Interview with Irene Vartanoff!

Good evening! I promised last night in my post something special for tonight -- and here it is!!! I can't think of anything more special to share with the readers of Sequential Crush than this interview I conducted over email last week with writer and editor, Irene Vartanoff. You will probably recognize her name if you are a fan of Silver Age DC comics. She was one of the beloved letter writers featured in their letter columns during the 1960s! Even if you aren't familiar with her, take a second and read the fascinating tidbits she shared with me concerning her experiences in the comic book industry, her thoughts on romance comics and what she is up to today. I hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I enjoyed conducting it! 

From what I have researched, you got your start in the comic book industry by writing fan letters. How did you make the transition from writing fan letters in superhero titles to working professionally in the comic book industry, and working on romance comics in particular?

My generation of comic book fans had no comic book stores to go to, so we met each other through letter columns, fanzines, and conventions, which started quite small and thus were great breeding grounds for friendships. My first convention was in 1966, and I made lifelong friendships there. I also corresponded regularly with lots of comics fans, mostly male of course. Many of my comics friends were determined to break into the business, and they lived in the New York metro area. We kept in touch with each other and invited others into our circle. And we made connections with editors, whom we besieged with story ideas and samples while we were still in college. Some of us financed education through writing comics, such as my longtime friend, Mike Friedrich, who wrote Batman.

By the time I was out of college, I had already been a frequent visitor to DC Comics. It was not hard to convince them to give me a try, and in 1971 I worked simultaneously on superhero and romance stories. People at DC were extremely welcoming and I was insufficiently grateful at the time. I was very young, and arrogant enough to dare to go to the big city, but not quite ready for it on several levels. I did not ride out my moments of self-doubt to writing success in comics. I was a sheltered girl from the suburbs who was trying to make it in a strange place as a freelancer, without much support system or money. After a while, I had to take a break and go back home.

According to your website, you have worked for both DC and Marvel. Can you elaborate on your time spent with both companies?

My second try at living in NYC started with a full-time job offer from Marvel in 1974 to be Roy Thomas’ assistant. I of course already knew Roy, but the opportunity came via my friend Marv Wolfman, who had married a good friend of mine, Michele Kreps, who was a high school friend of my sister Ellen’s. I had been the female witness at their Long Island wedding; Mark Hanerfeld, a dear, now departed friend, was the male witness. I had kept up with the business even while I was in graduate school. And I made frequent trips to the NYC area, visited the comic book companies, and went to conventions. The job offered stability, so I didn’t have to worry where the rent money was coming from each month. By then I had several sources of social-emotional support, good friends living in the area, and so I took it. I stayed at Marvel for over six years.

I started with various editorial assistant tasks and then moved to being the reprint editor (an assistant editor role) and then into managing reprint production. Then came special projects coordination. I spent most of my career at Marvel in production, supervising a handful of employees and freelancers and teaming with people from other companies to produce joint projects. I did hardcover and paperback books, newspaper inserts, posters, Star Wars reprints, newspaper strips, and more. I also did the infamous cleanup and inventory of the Marvel art warehouse.

I left Marvel in 1980 and went to DC to work for Paul Levitz, whom I had known since he was a young fan. I worked strictly in the business end, doing rights and permissions, writing contracts, and getting involved in licensing opportunities and business development. It was fun, but by then I was eager to work in the romance novel business. So I left in 1982 to freelance for Silhouette Books, and then Berkley and Bantam. I have never been sorry.

Romance comic advice columns such as, “Marc – on the Man’s Side” were written from a character’s perspective. Were you instructed to write from the character of Suzan, developing her as a personality, or were you given free rein to answer how you wanted – is Suzan you?

