Tuesday, February 23, 2010

I Failed at Love!

The Kiss -- an essential element of any romance. The Kiss is the moment when lovers embrace and shut out the rest of the world, lips press together and hearts beat in unison. The Kiss in romance comics often signifies resolution; so when a romance story that ends well is missing The Kiss, one takes notice.

Such is the case with "I Failed at Love!" from Our Love Story #18 (August 1972), written by Anne Spencer (nom de plume of Steve Englehart), penciled by Syd Shores and inked by Jack Abel. As you will see, it is a touching love story -- but the element of the kiss remains AWOL.

Our leading lady, Sandy works incredibly hard to provide for both herself and her younger brother, Carey. Not only does she take care of Carey (which could be a full-time job in itself), but she works and goes to night school. Love isn't on the docket for Sandy -- not with her schedule and ambition. That doesn't stop her though from wanting the excitement and comfort that romance brings. When she meets Jack, her tightly routinized world all but falls apart.

Lured in by his good looks and confident personality, Sandy goes on a date with Jack and has a blast dancing the night away. As we all know though, a night on the town sometimes comes with a price. The next morning Sandy oversleeps, is late for work, and is unprepared for class.

How can she break it to him though? It is all becoming too much to handle -- the James Brown concerts, the homework, the dishes! And oh yeah, that pesky little brother that keeps needing to be fed!

A superwoman Sandy is not. It all comes crashing down when after an all-night cram session she flunks the midterm. After receiving the devastating news she bumps into Jack and tells him she never wants to see him again.

How can she ever not see him again, though? She loves him for crying out loud! Luckily, Jack chases her back to her home and overhears her reveal the incredible pressure she has been under since starting to date him. Don't fret -- the ending is a happy one, just as so many romance comic book stories tend to be. Jack pops the question, and as stars twinkle in the background they -- HUG?!

This would have been an opportune moment for a kiss! He just asked her to marry him -- so why no kiss? One could argue that perhaps it is because Sandy's little brother bears witness, or maybe because she just put on some lip gloss. Or -- could it be because editorial wouldn't allow it?

This is not anything that I have conclusive proof of, but perhaps there was some contention with non-White characters kissing. I (and others -- Nick Caputo, KB of Out of This World) have come across numerous romance stories where African-American characters are depicted hugging rather than kissing, while their White counterparts smooch away. This is not to say that all stories involving African-American characters as protagonists are sans The Kiss, but enough to notice a pattern. Any theories on this? I seem to remember romance comic guru Michelle Nolan telling me once that romance comics sold incredibly well in Southern states. Perhaps that has something to do with it? Though "I Failed at Love!" is a well written and beautifully illustrated story, without The Kiss it is still sort of like ending a soaring sonata without a coda to designate the conclusion.


  1. You know Michelle Nolan ?!?! Cool~! I so looked forward to her bi-monthly articles on the Romance genre in the now defunct Comic Book Marketplace.

    Perhaps it is harder to DRAW black folk smooch'n...?

    But... I do live in the South... so, you might be onto something with that train of thought ;~j

  2. Top work! I came across your blog by chance today & wanted to say how much I've enjoyed it. I love the way you refer to the cultural context of the times. It's something I'm facinated to do when I discuss comics, part history-nerd & part (sometimes-unwilling) prey to nostalgia.

    We rarely got the romance comics over here in England. Even when they appeared, they always went to the bottom of my boy's "must-by" list. But so many of the covers are still burned into that part of my mind where comic-book covers sit and, when nudged, bring back sharp memories of long-closed newsagents, packed spiny-wire racks, and a not-entirely sated desire to read every comic ever printed. Reading your work makes me realise I was silly not to pick up more of them than I did.

    Thanks again. As I said, great work. An unexpected fun start to the day's work!

  3. Jacque,

    I don't believe I see any tampering on the art in the last panel, as I did on the DC story, so my best guess in this instance is that Syd Shores drew the last panel either as he choose to or followed Engelhart's directions in the plot (the story was likely drawn Marvel style, meaning no panel by panel directions).

    Having said that, I suspect that those in charge, either editors or publishers, may have worried over depicting certain scenes, and censored the art at times.

