When the popularity of superhero comics flagged after World War II, the generation of young artists who’d pioneered the capes-and-tights genre scrambled to find new markets. Writer Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby—co-creators of Captain America in the early ’40s—found an unexpectedly rich vein with Young Romance, which they pitched to Crestwood Publications in 1947. For the next decade, Simon and Kirby made a lot of money for Crestwood pumping out “true confessions”-style stories about lovelorn women and the desperate lengths to which they would go to land a husband. The two men weren’t squandering their talents, either. Simon found he had a knack for tangled melodrama set in very specific milieus, while Kirby drew ordinary men and women with the same sweaty fervor that he lent to monsters and costumed do-gooders.
All of which means that the Michael Gagné-edited collection Young Romance: The Best Of Simon & Kirby’s Romance Comics (Fantagraphics) isn’t just a book of some minor historical interest; it’s a genuinely entertaining and artful set of comics, and in some ways more readable than Simon and Kirby’s adventure stories. Gagné divides the anthology into “pre-code” and “post-code,” and as Michelle Nolan notes in her introduction, the stories from 1955 to 1959 sport acleaner look and less complicated narratives. They’re still enjoyable—if only for Kirby’s version of Eisenhower-era placidity—but for the most part it’s the work that Simon and Kirby did before the Comics Code Authority intervened that wows. Simon’s plots deal with jealousy, class conflict, mistaken identity, selfishness, and selflessness—the romance staples—while Kirby’s art makes these tales of passion and deceit especially dynamic, with deep shadows and a mix of the glamorous and the lumpen. (Example of a kinky Kirby detail: In a story about a man sentenced to death, Kirby draws the hero with shaved temples, ready for the electric chair.) The Young Romance comics aren’t in the same league as Douglas Sirk’s subversive Hollywood melodramas, if only because Simon and Kirby weren’t intending to mess with their readers’ expectations. But in trying to create something new and vital and potentially lucrative, Simon and Kirby did depict a world of darkness and heavy emotion, inhabited by clean-looking people in pretty clothes.
Writer Keshni Kashyap and artist Mari Araki probably wouldn’t think of their graphic novel Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) as a descendant of Simon and Kirby, but the book has a lot more in common with Young Romance than they might think. The form is different; Tina’s Mouth is a hybrid of illustrated text and straight comics, sort of like a Diary Of A Wimpy Kid for older teens and young adults who can handle the occasional “fuck.” But the “dear diary” narrative structure was a fixture of romance comics, too, and this story of a high-school sophomore angling for her first kiss while fighting with friends and rivals (and friends who become rivals) is very much in the Girls’ Romances/My Only Love mold.
Tina’s Mouth is also like Young Romance in that it’s idiosyncratic, and excellent. Kashyap’s high-school setting and “How will I get that dreamy boy to notice me?” plot have been done and even overdone—in movies and on TV, as well as in literature with and without pictures—but rarely as adroitly as in Tina’s Mouth, which has the advantage of so clearly being the product of Kashyap’s own experiences as an Indian-American of some privilege. Kashyap’s heroine, Tina, is a 15-year-old at an exclusive, multi-ethnic Southern California high school, where she takes a class on existentialism that requires her to keep a diary. She addresses the diary to Jean-Paul Sartre, and uses it to work through her heartbreak when her best friend ditches her to join the popular crowd. Tina decides to embrace “being,” and signs up for multiple extracurricular activities—including the drama club’s production of Rashomon—while going outside of her own small circle of misfits to try and connect with a cute, friendly skateboarder.
Araki’s art isn’t incredibly detailed; she makes good use of the layouts to control the pace and the emotion of Tina’s book-length monologue, but her drawings are mainly functional, giving the word balloons a place to anchor. That’s okay though, because the art doesn’t get in the way of Kashyap’s words, which are slangy and funny and honest, like a mix of John Hughes, J.D. Salinger and Marjane Satrapi. Tina’s Mouth eschews the usual heroes-and-villains approach to teenage romantic comedy. Everyone in this book—even the grown-ups—are just fumbling along, revising their belief systems on the fly, and trying not to think too hard about who they’ve hurt along the way. It’s difficult to write a book in the voice of a teenager that’s true to a character while still providing some outside perspective, but Kashyap and Araki have done just that here, using the comic-book portions of Tina’s Mouth to reveal truths that even the heroine doesn’t see yet. The result is a philosophical treatise, a coming-of-age story, and, yes, a romance comic, all rolled into one multi-hued, richly rewarding package.
Speaking of Marjane Satrapi, her charming 2004 book The Sigh (Archaia) has recently been translated into English, and while on the surface it’s nothing like her groundbreaking autobiography Persepolis, it is in its own way about a young woman trying to find a path through a world where the value systems have been thrown out of whack. Written and illustrated in the mode of a children’s storybook—with crayon-heavy drawings not unlike the work of P.D. Eastman or Robert Lopshire—The Sigh tells the story of Rose, the daughter of a merchant who accidentally sells her to a mysterious being known as “Ah, The Sigh.” Rose is treated well by her captor, but curiosity gets the better of her, with tragic consequences that leave Rose exiled from paradise and sold into slavery. In just over 50 pages, Satrapi propels Rose from one adventure to another, having her heroine encounter princes, wicked housekeepers, dragons, bandits, and all manner of unhappy or unfulfilled folks that she helps out as a way of solving her own problems.
