Simon and Kirby created the romance comic book genre in 1947 when they produced Young Romance. It was a big success, which in the world of comic books meant that other publishers would shortly release their own romance titles. A better description would be that S&K opened up a flood gate. I have read very little of the romance titles by other publishers, there is just so much that it is overwhelming. That is why I really appreciate “Romance Without Tears”, a collection of stories by the publisher Archer St. John. I was a bit late in coming across this book since it was published by Fantagraphics in 2004. However it is still available at places like Amazon St. John published more then just romance titles and Ken Quattro provides a nice history of the company. Great story, particularly the early part where newsman Archer St. John confronts Al Capone.
“Romance Without Tears” was compiled by John Benson who also wrote the introduction. Benson makes the case that St. John’s romances were unique in having heroines that were intelligent and free spirited. Yes they make mistakes, but they learn from their failures and generally do not suffer because them. Judging from the selection of stories that he provides, Benson’s analysis is accurate. Benson credits most of this to one writer, Dana Dutch. Dutch was obviously an unusual comic book writer. He sometimes places his characters into situations that while not explicitly sexual, are certainly suggestive. Two young couples have a secret overnight trip to a city. A couple returning from a date are caught in a storm in a rather leaky car take refuge by renting a cottage as husband and wife. That sort of thing. Even darker things can be suggested. A woman accompanies a man to a room to do some typing but finds that is not what the man really had in mind. She protests but from the man’s replies it is clear that this would not end well. A rape is not presented but only because of the fortuitous arrival of a bellhop allows her to escape.
“I Played Kiss and Run” page 8 panel 4 art by Matt Baker
The stories are good, just not as good you might expect with such unusual story lines. The problem appears that Dutch is not so much writing love stories as morality tales. In doing so Dutch can at times be a bit heavy handed in his scripting. Would you really expect a couple to say something like found in the panel I provide above? Examples of such stilted writing are common and are the primary reason for parts of the stories appearing too preachy.
Teen-Age Romances #14 (February 1951) art by Matt Baker
Of course comic books are not just about words, the art is just as important, perhaps even more so. The St. John romance comics were fortunate to make use of the talented Matt Baker. Baker did not do all the art, but the other artists clearly either were greatly influenced by Baker or were selected because they tried a similar approach. The best description of Baker’s style is that it is very illustrative in the best sense of the term. Matt’s art gives the impression of being very realistic, but actually that is misleading as his style is very attuned to the comic book media. Unlike many who try to be realistic, Baker’s art is the antithesis of dry. I do not think there is any comic book artist whose women are as sexy and sensual as Baker’s. Matt’s men are ruggedly handsome as well. His covers are special treats, even though I am a die hard Simon and Kirby fan my collection includes the Teen-Age Romance #14 and I could not resist restoring the cover art.
As a student of Simon and Kirby productions, it is their work that I compare other publications to. Although the S&K romance plots were not as daring or unusual as the St. John stories they were better written. I am just not as big a fan of Dana Dutch’s writing as John Benson is. As for the art, well it just would not be fair to compare Matt Baker to Jack Kirby. The S&K studio artist that comes closest to what Baker was doing was John Prentice. Prentice’s women, at least when he was doing comic books, have a sophisticated beauty while Baker’s are sexier. Prentice did not do many romance covers. Those he did are generally quite nice, just not nearly as well done as those by Baker. Matt’s illustrative approach really comes out well with his covers. As far as interior art is concerned, Matt probably is a better story artist then John as well, but not by so great a margin. While Prentice may not compare well with the talented Matt Baker, he does much better in comparison to the other St. John artists who were not as talented.
All in all I am quite pleased with “Romance Without Tears”. I am not ready to abandon Simon and Kirby and start studying St. John publications, but I now understand why St. John’s fans are so enthusiastic. One thing I really like about this book is how the art is presented. Most golden are reprints are make first by bleaching the comic pages and then re-coloring. With one exception (DC Spirit Archives) I have always found the results completely loose their original feel and look very flat. “Romance Without Tears” uses good quality scans instead. This may seem like a cheap technique, but I actually prefer it. Personally I think it would look even better if the scans were cleaned up a bit.