The most fascinating comic book I’ve seen this week came out in the spring of 1968, and has never been reprinted. You can see a little bit of the gorgeous cover of Falling In Love #99 up at the top of the page, drawn by the late Cuban-American artist Ric Estrada. A mod-looking young woman is wearing a turtleneck sweater beneath a black-and-white go-go-checked outfit and hat (and a button with an upside-down peace symbol). The mod-looking gentleman next to her is also wearing a turtleneck, and he’s got a double-breasted, geometrical, black-and-white jacket over it. They’re surrounded by Peter Max-inspired psychedelic visions of all the girls our heroine imagines are after her “swinger” boyfriend, along with a psychedelicized version of the sign for Palisades Amusement Park.
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Palisades Park, as it turns out, is the setting for a key scene in the Estrada-drawn story illustrated on the cover–one of three stories in this issue. It’s also the sponsor of the ad on the final page of the issue, an entry blank for the Miss American Teen-Ager pageant held at the park. (Another romance comic published in the spring of 1968 included a three-page story about the 1967 winner, Michele Patrick.) The fishing-gear ad on the back cover of Falling In Love #99 is the sort of thing that might have appeared in a superhero comic book of the time; the ads for magic nail formula and beauty aids, and the love advice column from “Carol Andrews,” aren’t. And a two-page fashion spread in the middle, “Mad Mad Modes for Moderns,” definitely isn’t–especially since it seems to have caught the psychedelic bug too, with one model’s face reduced to a pink blur with a single eye and eyebrow, and another’s hat blacking out a solid eighth of a page.
“Wow–who are these characters?” said a friend of mine when I showed her the cover. They’re nobody in particular, of course. But that’s the way most romance comics worked, and in 1968, there were a ton of them. Besides Falling in Love, DC was publishing Girls’ Love Stories, Girls’ Romances, Heart Throbs, Secret Hearts, Young Love and Young Romance–the last of those was the romance comic that reached the highest issue count, finally giving up the ghost with #208 in 1975. Charlton’s romance titles in that psychedelic year included Career Girl Romances, Hollywood Romances, I Love You, Just Married, Love Diary, Romantic Story, Summer Love, Sweethearts, Teen-Age Love, Teen Confessions and Time for Love. Even Marvel, which had had a torrid fling with the romance format in 1949 and 1950 and then abjured it almost altogether, published My Love and Our Love Story for six years beginning in 1969.
Romance comics weren’t just a tiny tributary of what was available on newsstands: they were a hugely popular genre for a while. And then they disappeared, as if they’d never happened in the first place. There are basically no straightforward reprints of vintage American romance comics in print, although the last few years have seen a few projects like Marvel Romance Redux and Last Kiss, which feature new dialogue grafted onto old romance stories for the sake of giggles. Every page of artwork John Romita drew for Amazing Spider-Man is permanently in print, but the Mary Robin, R.N. stories he drew in Young Love haven’t been seen in 45 years. (There are a couple of useful sites on the Web, though: the Sequential Crush blog is an invaluable resource for information on classic romance comics.)
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The great weakness of the romance-comics genre was writing. These stories were meant to push very specific buttons in their audience, over and over, and they usually had somewhere under 12 pages to hit those buttons. There were certain scenes that were almost obligatory–see, for instance, John Glenn Taylor’s awesomely funny blog post “Why Chicks Cry,” 66 panels of close-ups of crying heroines. The stories in romance comics were often interchangeable; the ones that are notable now are usually interesting because time has turned them into high camp, not because they’re particularly clever or insightful.
At their best, though, the romance comics of the ’60s and early ’70s turned those constraints into strengths. Artists like Estrada and Enrique Nieto and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, all of whom clearly loved to draw fashions and hairdos and scenes of intense emotion, threw themselves into their work, coming up with designs and styles that would have seemed avant-garde by the standards of any other comics of their day. Everything else on the newsstands in those days promised thrills or laughs. Falling in Love was part of a strain that promised beauty, style and sweet aching–all of which mainstream comics could use more of, even now.