I came across romance comic books by accident during a tiring Google search for a topic for a term paper. At first, I thought romance comic books were a joke – that a modern artist had created them to make fun of 1950’s domestic ideals. Then I found out that Captain America creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, created them and that they became the best-selling comic books of their time. Stan Lee, the creator of Spiderman, also contributed to these publications. I found it strange that in a world where fandom is widely celebrated that I had never heard of these comic books. I wanted to know why these comic book creators, who were usually devoted to such masculine characters, decided to try and portray the romantic lives of women. How did they become the best-selling comic books of their time and surpass the likes of Captain America?
When I started researching them, I found few articles on the subject. These articles treated romance comic books as some heroic measure on that male comic book writers and artists took on behalf of all women to reveal the realities of the lives of women during the early Cold War. Comic book writers, scholars stated, empowered women by empathising with female concerns and providing examples by which to navigate female problems. However, when I looked at these comic books, I found the dominant message was that male authority was the most important thing in a woman’s life. In an attempt to prove that these writers cared and that women mattered, historians and other scholars have ignored the degrading material in the stories, such as how they reflected anti-feminist, sexist, and racist commentaries that promoted male authority and female subservience.
These comic books, like much media, had become fact to people today by which to judge women of the past. I found that this oversimplification silenced the realities of women’s lives during the Cold War and the political and social role of romance comic books during this moment in history.
In the 1940s, comic books took over America. The government, through the Writer’s War Board (WWB), used them to engender patriotic support from American citizens. The WWB oversaw the content of romance magazines and to affect the way that women perceived their role in society. In 1947, with Simon and Kirby’s first issue of Young Love, romance comic books carried on this tradition. These seemingly frivolous comic books were teaching tools to educate women about their place in society. They did not reflect the realities of women’s lives but rather reflected how men of the government and the industry wanted women to act. Through romance comic books, writers taught white, middle-class women about subservience, self-sacrifice, and male superiority. Their identity was to be wrapped up in the home life. Romance comic books vilified careers, work, and other actions which promoted self-fulfillment.
Throughout my research, I discovered that the UK comic book industry also began publishing romance comic books by the mid-1950s. There is an even greater silence concerning the role the UK’s romance comics in Cold War history. Much like with American romance comic books, scholars often treated as true representatives of the lives of British women. There are conclusions to be drawn concerning the relationship between gender construction in these comic books and the overarching post-war concern of the strength of the Empire and white Britain. Racial exclusions also reveal much about the dominating ideas concerning the proper British citizen.
Comic book historians have also ignored how romance comic books played a part in the growing tensions between the US and the UK. The first romance comic books to appear in the UK, which have not been mentioned in any comic-book studies, were either copies or reprints of American romance comic books. The government banned these comics during the British comic book scare under the guise of preventing immoral influence. However, it seems romance comic books were a cite in which the UK and America fought for cultural supremacy. The ban on American romance comic books was part of an attempt by the UK government to prevent American youth culture from hindering the government’s efforts to instill pre-war cultural customs.
So, although it might seem frivolous to study romance comic books, a closer look reveals that they were important players in history to the extent that they served as effective tools in shaping the perceived role of women. Their influence was such that they became a contentious item in negotiating international relations. I hope that my research makes people question media as a source of harmless entertainment.
– Sydney Heifler