Not long ago, I chanced upon this passage from an interview with the lovely Ramona Fradon, wherein she touches upon her mid-70s work for Joe Orlando‘s ‘mystery’ comics at DC.
« Those were all Joe’s productions, and there was nothing he liked better than to get around the Comics Code. The fact that my drawing was comic helped him get away with more than he could with other artists. He was always pushing the envelope. »
« So when we decided to start running a weekly illustrated personal ad — ‘Lustlab Ad of the Week’ — we knew right away what we didn’t want. We didn’t want to sensationalize what was already pretty sensational, thanks. And we didn’t want to hyper-sexualize what was already plenty sexual. We wanted an artist who could take short, pithy personal ads — short, pithy, filthy personal ads — and infuse them with the kind of playfulness that true kinksters bring to their sex lives. We wanted someone that could make someone into whips and chains and hoods look like someone you could take home to meet your parents.
We wanted Ellen Forney. »
Just like Ramona Fradon, Ms. Forney wields a friendly, extremely engaging and accessible style (as you’ll witness). Here, then, is a modest sampling from the four-year frolic of the ‘Lustlab Ad of the Week’, circa 2004-2007. Feel free to browse.
The feature’s highlights have been collected, in fine fashion, in a snazzy little hardcover entitled ‘Lust‘. (Feb. 2008, Fantagraphics). While it’s out of print by now, affordable copies appear to still be available. If it floats your boat at all, don’t hesitate!
« I can resist anything except temptation. » — Oscar Wilde
A master from the Golden Age of comics, Matt Baker (1921-1959) is surprisingly well-remembered today. Part of it stems from his singular biography — he was a successful African-American cartoonist, an especial rarity in that era — but his posterity chiefly rests on the quality of his comic book covers.
Looking around, I see that much has been written about him in recent years. But I don’t see any mention of what strikes me about his work: in essence, it creeps me out. But I understand: Baker, as a black man, must have observed and experienced affairs of the heart from a different perspective.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s technically superb, of course. But it’s the tone that I find jarring. Baker’s covers stand out by virtue of their darkly cynical realism. A lot of these situations could only end in tragedy, from unwanted pregnancy to Black Dahlia scenarios. These comic books bore generic tag lines about ‘exciting romances’, ‘love stories’ and ‘romantic adventures’, but Baker’s covers instead feature entrapment and extortion, blackmail, rape and other forms of illicit sex, procuring and corruption…
Perhaps I’m reading too much into these yellowing bits of old paper. But there stands the fact that inside these comic books, the tone changes: we receive the usual tidy moral homilies at the conclusion of every story. Yet the covers, with their unresolved scenarios, retain their haunting power.
Here’s my evidence. See what you think!
Baker, cursed with a heart ailment, died tragically young at age 38 in 1959.
People have quite a range of definitions as to what constitutes romance. For some it’s novels of werewolf romance, others prefer completely mind-boggling Fabiosa stories (‘Unborn triplets crashed my husband’s love‘), and some ship (I learned this term from a younger colleague) characters from whatever TV show happens to be in vogue.
If you were a teenager in the ’50s, 60s, or 70s, you probably would have read romance comics, immensely popular at the time. Charlton Comics published a whole bevy of them, and co-admin RG has amassed a respectable collection. For weeks now I’ve been reading issues of Teen-Age Love during my lunch hour, specifically for their Jonnie Love stories. Introduced in Teen-Age Love no. 61 (November 1968) as the ‘new teen swinger’ – ‘he has a way with a guitar and a way with girls!’, Jonnie lingered within its pages for quite a while, having all kinds of adventures, hanging out with new conquests and lost souls in every issue. As advertised, he was indeed good with a guitar. Joe Gill, who was scripting the stories, wrote him as a kind of chevalier errant, wandering from town to town (with the ultimate goal of going back to his hometown, which he never achieves), offering a helpful hand to damsels in distress who are running away from predatory men, disciplinarian fathers, or just the solitude of a small town.
