Unhappily ever after
A genre designed for teens, romance comics of the 1960s and 1970s didn’t always have a happily ever after ending. While the majority of stories did, some closed with a longing gaze, a crushed heart, or a lesson learned. Romance comics were not always a vision of utopian romance, then, but also sequential lessons in the realities of heartbreak. Some of these unhappily-ending stories exemplified the newfound strength of female characters in the wake of the Women’s Movement, but others acted as cautionary tales, instructing readers of the time to be careful in one’s own situation (lest they be left with the same heartache as the comic book characters).
All three major publishers of the romance comics during this time period (DC, Marvel, and Charlton) took part in selling romances to their audience that didn’t end with a dramatic goodnight kiss. These “doomed” romances ended “badly” for differing reasons. In some stories, a young woman might shockingly let her career aspirations get ahead of her romantic life; elsewhere, the woman’s downfall could be that she didn’t speak up and let her partner know what was going on in her heart. Every once in a while, a romance story would revolve around a character who simply changed her mind and outgrew a particular romantic entanglement, a more nuanced, realistic version of the love narrative than we often expect from popular romance. Perhaps the most interesting ending, however, is the type in which the protagonist is punished for her rotten personality. Let’s look more in depth at one such story, Marvel’s, “I Was a Girl Who’d Stop at Nothing” from My Love #17 (May 1972), written by Stan Lee and illustrated by George Tuska (cover art by Alan Weiss).
“I Was a Girl Who’d Stop at Nothing” introduces us to headstrong Janice Hale. As an aspiring actress, Janice goes to great lengths to get where she wants to be in her career. Unfortunately, Janice doesn’t always rely on her talent to get ahead. Her primary tactic is to date well-known men who can get her connections in the acting world.
One evening at a party she meets a dashing bearded man and ditches her date to flirt and neck with her new suitor. When confronted the next day by her date on her behavior, she tells him that he isn’t important enough in the industry to do her any good and that “All I want to do is be a star! And all I’m looking for is the man who can make me a star!” One afternoon while out running errands, Janice sees the bearded man she kissed at the party. As she cozies up to him on a park bench to get connections, she finds herself really and truly falling in love with him. These feelings of love are new for Janice and apparently, pretty terrifying for her. After kissing for a while, he lets Janice know he has to return something to a nearby store. He asks if she will stay put for a minute while he runs his errand. Janice agrees but then decides to go home, thinking he must be something unimportant like a store clerk, and Janice certainly doesn’t have time for a man like that.
Upon arriving home, Janice’s roommate lets her know that big Hollywood name Mark Gladdings is giving a lecture that night at the nearby playhouse. Ecstatic at the prospects of meeting such an important man in the industry, Janice races to the lecture. On her way, she bumps into the bearded man. When he asks why she didn’t wait for him she exclaims, “Look, you’re okay for a few laughs—but I only spend time with males who can help my career, dig?” What Janice doesn’t realize until it is too late is that the man she just snubbed is none other than Mark Gladdings, the big Hollywood “boy wonder.” In this story, Janice’s bratty behavior was her undoing.
This particular vintage romance story ends neither on an “emotionally satisfying” nor “optimistic” tone and would certainly not fit the bill for a romance novel as decreed by the Romance Writers of America. Yet might endings such as this be satisfying for readers, because we get to see a character punished? Are they in their cautionary nature overwhelmingly optimistic anyhow in some roundabout way? Perhaps these unhappy endings were inevitable, since the primary creators of the romance comics were men with patriarchal instincts to “instruct” young female readers just as bearded Mark instructs poor Janice. The prevalence of this type of story in a particular period, the late ’60s and early ’70s, suggests that there was something about this time period, full of disillusionment and big cultural changes, which lent itself to these types of endings.
Jacque Nodell is an independent scholar and museum professional specializing in 20th century American history and culture. Her blog, Sequential Crush, is devoted to preserving the memory of romance comic books and the creative teams that published them throughout the 1960s and 1970s.