Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Young Romance's "That Strange Girl" - An LGBTQ Romance Comic Book Story - Or Is It?

Today's story, "That Strange Girl" from Young Romance #197 (January/February 1974) with art by Creig Flessel is one of the more "infamous" romance comic book stories of the 1970s.

Billed on the cover as "The Story They Dared Us to Print!" it tells the tale of Liz Baker -- tomboy extraordinaire. Enjoy, and be sure to stick around after the story for a few thoughts from yours truly!

The splash page introduces us to narrator and protagonist, Liz. She explains her reasoning for telling the ensuing painful story -- to ease the hurt of other girls like her.

Liz and her father are close. They frequently work on household projects together, including odd jobs for the neighbors. She spends her 16th birthday helping him install a fence. While working on the fence, two classmates walk by. One, named Fred, seems to be interested in Liz. His friend tells him to forget it -- "Liz isn't interested in boys!"

Later that evening, the family has a little birthday party for Liz. Her mother is concerned that they didn't invite any of her friends, but Liz isn't worried. She explains that later that evening, her friend Agnes will be treating her to a movie. Before Liz leaves for the movie, her mother asks her if she has any interest in boys. Liz (who has never gone out with a boy) responds, "Boys are a drag! Besides, I don't have anything to wear." Her mother quickly remedies the wardrobe issue by presenting Liz with a series of the latest fashions -- dresses and "other frilly junk." A fight between mother and daughter ensues when her mother makes an insinuation about her sexuality. Liz leaves the house and spends the night at Agnes's. Liz narrates, "Agnes didn't go out with boys either, but her family was more understanding."

One day at an after-school basketball game, while in the process of executing a lay-up, Liz crashes into Fred Reese. He tells her he will meet her outside the locker room after the game, as he wants her to help him "limp home." A fellow classmate turns to Fred as he waits for Liz and declares, "You must have hit your head, Fred! She doesn't go for boys!" Fred ignores the bully and proceeds to walk with his crush, Liz.

Fred draws Liz in for a kiss, but she quickly pushes him away, feeling frightened and ashamed. Fred asks if she likes him, and she tells him no -- she thinks that he is making fun of her like the rest of their peers. Fred retorts, "Liz, the way you kissed me... you can't be... I mean you have to be normal!" Fred's choice of words infuriates Liz. He then tells her he is in love with her, while Liz simultaneously yells that she hates him. Liz runs home, completely confused about her feelings.

I was all mixed up inside. Were they right?
Was there something wrong with me?
I ran home crying, hating them...hating myself!

Upon returning home, Liz's parents comfort her. Fred appears, having followed Liz back home. He tells her he loves her and kisses her and subsequently, Fred becomes Liz's first boyfriend.

Quite a story, huh?! Flessel really had a knack for capturing the awkwardness of teenage-hood, and his art fits the story of Liz's trials and tribulations perfectly!

I have read this story many times, but I am still not absolutely sure where I stand on its interpretation. On one hand, it does very much seem to a thinly-veiled look into the life of a young lesbian. Just the mere cover blurb, "The Story They Dared Us to Print!" points to a coded story. On the other hand, without knowing the exact intentions of the creators, it could be interpreted more literally -- as a story of the hardships of a "strange" teenage girl. If it is the latter, I can identify.

When I was in high school, I was a little "quirky" you could say. My hair was big, I was cursed with braces, and I was a theater nerd. By no means was I one of the "popular" kids, but I still managed to have a pretty good time. In pursuit of academic and extra-curricular excellence, boys were lower down on the list of priorities. It wasn't that I didn't like them, because I certainly did. I think that any of my high school friends could attest to the fact that I was a wee bit "boy crazy." But, as luck would have it, none of the guys seemed to like me! So I dealt with it, and concentrated on my quest for future fame and world domination -- still workin' on that, by the way! Anyhow, the fact that I didn't have a steady or an endless stream of dates, greatly worried my grandmother. She was like, distraught. And so, she went to my mother with her concerns and I distinctly remember my mom awkwardly insinuating at the behest of her mother, that perhaps I didn't like boys after all. Liz's reaction on the third page, "Mother! How could you?" was my reaction as well. The horror that someone would think I was something I knew I wasn't, stressed me out!

Unfortunately, in this story we learn more about Liz via her bullies than through her. Perhaps if we as the reader would have been privy to more conversations between Liz and her friend Agnes, the story would be more clear cut. Modern inclination may be to get snarky or be mad that romance comics couldn't just be cool with publishing a story of non-heteronormativity. But we have to remember, it was the early '70s and depictions of same-sex relationships were not accepted in mainstream media like they are today -- much less in a venue for adolescent girls.

Which ever way our main girl, Liz swings, she certainly is loveable. She reminds us that being a teenager is hard, and the external and internal pressures to fit in with the crowd creates incredible turmoil in the hearts of the young. In that light, "That Strange Girl" really isn't any different than other comic book romance stories of the 1960s and '70s.

Now that you are familiar with the story, what do you think? Was Liz really as "strange" as everyone made her out to be, or was she just undergoing the typical trials of youth?


