Sunday, May 24, 2009

Romance Under the Covers - Review of Secret Romance #35 (November 1975)

Another major player in the romance comic scene of the 1960s and ‘70s was Charlton Comics. The Connecticut based company had dozens of monthly romance titles [Edit: Charlton's array of romance books were published bimonthly]. A nice timeline of Charlton’s history as a company can be found at the website of the Connecticut Historical Society. Be sure to check it out when you get a chance.

Secret Romance was one of Charlton’s many romance titles. I think issue #35 (the title ran for 48 issues) has a particularly gorgeous cover, drawn by Gustave Pujalte. I dig the heavy inks, especially the inking that makes up the hair of the two characters. The cover doesn’t have anything to do with the interior stories as far as I can tell, but it sure is pretty!

The first story, “Unwanted Woman,” was drawn by Enrique Nieto. Luckily, some of the Charlton stories are signed and Ramon Schenk’s website is helpful in fully deciphering the signatures. This story is about Isabel – a young lady who keeps getting jilted by her lovers, most recently by her lawyer-fiancé, Orville Bush. While trying to get involved in the local political circuit Orville gets drawn in by Governor Cosgrove’s daughter, also referred to as “horse-face” by Isabel. After the breakup, Isabel hears from her friend Ted –a newspaper man, that her ex is running unopposed for First Selectman. Betty, a server at the steak house plants the seed in Isabel’s head that she should run against him.

Isabel ends up winning the election. She seems to be rather successful in her position, shutting down a crooked bookie and preventing a factory from closing. Isabel is modest though, and tells Ted that she couldn’t have done any of it without his help. She confesses that she thinks that he should be the First Selectman, not her. Ted admits his crush on her and they make plans for the honeymoon.

The concept of this story was fine, but I found the art to be, well, how I say this delicately... a bit scary. The layouts are actually pretty great, but it’s the faces of the characters and the bizarre coloring that really threw me off.

The art goes to a less psychedelic tone with the second story, “Compulsion” with art by Sam Glanzman. In this story, sweethearts Amelia and Barry get engaged. They decide to go on a short trip to Nassau before telling their parents the good news. They stay at a nice hotel (in separate rooms of course) and spend the first evening in the hotel’s casino. Barry wins $1,100! Amelia doesn’t think anything of it and after gambling they dance and go for a stroll on the beach. Everything seems fine until they go to the casino again the next night. Barry yells at Amelia and tells her to get lost, telling her that she will jinx him. She goes off and an old lady sees her and tells Amelia that her husband gambles too, and that they have lost everything – including their house. As Amelia ponders the stranger's warning, she thinks to herself that it is was not Barry’s fault he acted that way, that it was the gambling making him act crazy. Amelia decides to confronts him the next morning anyway.

Amelia goes off to spend the rest of the vacation by herself. The airline stewardess from their flight to Nassau tells her she was smart to get rid of a gambler, as they are “bad news”. She introduces Amelia to the co-pilot of the plane, Paul. Just as Amelia and Paul are hitting it off, Barry wants to get back together. Amelia refuses, telling him that he’s really “married to dice, cards, and roulette!” Thankfully for Amelia, Paul thinks gambling is stupid.

“Buck’s Bag” is the advice column of Secret Romance. The art for the column is surprisingly good. The first letter struck me, as a young girl of 13 wrote in saying that she can’t forget about a guy that broke up with her. She went as far as trying to kill herself, she writes. Buck advises the heartbroken young lady to “fill up that void with new boys,” and that attempting suicide was an “extremely foolish act.” I am really hoping the author of the letter; “Desperate,” got some better advice than what Buck could give her and went on to live a healthy life.

The last story in the issue is “Heartbreak Ahoy!” The art is by Art Cappello, who actually started out as an assistant to Vince Colletta. This story is about a pretty girl with no self-confidence, Sarah. She works as a secretary in a big office in New York is very shy and unlucky in love.

Does this page remind anyone else of Mad Men? Miss Berkeley=Joan

Though Sarah works hard, she goes unnoticed by the men. But she saves up money and goes on a cruise in Bermuda for vacation. She goes all by herself, which seems a little uncharacteristic of a girl with no confidence, but I digress. A fellow passenger named Carrie introduces herself and points out the Captain’s harem of ladies. She also tells Sarah that there is a masked ball in the evening. Sarah decides to go to the party thinking to herself that perhaps if she is wearing a mask then maybe the Captain will look at her. Indeed, the Captain asks her to dance and they spent the rest of the ball together. At midnight he asks her to take off her mask so he can see who she is.

He tells Sarah that he loves her, and it is then that she realizes that it is in fact inner beauty that gets the man.

Overall, this Secret Romance #35 seemed to be a quick read. The stories felt shorter than DC romances, and the book contained a heavy dose of advertisements. With exception of the cover, I am not the biggest fan of the art in this particular issue. The stories were pretty good, but the art was a little rough in my opinion.


  1. Charlton's pay was apparently the lowest in the industry, probably because their sales were poor (or is it vice-versa?). Hence they got either low-grade talent or young talent. I seem to recall that at least in the 1960s even the paper quality of their books was lower.

    I certainly agree with you about the coloring in that first story; the effect is garish and a little creepy.

    Good to see you're posting regularly; I'll try to remember to send you another link in my next roundup post to help you find your audience.

  2. The quality may have also been lower due to the fact that Charlton was not only publishing the material, but also printing it more or less in house. Perhaps they just overextended themselves?

