Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Guardians of the Galaxy and Romance Comics' Common Thread - Interview with Steve Englehart!

Yesterday over at the Sequential Crush Facebook page and Twitter, I teased today's post with a picture of Chris Pratt. You may have asked yourself, what possibly could Chris Pratt, Star-Lord have in common with romance comics (besides the fact that he's an intergalactic hunk)?! The answer is -- this man:

Steve Englehart, c. mid-1970s

That's right, Steve Englehart! For those not familiar with Englehart, he is probably best known for his superhero work, such as Star-Lord, but he was also a contributor to the romance comics of both DC and Marvel in the 1970s as a writer and illustrator. Steve was kind enough to take time out of his schedule and answer some of my questions about his early days in comics.

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Most bios of your career start with your time at Marvel. However, you did some work for DC Comics first. How did you get involved with the romance comics? Those three “Do's & Dont's of Dating by Page Peterson" must have been some of your first pages in comics -- did you have a choice or were those pages assigned to you? When you then went to Marvel, were you assigned romance work because of your DC romance work?

When someone started in comics back then, you broke in doing little jobs in the non-superhero realm - getting your feet wet while being evaluated. I was assigned the one-pagers, in romance and "mystery," at DC, and the same genres at Marvel, where they didn't have one-pagers, so I got short stories (about 8 pages). I don't think the DC work had anything to do with the Marvel work; they were both seeing what I could do in the areas they used for such things. I liked doing Page Peterson, and I liked the short Marvels, and I would guess that DC, being stodgy, was still thinking about what I could do while Marvel was continuing to give me stories, and so my "career" went in that direction - which was good for me because I liked Marvel better than DC.

Young Romance #174 (September 1971)
Pencils by Steve Englehart

In “I Can’t Love Anyone!” you were able to capture the frustration that some young women felt when it came to sticking with traditional gender roles – this story very much seemed to “get” what the Women’s Movement was about. Do you remember anything in particular about this story and how it came to be? 

Well, I've always been interested in people - why they do what they do. That means all people, so I was paying attention to the women's movement, and when asked to write romance stories, I tried to draw upon whatever I knew about women of the time. Even then (early '70s), romance comics were somewhat of an anachronism, because of the women's movement, so I tried to write something that would work in the times we were in. (Semi-related: sometime around then, another Marvel writer told me "The only characters we can really write are white men," and my instinctive reaction was to say "No, a writer should be able to write anyone" - and I tried to do that - not only with romance, but with black characters, and so on). So I think I have a decent empathy and appreciation for people who don't look like me.


Tell us about “Anne Spencer.” What made you use that nom de plume? Did you feel using the name lent legitimacy to your voice as a writer of comic books intended for women? Were you going off your own romantic experiences or did you draw on the experiences of women in your life?

My sister's name is Anne, and she was dating a guy from Spencer, Indiana - et voila! I wasn't required to have a pseudonym to write romance stories, but since nobody knew who I was anyway, I figured a female name would be best. I guess it sounded more legit (assuming I could write credible women), but it was really just me exploring the options of this new field I was in. In the same vein, I certainly drew upon my experiences, and other people's, but mostly I was putting together what I hoped would be a good story. Without experiences, I obviously couldn't write romance, but I understood that my male experiences were different from female experiences, and I was trying to work with what I understood about the female experience - in the context of Marvel romance books. All of that came together for the final product.

As Told To Anne Spencer
AKA Steve Englehart

What was the general feeling among you and your colleagues at both Marvel and DC concerning the romance comics? Were they looked down upon (as far as being assigned to them), in comparison with the superhero titles? 

I think the general feeling, at the time, was - romance and Western books were legitimate magazines - they weren't looked down upon - but the superhero books were where the action was. Given a choice between romance/Western and a superhero, anyone would choose the superhero. If you didn't have that choice, then you put your energy into r/W, and I certainly didn't feel put upon for doing so. The problem, as I said before, was that women's lib was rendering romance books to the scrapbin of history, so their days were numbered. But while they still existed, they were "real" comics. (Another digression: before I became a pro, I was a fan…of comics. And comics didn't cost very much. So I collected romance books and Westerns and everything else alongside the superheroes. I was a big fan of the soap-opera era of Patsy Walker and Patsy & Hedy - and the soaps that DC got into at the same time. That's why, when I wrote my first superhero (The Beast), I brought Patsy into that realm. I knew Patsy, and I liked her.


You worked with some great folks during your time on the romance comics -- Jack Abel, John Romita, Stan Lee, and Holli Resnicoff to mention a few. Do you have any memories of working with them on the romance stories?

