Monday, March 16, 2015

Women’s History Month – Libbers Say, Down with the Romance Comics!

The beauty (or perhaps aggravation) of research is the tendency for bits and pieces of information to reveal themselves slowly over time. There have been quite a few occasions when I've made a post, only to learn something significant later on that takes my understanding of a certain story or artist to another level. Today's post looks back at one such Marvel story that I've gathered a new piece of information on, and sheds a different light on the cultural climate surrounding the romance comics.

Remember this one?

Back in September of 2009 I ran the Marvel story, "No Man is My Master!" and a nice little discussion was had over the yarn. Just the other week, Sean Howe (author of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story) sent me a link for an underground newspaper on eBay, letting me know that there was something special in the publication that would probably be of interest to me. Naturally, it was of interest! Behold, the center spread of the January 15th - 21st, 1971 issue of the influential Californian underground newspaper, the Berkeley Barb

This find on Sean's part was quite fortuitous timing-wise, and I’m so thankful to him for sharing his find with me. Not only is it Women’s History Month and this historic document is incredibly relevant, a reader also made a generous donation, allowing me to make the purchase of the newspaper and add it to my collection.
It takes a few seconds to orient oneself to the spread, thick with age and lavender ink (from its creation on a spirit duplicator) to realize that the full story, “No Man is My Master" has been replicated in its entirety, complete with the following editorial message courtesy of the Liberation News Service

The sisters and brothers of Liberation News Service -- who felt the underground should know what Women's Liberation is up against -- had this to say about the accompanying comic art: "Comics are becoming increasingly more political. We're reprinting 'No Man Is My Master' not because it's so unusual but because it is a good example of what Marvel Comics is up to. Read on and let three men tell you what women's liberation is all about.

One of the things people who aren't familiar with romance comics are shocked to hear is the fact that the romances were in the majority, created by men (in this case, Stan Lee, John Buscema, and John Verpoorten). This spread in Berkeley Barb is a strong and definite push against the story of women being told by men at a time when the role of women in society was quickly changing. While I don’t have a definitive answer concerning if men can completely and accurately tell the experience of women (and vice-versa) I am reminded of something that Irene Vartanoff told me in her 2009 interview for Sequential Crush: "A truly excellent writer ought to be able to write from the perspective of either gender, any age, and any personality, race, national origin, or whatever." In that same interview, however, Irene went on to say,

I think it is part of feminism that we should not have our fantasies dictated to us or even related to us by men. It is important for women to learn what their fantasies are, rather than be told what they should be, or worse, what they should accept as a happy ending.

Irene's words, taken in context of the romance comics, ignite the imagination as to what the romance comics would have been like had they been primarily created by women instead of men. 

So what do you think? Were the romance comics successful depictions of the longings of womens' hearts? Or were they cheap stabs for monetary gain? Was this jab from the Liberation News Service via the Berkeley Barb warranted? I'd like to hear your reaction to all this! 

One other thing before we say goodbye! If you missed it -- last week, Women Write about Comics ran an interview with your truly! A fantastic site worth checking out, and I'm honored to have made a contribution. Check it out!

Thanks so much for reading!
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15 comments:

  1. Dear Jacque: A salute to you for this post--and to Sean Howe for sending you the link to the Berkeley Barb issue!

    I think, based on the story "No Man is My Master," the Barb's barb (hee hee) was warranted. But as you have documented so effectively on this blog, romance comics took many different approaches to addressing the Women's Liberation movement, from having characters become fully involved in the movement to more simply having their consciousness raised (to use a classic 1970s phrase!).

    Which suggests once again that it's good not to judge a whole genre based on just one example.

    Also, Jacque, that was a very nice interview on Women Write about Comics! Hopefully it will draw more attention to the fine and important work you do on this blog!

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    1. Thanks for reading and for checking out the interview, David! I think you are so right, and maybe I've never been able to articulate it as simply as you have here -- judging the entire genre on just a story or two is a fool's errand. Like any genre in any medium, romance comics are so varied and run the gamut from silly to serious. I'm curious if the writer of the jab read any other romance story?!

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  2. I think the folks at The Barb were quite right to see this story as a particularly pernicious take on Women's Lib. It makes a distinction that basically parallels one often made during the civil rights movement between legal discrimination and personal attitudes and behavior, i.e. you could be in favor of doing away with segregation laws but still think of black people as, in general, inferior to whites just as you could be for "job equality--and things like that" and still treat women as subordinate to men. There's a reason that the concept of "The personal is political" was so central to second-wave feminism. And, assuming the relationship gets that far, Nick looks like a classic case of domestic abuse waiting to happen.

