Whenever I think of romance comics, I’m immediately overtaken by images of weeping women with luscious eyelashes, square-jawed men running off with “the other woman,” and dramatic scenes of yearning and longing that are so over-the-top that it’s hard to think that this is what professional romance comic writers -- see also: middle-aged men -- thought played as “realistic” for young readers -- see also also: young women -- at the time. While the majority of romance comics centered around finding one’s one true love (and, most often, finding heartbreak instead) fell away in terms of popularity in the mid-1970s, the genre itself is something that has found its way back into the spotlight by way of subtlety, inclusion, and quietly realistic romantic experiences of the modern era, folded into the pages of YA titles and adult indie publishers.
Romance comics have been understandably noted for their melodrama. Following the big bursting of the superhero genre bubble in the aftermath World War II — a genre with its own kind of drama, I should add — the world of romance seemed like the next big thing given the growing popularity of things like pulp novels, radio drama plays, and the rise of “confessional magazines” among young adults and female readership.
Who better to tap that market, of course, than Captain America’s own Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, with the creation of the first official romantic comic book, Young Romance, in 1947. Breaking away from humor comics lines DC’s All Funny, Fox Feature Syndicate’s Junior, or Timely Comics’ Millie the Model -- where cartoon “wolf eyes popping out the head” romance had its own placement for laughs, of course -- the romance genre strived for what was considered realism at the time, with innovative additions such as first person narration from characters who were beautiful, and running into the everyday troubles of being young and in love: He loves me! He loves me not! Oh wait! He loves her! I will never love again! and so forth.
The initial runaway success couldn’t last forever, however, especially with the 1970s bringing a sexual revolution to young people across the globe. Gone were the days of courting and fawning over a crush, and in came the generation of free love, sex without abandon, and the joys of the birth control pill.
For all intents and purposes, from 1977 onward -- the year in which Young Romance, the original series, came to an end -- the romance genre became one to look back upon with nostalgic fondness for the art, or perhaps a jab at the simplicity and passively misogynistic themes in books ostensibly aimed at young girls. The funny part is, though, the past twenty years or so have brought romance back to comics in a big way…but with a cast of characters and array of themes that finds them just outside of classic readers’ romance expectations.
Some things never change, of course, and what demonstrates that truism most often is the formula of the romance comic. A great example of this comes from Archie Comics, which rebooted its main line in July 2015 with multiple new series that shook things up in a way that offered a casual, modern approach to romance more in-tune with its desired younger audience. Though Archie remains known for a will-he-won’t-he romance triangle between the eponymous lead and his dual potential partners Betty and Veronica, the reboot sees all characters given agency and their own voice, rather than stories focusing solely around impressing -- see also: competing for, caveman style -- the opposite sex. Not only did the thoroughly modern feel from writer Mark Waid and artist Fiona Staples provide a jumping off point for a whole new era of an American comics classic, but the romances became something to use to explore character more deeply rather than sticking solely to the classic way of handling the characters.
It’s not only makeovers of classic characters that are part of the new vanguard of comics romance. As soon as comics became something that creators didn’t have to depend on established publishers for, instead offering the potential to take to the once-fresh internet to share their characters’ trials, tribulations, and affairs, it was all-go from there. Webcomics and internet-only strips — like Jeph Jacques’ Questionable Content, which took off in 2003 and has won several Cartoonist’s Choice Award — have created slice-of-life dramedies with a rotating cast of entangled characters whose relationships shift and move in a way that has touched millions of readers.
The same can be said for the more fantastic adaptations of romance, such as Rachel Smythe’s Eisner and Ringo Award nominated webcomic Lore Olympus, which recounts the dramatic, masterfully rendered, and surprisingly relatable chaos that is the mythology and lore of relationships between Persephone and Hades, Greek God of the Underworld, as well as a whole host of other members of the Greek mythological pantheon. Since its 2018 launch, the strip -- hosted on popular webcomics platform WEBTOON -- had amassed more than 299 million views by the start of last year, with more than four million subscribers by last summer.
