Young Romance: the Best of Simon & Kirby's Romance ComicsA comic review article by: Jason Sacks
Elsewhere in this week's TPB reviews I take a look at a collection of crime comics by the team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby that has recently been published. I loved that book for all its lurid, post-World War II glorious intensity. That book portrayed a world seriously at odds with our cultural memory of the past as a quiet and calm time of relative peace and prosperity. Instead there was a feeling of deep cultural stress portrayed in Simon and Kirby's work, an intense feeling that the end of a long war with the Nazis just allowed a deep and long-lasting set of tensions to return to the surface.
You'd expect tension in a series of crime comics; hell, it's pretty damn hard not to have crime comics without violence, anger and a whole bunch of hatred. But what I didn't expect was to find deep levels of tension in a book like Young Romance.
Michael Gagne's new collection of Simon & Kirby romance stories contains 21 stories by the master team, spanning the years from 1947 to 1959. That means that we get several stories from before the advent of the Comics Code and several from afterwards. If you ever wanted to get a clear demonstration of the impact of the Code, there's no better place to look than Gagne's book. The first 14 or so stories in this book have a surprising bite, presenting a fascinating look at some of the tensions in America of the '40s and '50s. The seven or so post-Code stories, however, are strikingly bland and boring. But even the more boring stories are surprisingly interesting.
One of the most interesting pre-Code stories is "Shame" from 1948. Joyce is personal secretary to "David Stanton Jr., of the department store Stantons." As you might expect from a romance comic, the rich department store owner is in love with his secretary. But Joyce has a deep and troubling secret: as she says, "David must never know about my background. I -- I can't risk losing my love because of the difference in our social positions…" Yes, Joyce is poor -- very poor. Her worn-down and hard-working mother (it's never directly stated but it's reasonable to think the mother is an immigrant) is such an embarrassment to poor Joyce that she won't even say hello to her mother when she and David see her mom while on a date. When a horrible incident happens to the mother, Joyce gives up hope. Though the story has a traditional happy ending, it's suffused with an intense sense of sadness and shame and a surprising feeling of uncertainty.
"Her Tragic Love", from 1947, could have come directly from the pages of the crime comics. It's the lurid story of "handsome, mild-mannered Sam Ford -- foolish but sincere--" who ends up being tried and convicted of the murder of his ex-girlfriend. This is pretty grim and intense fare, a story that features false admissions of guilt, a near trip to the electric chair, and a tragic suicide. There's not a happy ending to this story. It's a romance story in name only. This is the sort of romance story even a man could enjoy.
Sari, the "Sailor's Girl," from 1949, somehow convinces her boyfriend, Red, who is a sailor by passion and profession, to give up his love for the sea in favor of his love for her. Red is tortured by how much he misses the waves, but he stoically puts up with life on dry land because of his love for Sari. This is an intense little tale, featuring a dream sequence where Red dresses and fights like a Viking as well as several scenes of very passionate romance -- at least for that era. Though it's below the surface, this story pretty directly implies that Red and Sari have a lot of hot sex, which makes him hard for him to give her up. But Sari senses that Red misses the sea, and when a crisis happens, she realizes that her entrapping ways are wrong. The closing scenes of this story present an exciting rescue on the high seas, once again giving a thrilling conclusion for men as well as women.
Another terrific pre-code story, "I Want Your Man" from 1950, presents a scheming shrew out to destroy the life of a woman for whom she's very jealous. It's fascinating to watch the ends that the shrew takes to destroy the life of the woman she hates, and though the ending is a bit pat, the Simon and Kirby team invest this story with so much passion and energy and spirit that the energy kept me interested right to the end.
And the other pre-Code stories presented in this book all seem to have elements that make them transcend romance comics clichés. Suzi of "Boy Crazy" seems quite insane, while Annalise of "Fraulein Sweetheart" gets caught up in the attempts by former Nazis in 1947 to take revenge on Americans. "Wedding Present" involves the Korean War and a great sacrifice while "Kathy and the Merchant of Sunset Canyon" tells an intense story of a man who redeems himself of a misunderstanding girlfriend only after injuring himself in a fire.
All of the pre-Code stories in Young Romance share a few qualities in common. First, they're really damn melodramatic. You do have to have a lot of patience for the ups and downs of these stories that feel very soap operatic. They're also very wordy, sometimes absurdly so. Wordiness was a big part of the style of comics in that era, but there's an awful lot of purple prose to get through in order to read these stories. But thankfully all the stories from that era feature some wonderful and intense art by Simon & Kirby that still seems magical on the page even some 60 years after it first appeared.
The post-Code stories, though, are very different.
The stories that Gagne presents from the post-Code era seem emasculated and lobotomized compared to those at the front of the book. The stories are less intense, the people more beautiful and less weathered; even the art by Simon and Kirby seems much more polished, free of scraggly edges and deep shadow. Characters wander through bland and colorless stories devoid of much passion. There's a feeling by the final stories, from 1956 and 1959, of the creators phoning in their work.
Consider Jeff and Noreen of "Old Enough to Marry," from 1955. There's the promise of something interesting in this story, as Jeff's policeman father forbids his 21-year-old son from marrying his 19-year-old sweetheart. But it turns out that dad's actually an old softy and all his tough grilling of his son is just a test to make sure that Jeff really loves Noreen. Aww, ain't it nice that dad will allow this couple to marry too young so they can be bored with each other long before they both turn 30?
Or take "Lady's Choice," in which a waitress talks a young hoodlum out of robbing her coffee shop and instead gives him a job and ends up falling in love with him. It turns out the hoodlum wasn't bad, he's just misunderstood or something like that. Oh, the power of the love of a good woman!
So yeah the first two-thirds of this book are pretty damn great and the last third is pretty damn painful. But part of the story of the Simon and Kirby romance books is exactly that -- a bit of promise and excitement followed by a settling into formula and the doldrums. By 1959 Simon and Kirby moved out of romance books. The team split up and Kirby, of course, found new loves in the superhero genre. Hmm, that kind of follows the formula of a romance, doesn't it!
Overall, though, this book is a real treat, an inexpensive way to read a nice sampling of some Kirby comics that any Kirby fanatic has to be curious about. Michael Gagne did a great job assembling a fun cross-section of stories, and noted romance comics historian Michelle Nolan provides an insightful introduction. These might not be the first classic Kirby comics that you would choose to pick up, but they are a lot of fun to read.
Jason Sacks has been obsessed with comics for longer than he'd like to remember. He considers himself a student of comics history and loves delving into obscure corners of this crazy artform. Jason has been writing for this site for about seven years and has also been published in a number of fan publications, including the late, lamented Amazing Heroes and The Flash Companion. He lives in north Seattle with his wife and three kids.