‘Agonizing Love’: forgotten chapter in comic book history

I had the best time reading and looking at Michael Barson’s beautiful oversized book, “Agonizing Love,” which didn’t receive nearly the attention it deserved last year.

Produced by Harper Design, the book is an engrossing look back at a genre of comic books many of us (most of us?) didn’t know existed — the “romance comics” of the late 1940s through the early 1970s.

Although most pop cultural histories focus on the super-hero and horror comic books that were aimed at baby boomer boys — the ones like “Tales from the Crypt” that triggered a national outcry in the 1950s for their supposed violence — millions of girls and women devoured comics aimed at them during the same period.

The genre began with “Young Romance” in 1947, created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, the same duo who launched Captain America six years earlier.

Although there had been humorous comic books like “Archie” that dealt with boy-girl relationships, “Young Romance” was the first one to play this material straight — like the romance novels aimed at women.

The two men wisely negotiated a new form of payment for the comic book industry — a share of the profits rather than a flat fee — and scored a bonanza that surprised their bosses.

The first issue had a print run of 350,000 copies and it sold out quickly. The press run was immediately upped to one million copies per issue — which also did sell-out business at newstands.

The partners launched another hit comic book two years later — “Young Love” — and that too became an immediate hit.

Within the first few years of “Young Romance,” competitors joined in to feed this new market and soon there were 527 different romance titles.

The genre did well for the next decade-and-a-half, until the rise of the counterculture made straight-forward romance stories seem hopelessly un-hip, even to young girls:

“Romance comics weren’t keeping up with the times, and their efforts to weave in stories with themes touching on current events and the counterculture were almost universally laughable. No matter how many headbands and tie-dyed T-shirts appeared on the characters in those pages, readers must have been able to sense that something inauthentic was afoot back at the storyboard.”

While they were hot, the romance comics delivered some very memorable cover teaser lines, including “Did I Give My Lips Too Freely?” and “I Spelled Ki$$e$ the Wrong Way.”

Whether you browse your way through it, or read it cover to cover, “Agonizing Love” is a terrific piece of entertainment that also fills in a big gap in our pop culture history.

Joe Meyers