    I'm curious as to Charlton's romance stories regarding depictions of African-American or interracial romance. I suspect there was less editorial interference, as they basically printed most of their stories with minimal supervision, unless it might cause some problems with the comics code.

    And one even has to wonder if the Comics Code itself censored any of these stories. It's certainly worth considering.

    Nick C.

  4. Jacque: This is the story Nick Caputo was referring to right!? It does look like we're onto something here. For whatever reason it looks like there's some kind of taboo still at work in these comics even though comic books did sort of stick their neck out in the cause of racial integration and harmony.

    colsmi: Hey fellow British comic book appreciator! I didn't get the impression that DC romance comics were too scarce in North London in the early to mid 60s, at least in my neighborhood. But they did seem much harder to find as time went by. I frequented a second hand book store called Aladin's Bookshop at the top of Hornsey Road, which truly was a magical cave full of treasures. Actually I think I'll make a blog post about it. Anyway there did seem to be plenty of American romance comics in there, along with stacks of British romance comics - those kind of digest-sized 'picture libraries' published by companies like Pearson's and Newnes. It might have been because Shirley, the owner, made an effort to stock romances though, giving me that impression that they were more abundant than they really were generally. When I was a boy I did actually plucked up the courage to buy a pile of DC romance comics, when I was about 11 years old I think, but I'll tell that story on my blog. Otherwise I don't think I bought romance comics again until the mid-70s and by then they were a dying genre.

  5. Nick: Sorry didn't see your post before I posted my comment as we were simultaneously typing. But it looks like this is the story you were talking about before, yes?

  6. KB,

    No, I believe it is a Gene Colan drawn story, for either My Love or Our Love Story. I will try to track it down. I don't believe the art was altered in "I Failed At Love"

    Nick C.

  7. I found the story I was looking for! It's from Our Love Story # 5, June 1970 (the Steranko issue), "--But He's The Boy I Love!", a story featuring an African American couple, written by Stan Lee, with art by Gene Colan and John Romita. There are plenty of hugs in the story, but no smooching. The final panel looks a bit off, as though it originally had the couple kissing, but the man's face looks like it may have been altered.

    Nick C.

  8. Lysdexicuss: I do know Michelle! I see her at conventions, and I always enjoy hearing what she has to say about romance comics. If you haven't already, check out her book - Love on the Racks.

    colsmi: So glad you stumbled upon the blog! I hope you will check back often. There will be more history and cultural investigations to come! I wouldn't worry too much about not buying romance books when you are kid -- luckily Ebay is there! :)

    Nick: I can honestly say that I have not seen any Charlton stories with African-American characters. I am sure they are out there -- but the books I have don't have any.

    Taking the 1971 Code into consideration, the only thing that may have had an impact on interracial stories is the point under the Marriage and Sex section that reads, "Illicit sex relations are not to be portrayed and sexual abnormalities are unacceptable." It is hard to say what they were counting as illicit, since interracial relationships were legal, but perhaps?

    Nick and KB: Thanks for finding that story! Unfortunately, I don't have Our Love Story #5, or My Love #23 in which it was reprinted. I will be sure to keep those on my list of books to find.

  9. Jacque: Just a theory, but I think the African-Americans not kissing thing might have something to do with how "sexualized" blacks have been in popular culture, literature, etc. Part of the subliminal (and racist) de-humanization is to present the black man and woman as more "primal" - closer to the base instincts. In essence - not equal or as far advanced as Caucasians. It is a terribly subtle and all-pervasive way to keep a group of people sublimated. Sure, they can play sports, become singers or dancers, etc. - but they can't become corporate executives. Because of this sexualized, close-to-primal stereotyping, a comic-book kiss is a problem. Two whites kissing? A display of pure, heartfelt love. Two blacks kissing? A simple prelude to primal sex. -- Mykal

  10. Really good point, Mykal. I think that could definitely been a factor, whether it was done knowingly or not. I would like to think that we as a society do not believe that ridiculousness anymore, but I am sure there are traces left in various items of contemporary popular culture.

  11. Mykal; Jacque: That does look like a good explanation to me. Something subtle going on.

    1. If Jack Kirby's proposed b/w magazine Soul Love had been published in 1971, you would've seen Black lovers doing The Kiss as seen here...
      ...on Page 9!