Suzan Says Marvel Comics Irene Vartanoff

By the time I was writing Suzan Says, those Marvel comics were strictly reprint. We did it as a trial balloon to see if anybody even cared, and I had editorial input from the other women in the office, especially Michele Wolfman. So the answers were probably a consensus. (After all, what did I know about pre-teenage dating? Nothing.) We got into trouble with management once when somebody sent a joke letter asking if she should have sex with her boyfriend, and we told her to get some birth control. That letter and its answer did not see print. Adults have loosened up in our society considerably since then.

Sometimes the letters in the romance columns seem too unbelievable to be true! To what extent were the letters real in the romance columns? Where they primarily answered by men or women?

All I can talk about is what I did. The letters I answered were 100% real. The Marvel romance comic lettercols were reprints until I started writing them, so those letters could have been fake originally and likely would have been answered by men. But there were always a few women around at Marvel, and it may have been that the lettercols were thrown to them to do. You might ask Flo Steinberg. Anyway, I convinced Marvel to do a new romance letter column instead of the reprints; somewhere, I probably have the memo I wrote pleading the case. But I was wrong to think that it would spark more interest in the comics. The audience seemed to be 12-year-old girls, and not many of them. The romance comics were a moribund product.

How much interaction, if any, did you have with the artists drawing the romance comics?

At the time I was writing romance comics for DC Comics (1971), I saw plenty of artists around the offices, but I didn’t deal with them directly. I knew who they were from being a fan. But DC artists worked from full scripts, and all contact was with the editors.

In the comments you left on Sequential Crush regarding the Marvel story on the Women’s Movement, you cite the death of the romance comics as stemming from women not being able to relate to the stories – what direction should the romance comics have taken to ensure their survival, or do you think their decline was inevitable?

At the time, young women were as divided about what their lives should be as young men were, although we at least did not have to worry about being drafted. Some young women were living sexually liberated lives, and others were not. Some were intent on starting careers, and others were hoping to work only long enough to find someone to marry. And many were sticking a toe into both camps. As I said before, it was a confusing time.

DC Comics made a heroic effort to produce modern, relevant romance comics. But they never dared cross the line into the sexual revolution (or even the social revolution) that was the key to reaching the mass of women. All the comic book heroines were still crying over men and living soap opera lives and hanging out at the country club. There were a lot of underwear shots, too--and not of the men, darn it! Visually, the DC romance comics far surpassed most of what Marvel had to offer, not because they were better drawn (you could hardly improve on Johnny Romita), but because DC dared to use foreign artists and go for a genuinely modern vibe. Thematically, they both had issues.

At the time, a lot of young women were wondering how on earth they could manage to have careers and not alienate boyfriends or their families, and what, if anything, they should give up for love (including virginity), and more. These themes either were not addressed in romance comics, or they were given classic solutions: just quit your job, honey, and let the man decide it all; learn to love the status quo, etc. There was zero discussion of premarital sex; it did not exist in romance comics. We knew that was baloney. Not only were these comics out of touch with our reality, but they were propaganda for a prior reality. Yes, men have always pressured women for sex, but the pressure was far more intense on young women in a more sexually free society than it had ever been, because the negative consequences were lessening. The comics ignored this changed dynamic. He-men who were willing to take care of us the old-fashioned way were in noticeably short supply in real life (they were mostly in Viet Nam, getting killed or messed up), even if we wanted them. And some of us did not. So romance comics more and more seemed irrelevant to the mainstream of American young women, the same young women who might have read romance comics as girls a few years before.

My personal opinion is that the explicit sex that opened out the heroine-hero relationship in romance novels in the 1970s was the key element responsible for their boom. Why sex? Because it was an easier sell than social justice. Women had been raised to sacrifice, not to develop as people or reach out for what they wanted. Even women who knew what they wanted weren’t always ready to admit it to themselves and align with feminist goals. (Heck, they weren’t ready to admit they wanted orgasms, either.) Romance novels, though, did address those issues as well. But the come-on was sex. This could not be replicated by romance comics. If they had switched to a core of social issues themes, they might have alienated their still-confused audience, and if they had switched to more relevant sexual issues, the comics companies risked banning or arrests for producing immoral stories and pornography—because comics were considered a children’s product. Romance novels, meant for adults, could open the bedroom doors, and they did.

