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.
« Someone at Dell Comics decided it’d be swell to turn famous monsters into superheroes — an idea whose time never came. And just to make sure there were bad, they hired Tony Tallarico to draw them. » — — James Schumeister, with the sort of brickbat typically lobbed at Mr. Tallarico.
Last week, we lost, at the venerable age of eighty-eight, the controversial, much-maligned Tony Tallarico (Sept. 20, 1933 – Jan. 7, 2022). The case of Mr. Tallarico’s reputation is typical of mainstream US cartoonists who generally eschewed the superhero genre. His mistake, I suppose, is that he drew a handful of them, and in his own distinctive fashion to boot, thus sealing his doom in Fanboy court.
Yet there’s far more depth and variety to Tallarico’s career, and that’s should be remembered. Besides, those superhero comics were just light-hearted, unpretentious fun. Obviously not what the continuity-addicted True Believers craved.
Let’s take a tour of some of the highlights!
As reported in Alter Ego no. 106 (Dec. 2011, TwoMorrows): « On May 20, 2005, Tony Tallarico received the Pioneer Award, given for his co-creation of the first African-American comic book hero, Lobo, a post-Civil War cowboy who appeared in two issues of his own Dell/Western title. The honor was given at a ceremony held at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. »
By the mid-70s, with his main comics accounts defunct or dormant (Dell, Treasure Chest, Charlton), Tallarico, ever the astute and tireless businessman (another rare trait among cartoonists) simply stepped up and diversified his efforts, branching out and creating a market for himself. « In the 70s the whole business went kaput. Luckily I was able to transfer over into doing children’s books. I’ve been doing children’s books ever since. My wife went though a count several months ago. It was over a thousand titles. That’s a lot of children’s books. »
I don’t know whether I’ll change anyone’s mind about Mr. Tallarico’s work, but I believe I can rest assured I gave it my best shot.
*Hex was introduced in All-Star Western no. 10 (Feb.-Mar. 1972, DC).
**My closest brush with the Tallaricos came in 2015 when I helped his daughter Nina identify and source some artwork she was selling on eBay for her dad. In my experience, a very nice lady. My sincere condolences to the bereaved family.