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    1. Like Nick Caputo states below, I don't think this story was created maliciously, but, unfortunately, it does come off as a rather flippant attitude toward the Women's Movement. Luckily, there are some really good romance stories about the "libbers" to help balance it out.

      When I originally posted the story, Irene Vartanoff left a really thought provoking comment that addresses the disruption in the status quo:

      "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."

      Thank you, anonymous for your equally thought-provoking comment!

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  3. Hi Jacque,

    I think it's important to look at these comics in the context of the times. While the Berkley Barb points to the story "as a good example of what Marvel is up to" I don't think Lee and company had any agenda;it was more likely an attempt to deal with the issues of the day. In this period Lee and his writers also wrote stories about drugs, race relations, pollution, campus unrest and other problems, to varying degrees of success. Their goal was likely to gain the interest of older readers, and hopefully increase sales.

    Lee's story falls short because it fails to seriously examine any of the questions in regard to women's liberation. As a middle-aged man from a different era, perhaps Lee didn't fully understand the issues. Still, I don't think it was a premeditated or malicious attempt to undermine the cause. This was a story like many other Lee romance tales that followed a pattern. To an artist like John Buscema it was probably another assignment (he has stated he didn't like drawing romance stories).

    It certainly would have been interesting to see this story written by a woman, or even one of the younger male writers at Marvel (Roy Thomas, Gary Friedrich or Steve Englehart; Steve wrote a few romance stories - perhaps you could examine them or ask Steve his thoughts on writing them). Before Marvel's romance line went all reprint there were a few more woman writers; what would they have written about if they were given a degree of freedom? At the least, a more contemporary outlook by younger creators might have added new ideas and stronger stories to the mix. Alas, superheroes became the primary sales lure to comic readers and romance comics all but faded away.

    Another though-provoking post, Jacque, and a great interview as well!

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    1. You're in luck, Nick! I'll be taking a look at some of those younger Marvel writers soon!!!

      Thank you for reading and for pointing out some excellent things to think about.

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  4. Another great post, Jacque. And I also enjoyed reading the interview at the other site.
    Otherwise, I have to go along with the consensus view here, and agree with the Barb's harsh assessment of the story. However, I'll readily admit that the bit about "what Marvel is up to" rankled a little. I think Nick is correct in pointing out that there was probably no intentional malice on Marvel's part.

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    1. Just imagine if the Barb had seen some of the Charlton stories!

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  5. Hi, Jacque, was wondering if you've checked this out yet.

    https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1321922596/fresh-romance-an-ongoing-romance-comics-anthology/comments

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    1. Yes! I'm intrigued! It made its goal today -- very excited to see it!

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  6. At least the story does acknowledge that equal pay and things like that are valid issues. Not everyone did back in the day.
    I don't know that a younger writer would have made a difference. Super-hero comics from younger pens often provided distorted versions of independent women like Man-Killer--female athlete, crippled trying to prove she was as tough as a guy, now hates all men (Marvel Team-Up 7).
    As commenters here and on the previous thread said, this seems to be more Stan Lee trying his best than Marvel being "up to" anything.

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    1. I have a story with by one of the younger Marvel writers coming up next, frashersherman. Stay tuned!

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  7. I think it's funny when people say "products of the times" as if we were in an era of high quality, equal opportunity entertainment. Considering misogynistic things like 50 Shades of Grey are still being consumed by so many women. Most music marketed and sold to women is produced and written by men, sung by women with impossibly sexy figures. "But we're hiring WOMEN creators now" yet they did even back in the 60s. It's nothing new. Feels like no progress has been made at all and history simply keeps repeating itself.

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    1. I certainly agree! We must avoid temporocentrism and look at things in the CONTEXT of their times. Only then can we truly understand them. That is my belief anyway! Thank you for your thoughts, Redmond Comic Review!

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  8. I don't remember what I posted and there are too many things I'd rant on about this. I want to clarify that I do agree the character is dumb and it's a bad take on feminism as a whole. But I feel there are libbers that actually are like her. And people should write what they know but I don't see myself move and I don't see myself from every angle either. It's ridiculous to claim only women can write about women. And I know you are not saying that. Just like "men can only write about men". It's a different perspective that's all.

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