Love Stories, a Little at a Time
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because comics aren’t just for superheroes and supervillains.
Once upon a time, comics created for women were built around plots of women finding love, usually with a stable, square-jawed fella. The stories in midcentury series like Young Romance and Secret Hearts were more about reinforcing what women were supposed to want than in exploring fantasy. Fresh Romance, a monthly series of romance comics that’s just published its sixth issue, is the modern era’s counter to such gendered relics and a reminder that there’s nothing wrong with telling love stories, just with expecting every story to look the same.
Readers pay $4 per issue or $63 for a yearlong subscription. Each of the three ongoing stories are served up in bite-size pieces — you have to wait a month between servings — and range from a regency-era romance to a supernatural prep-school melodrama. One big difference from the original romance comics: Fresh Romance covers protagonists of all races and orientations, which got the series a nomination for a Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity in Comics this week.
They’re fascinating and ridiculous and gorgeous and infuriating and fun as hell, and I love them with a passion.
Sarah Vaughn, writer
The Kickstarter-funded project, which was pitched as a progressive take on the classic formula, is unabashedly all about the sap. For Sarah Vaughn, who writes the anthology’s historical drama comic “Ruined,” romance comics are an old obsession. “I’ve been collecting vintage romance comics since I was 16,” she says. “They’re fascinating and ridiculous and gorgeous and infuriating and fun as hell, and I love them with a passion.” So when publisher Janelle Asselin asked Vaughn to pitch “Ruined” as a comic story rather than the novel it started out as, it was a fairy tale as fulfilling as anything out of Secret Hearts.
To be sure, romance comics weren’t exactly dead — Japanese comics, for example, never really stopped addressing matters of the heart. But even in Western culture, romance comics may have had their chance — and whiffed it. “American comics’ production and distribution mechanisms froze tween girls out,” says author and critic Douglas Wolk, and those girls found other media that better spoke to them. Romance comics haven’t seen any big revival outside of Fresh Romance.
It’s tempting for women who love comics to dismiss romance comics as sexist claptrap. While mixing in advice columns and deep dives into the project’s design, Fresh Romance is an unfamiliar feminist artifact, one unabashedly in love with love, and that refuses to apologize for it. But part of being a feminist is realizing that stuff traditionally coded for women isn’t necessarily worse, and that everyone can enjoy a good love story. The episodic structure — and the will-they-or-won’t-they-or-maybe-they-will-again that energizes most irresistible love stories — is what keeps readers coming back.