For several years, the writer and historian Jacque Nodell has dedicated herself to the dim-remembered world of Romance Comics, a genre that flourished for several decades before collapsing under a tide of social change. As she now embarks on her first book length project, How to Go Steady– which she is crowfunding via Kickstarter— I thought I’d ask Jacque a handful of questions about what she’s doing and where she’s going.
KOBEK: Who are you and why are you interested in romance comics?
NODELL: My name is Jacque Nodell and I’m a comic book historian and the curator behind the long-running romance comic book history blog, Sequential Crush. After living all over the Midwest for most of my adult life and then Denmark for a couple of years, I finally settled in Tennessee and I now live in the beautiful mountain town of Chattanooga. My professional background is in the museum field but I grew up entrenched in the comic book industry. My grandfather, Mart Nodell, created the Green Lantern, and I absolutely love comic books as a result.
I’m interested (more like obsessed) with romance comics for quite a few reasons. First off, they are just plain fun to collect. When I go to conventions to hunt for them, I’m pretty much in heaven! Decent copies aren’t as expensive as other comic book genres, so collecting is a really enjoyable and relatively inexpensive pursuit. Funny enough, it is the non-superhero comic book genres that I tend to gravitate toward. I’m also interested in romance comics because I love popular culture and entertainments that were intended for girls and young women. From Anne of Green Gables to Little House on the Prairie, you name it, I love it.
KOBEK: For those people who don’t even know the genre existed, what was (and is) the romance comic?
NODELL: Romance comics were a genre of comic books that were incredibly popular in the postwar years. The first true romance title, Young Romance, was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (the same creative team behind Captain America) in 1947. The genre exploded like wildfire and for many years sold more copies than superhero titles. Romance comics contained stories of love and lots of subsequent heartbreak.
Most people are probably familiar with romance comic book art without even knowing it. You know those famous crying girl paintings by Roy Lichtenstein? The imagery is swiped straight out of the pages of romance comics.
KOBEK: When people do think of the romance comic, it tends to be the starched shirts of the 1950s. Poodle dresses. But your focus has been, principally, on a different era of the romance comic, namely the 1960s and 1970s, which is a really odd moment as all of the art has gone psychedelic and, presumably, the real world analogues of the characters being portrayed would have some chance of being sexually active, but the stories have remained the same. What’s your attraction to this particular moment?
NODELL: It was definitely the art that drew me into the 1960s and ’70s romance comics but the stories that hooked me. With a few exceptions, the majority of the art from the romance comics of the 1940s and 1950s were done in a house style, giving many of the stories a very uniform look. The art in the later romance issues are highly stylized and individual artists’ quirks shine through, making identifying artists very rewarding.
Probably the most exciting aspect of the 1960s and 1970s romance comics in my opinion is the attempt at relevancy on behalf of the publishers. This came in the form of stories exploring feminism (or “Women’s Lib” as it was always referred to in the romance comics), interracial couples, the toll of the war in Vietnam, and the counterculture. Hippies, swingers, and other long-haired groovy characters were introduced in many of the later stories with fascinating results. I’m also interested in this time period because it is the true rise of youth culture. You see characters go from wearing clothes that adult women wore (gloves, pill box hats, etc.) to miniskirts, go-go boots, and crop tops – things only younger women were wearing. Add up the fashion sensibility of the 1960s and ’70s romance comics with the social issues and they make for a hell of a read.
KOBEK: You run a website, Sequential Crush, that features all of your research. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned? What’s the least?
NODELL: One of the most interesting things I’ve learned from researching romance comics is the wide range of people that read them. From the advice columns that readers wrote into I’ve learned that girls as young as nine years old were reading them, and even women almost in their 30s. Young women read them, young men read them. Parents and teachers also read them – no doubt to keep an eye on what their teens were up to. I’m also really fascinated by the “Free to be… You and Me” vibe that permeates many of the stories of the ’70s, which counter a lot of the preconceived notions people have of the genre. I really tried to incorporate those messages into my book because they are still so relevant today, especially when it comes to dating and finding true love.
I find even the most mundane things in the romance comics interesting, so honestly, I can’t say anything in the romance comics haven’t caught my attention in some way.
KOBEK: Your forthcoming book, How to Go Steady, for which you’re running a Kickstarter, deals with the ephemera of the romance comic– dating advice columns. On Sequential Crush, you’ve also run some remarkable other pieces of backmatter like Liz Berube’s Zodiac illustrations. I’m not sure if there’s even a question here, maybe just a prompt for you to talk about why you’re into ephemera.
NODELL: I feel like I tend to be interested in things that aren’t really popular. I guess it’s the contrarian Taurus in me! The more fleeting aspects of the romance comics such as the advice columns and the fashion pages are some of my favorites not only because they are so rich in historical content, but because they get overlooked by the typical comic book fan/collector. I don’t want those things and their creators to be completely lost or forgotten. The advice columns may look like walls of text to some, but they were important to many a young reader in their formative years, and I think that’s worth preserving.
KOBEK: Okay, last question: what, exactly, is How to Go Steady?
NODELL: How to Go Steady is a history book meets how-to guide. In it, I explore the main themes of dating advice dispensed in 1960s and 1970s romance comics in a fun and useful way that I hope readers can implement in their own lives. I cover the primary themes of advice that were in the romance comics in the stories, advice columns, and quizzes, concerning how to meet potential dates, date etiquette, coping with jealousy and heartbreak, meeting parents, sex (as chaste as it was in the romance comics) and of course, the do’s and don’ts surrounding going steady. The book is fully written, but with help of the Kickstarter, the book will be fully illustrated by Jenny Cimino in the style of the romance comics from the 1960s and 1970s. Jenny’s illustrations woven in with historical anecdotes and practical tips make it the perfect read for comic book fans and non-comic fans alike, as well as those looking for love.