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Believe it or not, but there was actually a time when superheroes did not dominate the comic-book industry. Westerns, mysteries, science fiction, Bible adaptations, war stories, funny-animal tales - the early comic innovators tried just about every literary genre imaginable to get a leg up on the competition.
Every genre, that is, except romance. The oversight is understandable; superhero and war comics dominated the industry until the end of the Second World War, and it was only during the mid-1940's, when those two seemed to wear out their welcome, that publishers looked seriously at new markets to fill.
Joe Simon had already made a name for himself creating Captain America and countless other characters when he considered an overlooked possibility. The newsstands of the time were filled with love pulps and 'true confessions' magazines (the precursors to today's Harlequin Romance novels), all catering to female readers looking for escapist fantasy. How hard could it be, he thought, to get them to plunk down their dimes for stories with pictures?
Together with artist Jack Kirby, Simon created My Date, an Archie-like book that focused on romance humor. It only lasted four issues, but it did well enough to convince Simon and Kirby to go ahead with the more serious Young Romance.
The first issue was a huge success, and it immediately caused waves in the industry. Martin Goodman, the publisher of Timely Comics (which would become Marvel Comics in the early 60's), dismissed Young Romance as 'virtual pornography,' attacking its emphasis on adult characters and situations. He must have had a change of heart; within three years, Timely was churning out no less than 13 romance titles itself. Altogether, Young Romance spawned no fewer than 50 imitators, including Young Love, its own sister publication, within three years of its debut.
Despite the competition, though, Young Romance ruled the sales charts, thanks in no small part to its writers and artists. Some of the industry's best honed their skills on the book's stories, which were surprisingly mature, considering the era in which they thrived. After 1954, the newly established Comics Code Authority forbade anything remotely sexual in comic books, and such topics as divorce, abortion, or pre-marital sex were strict no-nos. A part of the original code ruled that "the treatment of love-romance stories shall emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage," which meant that a lot of romance stories ended with the couple (always consisting of a man and a woman, of course) taking a walk down the aisle. While these restrictions might have hampered lesser artists, Simon, Kirby, and the rest rose to the challenge to create wholesome stories that nonetheless managed to touch on some serious topics - anti-Semitism, racism, and the gap between the rich and the poor were recurring themes in the romance books.
And the public loved every bit of it; Young Romance and other leading love comics each sold more than a million copies a month, every month, for years. The romance books' popularity, as well as their role as a breeding ground for a new generation of comic artists, cannot be forgotten. It's fair to say, in fact, that when the comic industry imploded in the early 1950's, romance books were just about the only ones standing alongside Superman and Batman to keep the industry afloat. If it weren't for their profitability, it's unlikely that comic companies would have stayed around long enough to create a second age of superheroes.
Young Romance, the grandmother of them all, was published by Prize Comics until 1963, at which time DC Comics took over the title and ran with it until 1975. By that time, romance comics had definitely seen better days; last-ditch attempts at titillation just underscored the reality that most female readers had moved on to other forms of entertainment, and a generation of liberated women had little time for make-believe women sobbing into their pillows. By the end of the 70's, the romance comic market was essentially doomed, with no Prince Charming on his white horse to come rescue it. Sometimes, they just don't live happily ever after, but at least it's fun while it lasts.