I remember that my pencils were still the product of a new artist, so I was damn glad to have someone like Johnny Romita ink things and show me how they should have looked. Ditto Jack Abel. They both worked primarily in the Marvel offices, and comics is a collegial business, or was at the time, so they, too, did their job with their full measure of professionalism, and in the process showed me what I could do better. Holli also worked in the Marvel offices, and we plotted the stories we did together, together. She became a good friend, and later, after I moved to California, she came out and visited. We partied a little around the Bay Area. She was a good person.

Our Love Story #15 (February 1972)
Pencils by Steve Englehart

Would you have liked to have kept working on the romance comics or were you ready to move on?

I have to confess, I preferred the superheroes, and progression up the ranks at Marvel meant moving on to superheroes, so I was happy to go there. But Patsy Walker in the Beast, and then again in The Avengers - and the Western heroes in The Avengers - shows, I think, that my affection for the non-superheroes was a real thing.


Though you never got to see Star-Lord on through to what you had originally envisioned (an ambitious series of planetary-themed issues with art by the likes of romance great Jay Scott Pike), do you feel that working on the romance comics influenced that concept or any of your other work in comics?

Yes, wouldn't doing a job with Pike have been great? And if I hadn't been a romance fan, I wouldn't have known who he was - a sound argument for finding quality work wherever it may be. So yes, when I envisioned a romance story on the planet Venus, I was very clear that he, or someone equally good, was who I'd get. As you say, that never panned out, but I can guarantee you I'd have written a good romance story for that issue. I think any comic I ever enjoyed helped shape what I did with comics, and if called upon to write romance, I'd have been fully ready.

Star-Lord's First Appearance
Marvel Preview #4
(January 1976)

What are you working on now? Do you go to any conventions? Please feel free to plug any current projects! 

I’d have to say I'm semi-retired now. :-) I still write, but my wife and I are also doing a lot of travelling, and one of our sons is getting married and the other's about to have his first kid, so I'm not writing full-time. I still enjoy it, and I'm putting together a novel (series?) I'm very happy with, but I'm not pushing to meet any deadline. As for cons, due to that travel bug I mentioned, I tend to accept cons overseas, but not too many in the States - it has to be someplace I haven't already been or have some other attraction besides the con. Nothing against cons, but I've done a lot of them by now. As for plugs, my Max August trilogy is still out there, and though the touchstones are politics and magick, Max and Pam, and Max's once-dead wife Val, are locked in a good romance triangle. :-)


Anything else you’d like to share with romance comic fans?

I'm glad to see that they exist. I'd hate to think I was alone.


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Steve Englehart Romance Comic Checklist

DC

Falling in Love #125 (August 1971) “Do's & Dont's of Dating by Page Peterson" (Pencils)

Young Romance #174 (September 1971) “Do's & Dont's of Dating by Page Peterson" (Pencils)

Young Romance #177 (December 1971) “Do's & Dont's of Dating by Page Peterson" (Pencils)


MARVEL

My Love #16 (March 1972) “Puppet on a String” (Pencils)

My Love #16 (March 1972) "Loyalty...or Love!" (co-writer with Holli Resnicoff)

My Love #19 (September 1972) “I Can't Love Anyone!" (Story -- as "Anne Spencer")

Our Love Story #15 (February 1972) “One Fleeting Moment” (Pencils)

Our Love Story #16 (April 1972) "As Good As Any Man!" (co-writer with Holli Resnicoff)

Our Love Story #18 (August 1972) “I Failed at Love!" (Story -- as "Anne Spencer")


For a full look at the range and depth of Englehart's work, be sure to check out his website!

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Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Ares & Aphrodite (Oni Press) - A Romance Comic Book for the Modern Age


Shameless plug time! Have you heard about Ares & Aphrodite: Love Wars, the new romance graphic novel from Oni Press? Written by Jamie S. Rich, illustrated by Megan Levens, and featuring an afterword by yours truly, you aren't going to want to miss this modern romance comic. It's sweet, its funny, the characters are beautifully written and illustrated, and it will leave you craving more romance!

It'll be in stores next week on April 15th, but you can pre-order through Amazon (Kindle and paperback) right here. Only the trade version has my afterword, but you can also pick up the single issues on ComiXology if that's your preferred reading method!

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Will Ares, a successful divorce lawyer, finds himself working alongside Gigi Averelle, a wedding planner, when their respective clients-movie producer Evans Beatty and Hollywood starlet Carrie Cartwright - plan to marry. As Beatty’s ex-wives come out of the woodwork to cause mayhem, Gigi and Will make a bet - Gigi agrees to go on a date with Will if Evans and Carrie really do go through with the wedding. Should they break up, however, Will must reveal, in a full-page newspaper ad, how many marriages he’s ruined. Is Will a fool for love, or is this the start of a beautiful relationship?


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If you pick it up, please be sure to report back! I'd love to hear your thoughts on the story! As always, thank you for all your support!

