What Was So Great About the Popular Romance Comics of the 50’s?


I don’t normally read this type of comic, but got curious after buying some science fiction comics from the 1950’s. It turns out that a lot of the artists I liked on the sci fi titles also drew westerns and romances. Jack Kirby, for instance, not only created Captain America, Thor, the Fantastic Four, and the Avengers, but he created the romance genre of comics with the title “Young Romance”. In the fifties, they sold millions of copies a month, easily outselling most other titles.


The reason, it turned out, is that the romance titles were pretty good. Not only better than I expected, but better than a lot of comics that I would have described as better just a few days ago. Many of the stories were “true” and read convincingly enough that I could believe them, though they were likely embellished considerably. I’m writing about them here because they also had a quality that seems completely absent from contemporary society, and it’s a shame.



Every story I read was about the quality of human relationships. Success was measured as the degree to which the characters acted on their concern for each other and the quality of long term choices. This wasn’t always about finding the right spouse either. Sometimes, a woman finds the right husband, but treats his best friend badly. She loses. It worked the other way around as well, a man finds the right wife, she loves him and it is reciprocated, but he is callous to her father. Again, he loses. His father-in-law is unhappy, and this causes the man to lose what would have been a good friend in addition to the right wife.


The stories are often told as confessions, as warnings to readers. “Don’t do what I did” they all seem to say. “I thought I knew better than anyone else, but I didn’t and now I’ll never regain what I had.”



The romance comics of the nineteen fifties are loaded with content that would be taboo today. The men work, the women keep house. Very rarely, you’ll see a female doctor or some other professional. The gender roles are clearly defined and easily understood. As I read about half a dozen of these, I realized that I felt refreshed afterward. I was reading about self-centered, sneaky, arrogant people, but at some point they all realize the error of their ways. In contemporary entertainment, they would be celebrated for their behavior and would never become introspective enough to realize that their outward success was actually failure built on character flaws.



For instance, the TV series “Cheers” from the 1980’s is charming and funny, but it also does its best to glamorize a man who seemingly spends all day every day in a drunken fog (Norm), a floozy barmaid who produces half a dozen children with as many partners (one of whom she was married to), a skirt-chasing former ball player with a mean streak, and an emotionally unstable control freak (Diane) who happens to be my favorite character. It is a funny series but the emotional heart of it is very dark. The reason is that there is never any redemption or understanding.


In the fiction of the fifties, or the films I enjoy from even earlier eras, like my favorite movie of all time, Random Harvest (1942), character was important. More than that, although those works could be described as propaganda just as much as any contemporary fare could be, at least the message was positive. They expected audiences to understand and emulate the virtues of honesty, loyalty, charity, and patriotism.



In modern fare, I see that every other general, CEO, police captain, or successful professional is played by a woman whose only satisfaction comes from her job. I picture them praying for just another hour a day so they can do more work, make more money, and inch their way up the corporate ladder just a little farther. Compared to the characters in the romance comics, the modern female titans of industry seem much less happy.


As a reflection of our culture, the 22nd century looks bereft and malignant compared to the 1950’s, a time period that our current generation mocks at every opportunity. If the creators behind this material had any self-awareness, they might find themselves thinking, as “Suzi” did in Young Romance number two, “I never thought my victory would turn into a life-long defeat.”


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Dr. Andy

Dr. Andy lives in an isolated wilderness surrounded by large trees, heavy boulders, and dangerous wildlife. He moved to his present location from a quaint city in Europe, where he taught at university for twelve years. Before that, he lived in a different isolated wilderness surrounded by large cacti, tiny orange rocks, and deadly wildlife. His hobbies include collecting comics and writing for scientific journals. Every other hobby he's had was turned into a career and cannot be described as a hobby any longer. His favorite book is a reproduction of a diary written by a six year-old clairvoyant who lived in Victorian England. His favorite deity is God, the one and only.