Monday, September 16, 2013

Comic Media Romances

Repulsive Romance
I've been on a romance comic spree, prowling those wonderful archive sites, Digital Comics Museum and Comic Book Plus, for pre-Code heart throbs. Most 50s romance comics were pretty dreary, enlivened occasionally by a nice art job (Matt Baker hit his stride here). But I certainly found a couple of surprises.

Simon and Kirby are credited with creating the romance comic, inspired by the "confession" magazines which had been around since the twenties. I've no expertise in confession mags, but I've seen enough of them to know that they lured their audience with promises of **SEX**, which the stories delivered in roundabout ways constrained by anti-smut laws. The S and K romance stories weren't that bad. They tended to be more complex and character-driven than later more formulaic tales. Though melodramatic, they were seldom lurid. It was left to copy-cat publishers to go for the gonads with covers promising sex-charged stories. Saint John was great at this; Matt Baker's beautiful covers overflowed with suggestions of cheap pickups, premarital sex, and wild, wild women.

With a few notable exceptions the stories inside seldom delivered the goods. St. John almost always cheated its way out of provocative situations. The girl tells her boyfriend the guy living in her apartment is a jobless acquaintance crashing on the couch--and he really is a jobless acquaintance crashing on her couch (though he turns out to be a worthless freeloader). Recently I ran across a comic that broke the rules. Comic Media's Dear Lonely Hearts offered relatively tame covers, but the stories inside were something else again.

Comic Media was a small publisher remembered today for particularly grisly horror stories and for Pete Morisi's Johnny Dynamite. In the early 1950s they published in a variety of genres, including romance. Comic Media's 1951 title, Dear Lonely Heart (singular) lasted 8 issues and was standard fare. Dear Lonely Hearts (plural) appeared in 1953 and also ran 8 issues. But it was an altogether different kettle of fish. In the four issues currently available you'll find a few "typical" romance stories. The rest combine those staples of 1950s culture, sex and violence against women, to deliver some downright repellent "romances." These stories, narrated by a photostat of the head of a woman whose eyes don't line up, purport to represent a marriage counsellor's typical cases.

Take for example issue 6.

"Pin-Up Girl": Terry is trying to break into modelling, though her fiance doesn't like "everybody staring at you in that bikini thing." She receives a message from the head of a big agency asking to meet at her apartment to discuss business. The agent is rude and aggressive. He insists she change into a bathing suit he's  brought along. Then he asks for more.

When he doesn't get it the agent goes ballistic. It looks like attempted rape. Actually it's attempted murder. As the agent strangles Terry he fantasizes about launching his own career as a serial killer.

Luckily Terry's suspicious fiance shows up with the cops and the real head of the modelling agency. The would-be lady killer was a loony office boy. As the cops drag the fake agent away the real one offers Terry a shot at her modelling career. I don't know if right after the girl was nearly murdered is the best time to talk business, but anyway...strangely for a romance comic, the agent suggests to her fiance that Terry could have both her career and her marriage. This doesn't prevent husband-to-be from rolling out the me-Tarzan line in the final panel.

In "Nightmare Lover": Vicki and Bob are engaged but Bob is getting over a long illness.He's sent to live alone in a remote cabin while he recuperates. (This sounds to me like odd medical practice, but what the heck, this isn't a doctor comic.) Bob writes her every day. Finally Vicki receives a letter asking her to come meet him. Overjoyed, she goes to the cabin. But something's wrong. Bob doesn't give off the old vibe. What's more, he's horny and wants it now. When he insists a bit too hard Vicki figures it out.

That's right: another sex-mad murderer! He's really Dexter Denning, "the finest though unrecognized actor in the world," and he's chucked the real Bob over a cliff. Unlike the fake agent, Denning wants his sex before he gets on with the murdering.

Luckily for Vicki, Bob is alive. He only fell "part way down" the cliff. Vicki's struggling gives Bob time to climb back up and foil Denning's plans. Denning grabs an axe, intending to kill Bob for real. Just then the cops burst in. Denning makes a wild throw with the axe and an odd thing happens:

Gotta watch out for those sharp-bladed rubber axes. The cops haul Denning back to the asylum from which he escaped (beats going to the morgue), remarking that "He ain't a fit sight for a young lady." I guess older ladies are more accustomed to killers with cloven heads. Bob and Vicki end up in a grateful clinch.

Another story in the same vein is "Tea With Terror" from issue 5. Terry (is this the future model from #6?)  takes in a handsome homeless guy and falls for him. Unfortunately he turns out to be a serial rapist/murderer whom the police have been chasing. Luckily the kind cop who took a fancy to her enters just as the killer is about to add Terry to his list.

That issue also offered "Mountain Love," in which a stylish young woman moves to the country to teach school. Her manner of dress scandalizes the gossips and arouses her rural beau. A local Good Guy doctor saves her honor by besting the boyfriend in a fistfight.

By the seventh issue the raping and murdering had waned and the stories were tamer. There were still a few notable oddities, as we'll see in the next post. To close the present tour I offer a condensation of the single weirdest romance story I've ever read: "Price of Passion" from Dear Lonely Hearts #2.

Orphaned at 14, Tess lived on the streets and ended up in the Home for Wayward Girls. She's released into the custody of a rural family consisting of Ma and her two grown sons. Ma, an abusive slave driver, wastes no time in telling Tess where she stands.

Son Luke is a Good Guy who falls in love with Tess. His brother Cole is a glowering brute who's always eyeing the girl from afar. Though she doesn't particularly love Luke, Tess marries him. He promises to raise the town's opinion of her. This makes Cole even more sullen and he stalks Tess constantly. One day in the barn Cole forces himself on her--and Tess loves it.

Only the fact they're both fully dressed suggests they didn't Do It in the hay, but it doesn't matter to Luke, who discovers them and flies into a rage. Whereupon...

Now dig this ending and tell me this isn't one weird romance.

To be honest, to me these things are like a train wreck. The stories are repugnant yet they fascinate me. Who was their intended audience? Can you really see lovesick girls reading this stuff? Did the editor imagine these stories taught some bizarre "moral" message? I realize the cliche of the hero saving the maiden from "the fate worse than death" has been around for ages, but in a romance comic? Strange are the ways of cheap literature.


Paul Chadwick said...

That ending is certainly unusual.

I may hit this theme too often, but I think a key to understanding 50's pop culture is WWII PTSD, smothered by the life-as-consuming ideal pushed by industry and advertising. I think the violence bubbling up in these stories is the war's traumas asserting themselves. Colliding with propogandizing for the good helpmate ideal, you get these loony stories.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Life is pain, so you better learn to live with it...?

KB said...

Very interesting! Have to download and read these myself. Thanks for posting your findings!