Graphic Novels & Art Comics - January 2012.
When the popularity of superhero comics flagged after World War II, the generation of young artists who’d pioneered the capes-and-tights genre scrambled to find new markets. Writer Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby—co-creators of Captain America in the early ’40s—found an unexpectedly rich vein with Young Romance, which they pitched to Crestwood Publications in 1947. For the next decade, Simon and Kirby made a lot of money for Crestwood pumping out “true confessions”-style stories about lovelorn women and the desperate lengths to which they would go to land a husband. The two men weren’t squandering their talents, either. Simon found he had a knack for tangled melodrama set in very specific milieus, while Kirby drew ordinary men and women with the same sweaty fervor that he lent to monsters and costumed do-gooders.
All of which means that the Michael Gagné-edited collection Young Romance: The Best Of Simon & Kirby’s Romance Comics(Fantagraphics) isn’t just a book of some minor historical interest; it’s a genuinely entertaining and artful set of comics, and in some ways more readable than Simon and Kirby’s adventure stories. Gagné divides the anthology into “pre-code” and “post-code,” and as Michelle Nolan notes in her introduction, the stories from 1955 to 1959 sport acleaner look and less complicated narratives. They’re still enjoyable—if only for Kirby’s version of Eisenhower-era placidity—but for the most part it’s the work that Simon and Kirby did before the Comics Code Authority intervened that wows. Simon’s plots deal with jealousy, class conflict, mistaken identity, selfishness, and selflessness—the romance staples—while Kirby’s art makes these tales of passion and deceit especially dynamic, with deep shadows and a mix of the glamorous and the lumpen. (Example of a kinky Kirby detail: In a story about a man sentenced to death, Kirby draws the hero with shaved temples, ready for the electric chair.) The Young Romance comics aren’t in the same league as Douglas Sirk’s subversive Hollywood melodramas, if only because Simon and Kirby weren’t intending to mess with their readers’ expectations. But in trying to create something new and vital and potentially lucrative, Simon and Kirby did depict a world of darkness and heavy emotion, inhabited by clean-looking people in pretty clothes.
Writer Keshni Kashyap and artist Mari Araki probably wouldn’t think of their graphic novel Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) as a descendant of Simon and Kirby, but the book has a lot more in common withYoung Romance than they might think. The form is different;Tina’s Mouth is a hybrid of illustrated text and straight comics, sort of like a Diary Of A Wimpy Kid for older teens and young adults who can handle the occasional “fuck.” But the “dear diary” narrative structure was a fixture of romance comics, too, and this story of a high-school sophomore angling for her first kiss while fighting with friends and rivals (and friends whobecome rivals) is very much in the Girls’ Romances/My Only Love mold.
Tina’s Mouth is also like Young Romance in that it’s idiosyncratic, and excellent. Kashyap’s high-school setting and “How will I get that dreamy boy to notice me?” plot have been done and even overdone—in movies and on TV, as well as in literature with and without pictures—but rarely as adroitly as in Tina’s Mouth, which has the advantage of so clearly being the product of Kashyap’s own experiences as an Indian-American of some privilege. Kashyap’s heroine, Tina, is a 15-year-old at an exclusive, multi-ethnic Southern California high school, where she takes a class on existentialism that requires her to keep a diary. She addresses the diary to Jean-Paul Sartre, and uses it to work through her heartbreak when her best friend ditches her to join the popular crowd. Tina decides to embrace “being,” and signs up for multiple extracurricular activities—including the drama club’s production of Rashomon—while going outside of her own small circle of misfits to try and connect with a cute, friendly skateboarder.
Araki’s art isn’t incredibly detailed; she makes good use of the layouts to control the pace and the emotion of Tina’s book-length monologue, but her drawings are mainly functional, giving the word balloons a place to anchor. That’s okay though, because the art doesn’t get in the way of Kashyap’s words, which are slangy and funny and honest, like a mix of John Hughes, J.D. Salinger and Marjane Satrapi. Tina’s Mouth eschews the usual heroes-and-villains approach to teenage romantic comedy. Everyone in this book—even the grown-ups—are just fumbling along, revising their belief systems on the fly, and trying not to think too hard about who they’ve hurt along the way. It’s difficult to write a book in the voice of a teenager that’s true to a character while still providing some outside perspective, but Kashyap and Araki have done just that here, using the comic-book portions ofTina’s Mouth to reveal truths that even the heroine doesn’t see yet. The result is a philosophical treatise, a coming-of-age story, and, yes, a romance comic, all rolled into one multi-hued, richly rewarding package.===================================
Speaking of Marjane Satrapi, her charming 2004 book The Sigh (Archaia) has recently been translated into English, and while on the surface it’s nothing like her groundbreaking autobiography Persepolis, it is in its own way about a young woman trying to find a path through a world where the value systems have been thrown out of whack. Written and illustrated in the mode of a children’s storybook—with crayon-heavy drawings not unlike the work of P.D. Eastman or Robert Lopshire—The Sigh tells the story of Rose, the daughter of a merchant who accidentally sells her to a mysterious being known as “Ah, The Sigh.” Rose is treated well by her captor, but curiosity gets the better of her, with tragic consequences that leave Rose exiled from paradise and sold into slavery. In just over 50 pages, Satrapi propels Rose from one adventure to another, having her heroine encounter princes, wicked housekeepers, dragons, bandits, and all manner of unhappy or unfulfilled folks that she helps out as a way of solving her own problems.
As with Satrapi’s Chicken With Plums, The Sigh takes the form of a folktale, but this book is more overtly fantastical, with magic spells and curses. At its core though, The Sigh follows a woman who keeps making terrible mistakes until she learns the rules of her reality and begins to make them conform to her wishes. In other words, it too is a romance comic of a kind. The trappings may seem antique and exotic, but the content is familiar. These are the stories we tell and re-tell. Only the clothes change.===================================