Pick-ups and petting
“Fifty-two pages of real life stories, designed for the more adult readers of comics!” When comic book super-duo Joe Simon and Jack Kirby published Young Romance #1 in late 1947, they hoped to capitalize on a market for older female readers: the girls and young women who had outgrown comics starring funny animals, Disney characters, and Archie’s lighthearted teen high jinks.
Earlier in the 1940s, soap-opera comic strips like Brenda Starr and Mary Worth had indicated that more adult themes could succeed, but the true parent of the first romance comic was a magazine, True Story. It had first been published in 1919 and was known to sell 2,000,000 copies per issue.
Simon recalled that the “youthful, emotional, yet wholesome stories supposedly told in the first person by love-smitten teenagers” in True Story “seemed a natural conversion for comic books.” He was right. Young Romance was popular enough to generate 125 imitators within two years. These copycat comics hewed closely to the form and the themes that Simon and Kirby introduced.
It is worth looking at the first romance comic closely, since its influence on its successors was so enormous. In adopting the confessional format of True Story magazine, Young Romance offered a contrast to the multi-volume sagas and recurring characters familiar to readers of superhero comics. The comic book contained five stand-alone stories, no less than three of which focused on women who have to choose between romance with a rich suitor who flaunts his smooth manners and fancy car, or a regular guy who keeps his heart of gold hidden until the end. The women are all young, middle or working-class; for example June Collins in “Misguided Heart” is a factory worker; Toni Branson, the narrator of “I Was A Pick-Up!” is a high-school student. They are initially tempted: “Look!” sighs Jenny Porter, the heroine of “Summer Song.” “There’s Rick Carlson’s dream-chariot!” “He’s a jerk!” replies her down-to-earth boyfriend Chuck succinctly. And indeed Rick turns out to be a snobbish, entitled cad, a dilettante who trifles with Jenny’s affection only until he can get her alone on the couch in his family’s mansion (saved from Rick’s advances by the timely entrance of Mr. Carlson, Senior, Jenny blasts them both with a flood of invective and a soda siphon before flying into Chuck’s arms).
As Toni Branson told the reader on the splash page of “I Was A Pick-Up!” these stories served as “a warning to you, if you should ever face temptation as I did!” Toni’s narrative focuses on the consequences she faces after succumbing to temptation, in the form of wealthy Bob Scott with his easy charm and fast life. Toni attracts his attention but not his respect when she gets into his car, and rumors that she is a sexually available “pick-up girl” spread through town, leading to unwelcome encounters with other boys. But though blue-blooded Bob ruins Toni’s reputation, softhearted “palooka” Stanley Budko proves himself the truer gentleman by sticking by her throughout.
Simon and Kirby filled Young Romance #1 with characters who had choices to make: not only who to date but how to date them. Those choices had repercussions—and not only for the characters. Romance comics were published at a time when teenage courtship and marriage practices were changing rapidly, often to the dismay of parents. Romance comics had to address pick-ups, petting, “going steady,” and youthful marriage in order to succeed, but to avoid regulatory scrutiny and moral condemnation, romance comics tended to treat such controversial new practices ambiguously. In a series of future posts, we will look at these practices, and examine romance comics as they tried to toe the line between generations.
Jeanne Gardner is a graduate of the Bard Graduate Center with an MA in decorative arts, design history, and material culture. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate at CUNY and a resident of New York.