Of course, the audience’s embrace of webcomics with a focus on romance and the mundanity of everyday relationships built an even bigger stage for queer content in both digital and print publishing, allowing queer relationships to flourish in a way that is neither fetishized nor overblown for the sake of camp. Projects like Bingo Love — written by Tee Franklin and illustrated and colored by Jenn St-Onge and Joy San — span the lifetime of characters Hazel and Mari, where their love blooms in high school and truly flourishes late in life after they embrace who they want to be, and offer not only a Black, queer narrative, but a story about love that is lasting and invaluable.
On the less grounded side, titles like Image Comics series Moonstruck, from creators Grace Ellis and Shae Beagle, offer a more fantastical and youthful take on identity, love, and the value of relationships, one where not only does main character Julie learn to trust and love her new girlfriend -- as well as help her friends, who find themselves in crisis -- but she also wrestles with her identity and place in the world in a way that undoubtedly resonated with readers of all different ages and identities.
Not everything is black and white -- strictly queer, strictly straight, or even strictly wholesome -- when it comes to the new romance comic, either. Erotica and adult comics, such as those published by none other than the invaluable Chicago publisher, Iron Circus, have also taken the romance genre in a new direction, often leaning into the joys and pleasures of love found in unlikely or new situations. Iron Circus founder and writer C. Spike Trotman and artist Emilee Denich’s 2017 graphic novel Yes, Roya provides a titillating example by painting a picture of both a power exchange dynamic as well as a threesome romance. Crossplay — another Iron Circus adults-only title, from creator Niki Smith — offers drama, eroticism, and a relatable questioning of identity when it comes to sexual hangups, softening the idea that even erotic comics cannot tackle the all-too-real experiences of navigating gender, relationships, and being a sexual being in new spaces.
Perhaps the biggest success of all when it comes to this new era of romance comics, however, are the romance titles — specifically, queer romance — aimed at Young Adult audiences from mainstream book publishers. One of the most notable titles in this field is undoubtedly Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell’s Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me, which took comics by storm upon its release by First Second in 2019. Aimed at young adults but more than suitable for any age, the story centers around young lesbian romance and the heartbreak of being a gay teenager in an earnest but unrequited love scenario. Regardless of sexuality, the story is something that can easily resonate with anyone who has ever had their heart strings pulled; let alone the portion of the story where friendships are tested because of that heartbreak.
Along those same lines, Sloane Leong offers readers A Map to the Sun, her acclaimed 2020 release where ideas of alienation, intimacy, and life circumstances changing the course of relationships can turn into something heartfelt and necessary in order to create new circumstances. An unlikely romance -- and certainly one that doesn’t indulge in any of the tropes of the genre as it first appeared almost eight decades earlier -- it’s a visually stunning graphic novel that speaks to how the genre has evolved, and future directions that it may be able to travel towards.
More than anything, these graphic novels are not afraid to show that while romance stories are still going to be as dramatic as ever, the drama doesn’t have to be overblown, nor does it need to be heterosexual-centric, strictly white, or handled as a joke. Above all, each of these comics mentioned above may very have been much created for a certain audience, but instead outperformed themselves, with their stories finding new homes in the hearts of people who can speak to similar experiences, regardless of their sexuality, gender, or affiliation.
I, sadly, can’t list every title of every comic that falls under this beautiful new category of “modern romance,” but if there’s anything that I hope to impart by talking about the ones that I have, it’s that romance comics are still alive and well -- indeed, maybe even healthier than ever. Sure, the stories may not show the long-eyelashes dame in a pencil skirt fawning over the square-jawed boy; they may not even be about the joy of romance at all. All of these stories bring something new to the genre, though; something relatable — that no longer do you need to be able to relate to the sad girl crying or kissing the boy she loves in the very specific form in which she used to appear. You can be anyone you want to and still love and be loved, knowing very well that there is a creator somewhere in the world who knows how to tell a story that anyone can see themselves in.
Turns out romance comics didn’t die in the 1970s at all. They just took their time becoming so much more.