Romance Without Tears. Stories by Dana Dutch. Edited by John Benson. Fantagraphics, 2003. 160p.
Reprint volumes of comics of various times and genres have become prevalent in the market lately: multi-volume complete comic strip volumes (Peanuts, Gasoline Alley, etc), reissues of EC comics, DC and Marvel’s various projects both high-end (archives/masterworks) and low-end (essentials). One area that has been mostly absent is the romance comics that were highly popular in the post-war period. Marvel put out one collecton of romance stories (my review) which wasn’t very good, and then there is this volume from Fantagraphics.
Romance Without Tears collects 18 stories published by St. John between 1949 and 1954. All are supposed to have been written by Dana Dutch, who wrote most of the romance stories for this publisher (uncredited). The book begins with an excellent introduction by editor John Benson, discussing the historical context of the comics, brief biographies of the people involved, and the ways these particular stories differed from similar genre stories from other publishers. Benson (who has a whole book on this publisher coming out early next year from Fantagraphics) does good work providing a lens with which to read the stories that follow.
The stories as a whole concern young women (high school age) and their romantic adventures. They are generally down to earth stories that don’t stretch any bounds of realism. What is most surprising about them is how little they fall into the generic clichés. I was actually surprised by the direction of the stories took. While I can’t say the writing is inventive or particularly great, the plotting is superb in keeping out of the conventional path that one expects in these types of stories. Benson’s introduction charts the way that Dutch’s stories subvert the prevailing moralizing of romance comics. Ideas of punishment for wrongs, the passivity of the woman in a relationship, or how the protagonist must end up with a man at the end of the story are thrown out or refigured in a general more modern vision. The young women in these stories act, take chances, speak out, and make mistakes, but every wrong is not met with a life of tears (as one sees in the Marvel Romance book) or a falling out with boyfriend/friends/parents. Nor does every story end with wedded bliss. Sometimes the protagonist end up with a new relationship blooming and sometimes they end up without a boy, confident that they’ve learned something about themselves and relationships. As a whole the stories promote a sense of openness, communication, and the importance of experience as a way to learn. I don’t think a single story in here relies upon the oft-used (even today, particularly in sitcoms) device of misunderstanding do to inane lack of communication–the protagonists and their boyfriends talk, the protagonists and their parents talk. The stories are surprisingly odd in their common sense moralizing.
The artwork is done by a few artists, but most of the stories are drawn by Matt Baker who does a skillful version of the conventional realist comic style. His figures and compositions are quite good. Most noticeable to me is the cropping of compositions to focus on the characters (these are character stories after all) and provide as little background as possible. Only rarely does the environment become prominent enough to notice, rather the characters exist in front of generic types of places (home, restaurant, street, hotel, car) that provide just enough detail to locate the characters but not enough that any atmosphere is produced. The art tells the story with as little extraneous flourish as possible.
The strips are reproduced with what appears to be little or no touching up. The colors are in their original form, dots and all. While this occasionally provides muddy images, for the most part this is preferable to the slick recoloring done by Marvel in their romance reprint. The coloring keeps the historical appearance of the works.
Romance Without Tears is an interesting collection more for historical value and or generic studies than anything else. Worth a look if you have interest in the genre, or as an example of a genre at one of its higher points.