Jonnie Love stories appeared in 31 issues overall, but I’m most intrigued by those published in Teen-Age Love issues numbers 61-74, as they were created by the same tip-top team: scripted by Joe Gill, pencilled by Bill Fraccio and inked by Tony Tallarico (see RG’s (Fondly) Remembering Tony Tallarico).
It was actually rather difficult which tale to feature, for they’re all pretty good, and I had to decide on some sort of optimal concomitance of a good plot and how the story was told visually. The final decision was Jonnie Love and the Go-Go Girls, published in Teen-Age Love no. 63 (April 1969), which I think strikes a good balance between plotting and interesting art, and is a fairly typical example of Jonnie’s behaviour in general.
This story has several things going for it – an entertainingly evil manager, a grotty dance club, the go-go-dancers, and of course the protagonist, a farmer’s daughter who ran away from her parents to make it big in showbiz (the lines dreaming of glory/twitching like a finger on a trigger of a gun‘ come to mind). ‘Cute‘, notes Jonnie, ‘but there are tens of thousands with as much talent‘. Some romance stories set out to stun their readers with ritzy places, glamorous dates, and finding a rich prince charming; others feature women who give up a life of success for simpler living – a small town, a farm, a cabin in the woods. The latter moral always feels a bit stilted, even aside from me feeling bad for women who have to give up a career they worked so hard to achieve (mostly because such plots are retrograde, and it’s all-too-seldom considered that a woman can marry and continue working).
In Jonnie Love yarns, there is a strong undercurrent of returning ~Home~, home from which one foolishly ran away and which beckons lonesome wanderers back to its comforting womb. The plots are imbued with bittersweet longing for this homecoming, and that is what lingers most in one’s mind after finishing the stories. Yet the people depicted in them are outcasts; Jonnie himself was outed as a weirdo in both dress and thoughts by the people in his home town, which is why he left it in the first place. Returning is hardly the panacea it’s supposed to be (unless one is willing, this time around, to ‘fit in’ properly), and while some of these nomads do manage to make it back, our main character is doomed to forever roam strange towns, sleep in fields, and share sweet kisses with girls he knows he’ll never see again. Rather a tragic figure, really.
Co-admin RG has previously written about Pat Boyette (1923-2000), an artist we both hold in very high regard (see his Pat Boyette — Hillbilly Makes Good post if you missed it at the time), so there’s no need to delve into his biography. He’s a mainstay of Charlton Comics, but there aren’t too many romance stories around with his art, so I was pleasantly surprised to stumble across Frozen Kisses!, signed Bruce Lovelace (one of Boyette’s cute pseudonyms), in Secret Romance no. 10 (December 1970, Charlton).
Boyette can draw anything (even horses, the usual test for an artist’s ability!), but for me it’s the way he renders faces that’s really special. In his hands, it is instantly clear what to expect of each character. The hubris of villains shows as clear as day in each wrinkle of their face, treachery lives in the corner of their eyes; the bold gaze of the courageous challenges the injustices of life; the devious throw calculating glances from under veiled lids. That is not to say that everybody broadcasts their intentions in a Boyette story – a minute shift, and the face of a villain can suddenly subtly hint at a kind smile, or the mouth can distort, revealing a seemingly undaunted man to be a spineless weakling.
But what I like best is the way Boyette depicts women, young or old. Their strong eyebrows and willful expression signals an alluring strength of personality; such a woman will stop at nothing in pursuit of her goal, whether the goal is virtuous or evil, humble or grandiose. Never mentally broken, even in hopeless situations, his heroïnes would rather literally die than to submit to someone they despise. They’re also really elegant, even innocent young maidens possessing a kind of appealing gravitas (in that, Boyette’s women remind of Jack Kirby‘s) that normally is the territory of much older and wiser women.
