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