So the romance comics remained soap operas, which seemed safe enough but ultimately was a dead end. The problem with the soap was that in the early 1970s, confessions magazines (prose soap opera) were extremely sexually explicit themselves. Not safe at all. Romance comics dared not up the ante to match the confessions. Thus romance comics offered no truth and few thrills as compared with their direct competitors, the confessions, or with romance novels, or with the explicit movies of the day.

A strong line of female-oriented Gothic romances might have worked a few years earlier to transition the romance comic audience, but the Gothic comics eventually produced were mostly male-oriented weird mystery tales. And they were all started too late, after the subgenre had peaked, and after the romance comic audience had wandered away. I’ve covered this in detail in the blog at, “Why Gothic Romance Comics Stumbled.” Basically, the Gothic trend peaked around 1965, and comics finally noticed Gothics only years later. This would be like doing vampire love stories à la Twilight (but from a male point of view) five years from now. Too late. Also, when DC Comics did romance comics in the old days, and into the 1970s, they had female editors. Coming out with Gothic comics with male editors and male writers, years after the bloom was off the genre, compounded the error.

Gothic Romance Comics Irene Vartanoff

The decline of romance comics was not inevitable, but it would have taken a visionary with nerves of steel to turn them in a profitable direction. Our whole society was in flux; no one knew what would happen next. It’s not surprising that no one could steer romance comics to a new day.

How did you feel about men writing romance stories–were they legitimate authors of stories for young women?

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. And most men do not live alone; they live with women. The men writing romance comics in the 1960s, for instance, were mostly married men living in the suburbs. They could always check out point of view with their wives, or observe their daughters. But always, they would be filtering it through their own perspective. So that’s one strike against men writing romances for women.

The second strike is that most writers are not excellent, and therefore are not flexible enough to write beyond their instinctive biases. So in general I don’t think much of men writing women’s fantasies, or women writing men’s. I have no longing to see how various currently famous male comic book writers would write new romance comics for women. I’m interested in the authentic female experience. 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.

What is your opinion when it comes to romance comics being relegated to the sidelines, and considered less “important” or “respectable” than superhero comics of the same period?

Everything women do or like is considered less important than what men do or like. To me a telling example of male literary bias is the way P.G. Wodehouse’s perfectly pleasant comedic novels were elevated to the status of literature with a capital L when they’re just entertainments. And were written as such. But they are entertainments for men, and thus, have stature. Oh, boo hoo.

Truth is, I can’t get riled up about this anymore. It still bothers romance writers, I know, even though they earn far more money than most writers in other genres because romances are so popular and widely reprinted throughout the world. But when simply reading comics of any kind meant that you were reading tainted literature that could rot your morals—according to Wertham—the fact that romance comics were mostly ignored was hardly important to me. At least they were beautifully drawn, and much of the allure of comics for me was visual.

As a business decision, ignoring more than 50% of your potential customers (that would be females) might seem stupid. But if you have no clue how to attract those customers, it’s smart. It costs less to launch a comic and aim it at 25 year-old men if you know that market well because you are a 25-year-old man or think and act like one. If you try to please both men and women in a shallow, careless, or know-it-all manner, then you end up with rom-com movies that please no one. Very bad ones, or is that understood?

On the other hand, if sales of your male-oriented products are tanking, then maybe you should reach out to the female audience. Japanese and Korean manga publishers don’t seem to have any problem selling plenty of imports to American girls and women, just as, years ago, Harlequin sold British Commonwealth imports to Americans. But American comics publishers today haven’t figured it out. The stories must have the genuine American female romantic sensibility, and even women working in American comics today often do not have it. After all, you don’t usually succeed in a male-oriented business by espousing a female point of view. This country is long overdue for genuine women’s comics, but they are not likely to be produced by current comic book insiders.