As with Satrapi’s Chicken With Plums, The Sigh takes the form of a folktale, but this book is more overtly fantastical, with magic spells and curses. At its core though, The Sigh follows a woman who keeps making terrible mistakes until she learns the rules of her reality and begins to make them conform to her wishes. In other words, it too is a romance comic of a kind. The trappings may seem antique and exotic, but the content is familiar. These are the stories we tell and re-tell. Only the clothes change.
Royden Lepp’s Rust: Visitor In The Field (Archaia) is the first part of what will be a series of graphic novels about a farmboy named Roman, who finds a strange, jetpack-sporting little kid named Jet in his barn and is soon caught in the crossfire of a battle that dates back to the robot wars in which Roman’s father served. Visitor In The Field merely hints at the story behind how this crazy conflict connects Roman’s father and Jet. Volume one is more about setting the scene, which Lepp does over the course of 180 sepia-toned pages of bucolic splendor, interrupted by an occasional fight involving giant machines. It’s too soon to tell whether there’s going to be any more to Rust than an intriguing idea and some exciting action sequences, but the first book is pretty-looking and well-paced, and splendidly sets up the second volume. …
In 2009, Image Comics released One Model Nation, a punk-rock/action-adventure graphic novel drawn by Jim Rugg and written by The Dandy Warhols frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor. Now One Model Nation has been reissued by Titan Books in an edition with a Michael Allred introduction and an extensive appendix of sketches and commentary, none of which adequately explain what inspired this book, what it’s trying to accomplish, or why it’s being re-released. Taylor-Taylor has a nifty idea here: Set in Berlin in the late ’70s, One Model Nation fuses the real-life story of the violently leftist Red Army Faction with a fictional avant-rock band that reportedly disappeared in 1978. But while Taylor-Taylor clearly knows his rock ’n’ roll—and a little about European socialist movements—he and Rugg are never able to turn this material into anything resembling a coherent narrative. The book lurches from character to character and incident to incident, and as fun as it is to spot Klaus Nomi, or to see a punk band in uniforms on the run from black helicopters, One Model Nation just doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s more like a series of half-thought-out “you know what would be cool” moments than a proper graphic novel. (Fans of that particular era of underground music might still enjoy the book, though.) …
Also newly reissued, The Life And Death Of Fritz The Cat (Fantagraphics) collects some of the scattered stories that Robert Crumb drew throughout the ’60s, starring his always-on-the-make kitty—later the star of a notorious animated feature that made a lot of money but that Crumb hated. Though not a novel per se, The Life And Death Of Fritz The Cat does tell a story of sorts, about Crumb’s evolution as an artist, from the mild-mannered greeting-card designer who drew cheeky doodles in his spare time, to the prickly satirist who’d use Fritz as a way to comment on the sick soul of the ’60s and his own at-times-unwieldy success. …
From the start, Chris Ware and Jeet Heer have stated their intention to use Drawn & Quarterly’s collected Gasoline Alley series to serve both as an epic graphic novel and as a comprehensive biography of the strip’s creator Frank King. Ware and Heer’s fifth Gasoline Alley volume Walt & Skeezix: 1929-1930 (D&Q) takes the King bio to someplace new, adding a DVD of home movies that King shot around his home and on vacations throughout the ’20s. The significance of those films is explained more in Heer’s introduction, in which he describes the King family’s move to Florida in 1929, and how the cartoonist made the decision to keep Walt and Skeezix and The Alley Bunch in the same Northern suburb they’d always lived in—a place documented in a lot of those films on the DVD. But King did still allow his real life to bleed into the strip, whether by having Walt take trips that King and his wife and kids had previously taken, or having Walt deal with an unexpected and borderline-embarrassing windfall, as King himself did when the strip made him richer and richer in the midst of the Depression. As always, it’s that personal touch, combined with the sense of daily life passing, that makes these Walt & Skeezix volumes one of the highlights of any comics fan’s year. …
Lastly, for those who can’t get enough of early-20th-century newspaper comics, archivist Russ Cochran is now publishing The Sunday Funnies, a quarterly replica of the old broadsheet-sized Sunday pages, delivered by subscription in three 32-page sections. Cochran is reprinting Gasoline Alley, Alley Oop, Tarzan, Bronc Peeler, Krazy Kat, Crazy Quilt, and Wee Willie Winkie’s World, including some strips that haven’t been reprinted in any book before. This project is essential both for students of the medium and people who love getting awesome stuff in the mail. Subscriptions can be purchased at Cochran’s site.