Although there are pleasant exceptions, romance comic plots tend to follow a rather rigid pattern – there are maybe 5 or 6 ‘typical’ templates, with small deviations to provide an semblance of variety. Boyette art would make any story enjoyable, but in this case we were also blessed with a spunky, independent heroine that’s a pleasure to watch in action. Frozen Kisses! is actually a cynical story: our leading lady, Celeste, is a scheming sort who chooses a ‘target’ based on his good looks, but also on his showmanship and money. On the other hand, it’s hard to feel sorry for Don’s beautiful-but-vapid companion, and Celeste’s quick thinking and athleticism are genuinely attractive. She doesn’t tone it down in order not to offend the fragile sensibilities of the male (I hate stories in which girls lose at chess, in tennis or whatever else on purpose, not to turn the guy off).
« I can think of no other edifice constructed by man as altruistic as a lighthouse. They were built only to serve. » — George Bernard Shaw
Today, let’s spread a little romance around. This much-maligned genre certainly deserves more affection and respect. From what I’ve observed, even social media groups nominally dedicated to romance comics mostly exist to mock and denigrate them. Honestly, are they truly sillier and more formulaic than superhero comics?
Anyway, while recently visiting a local comic shop with the intent of buying some supplies, I also discovered a fine trove of late 60s to mid-70s romance titles, affordably-priced to boot. Having spent a month or so leisurely reading through the pile, here’s a favourite tale. My co-conspirator and romantic partner ds spotted this one first, and I agreed with her assessment that this was something special. Let us, then, cast off into the briny blue… just don’t forget to bring the oars.
Jack Abel (1927-1996) was one of those efficient and reliably solid artists of the sort that held the comics industry together through the years. I honestly can’t think of any other artist who, more than once, worked concurrently for DC (mostly inking, but occasionally pencilling) Marvel (inking and editorial), Charlton (pencils and inks) and Gold Key (pencils and inks). Add to that tally Atlas-Seaboard (in its sole year of existence, 1975) and Skywald, and you have a mighty ubiquitous fellow. It is worth specifying that, unlike most of comics’ other utility players and pinch hitters, his work never seemed rushed or botched.
I enjoy Abel’s Charlton work most, because he was often assigned some memorable scripts (an unlikely prospect at Gold Key), chief among them The Lure of the Swamp! (script by Nicola Cuti, Haunted no. 8, Oct. 1972); Mr. Blanque (script by Cuti, Ghostly Haunts no. 28, Nov. 1972); Like Father, Like Son (script by Cuti, Haunted no. 10, Jan. 1972); Sewer Patrol! (script by Cuti, Ghostly Haunts no. 31, Apr. 1973); and The Teddy Bear! (script by Cuti, Haunted no. 15, Nov. 1973)…
Any Port in a Storm, however, is clearly the work of Joe Gill, who frequently helped distinguish and elevate Charlton’s romance material by deftly integrating just the right amount of plausible detail of business, engineering, sports or what-have-you matters into his narratives. Presumably, Gill was getting further mileage from all the research he’d conducted in order to write the fifteen-issue Popeye Career Awareness Library, a couple of years earlier.
As you can witness, this is every bit as much of a tale of adventure as it is a romance, and indeed, why split hairs when you can have both?
« Like its politicians and its wars, society has the teenagers it deserves. » — J. B. Priestley
Here at WOT central, we’re both massive Bob Oksner (1916-2007) fans, and it’s not generally for the writing. For a long time, his multi-faceted talent was used to great effect all over the DC Comics line, but he rarely received the acclaim he so richly deserved.
And then it was over, in this visual idiom anyway: with the following issue (LITB68), DC brought in well-traveled Henry Scarpelli to handle the covers and create the impression that Binky was just one more Archie clone. Over the subsequent four issues, a handful of (pretty good) new stories were mixed in with the reprints. Then came a change of title and a new logo. The book, now simply called Binky, was a full-on Archie ersatz, and lasted another ten issues into 1971… with one final special popping out of nowhere in the summer of ’77. For ol’ Binky, par for the course!
