Wednesday, September 16, 2009

No Man is My Master - My Love's Portrayal of the Women's Movement

The late 1960s and early 1970s were dynamic -- to say the least. Chock full of changing attitudes towards people of various ethnic groups, women, and other marginalized individuals -- the years of the "Long Civil Rights Movement" (a term used to broaden the confines of what is traditionally thought of as the Civil Rights Movement, into time and place outside of the 1950s/1960s American South) are clearly portrayed in romance comics. The (intended) audience of young females consuming romance comics made for the perfect crowd for communicating thoughts on the Women's Movement.

"No Man is My Master" from My Love #10 (March 1971) is only one example of many. One of the predominant reoccurring themes in the romance comics of the late '60s and early '70s was the Women's Movement and its effect on character relationships. Like any blossoming social revolution, the romance comics dealt with issues of feminism in various ways. Many of the stories seem to have good intentions behind them, but fall flat -- especially for today's reader. One has to question the intentions of this story though, as the main character -- Bev comes off as flaky and naïve.

The cover (John Buscema) of this issue depicts a young woman who is torn between "female freedom" and her boyfriend. The interior, written by Stan Lee, penciled by Buscema and inked by John Verpoorten tells a similar story -- but with a different outcome than one may think based on the cover.

We are given a glimpse into the date of Bev and Nick, an attractive young couple. It becomes quickly evident that despite his good looks, Nick is bossy, brutish and self-absorbed. Not the most attractive qualities in a potential mate! Bev is obviously distressed about the state of their relationship, but carries on anyway.

The next day, Bev is convinced by a friend to attend a "female freedom rally." Bev is moved by the message on a personal level. From the rally she takes away the realization that Nick is no good for her.

After the rally, Bev resolves herself to only date men that treat her as an equal. The next time she speaks with Nick on the phone, she lets him know that she is going to be busy for a while. In the time away from him, Bev dates boys who are respectful, mild-mannered and who value her opinions. The men she dates let her take control of their outings -- they let her decide what to do and where to go. Bev becomes put off by this though, as she feels they are meek and indecisive. After an unsuccessful date one night, Bev rethinks her liberation.

Thinking that she has misunderstood equal rights, Bev ceases her casual dates with nice, respectful men and waits by the phone for Nick to call. Eventually he does, and comes over for a visit where he so supportively asks, "did you get whatever was buggin' you out of your system?" Nice!

Nick's tired, cheesy, barbaric line tugs at Bev's heartstrings and their embrace is tagged as "the start -- of something lovely!" Lovely indeed!!!

Before reading the story and purely based on the cover, I really thought the leading lady was going to stick to her new found idealism, but that is my bias from being a female of today. One has to remember when reading these stories, that they need to be understood within the context of the rise of the Women's Movement -- which to some was probably confusing, tumultuous and even upsetting. To today's reader, this story may just seem like a silly and sad product of mass culture. In reality though, this romance story should not be easily dismissed, as it helps give perspective to the rollercoaster of emotions that accompanied the large-scale social change of the early 1970s.


  1. This ending was a big disappointment at the time, and remember it was written by a middle-aged man, too. However, I give Stan credit for creating a female lead who did not like the new freedom, who did not know what to do with it, and who genuinely preferred the caveman type. And there were plenty of young women at the time who had no interest yet in the agenda of feminism. The old deal was good enough for them. So this story was reassuring to that crowd, telling them that they did not have to change.

    But I have to point out, as one who wrote romance comics at the time and struggled to write what I felt was true, part of me could not relate to this story's message.

    And when I wrote the Suzie Says advice column for the Marvel romance comics in the mid-1970s, only a few years later, all of the letters were from small-town pre-teens who were clearly struggling with literacy. Not adults or college students, as the comments in the superhero comics were. From that, I concluded that I was not the only female in America who felt little or no connection with these stories anymore. The mass of women and thus of the market had moved on. Romance comics died because of this.

    In defense of romance comics of the time, all of us writing these stories were trying to be relevant, but everything in society was in such flux that no one knew what line to take.

    Additionally, within a very few years, romance novels would become very sexually explicit (as the movies became), and that simply was not feasible in romance comics then. It hardly is now.

  2. Irene Vartanoff!!!!!!!
    I"ve woken up this morning and it's the 1960s!!! I haven't seen your name in such a long long time. A tip of my hat to you.

  3. Irene -- It is an honor to have you here on Sequential Crush!

    I can see how the story would have been a welcome one for those readers who were unsure or content with their own situations. I didn't even think about it like that, but it does make sense.

    There is kind of this image that people today tend to have (myself included) that all women accepted the liberation movement with no qualms or reservations. Since today we usually consider the movement a good thing that happened to women, it is hard to imagine that it may have been a difficult adjustment for some.

    Thank you so much for providing such interesting insight into your career in romance comics, Irene! I would love to hear more!!!

  4. Irene,

    It's very nice to get your insights into this period, especially since you were there. As someone who has written an article on Marvel's Romance comics of the 1960's and 1970's (as yet unpublished) I find the work both fascinating and frustrating because, unlike the super heroes, the romance comics did not move into new territory or attempt different ideas, such as full length stories or continuing characters and stories.

    Marvel certainly had some fine artists working on this material, including Don Heck, John Buscema and Gene Colan and newcomers like Jim Starlin. Perhaps with the right writers innovative work could have been produced, but I suppose there was little interest by those in charge in making these books anything other than rehashes of old stories, for the most part.

    Your thoughts on any of my musings would be greatly appreciated.


    Nick Caputo