Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Young (Step) Father's Story - "Second Choice!"

As promised earlier in the week, here is "Second Choice!" This story from Heart Throbs #121 (August/September 1969) is somewhat rare for the romance comics due to its multiple serious adult themes of marriage, death, and child rearing. Just a glance at the cover indicates to the reader that they are in for something out of the ordinary. The cover is of course by the late Nick Cardy, who sadly, passed away just days ago. The interior pencils (at least in part) are by Tony Abruzzo. Thanks largely to Cardy's intriguing cover, "Second Choice!" is a truly memorable story.

The splash page introduces us to three of the main characters -- Amy, and her two suitors, Billy and Jim. Sadly for Jim, Amy has chosen Billy. The two are going to get married.

As Amy stands in the background, Jim congratulates Billy on winning Amy's heart, despite the fact his own heart is broken. Jim then reminds them that they better get hitched quickly, as he and Billy have "a little date in Vietnam!" Billy and Amy heed Jim's advice and soon after, the two are married. Poor Jim stands up at the wedding as Billy's best man. A few months after the wedding, Amy kisses the two men off as they head to Vietnam, ominously telling Jim to be sure to "come back!"

On the page that follows, some time has passed, and we see Billy and Jim at war. Both men miss Amy terribly, though Jim must do so secretly. We learn on this page that Amy and Billy have had a child, Billy Jr. Sadly, we also witness the tragic death of Billy.

Understandably, Amy sinks into a dark depression following the death of her husband. Jim soon returns to the States, and comforts her as best as he can. Jim reminds her that thousands of other women have lost their husbands in the war too, and that Billy would not want her carrying on so; especially with little Billy Jr. to take care of. Before long, Amy tells Jim that she thinks that she is falling in love with him, to which Jim pleads with us as readers, "You've got to believe me when I tell you I really didn't plan it... it just happened one evening..." Despite feeling a little guilty about it, the two get married. In the union, Jim gains not only a wife, but a son as well.

Jim and Amy's wedded bliss goes on for about three months. Not long after though, it becomes clear to Jim that playing father to another man's child is a bit of a drag. Not only does he have to listen to snide comments from strangers about the baby not resembling him at all, Jim is also thrown off by Billy Jr's neediness. Jim starts to long for the freedom of bachelorhood.

Jim is also struggling with intense jealousy. He decides that trying to draw Amy closer to him with a little alone time will be the best thing for their relationship.

While at the park that Saturday, Jim suggests they join a bowling league. He is quickly shot down; bowling would be too expensive, and hiring a babysitter even more so. The two then begin to quarrel.

"Stop shutting me up! It's time I spoke the truth...
and it's time you stopped thinking only of the kid...
and give me some consideration!" 

The tears flow and Amy begs Jim to go home with her. Jim continues to be enraged; citing their house not as a home, but as a "nursery for Billy's kid!" The two go their separate ways. Though Amy is of course devastated by her husband's behavior, she simultaneously understands it and feared it was coming. 

Jim walks around town for a while, thinking. At one point he says "hello" to a pretty girl, but ultimately realizes that he is "hopelessly flipped" over Amy and putting up with little Junior is well worth it. As Jim walks, the sky turns dark and it starts storming. He rushes home right away, but thunder and lightning are already underway. When Jim arrives at their house, he opens the door to a worried Amy -- the lights have gone out from the storm. Just as the two begin to finally have a moment of honesty and tenderness, a burst of thunder and lightning scare the wits out of little Billy. The baby instinctively reaches for Jim. After just a few moments in his arms, Billy calms down. It is then that Jim finally realizes he is in fact, a father.

Not unlike other stories of young parenthood, Jim and Amy learn the importance of their family dynamic after a trying event. The most interesting thing I find about this story is actually the rather misleading and sensationalized (read: sensational!) cover. My first impression just based on the cover was that the story was going to be about a single woman who has a child out of wedlock. But maybe that is just my modern brain? I'm curious -- how do your reactions of the story align with your expectations from the fantastic Cardy cover? Please do let me know!


  1. Thanks for sharing this story, Jacque. It's quite fine, built around believable conflicts and emotions.

    Like you, at first glance I thought the cover might be about an unwed mom. But then I realized that in 1969, such a story might have been a no-no under the Comics Code.

    I've read that some comics editors, such as Julius Schwartz at DC, had their creative team do a cover first, then create a story to go with it--which accounts for the rather odd or tenuous connection of some cover stories to the covers themselves. Here, though, after reading the story, the cover does seem like an accurate fit (although with a bit of heightened drama, perhaps).

    Just as a side note, I'm also struck by how matter-of-factly the Vietnam War was treated in many romance comics, whereas it barely was mentioned in other kinds of comics stories, at least until the brief "relevance" era of the early 1970s.

  2. I've noticed that even in pre-Code romance comics which dealt more openly with "touchy" subjects like infidelity, premarital sex, alcoholism, etc., single-mother stories almost always made sure the baby was "legitimate." Usually it was public perception that the baby was born out of wedlock that caused trouble. So we had things like young widows, wives abandoned by their husbands, and single women caring for a foundling or for the (legitimate) baby of a dead relative. I guess unwed motherhood was too strong a taboo to fool with.

    1. I guess so, smurfswacker. Even into the '70s I have yet to find a story of a single mother to a child where the circumstances weren't thoroughly explained falling under one of the categories you mentioned.

  3. Hi Jacque,

    A very well done story dealing with real issues. Looking at the cover I didn't get the impression that the child was illegitimate, although it could be open to interpertation.

    Like David I'm also surprised how Vietnam was brought up much more in the romance and "girl" titles than in contemporary superhero comics. Something worth analyzing.

  4. I was thinking illegitimate or "I must raise my dead sibling's child" not widowhood.

    1. Ohh, I'm trying to think if I've read a "I must raise my dead sibling's child" romance plot... it would make for an interesting read!

  5. I have never read this particular story before, nor do I have the comic, but I feel quite certain I have read another (DC romance) story with a practically identical plot!

    In my experience, it seems quite unusual for a comic story, even in 1969, to depict a married couple sharing the same bed (an unmarried pair, never!).

    1. I wouldn't doubt if you have, Lee. If you think of it, let me know!

      The sharing of the marital bed is a really interesting phenomena in the romance comics. Definitely going to do a post on that in the (hopefully near) future.

  6. Given how goofy some of the romance and other comics could be back in the '60s, I honestly thought at first glance it was just a real jerk of (biological) dad. After that, unwed mother crossed my mind as well, although as David and Smurfswacker point out, this was probably just a bit too racy for a Code-approved comic at the time.
    I agree with others about the story, though: the situation is rather believable, and the Vietnam reference is interesting, especially since it involves the tragic loss of a loved one. That latter aspect - i.e., that war's casualty toll - is something that I think was avoided not only in comics but most other forms of popular at the time.

  7. David, Nick, and Edo: You all bring up good points about the depiction of Vietnam in the romance comics. So interesting that THESE were the comics that chose to discuss it. I have come across quite a few stories that involve the loss of a boyfriend/fiance/husband and the aftermath of the loss. Sometimes the war was mentioned in passing, but it usually had to do with a death vital to the storyline.