The Prison of Genres
I still have a little glossary of literary terms I bought when
I was a freshman at Northwestern, and it defines "genre"
as a "word imported from France to signify a literary species
or, as we now often say, a literary 'form.'
At present genres
are most frequently held to be convenient but rather arbitrary ways
to classify literary works."
accurate that definition may have been when the glossary was first
published, more than sixty years ago, it seems to me inapplicable
to what many people would now call "genres" of film or
popular fiction. Westerns, horror, crime, science fictionall
those familiar categories invite the "genre" label in
a way that mainstream books and films do not. If a book or film
plainly belongs to a genre, it usually has a faintly disreputable
air; it is presumed to be dependent on formulas and conventions
in a way that more serious works are not.
American comic books of the traditional kind have been unique among
this country's art forms in that almost all of them have belonged
to one clearly defined genre or another. Successful comic books
that fall outside existing genres tend to establish new genres,
almost instantaneously. That was most famously true of the superheroes
that multiplied so rapidly after Superman laid down rules in Action
Comics No. 1, but the pattern was repeated with crime and horror
comic books after World War II, and with comic books of other kinds
as well. On the rare occasions when publishers tried to escape the
genre trapmost famously in the mid-fifties with EC's New Directions
linetheir efforts failed, quickly and decisively.
Great cartoonists like Carl Barks and Will Eisner have been able
to work successfully within genre conventions, at least for a time,
but those conventions have always asserted their power even when
they were being ridiculed. Harvey Kurtzman savaged one comic-book
genre after another in EC's Mad, but such mockery quickly
mutated into a genre of its own, as the newsstands filled with copycat
titles that included EC's own Panic.
In many genres, the best comic books have not been the most popularin
the teenage genre, the little-known fifties Dell title Henry
Aldrich, written by John Stanley, was vastly superior to the
much more popular Archie titlesand some genres have
resisted producing any material of value. Many students of the comics
would single out the romance titles, which first appeared in the
late forties, as the prime example. Even more than the teenage comics,
which also appealed to a largely female audience, such comic books
pandered to their readers, stoking their self-pity and insecurity.
There's not much room for artistry when a comic book's mission is
defined in such degraded terms.
Without Tears (Fantagraphics, $22.95), a trade-paper anthology
of nineteen stories chosen from the romance comics published in
the late forties and early fifties by the St. John company, the
esteemed comic-book scholar John Benson attempts to rescue Dana
Dutch, the presumptive writer of those stories, from the justifiable
oblivion to which almost all the writers and artists for romance
comics have heretofore been consigned.
There are wonderful things about Benson's book. It's a splendid
example of how such comic-book stories should be presented, with
color reproduction that excels anything else I've seen in a book
of this kind (how I wish my own Smithsonian
Book of Comic-Book Comics had been printed this well!).
The gallery of covers is wonderfully evocative, summoning up those
dear dead days when newsstands were full of hundreds of intriguing
and outrageous comic books.
But after reading the stories themselves, and the introduction
in which Benson lays out his case for them, the best I can offer
as a verdict is "not proven." There is nothing at all
real about the way the characters in Dutch's stories look or speak.
Many of them are supposed to be high school students, but they're
drawn, mostly by Matt Baker, to look ten years older (in keeping
with the pander principle). The dialogue, especially the self-absorbed
first-person narration that hovers over many of the panels, is stilted.
And because these alleged teenagers are usually preoccupied with
microscopic questionsas exemplified by stories with titles
like "I Tried to Buy LoveWith Kisses"the total
effect is claustrophobic.
It's no doubt true, as Benson writes, that Dutch's heroines are
more self-possessed than the helpless ninnies common in other romance
comics, and that they learn from their experiences and go on with
their lives in ways that are not typical of stories in the genre.
But I think those virtues can assume importance in a reader's eyes,
at least on the scale that Benson assigns to them, only if the reader
knows the really bad romance comic books, the ones Dutch didn't
write, as well as Benson does. That is knowledge that most readers
will choose not to acquire.
The root problem with many of Dutch's stories in Romance Without
Tears, and with romance comics in general, is that they ignore
or minimize the overwhelmingly important role of sex. Just a few
of the stories in Benson's book are driven openly by the confluence
of male and female desire (as opposed to the man's trying to trick
the girl into bed, as happens in "Tourist Cabin Escapade"),
and it was only while reading one such story, "Masquerade Marriage,"
the last and best story in Romance Without Tears, that I
found myself wondering what was going to happen next. Benson's gallery
of comic-book covers is especially revealing in this regardmost
of them promise more than what the corresponding stories deliver,
and what they promise is titillating sexual content.
When the St. John stories were published, roughly twenty years
before the advent of the pill and the "sexual revolution,"
sex was not just exciting but dangerous. Things weren't that different
when I was in high school a decade laterI remember the whispers
about furtive back-seat couplings and girls "in trouble"
and shotgun marriages. (Now, in the wake of the AIDS epidemic, sex
has become a little frightening againprobably not a bad thing.)
Any comic-book publisher dealing with such volatile material would
necessarily approach it carefully, but subtlety has never been comic
books' long suit, and it was easier to pretend sex didn't exist
than to find acceptable ways to introduce it, as Dutch did in "Masquerade
If I'm forced to read stories from romance comics, I'd rather they
be like those in Real
Love (Eclipse, out of print), a 1990 collection of late-forties
stories by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, reproduced in gritty black
and white rather than color. (Richard Howell, in his introduction,
makes a convincing case for S&K as the inventors of the genre.)
In the S&K stories, the characters are older and the situations
more interesting, with sex subsumed, as it is in real life, in a
matrix that is also made up of such things as money, power, and
sibling rivalry. Sometimes, in contrast to the St. John stories,
men are the narrators; and since Kirby was involved, the energy
level is much, much higher than in the Matt Baker-illustrated stories.
That's not to say that the Simon and Kirby stories aren't pretty
terriblethe first-person, confessional captions that were
de rigueur in romance comics are just as deadly as the somber, superfluous
captions in Al Feldstein's EC science-fiction storiesbut at
least they kept me awake. I wish I could say the same about Dana
Dutch's stories in Romance Without Tears.
[Posted April 7, 2004]