Comics aficiando, Keith Bowden, celebrates Jack Kirby's 100th birthday with a retrospective look at his romance comics.
August 28th marked the 100th anniversary of Jack Kirby’s birth. Jack was known for his dynamic storytelling and high concept ideas, as the creator or co-creator of most of the characters now seen in Marvel movies, and the foundation of their comics as well as many more for DC and others.
He was a visionary exploring the possibilities of science, melded science fiction with mythological fantasy, was outspoken in his opposition to fascism, and co-created the kid gang subgenre in comics.
He’s best known for superheroes and science fiction, but Jack Kirby, along with then-partner Joe Simon, also created the romance comic.
By 1947, the second World War was over; superhero comics were in decline, crime, horror, teen humor, and funny animals pushing them aside and taking over. Having previously focused on action, war, and the macabre, Jack and Joe tested the waters for something new with My Date, a more romance-themed Archie-style comic which ran for 4 issues.
From Young Romance #21, 1950. (Taken from Young Romance: The Best of Simon and Kirby's Romance Comics, ©2012 Fantagraphics Books.)
Next they produced Young Romance, and that's where things really took off. Taking their cue from the dying “true confessions” magazines of the day, these stories were more adult than their initial effort, exploring more than bad choices but also struggles in relationships, class conflicts, and more, though never in a crude or salacious way. These short stories looked at the perseverance of love, couples united in efforts to help their communities, women as entrepreneurs, as well unrequited love and unexpected love. There were heartaches and thrills aplenty.
There were, of course, the prevailing tropes of women being happiest in marriage and home with family, but I think these conventions were largely part of the limitations of their short story format and old standards of roles, certainly not from any personal views of women as lesser. (One has to only examine the true symbiosis between Jack and his wife Roz to see that.)
Young Romance was initially published by Crestwood under their Prize Comics label. Ads in the comics offered cash awards for readers’ true romance stories if the editors (Joe and Jack in this case) adapted them in a future issue.
From Young Romance #2, 1947. (Taken from Young Romance: The Best of Simon and Kirby's Romance Comics, ©2012 Fantagraphics Books.)
Some of the stories crossed genres and triggered mixed-theme books, beginning with tales of war-time love and “war brides” and then romances with the burgeoning popular setting of the western. Something for everyone as even many pre-code horror stories had their roots in love betrayed.
Simon & Kirby moved onto other topics after a few years, but the success of Young Romance launched a genre that at its height was responsible for about a quarter of all comics sales in the U.S. After the Comics Code imposed sanctions on the industry, the topics for romance stories became less adult and complex, but the romance comic reigned for three decades before giving way to the return of the superhero and more “serious” topics.
Romance continued to cross into other genres, finding its rightful place enriching science fiction, westerns, and superheroes. Kirby utilized romance even in monsters, but revolutionary in Fantastic Four with Reed Richards marrying Sue Storm and in Thor, first with Jane Foster and later with Sif.
Though purely romantic comics went away as newsstand sales declined in the late ‘70s, there have been cult popular resurrections of it, usually tied to superheroes, but still without sparking the sales success required for a return.
From Young Romance #5, 1948. (Taken from Young Romance 2: The Early Simon and Kirby's Romance Comics, ©2014 Fantagraphics Books.)
To see where it all began, Fantagraphics Books has two recent volumes collecting early Simon & Kirby comics from Young Romance and other series: Young Romance and Young Romance 2. Once again, Jack Kirby influenced and changed what was even thought possible in comics, as he did throughout his career, alone and in collaboration.
Keith Bowden is a lifetime reader of comic books, an active member of the online comic book community, and the co-host of the video log Geezer Geeks. To find out more you can follow Keith on Tumbler and Twitter
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