« The history of men’s opposition to women’s emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself. » — Virginia Woolf
It has dawned on me that we’ve been neglecting the romance genre of late, and so the time has come to remedy this regrettable situation. To that end, I’ve opted to spotlight some early work by Spanish-Argentine master José Luis García-López (born 1948, Pontevedra, Spain).
If you ask me, Mr. García-López is far under-appreciated. His graceful but unassuming virtuosity, and the seeming ease with which he wields it, makes it too easy to take him for granted. And while he’s tackled just about every major character (and many a minor one) in the DC Comics stable, much of it has been behind the scenes, in the way of style sheets and promotional artwork.
Meanwhile, in comic books, he’s mostly made pedestrian scripts* shine more brightly than they deserved. But there’s only so much, er… polishing one can do.
As it stands, my favourite portion of his œuvre is the romance comics he illustrated for Charlton early in his career, roughly 1968-74, before he moved to New York to launch his North American phase. While my predilection for his romantic material is a minority opinion, I’m not alone in this, I’m relieved to report.
It seems to me that, as a man who can clearly draw anything at all, JLGL’s chops are largely squandered on superheroes and such. But, in comics as in life, romance is hard. As Mr. García-López confirmed in the definitive interview he granted in 2010 to the championne of romance comics, Sequential Crush‘s Jacque Nodell: « Even now, I consider romance stories the most difficult genre to illustrate properly. » Bingo.
If you’ve at all read comics from the early 70s, romance or otherwise, you’ll have noticed that clothing and hair fashions can generally be termed (charitably) ‘of their time’. Not so much here. Have we come full circle, or does JLGL have a secret? He confides (do read the full entrevista… it’s well worth it):
« In those years we also had photo-novel magazines (like the foto-romanzo or fumetti in Italy) and they were very useful to design the characters and for the romantic scenes. Doing a good kiss without a good reference was very hard, honest. Besides, I was lucky to have two kindly girl friends that helped me with fashion advice and suggestions and even posed for me. That period was full of learning experiences – there is no better way to learn to draw than from a living model. »
Now, artwork aside, why am I fond of this particular story?
I love the mise-en-scène: characters are introduced in the background and without dialogue before they enter the stage. Namely Dorothy in the first panel of page 2 and ‘that beanpole’, Jim Loomis in the first panel of page 6. His first line comes in the final panel of page 7, but he and Dorothy have been staring holes into each other from the start. That’s great staging, not to mention something that, arguably, only the comics medium can achieve effectively.
I also enjoy the evolution of Amanda and Dorothy’s friendship; at first testy and tentative, Amanda’s calling her roommate ‘Dot’ by page 7. And they learn from, and support, each other. No cheap betrayal in this one.
It’s a lovely change of page for the genre that, once gridiron ‘hero’ and BMOC Dan Sruba commits his inevitable transgression… he’s gone (save for a passing mention from Les): no ‘second chance’, no confrontation, no revenge, no melodrama.
Despite the headline, I’m reading this as the story of Dot and Jim’s romance. Amanda’s interest in Les, beyond playing matchmaker for her roommate, is uncertain.
My wife was disappointed in the ending, and I can certainly see why: will Dorothy lose her fire and her beliefs? I prefer to think not — she was looking for an equal, respectful relationship, and I do think she’s found it with Loomis. And she had him well before word one, and she was clad in glasses, picket sign and dungarees. The guy seems like a keeper to me. They’re both quiet, thoughtful observers, for the most part. I like their odds.
There are a few glitches here and there, but given that the script had to first be translated into Spanish (Mr. García-López claims to still not speak English to this day… technically) to be illustrated, there may have been here and there a nuance missed, a description gone astray. Loomis isn’t quite a beanpole, and neither is Dorothy, for that matter. And ‘Plain Janes’? (page 8) And I scarcely think that Les and Jim were planning a hatchet piece (given Jim’s evident interest in Dorothy, for one), no-one would mistake these two for Plain Janes. Well, that’s always been a systemic weakness of the romance genre, in comics and elsewhere: the plain one, the skinny one, the rejected one? Still gorgeous.
