Ilex Gift, $5.95, ISBN 978-1-908150-41-7
Popular Culture, 2012
Like other books in Tim Pilcher’s Little Book series, Little Book of Vintage Romance is a novelty book, this one offering a quick glimpse into what makes those bestselling “romance comics” in the 1940s to 1970s such a resounding success for their time. The answers can be surprising, given that they were read by women, especially teenage girls: fixation on husband-hunting as the sole purpose in life laced with heavy dose of misogyny. Or maybe not, considering the success of the new adult genre of today. I guess women do like reading stories that put the heroine on a pedestal at the expense of other members of her own sex, while lifting the entire phaeton of men into a lofty echelon meant to be worshiped. Unsurprisingly, these “romance comics” were created, written, and poorly illustrated by men.
Indeed, the artwork of these “romance comics” leave much to be desired. Every guy resembles a rectangle-headed man in his late thirties at the youngest, with forehead wide enough to plant an orchard and even with furrows to match, even if some of these guys are supposed to be teenage boys. Every woman has the same face, only different hairstyles, even if we are talking about different titles by different publishers, and two red spots on the cheeks that are supposed to… passionate craters of blush, I guess. These “romance comics” make Beano look like masterpieces. Clearly, these “romance comics” really were meant to be read, not looked at.
Oh, darling, you’re back! B-but what good will it do me now? All that’s left is TEAR-STAINED DREAMS!
This book offers not a whole compendium as advertised, but sample pages from “romance comics”, most of which aren’t even identified by title. Therefore, if you are expecting full stories or authoritative case studies, this one isn’t what you are looking for. This one is for people to gawk and marvel at.
The comics presented here focus on “lovesick frails”, which is exactly what that phrase implies. Many teary-eyed women clutching to the belief that they are desperately in love with some guy they have barely spoken to, only to tearfully press tissue papers into their eyeballs when those men are pawed by “sneak thieves”, “love thieves”, and other oh-so-polite ways these women back in those days used to call other women
who are hotter and better than they are hussies, harlots, and whores. Of course, men who succumb to these thieves’ monstrous and depraved kisses (remember, back in those days sex hasn’t been invented yet) don’t seem to be faulted even a little. If anything, they are the almighty men that have to be won over even harder by conquering those thieves through a rain of tears and incessant shows of helplessness.
Still, there is one sample that features advice for female readers: don’t bother with cheap guys who keep coming up with excuses for you or your family to foot the bill for his expenses. This is the only instance where guys are portrayed as imperfect people, compared to the many instances where other women are portrayed as vicious competition for one’s true love.
Along the way, there are charming advice columns. Women, don’t you dare be a “comparer” and point out the flaws of your men or they will dump you for someone more agreeable, leaving you with no man and therefore completely devoid of any purpose of existence forever. “Small bra women”, buy this amazingly effective push-up bra. There’s an ad for “candy tonic” that supposedly slims you down quickly, and it’s also “scientifically proven”. Oh, and put this cream on for those unsightly pimples. Let’s not forget, there are also tips on putting on make-up so that you look more beautiful to attract that man. I especially love that dating advice column, which tells a lady that it is okay to pick up a newspaper now and then to impress the date with some “intelligent conversation”, if that date is the serious type. I guess if the date is a frivolous bloke, the newspaper can be tucked aside for only the men to read.
Strangely enough, the agony aunt snippets featured here are complete 180 from the “you must be a big-breasted, slim-waisted, pimple-free submissive china doll” nonsense that is presented everywhere else here. The “questions” asked are quite embarrassing, but the answers are succinct and scarily sensible. The idiot female reader (let’s be nice and assume that readers actually send in these questions) that complains about how her date only wears the tie she gave him on their dates and not 24/7, for example, is told off by the agony aunt – she bought her date a tie, not a ball and chain, heh. Another idiot laments the fact that her beau becomes violent and abusive every time he drinks, but she loves him too much so she doesn’t know what to do. She is reminded that marriage is “not a reformatory”, so if he doesn’t get his act together, she should dump him and move on in life. If such Q&As are real, I can only imagine that the “agony aunt” is a sensible gentleman who is fed up of humoring stupid women who go through extreme lengths to sabotage their own happiness.
Little Book of Vintage Romance is worth a look if only to gawk at the terrifying-yet-fascinating portrayal of relationships back in those days. Of course, some of these tropes are well and alive today – just pick up any Harlequin Presents and other titles patterned after the formula, or any random new adult story. But at least the illustrations are prettier these days!