreb School of animation, as well as a critical study on Jules Feiffer, “America’s first literary cartoonist.”