As we approach Black History Month, which begins Wednesday, February 1, 2012, Prof. William H. Foster III, offers his insights on this comic book topic...
If you have never read a Romance comic book, you have missed something special. I discovered them as a young pre-teenager years ago and have been a fan ever since.
I grew up with six sisters and often had to escort one or more of them on a weekly trip to the neighborhood beauty parlor. For me it was a form of torture. I would wait for several hours with nothing to do, except pray that none of my buddies saw me. Fortunately, early on I discovered a pile of romance comics stacked in the waiting area.
I was skeptical at first but soon became an engrossed and loyal reader. What an unplumbed gold mine they were! Okay, that mine was usually full of the latest fashion trends, weight loss tips, and more dating advice columns than you could shake a stick at, but the stories still drew me right in. With series titles like Young Romance, Heart Throbs, Girls’ Love, and Young Love, their stories were aimed directly at young people (okay girls!) who were curious about that strange, scary phenomenon called social interaction.
In the 1950s there was a boom in romance comic book titles. Publishers were looking for new audience readers. This was partially true due to the arrival of the newly invented Comic Book Code. Romance certainly represented a safe and wholesome genre when viewed against the “grisly horror” and “blatant sexuality” of other comic books of the time. They must have offered a tame substitute that wouldn’t cause much controversy. But the rush to promote clean cut American values had an unfortunate side effect – the disappearance of people of color. The simple logic seemed to be: “No people of color, no controversy regarding racial issues.”
But thanks to forward thinking publishers like Fawcett Comics, there was a rare exception to this trend entitled Negro Romance. The art was terrific and the stories were flawlessly written in the accepted formula. The combination was almost too much to resist. For one of the first times in comics there were positive images of people anyone would want to be -- good looking, industrious, middle class Black men and women who like their White counterparts were struggling to make sense of their love lives. Who would have thought it? Unfortunately even though today this series is one of the rarest of all comic books for collectors, at the time it did not last long or sell very well.*
For something more than a token representation of people of color in Romance comics, readers had to wait almost 20 years for the more liberated and free-thinking 1970s. Times had changed enough across the board so that comic book companies felt free to represent a more diverse cast of characters for their comic book lines – and romance comics proved no exception.
Even if a Black couple only appeared on the comic’s cover and weren’t actually in that issue, it still represented quite a brave statement about inclusion. One series (Young Romance) even featured a dating advice column (usually presented as a one-page story), with a young Black woman, Page Peterson, as the love advisor. Talking about being ahead of the curve!
And occasionally during this time there were stories of actual interracial romance. Several romance books featured a young couple who had to not only battle their insecurities about being with each other but their family and friends as well. These were breakthrough efforts that embodied the true romantic theme of “love conquering all” as well the importance of racial understanding. This kind of story telling is rare even nowadays in the free wheeling 2000s.
So the next time you happen by the used section of your favorite comic shop, go to a comic convention or cruise by a beauty parlor, check out their selection of romance comics. You never know what kind of history making treasure you might find.
Professor William H. Foster III is a long time fan of both comic books and science fiction. He is the creator of a traveling educational exhibit on “The Changing Image of Blacks in Comics.” He has written two books on this topic: Looking for a Face like Mine (2005) and Dreaming of a Face like Ours (2010). To find out more about his research please visit his website.