Tears are not for Dutch

Romance Without Tears rescues a forgotten comic book writer from obscurity

In his introduction to the anthology Romance Without Tears, editor John
Benson attempts to clear up a host of misconceptions about that most maligned
of all comic-book genres: the romance comic. Nearly 3,500 issues of romance
comics were published in the genre’s heady heyday from 1949 to 1955,
Benson writes. The genre, in fact, was so popular that one out of every four
comic books sold during that period was a romance comic; according to Benson,
the genre “easily outsold the more famous (or infamous) horror comics
that competed for rack space.” Furthermore, the clichéd image of
the “tear-stained face” cover, of the sort that provided the
inspiration for so many Roy Lichtenstein paintings, didn’t come into
vogue until the ’60s, when the romance comic genre had gone into
decline. In Benson’s view, classic romance comics gave their readers a
surprisingly forward-thinking vision of love and women’s place in
society—and none more so than the books published by Archer St. John
and written by an enigmatic man named Dana Dutch. When he started writing
romance comics, Dutch was already in his fifties, a short, foul-mouthed loner
with the air of a hard-bitten, veteran newspaperman—and yet somehow he
was able to fill up dozens of issues of comic books with titles like Teenage
Romances, Diary Secrets and Cinderella Love with hundreds of unusually
sympathetic stories about teenage girls coping with romantic dilemmas. While
his heroines do shed the occasional tear (“I ran right up to my room,
threw myself across the bed and sobbed as if my heart would break…. Just
thinking he might be kissing someone else as he kissed me was more than I
could bear!”), more often than not they’re able to figure out
solutions to their problems without relying on corny plot contrivances or
waiting around passively for some handsome dreamboat to take them in his arms
and rescue them. One of my favourite Dutch heroines is Terry from
“Loneliness Made Me a Pickup,” an athletic former tomboy
who’s so desperate to find a guy who doesn’t just think of her as
“one of the boys” that she takes a bus to a town six miles away
and hangs around the bus stop, hoping that in a place where no one knows her
she’ll have better luck attracting a potential boyfriend. (In fact, she
winds up setting in motion a whole chain of events that helps her win over a
guy she’s known her entire life.) The story is a typical Dutch creation
in many ways. For one thing, Terry gets to explore a whole range of romantic
partners before settling on the “right” one—Dutch rarely
limits his heroines to some hackneyed choice between the flashy playboy and
the dependable-but-dull sweetheart. (As Benson points out, in “A
Stranger Stole My Heart,” the heroine has five potential male partners
to choose from, all of them pretty viable options.) It’s fun to read
Romance Without Tears and snicker at all the hilariously outmoded
slang—“Woo woo! Some punkins!” shouts a boy in the first
panel of “I Set a Trap for a Wolf,” a great expression that
I’d like to try reviving. But it’s also fascinating to look at a
story like “Loneliness Made Me a Pickup” as a vivid sociological
portrait of the rigid mores of a bygone era, a time when every boy was
expected to wear a jacket and tie and a girl could be threatened with
expulsion from high school for overindulging in “boy-crazy
behaviour.” It’s really amazing to see the tremendously high
value girls of that era apparently placed on their social reputation, and how
easily that reputation could be shattered. (In one panel, Terry is shown
walking past a group of her former friends, one of whom whispers, “Have
you noticed the change in her? She even looks like a pickup girl now!”)
And yet Dutch’s heroines are always tempted to break free from these
confines—some, like Jane in “My Double-Life Caught Up With
Me,” simply start hanging around with the “fast” crowd from
the wrong part of town; some, like Daisy in “Penny-Ante Girl,”
get part-time jobs, move out of their parents’ home and start dating
musicians; while others, like June in “Tourist Cabin Escapade”
and Pat and Jetta in “Masquerade Marriage,” find their own
hormones tempting them into compromising situations with unscrupulous older
men. But as tempting as it is to call Dutch the comic-book equivalent to
Douglas Sirk, he had none of Sirk’s subversiveness—Dutch’s
themes were always right there on the surface. I’m not sure you can
even call him a feminist, except in the broad sense that he treated
women’s lives and emotions with respect. But that’s more than a
huge slice of pop culture does even today, and for that, Dutch deserves to be
fondly remembered. Let’s not have any tear-stained faces,
though—Dutch didn’t want them in his comics, and I doubt
he’d want to see any in real life, either. V Romance Without Tears
Edited by John Benson • Fantagraphics Books • 160 pp. • $31.95

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