  1. Jacque,

    A very interesting story. My take is pretty much the same as yours - a young, confused girl trying to find her way. Everyone is trying to put her in a "category" and she is clearly not comfortable with boys or used to their attention.

    As a teenager I never quite felt attuned with my peers either (no wonder I related closely to Peter Parker), but folks tend to label anyone they percieve to be different. The story does seem to play with the possibility of Liz actually being a lesbian, but I don't think that would have gotten past the Comic Code, and, more importantly, most of these perceptions are by her family and outsiders. The fact is that parents (even friends) do not always understand the internal conflicts that teenagers go through, and many can often be cruel and abusive.

    Nick C.

  2. Cool selection!

    Ironically, parents are often SO in a hurry for their teens to be 'finished' adults. Are you straight? Are you gay? What job do you want? Why don't you seem happy all the time? Sheesh!

    Its a time to be figuring out who you are not done with it! And this captures that nicely.

  3. Very interesting, Jacque!

    First of all, I'm stunned that Craig Flessel, who started out in the 30s (most notably on the gas-mask version of Sandman) was still turning out such beautiful work in 1974 - I had no idea.

    I certainly think they were trying to insinuate the subject of sexual orientation as much as they could without being explicit - especially on the cover ("you know what I mean!"). That's pretty bold for the time, I can say, having grown up in the early 70s - it was still a taboo topic, certainly in mainstream comics.

  4. Thanks for posting scans of this story. I don't have a copy myself. I think the genius of the story is in the ambiguity. It was written at a time homosexuality wasn't as tolerated or accepted. It is quite apparent from the last two panels that Liz went on to other heterosexual relationships. However, the wording is so uncomfortable and forced that he does make you wonder about her true desires.

  5. I first saw excerpts of this story in Mister Kitty's "Stupid Comics" blog:
    I didn't know that Flessel, who'd been with DC since the beginning of the company, drew it.

    By the way, on today's "Fresh Air" on NPR, Terry Gross interviewed Michael Barson, author of "Agonizing Love: The Golden Era of Romance Comics." Worth a listen.

  6. Thanks for posting this - it's a rather good story, all the more so given the time of its appearance in the early '70s. It certainly can be read from at least two points of view, so the observation made by Anonymous about its ambiguity is spot on.
    And yes, the art is fantastic. It's so perfectly suited to the subject matter...

  7. It's editor Joe Simon again playing with the sensationalist headline. Remember one of the early Simon/Kirby romances had a girl apparently shunned because she was "...different!" Hey -- if it gets the potential readers to plonk down their cash, it did its job.

    It provides no great insight into a then-touchy subject, but I doubt it was ever seriously intended to: it was created by middle-aged men. It's nicely drawn though.

  8. The characterizations here are utter perfection. It is very difficult to draw unique faces with the same consistency/continuity yet Flessel makes it look EASY !!

  9. Thanks to you, Jacque, I'm in a state of near perpetual astonishment at how incredibly forward thinking DC was in the early '70s, way ahead of Marvel.

    The thing to remember about that 'The story they dared us to print!' banner is at the time comic publishers were having serious difficulties shifting units, and the letter pages were permanently filled with horrendous complaints about all the extra pages of advertising being foisted on the readers at the expense of much shorter stories, and endless Golden Age fillers.

    As for our eccentric heroine Liz, it's made perfectly clear, at least to me, no one understands her different drummerness, and everyone's either convinced or fearful that makes her tantamount to a lesbian.

    Her real crime, though, isn't her sexuality - it's her complete unwillingness to play the game and at least APPEAR to be conforming to everyone else's expectations.

    Many of her contemporaries, both male and female'd be having the same extreme reluctance to throw themselves at the first person who comes along, but unlike Liz, they'd probably allow peer pressure to force them into resorting to alcoholic oblivion, just to get the damned thing out of the way.

    That's where Fred's 'interesting', because there he is walking along with some blonde hotty, yet he's openly interested in the tomboy; and even more strange, the blonde isn't even in the slightest put out by the fact his attention's on Liz, not her!

    Why, it's almost as if Fred and the blonde's relationship is some sort of Glee style "platonic" friendship, leaving me at least to wonder whether Fred's in fact some sort of male equivalent of a tomboy...

  10. Thank you everyone for your wonderful insights! I really had fun reading your comments! It is such a great story (well written and art-wise) and one that stands out for sure as being an example of the best of the best of the '70s romance stories!

  11. Late to the table with my comments. This is one of my favorite stories. I use it in comics history class every semester as an example of a veiled end-run around the Code. It's very revisionist, in terms of the sexuality, but we didn't have a decent, honest depiction of a lesbian in mainstream comics until Detectives, Inc. in the 1980s.

  12. It's a great story, the only disappointment I had was that at the end she said "I wish that you too can find a *boy* like Fred!"

    Why does it have to be a *boy*? Why couldn't she have said "that you can find a *person* like Fred"?

    For some girls, meeting a special understanding supportive *girl* to confide in and love might be the best possible solution!