You now blog about romance novels. Do you see an intersection between the romance comics of the 1960s and ’70s and romance novels?

There’s too much to say about their similarities and differences. I’ve covered some of it in the blog in the past. Generally, the romance comics of the 1960s and what few were produced in the 1970s did not parallel romance novels; they paralleled soap operas. Sure, there were the standard secretary-in-love-with-her boss stories that also appeared in romance novels, but novels usually had some kind of suspense element as the main plot driver. In fact, most American-written contemporary romances in the 1960s had romantic suspense plots. Only Harlequin was content to let the entirety of their plots revolve around the romantic relationship; but those were not stories by or about American women. By contrast, Gothic novels often were American in origin (the late great Phyllis A. Whitney being a major example of an American Gothic romance writer) and had strong themes about trust and about how men were not supporting (emotionally or intellectually) the women they claimed to love. I’m pretty sure I’ve done a blog essay on how the heroes would keep dismissing the heroine as hallucinating the many attempts to kill her, for instance. One of the graphic novellas I wrote for (as Nazalie Austin), “The Beaufort Ghost,” is a straight Gothic; the hero does not believe that bad things are happening to the heroine, which causes her to have a crisis of faith in him. He’s quite the selfish so-and-so. Romantic suspense novels generally hinged on the same question: could the heroine trust this man with her life? The men usually turned out to be undercover FBI agents.

Romance comics at the time were not like that. During a period when romantic suspense (the genre to which Gothics belong) reigned supreme, there was none in romance comics. They seemed to be stuck in dating games; the heroines mostly lived at home and did not do anything but socialize and yearn. There of course were some classic wish-fulfillment tales like the aforementioned secretary in love with her boss who feels inferior to the glossy society girl he dates. It was sheer soap opera stuff. It’s true that the glamorous “other woman” did show up routinely both in romance comics and in romance novels until the 1980s. There is always a place for a bitch character in a world in which women compete against each other for men. But that dynamic no longer exists in contemporary romance novels, because women now see that they have other options in life besides marrying a man with a steady income.

What other projects are you currently working on?

I use blogs to explore many topics that interest me, at essay length. The romance blog is part of the site, so technically it’s not mine. The personal finance blog, Lose Your Money Blues, is strictly mine. And, yes, on it I talk personal finance and simplifying your life, and more. When I’m not blogging, I’m writing novels, as yet unpublished. So far I’ve got one that’s a light superhero fantasy novel melded with a gentle roman à clef plot about the comic book business, and two novels that are what are called women’s fiction—about several women of different ages with various intertwined issues to resolve. And I’m still in the midst of writing a historical novel (not a romance) about a girl observer at Henry VIII’s court during the rise of Anne Boleyn. I’m also working on a sexy time-travel romance involving the Tudor century. And soon I’ll be starting something new, probably romantic suspense, as it happens. I’ve set an ambitious writing schedule for myself for the immediate future, and it is very gratifying to see that I am managing to stick to it.

I’d love to write more romance comics, but no one seems to be doing anything new in that arena lately. If I could draw, I would publish web romance comics myself. I adore comics and always will. I am at peace with the lack of a major supply of American comics for women, although I do wish it was otherwise. But I worry that the age of illustrators has passed, and with it, the top-notch artists who could draw glossy, sexy women and men, plus fashionable, attractive clothing and settings, thus, suitable objects for romantic fantasy. I look at my old Lois Lane comics done by the wonderful Kurt Schaffenberger and wish there was anyone today who could come close to matching him. Or anyone who even cared to. Leonard Starr and a few others are still alive and working. But where are the romance comic stories for them to draw?

A huge thank you to Irene for answering all of my questions in such depth, and with such enthusiasm and vigor! I don't know about you, but her words have definitely given me a lot to think about and certainly add to my knowledge of the industry! Be sure to check out Irene's website to stay up to date on her current projects!