Saturday, February 18, 2017

[Redacted] Is Love! Part 1 of 3: "Unfaithful"

Recently the Digial Comic Museum website celebrated Valentine's Day with a few hundred public domain romance comics. I indexed many of them for the Grand Comics Database and there were a few comics which stood out to me.

I'm not an expert on romance comics but I find what happened to the genre after the implementation of the Comics Code Authority (CCA) in 1954. The horror comics produced by E.C. Comics were notorious in their time for the violence they displayed, yet many fans who are in-the-know realize that the horror stories produced by Harvey Comics not only matched them for gore, but frequently outdid them. But the CCA weren't out to police just the horror books. The impact on romance titles wasn't quite as clear to me until this recent batch of romance books. In CCA-approved science fiction & fantasy titles the lack of blood and violence was obvious. How did the romance books change? Fortunately, Harvey has provided an easy means for us to gauge that.

Y'see, though Harvey kept publishing a lot of romance comics under the CCA, they weren't producing many new stories and by the mid-to-late 1950s most of their romance stories were pre-code comics which had been revised by the CCA. That the stories had been altered became obvious to me because the stories had been altered all over the place - story titles were clumsily relettered, dialogue balloons changed, art touched up.

I'm going to look at three Harvey romance comics which were printed before and after the Code and note how the comics were changed. Let's start with "Unfaithful" from Teen-Age Brides #7 (1954) drawn by John Prentice just before the Code arrived.

This is the story of Rose and her husband Jim. We open seeing them married and quite in love, but by the third panel their marriage has reached a point where the love seems to have gone out of their relationship. Rose decides to glamorize herself to regain Jim's affections, but one night at a party she walks in on Jim kissing a woman named Cora. Rose is humiliated and upset. Jim explains Cora had dared him to kiss her fun and apologizes. Rose forgives Jim but the next morning she treats him with restrained contempt and as time goes on continues to throw barbed comments at him. Eventually, Jim has enough and decides to leave Rose. He notes Rose didn't truly forgive him for his actions and he can't deal with her constant suspicions and hurtful comments. Rose apologizes and asks for another chance; they embrace and promise to try again.

Now we move to 1957's reprint "Ever Faithful" as seen in True Bride-to-Be Romances #22. Right here you can notice how hastily-made the new title logo was fashioned as the word "Ever" doesn't match the font of "Faithful." The content of this issue is largely the same except for one panel - and unfortunately, it's the panel which the entire story spins around.

Above is how the scene of Jim kissing Cora appeared in "Unfaithful." Now, here's how it appeared in "Ever Faithful:"

Even though the point of the story is that Jim once kissed another woman, the CCA stopped short of depicting this. It's not that they were against showing kisses but that they were evidently against a married man kissing another woman. This kind of ruins the entire concept of the story and suggests Harvey should've simply refrained from reprinting it.

Part of the problem of this reprint is that it reduces protagonist Rose's agency to be even smaller than it was before. Women in romance comics don't tend to have much agency no matter whether they were before or after the CCA, but post-CCA books rendered matters a bit more problematic. The people who chastised comic books as trash literature which rotted the minds of impressionable young people certainly wouldn't have seen anything wrong with the typical outcome of a romance comic book plot - the man and woman united in a happy marriage with the husband's authority established alongside the wife's subserviance. There's nothing wrong with the outcome of "Unfaithful/Ever Faithful" except that it was the outcome of pretty much every happy ending in the CCA's romance comics. If the woman accepts the man's authority, it's a happy ending; the woman who tries to be indepedent is humbled by the story's end and regrets her actions, fashioning the bittersweet ending. You won't find many stories where the woman decides she's happier in her career than as a domesticated housewife.

Indeed, the way "Ever Faithful" lessens Jim's transgression diminishes Rose still further - her bitter recriminations against Jim are the same but in the reprint she's upset at him for something that almost happened. Essentially, the CCA has gaslighted her; did Jim really betray Rose or was it all in her mind? The censors have decided against her!

Yet for all this, "Unfaithful/Ever Faithful" is a pretty mild edit. Tomorrow, we'll look at another Harvey romance comic story which is much more messed-up.

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