Once upon a time, romance comics were all over newsstands. In the 1950s, comics publishers put out titles like Young Love and Boy Meets Girl and Young Romance. It's an oversimplification to say that romance comics completely disappeared — Archie Comics never stopped venturing into the genre — but romance comics certainly suffered as much as monster comics and war comics when superheroes took over the medium in the 1960s.
Just as romance novels are enjoying a period of critical reappraisal and commercial popularity, it's time for romance comics to make a comeback. And two books that I picked up at Phoenix Comics yesterday indicate a bold path forward for the romance genre in comics.
Each of the comics in the seventh issue of the free local comics anthology zine Thick as Thieves is at least vaguely Valentine's-themed. Some of the strips are adorable — Ryan Tiszai's bunny rabbit strip on the inside front cover is unspeakably cute — and others are edgier and more abstract.
If your idea of love doesn't involve the Kool-Aid Man crashing through Mount Rushmore while shouting "FUCK YOUR GODS!," as in Travis Rommereim's contribution to the issue, maybe this isn't for you. But really, maybe you should reassess your romantic goals if that image doesn't speak to you on some deep emotional level.
Perhaps more surprisingly than Thick as Thieves taking on a romantic theme, Marvel Comics published a one-shot for Valentine's Day titled Love Romances. Subtitled Love Stories That Can Only Be Told in a Comic Book!, Love Romances captures nearly the same vivid sense of experimentation that you'll find in the much punkier Thick as Thieves.
Really, these four stories are more stylistically daring and artistically bold than a lot of mainstream books. "The Widow and the Clockwork Heart," a steampunk love story written by Gail Simone and drawn by Rogé Antônio, is perhaps the most stylistically straightforward of the stories — but it imagines a vivid new world that feels ready for further exploration.
Margaux Motin and Pacco Dorwling-Carter's "Heartbroken from Beyond," the silent story of a man haunted by his deceased lover, is the cartooniest story in the book, and it enjoys a kineticism that wouldn't feel out of place in a Fantagraphics title. And "Gone Like the Wind," a story of robots and aliens and superficial love drawn by Jon Adams and colored by Tamra Bonvillain, feels closest to Fraction and Zdarsky's Sex Criminals in tone and appearance. These are influences and energies that ordinarily would land nowhere near a traditional Marvel title. It's beyond refreshing.
When read together, Thick as Thieves and Love Romances make a strong argument for a romance comic revival. The genre's tropes are an excellent laboratory — a place to examine social behaviors and expectations. I've seen plenty of older people complain online that the idea of sex and dating in the time of #MeToo is simply too tortured to consider. That's a silly, regressive argument — but it is true that gender and consent politics are being rewritten in real time.
And where better to examine these new social mores than in some vivacious, experimental comics made by fresh young talents? When has there ever been a better time to write about romance than right now, when a new generation is rewriting the rules of love for the better? This is how romance comics make themselves relevant for a new generation.