Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Book Review - Love on the Racks: A History of American Romance Comics

One year ago, I reviewed Michelle Nolan's Love on the Racks: A History of American Romance Comics (McFarland) for the Journal of Popular Culture, the official journal of the Popular Culture Association (Blackwell Publishing). Due to contractual obligations I was unable to publish that review on Sequential Crush... until now!

Love on the Racks: A History of American Romance Comics. Michelle Nolan. Jefferson: McFarland, 2008.

Though not forgotten, the memory of American romance comics has been largely left to collectors. Michelle Nolan’s encyclopedic Love on the Racks: A History of American Romance Comics makes these unique pieces of American culture accessible to all who desire to delve into the dramatic trials and tribulations of fictional femme fatales and their girl-next-door counterparts. Nolan chronicles the rise of American romance comics from love pulps in the early twentieth century to the decline of the romance genre in the early 1980s.This book provides a treasure trove of details, facts, anecdotes and supporting numbers that attest to romance comics’ popularity in the United States.

The majority of Love on the Racks concerns romance comics prior to the implementation of the Comics Code Authority, an industry wide self-regulation system which sought to clean up the comics in the mid-1950s. Most readers will be familiar with the teen humor books popular in the 1940s such as Archie and competing titles featuring red-headed Patsy Walker. Various sub-genres were explored in the romance books, producing some unlikely combinations such as western romances, crime romances and war romances. A small section of the book is devoted to the 1960s and 1970s, when the romance books evolved with society, discussing such issues as drugs, sex and women’s lib.

Nolan focuses not only on what the better known publishers (Marvel, DC and Charlton) were doing to lure female readers, but on the lesser known companies as well (Prize/Crestwood, Avon, ACG, Hillman). Each publisher is given ample attention and Nolan’s quirky sampling of stories from their romance comics could very well make a reader want to start a collection of his own. Unfortunately for the female teenage fans who were the main consumers of romance books, they declined in the 1970s and disappeared by the early 1980s. Forces such as the rise of television, the growing popularity of superheroes and changes in distribution to specialty comic shops all contributed to death of the romance genre.

In some ways Love on the Racks is more interesting as a study in the culture of comic book collectors than of the comic books themselves. Novices to comic books learn what issues are considered valuable to collectors and which artists’ works are most coveted. As a bonus, readers are treated to a comprehensive catalog in the appendix which lists romance comics published between 1947 and 1983. Love on the Racks also provides a hearty sampling of pages and covers (some in color) from the romance books.

Nolan gives so many details throughout the book, it is sometimes hard to wrap one’s head around all of the information. The statistics and numbers can be overwhelming even for an experienced comic book fan. Their inclusion though functions well for those with penchant for numbers, or simply to show the vast number of romance comics published in America during their heyday. Although this book is primarily a history of romance comic books themselves, more cultural contextualization of the material would have been helpful in understanding what ultimately made the romance books appealing to consumers.

Prior to this very little had been written about this often beautiful, sometimes cheesy, and always dramatic genre of American comics. Michelle Nolan’s contribution serves as a much needed addition to the body of literature concerning popular culture history and comic book history alike. Love on the Racks explores a vast number of romance comic books and takes delight in dissecting them one by one and celebrating them all.

Jacque Nodell
University of Missouri

Nodell, Jacque Review of Love on the Racks: A History of American Romance Comics, by Michelle Nolan. The Journal of Popular Culture volume 42, issue 3 (June 2009): 576-578.

♥ The definitive version of this review is available at
the website of Wiley InterScience


  1. Nice review Jacque. I have found the book useful as a reference. The print version of Dan Stevenson's list of romance comics is handy. The book itself has alerted me to many things I hadn't known previously. It's a must have! But there's still plenty to write on the subject!!

  2. It is a really good reference, KB. Michelle is very knowledgeable. Thankfully, like you said, the genre is very plentiful and I don't think I will ever run out of things to say about it!!!

  3. Jacque: Great review. Very nice work. Ms. Nolan's book sounds like an excellent reference source, nearly indispensible as a research tool; perhaps not as enjoyable as a "pleasure read" or for the layperson (but then a casual reader probably wouldn’t pick this book up in the first place).

    In your review you mention how the author covers many lesser known publishers (Prize/Crestwood, Avon, ACG, Hillman). I'd love to see more of those comics! Are they very hard to come by?

  4. Mykal, hard to come by? The short answer is yes. And if it's fine condition or better, the longer answer is...very yes. But if you're ever in San Diego for a comic-con or such, I can arrange a showing of the most extensive high grade romance collection in the world (3000+ books). That means you Jacque! Michelle Nolan and Dan Stevenson have them all, but I've got the best.

  5. Hello-

    While this book was in print, I was in touch with Michelle. She was helping me with research that I was doing regarding my dad's, Art Saaf, romance work.
    It turns out that my dad had done over 150 stories, but unfortunately, the book was too far along to get any of this info into the book.
    For an index of his work, goto www.artsaaf.com.

    Steve Saaf

  6. If I ever get this romance comic I have in my head published, I'm having you write the foreword to the first collection. Well done!

  7. Mykal: I appreciate your kind comments! It is true that the average person probably wouldn't pick this up. As you probably know, McFarland books are direct to library, so one would have to order it off Amazon or get it at the publisher's website if they wanted to own it. It is also a tad expensive (though totally worth it). I believe a paperback version will be out in the near future. As for the other romance comic publishers -- I don't really talk about them here, because most of their books came out in the late '40s to very early '60s. By the mid-sixties there were only a few companies putting out romance. I see them quite a bit at conventions, but since they are older, they tend to be more expensive than the books that I buy. I bet KB has a lot of them!!!

    Dr. Love: Hello! Thanks for stopping by! I unfortunately wont be in San Diego this year :( You set up at Comic-Con, I take it?

    Steve: Hi there! I love your father's work and I think it so great that you are helping to preserve his legacy! I really need to do an Art Saaf spotlight on here soon! As you can probably tell, romance comics are my passion and I have a book of my own planned for the future. We will have to stay in touch!

    Len: 'twould be an honor! Sign me up! *you now have to get this romance comic out* :)

  8. Hi Jacque!

    Do you need a separate romance index?

    Steve Saaf

  9. Hi Steve!

    I have the index that you made of your father's work -- is there another one out there?