What’s that? Oh, right. Fine, here’s that « FREE Pin-Up Poster of David Cassidy » already.
*as a well-scripted exception, I submit the opening chapter of David V. Reed‘s The Underworld Olympics ’76!, in Batman no. 272 (Feb. 1976, DC).
« The precious hours seemed to hurtle by, as if we were in some kind of vicious time machine! »
Today’s birthday number seventy-six for one of Charlton Comics’ most singular and hardest-working artistes, namely Enrique Nieto Nadal (born August 15, 1943, in Tangiers, Morocco, to Spanish parents), who injected some edgy excitement into the Charlton Comics line, handling with equal aplomb and virtuosity tales of romance, horror, war, adventure… and every combination thereof.
To mark this special occasion, I’ve picked out the lovely tale of A Strange Good-Bye from Love and Romance no. 20 (January, 1975); it provides a sterling showcase for his remarkable design chops and, as my dearest co-admin ds has earlier pointed out, Enrique’s tales provide, as a rule, beefcake and cheesecake in equally generous shares. Is anyone else that fair-minded?
I’m particularly fond of this yarn because of its unusual avoidance of most romance clichés: there are no scheming rivals, no duplicitous so-called friends, no disapproving parents, no melodrama… just two serious-minded, intelligent young people who are *really* into each other, but don’t lose their heads over it. And they may be yuppies, but success wasn’t just handed to them. Call me a sap, but I can’t help but sincerely root for Wade and Didi.
Oh, and let’s face it, can you think of any other US romance comics that pack such an erotic charge? It may be subjective, but I’ve rarely seen such convincing depictions of tenderness and affection, physical and otherwise, between two characters… and in mainstream, comics-code approved funnybooks yet. Full marks to Mr. Nieto and his masterful understanding and depiction of body language… male and female.
While he’s not credited, it’s still obvious to me that Joe Gill is the writer; my favourite facet of his romance tales is how he grounds what could be stock situations in the everyday, endowing his characters with actual, credible occupations, as opposed to soap opera ones. When a character describes a business deal or an industrial process, it makes perfect sense. I suspect this to be a by-product of Gill’s authorship of a 1973 series of promotional career-choice Popeye-branded comic books. The research clearly fed his subsequent work, which is just as it should be.
« In YOUNG LOVE, how can people talk when they kiss? My mom can’t talk when she’s kissing. Can you? I am nine years old. » — Mary K, an astute young reader
It’s recently occurred to me that, in a year-and-a-half of posting, I’ve utterly neglected to feature one of my favourite artists, Nick Cardy (1920-2013); I suppose he’s been easy to take for granted, as he was DC’s main cover artist during most of Carmine Infantino‘s management years (1967-1976).
Much has been made, in various forums, of Cardy’s covers for Aquaman, the Superman titles, The Teen Titans, the Mystery books, and so on. I figured I’d have to dig a bit deeper. Cardy, ex aequo with the even more underappreciated Bob Oksner, was arguably DC’s primo portrayer of feminine pulchritude, and what I’d seen of his artwork for DC’s romance line was pretty stunning. It just turned out that there was far less of it than I had assumed.
DC’s romance books were sadly treated as the proverbial Siberia of the company’s roster. How else might one explain calling upon top illustrative talent, the likes of Jay Scott Pike, John Rosenberger, Ric Estrada, Werner Roth … then taking these fine men’s work and slathering it with wall-to-wall Vince Colletta… finishes. We’ll return to this topic, naturally. This time around, we’ll showcase the sentimental side of Mr. Cardy. He seems to have produced fewer than thirty covers for the romance line (not counting a handful of gothics he did), of which I’ve retained an even dozen. I’m reserving a handful for an eventual thematic post, plus one that Colletta “fixed” (in the criminal, rather than useful, sense.)