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A Romantic Anthology Of Comically 'Agonizing Love'

Romance comics — those sappy, dramatic serials from the 1940s and '50s — were designed for girls who grew up craving honeymoons and marital bliss in the years following World War II. Michael Barson, a middle-aged pop culture writer from New Jersey, certainly wasn't the target audience for romance comic books, but in the early 1980s he found himself amassing a sizable collection of them.

"I had already worked my way thorough big collections of superhero things and war comics and other manly pursuits. But then I was in a store in New York ... and they had just gotten in a big collection of early romance comics from the late '40s and early '50s," he says. "I'd never really seen a big box of them before. I started looking through them, and I guess you could say I fell in love."

Barson collects some of his favorite melodramatic, tear-stained minidramas in the anthology Agonizing Love: The Golden Era of Romance Comics. His favorites have titles like Was I a Wicked Wife? and Kisses Came Second — but all of them, he says, play out like portable little soap operas.

"Each one had a particular problem — maybe it was a jealously problem, maybe it was a faithfulness problem, maybe it was an insecurity one — but it would be covered in seven to eight pages, and then some sort of ending would be resolved and those characters would be done," he says. "And you go on to the next story and the next problem."

Most of the romance comics from the late '40s and early '50s were written for women, about women — by men. Comic creators Jack Kirby and Joe Simon were most famous for creating Captain America. (Kirby also went on to create the Incredible Hulk and the Fantastic Four.)

"Joe Simon and Jack Kirby were very canny," Barson says. "The superhero craze of the '40s had started to die down by the time the war ended. So in 1947, they took a crack at the soaps that were all over the radio, and it was a bonanza."

Romance comics sold more than 1 million issues every month throughout the early 1950s. By the early 1960s, their numbers had dropped off considerably. A decade later, they had almost completely disappeared, Barson says.

"That's the mystery to me," he says. "In 1955, there were a kajillion of these. But there were also movies and TV and magazines like Seventeen Magazine. And all of these things ... still flourished in the 1970s, but romance comics became extinct like a dinosaur. ... I don't know why."

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