Saturday, November 20, 2004

Roy Lichtenstein, Eat Your Heart Out!: a review of

The amazing Fantagraphics recently released a collection of love story comics from the 50s (apparently a big genre in its day) all written by Dana Dutch. Romance without Tears is not only an entertaining read, but it's surprisingly interesting. The publishers are packaging the book as a redress to the tear-stained icons of the genre we all know and love, promising that the girls in these stories are more empowered than we might expect, and that's certainly true. I was surprised at the single-minded romantic obsession of the stories, as well as the lack of condescension (given they were written by a man in his 50s presumably for teens). Dutch finds countless variations on the challenge that teens face in negotiating the treachorous world of adolescent love. All of these stories are set in rural, small-town America of the 50s, and a girl's reputation is of great importance, though once stained, it is not irredeemable. Typically a major challenge is her relative lack of experience, and this is balanced with the wishes of her parents, who are generally acknowledged to possess the wisdom of experience and a respect for honesty and maturity but who can be stubborn and a bit domineering at first. Then perhaps the most important elements to get factored into the equation are her wishes and desires. The resulting stories are surprisingly elegant and sophisticated, telling their stories with often graceful economy (developing from panel to panel). These heroines' diplomacy tempts me to call Dutch an optimistic Henry James lite, for Dutch's stories consistently demonstrate the belief that, despite the significant challenges, these young women can learn from their mistakes and come out okay in the end. You get hints that there have been wrecks along these shoals (for example, surely not everyone's parents are so open-minded and wise), but those ghosts are left alone. To his credit, Dutch acknowledges the true depth of passion many teens feel while dispensing useful advice.

At the same time, these stories are campy fun, with lurid titles splashed across the top of the page like "My Double Life Caught Up With Me" and "I Tried to Buy Love with Kisses," as well as delicious over-the-top dialogue like this exchange (p.114):
Gene: "I've never seen you look more beautiful. If only you were my wife now!"
Betty: "I'm just living for that day!"
It was also fun to soak up the slang of the day. For example, I saw the phrase "drug store cowboys" (which I'd only known before from the movie title) in its original context, referring to guys hanging out at drug stores (you know, the kind with the malt stands), in this case harassing pretty girls and their boyfriends.

There's a respect for individual experience in these stories, though, finally, no awareness of the variety of romantic goals. Heterosexual marriage is the ultimate expression of love in all of these stories, and premarital sex is generally (though not always) a no-no here, which is not surprising but which does date the stories. But I was impressed with the articulate and friendly discussion of basic, timeless challenges that remain for most kids today. The collection made me wonder about boys and where they get their romantic philosophies from--girls are encouraged to spend some of their imaginative time on their romantic lives, but I suppose boys mostly are expected to rely on their own and their friends' experience, as well as their parents' advice. I don't know if you could get boys to read romance stories in any guise, but as most men end up married or partnered, it wouldn't be a bad idea to get them to think about these issues at a younger age. Perhaps this is one reason that conventional wisdom sees boys "mature" later and get married at an older age.


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