    Thanks! I am trying to post as often as possible... I wish I could post everyday, but with my day job, time is scarce!

    I really appreciate all of your support, Pat! I am trying to make some more connections and do the pinging thing and all that. I just know that I am having fun working on it all, so having readers is icing on the cake!

  3. That is the key to being a successful blogger; that you enjoy what you're doing. It takes time to build up a readership. You might try sending a link to a particularly good post to the folks over at the Women In Comics blog; they can push pretty good traffic and their readership probably fits better with yours than mine does, so you'll get better retention of the new readers.

  4. I sent them an email last night funny enough. Hopefully they will be able to post a link sometime soon!

  5. Jacque--

    I don't think Charlton's situation can be summed up so easily. They got often fierce loyalty from talents who were by no means second-rate. Why? Because the relatively low pay was compensated for by editorial freedom (see how long a few extra dollars a page can compensate for the aggravation of constant, often arbitrary editorial changes), a constant and reliable flow of work, immediately paid for, and a place to draw something other than superheroes.

    Plus, if you were only allowed, at Marvel or DC, to pencil, you'd get your pencilling rates. At Charlton, an artist was generally allowed, if he could, to pencil, ink, and letter. And often script (as in the cases of Tom Sutton or Pat Boyette, among others). You do the math.

    Writer Joe Gill mentions that, while freelancing for DC, he had to make a return trip to New York to be told by his editor to make a simple grammatical revision to *one word*. A contraction, I think.

    At Charlton, you wouldn't get the faces of your characters redrawn by lesser artists, an indignity Jack Kirby had to suffer countless times at the hands of the Big Two.

    "Dozens of monthly romance titles"? Actually, no. Charlton's romance titles were all bimonthly.

    And as far as ad page count goes, maybe you're comparing apples with oranges here. In other words, early 70s comics with mid-seventies comics.

    In 1976, DC and Marvel had 17 pages of ads out of a 36 page comic. Charlton and Gold Key had 12.

    Oh, and though they didn't publish any romance comics per se, Gold Key featured a lot of Win Mortimer's finest work in their ghost titles, such as Grimm's Ghost Stories, Ripley's Believe it or Not, Boris Karloff and Twilight Zone...

    Oh, and Nieto's an acquired taste. If you could see the guy's original art...he was a pretty incredible stylist. I'll admit, though, that he mostly freaked me out, back in the 70s. But that was for his ghost stories, so that's okay. ;D

  6. Richard,

    Thank you for pointing out my mistake on the monthly/bimonthly issue. I used "dozens" figuratively, as Charlton had so many more romance titles during this time period than Marvel, for example.

    I am definitely not attacking Charlton in any way. These were simply my observations (such as it being a quick read) based on this issue alone. Many Charlton covers are brilliant!!!

    Just like any publisher of romance, Charlton had some good stuff and some not so good stuff. I will be looking at some more Charlton books soon!

  7. I just skimmed the Charlton timeline; interesting. I'm surprised that (AFAIK) most (other) comics publishers farmed out the actual printing of their stuff. Really? Vertical integration seems pretty logical to me, but I'm the first to admit I have little business acumen.

    I read my first Charlton romance comic last night: SECRET ROMANCE #32 (featuring "Chubby!") My reaction was remarkably similar to yours. The stories seemed at first to be written by simpletons, but perhaps they were just shooting for a younger readership. The art on Chubby! and perhaps one other story appeared to have been done by the same person who drew the art in your final jpg above. As hinted, the stories weren't that great, with Chubby! in particular just spinning its wheels for eight pages, and yet each one was satisfying in its own way, as was the issue overall. To my surprise.


    I was expecting the heroine in Chubby! to be plump, but with the proverbial "such a pretty face." Instead, she was not particularly plump, but with a fat face. Way to subvert my expectations, 34-year-old comic book!


  8. Yes, it looks like from the GCD that Art Cappello (same as in the above story) did the art for Chubby! He seemed to do a lot of Charlton romance. It seems like every one I own has something by him.

    Some of the Charlton stories are good, and some well, not so much. The things that always is surprising to me is that the Charlton stories seem to be really specific -- the stories are very precise in where they take place and the details seem to go further than necessary. Entertaining though! Was Secret Romance #32 like that?

    Strange her face was big but not her body!

  9. Didn't really notice the extreme specificity you mentioned, and I also just read SWEETHEARTS #135 and looked for it in vain. In fact, sadly, the three stories in that comic are just about as generic as can be.

    This is one of those weird comics where the cover is EXACTLY the same as the splash page. "I'm not imagining it...there is a man hiding in those bushes!" thinks our heroine. "I'll bet he's the fiend who's been molesting student nurses recently!" Now, they had me at "fiend" and "molesting," but "student nurses" really takes it over the top and parks it in my wheelhouse. THAT is a level of specificity I can live with. Unfortunately the story is terrible. The cop/love interest is such a creep that I thought he might turn out to be the "fiend." I don't think the writer was even consciously trying to make him a red herring, but perhaps I am underestimating. Also, I believe there was only one panel of anyone in a nurse outfit. Oh, well.


  10. At least you gave it a shot, Marshall! Probably not all stories are so specific, but the ones I always seem to read are! I find it worth buying Charlton romances even just for the cover, many are incredibly gorgeous!

  11. Some are hideous, but others ARE quite beautiful. I am a new fan of Art Cappello!