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Women Write Romance Comics - "As Good As Any Man!" As Told to Holli Resnicoff

In my last post, I briefly mentioned that romance comics might have looked different if more women had been involved. As we enter into the month of April and Women's History Month draws to a close, let's look at the work of one woman who was involved in the romance comics -- Holli Resnicoff.

Holli Resnicoff with John Verpoorten
Photograph from Alter Ego #103 (July 2011)

Holli is a bit of a mystery. After doing some research and asking others from the industry who might have known her, I came up pretty much empty-handed. The only information readily available is that she was a production assistant at Marvel and Stan Lee's secretary. She was also at one point, married to Mike Ploog. When I asked Linda Fite (Night Nurse, The Cat) if she remembered Holli, she told me she hadn't heard from her in decades, but that she and Holli, along with Flo Steinberg and a few other friends, went to meetings of a consciousness-raising group in Manhattan. The group of friends even participated in the Women's Strike for Equality in August of 1970. Other than that, I wasn't able to gather much, and unfortunately, everyone I talked to eventually lost touch with Holli.

"As Good As Any Man!" -- one of the stories that Holli wrote (along with uncredited co-writer, Steve Englehart) from Our Love Story #16 (April 1972) takes a look at the more personal side of the Women's Movement. Though the Alan Weiss art is not my favorite, it does have a youthful, very 1970s quality about it that is pretty hard to resist. In fact, every time I look at it, I think it grows on me more and more!

The story starts out with the premise of a guys-only weekend camping trip. Blond-tressed David is headed out for some outdoor time with his girlfriend's brother, Ted. David cites not inviting his lady, Laura, because she wouldn't like it anyway -- "Camping is too rough for girls!" Laura requests for him to let her make up her own mind.

Polyester -- good for camping or no?
Talk amongst yourselves.

The next day, the two lovebirds head out, sans brother Ted. As they hike into their campsite, Laura is determined to show David that she can camp with the best of 'em. David teases Laura for going too slow, and at one point, for almost stepping on a snake. All's well and in good fun until David pulls a jerk move and makes Laura pitch the tent by herself.

Struggling with the tent, David finally says he'll help Laura if she cooks him up a meal. Laura complies and the two share a romantic moment before retiring to bed. At least David was gentleman enough to let Laura sleep in the tent!

Though David and Laura sleep separately,
I definitely see some seduction on this page --
going against one of the tenets

The two head out bright and early to climb. A few hours after setting out on the trail, a storm rolls in. David's cockiness finally does him in and...SLIP...! He plummets down the mountain.

Naturally, Laura freaks out. Though karma appears to have gotten David, Laura is a good and loving girlfriend -- not to mention, a super strong chick.

Though David has his doubts at first, Laura makes the three mile hike to the ranger station. As David waits for Laura's return, he makes the admission to himself that "She's got more strength and character than most men I know!" There ya go, David... looks like that fall knocked some sense into ya!

All's well that ends well, and Laura makes the trip back to David with the rangers. The story ends on a sweet note... or does it?

I'd love to find Ms. Resnicoff and ask her what she thinks today of her story written in 1972, but until then, let's discuss! I'd love to hear what you think! Did you think David's compliment at the end was a backhanded one or just plain romantic? Can this personal, seemingly innocuous story, act as a linchpin for our understanding of the Women's Movement and second-wave feminism? Please, feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section!

Speaking of women in comics... one more thing before we part! Good friend of Sequential Crush and famed DC letter writer, Irene Vartanoff, has published her first novel, Temporary Superheroine. If you are a fan of adventure, comic book culture, and romance novels, you should definitely check it out!


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Monday, March 16, 2015

Women’s History Month – Libbers Say, Down with the Romance Comics!

The beauty (or perhaps aggravation) of research is the tendency for bits and pieces of information to reveal themselves slowly over time. There have been quite a few occasions when I've made a post, only to learn something significant later on that takes my understanding of a certain story or artist to another level. Today's post looks back at one such Marvel story that I've gathered a new piece of information on, and sheds a different light on the cultural climate surrounding the romance comics.

Remember this one?

Back in September of 2009 I ran the Marvel story, "No Man is My Master!" and a nice little discussion was had over the yarn. Just the other week, Sean Howe (author of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story) sent me a link for an underground newspaper on eBay, letting me know that there was something special in the publication that would probably be of interest to me. Naturally, it was of interest! Behold, the center spread of the January 15th - 21st, 1971 issue of the influential Californian underground newspaper, the Berkeley Barb

This find on Sean's part was quite fortuitous timing-wise, and I’m so thankful to him for sharing his find with me. Not only is it Women’s History Month and this historic document is incredibly relevant, a reader also made a generous donation, allowing me to make the purchase of the newspaper and add it to my collection.
It takes a few seconds to orient oneself to the spread, thick with age and lavender ink (from its creation on a spirit duplicator) to realize that the full story, “No Man is My Master" has been replicated in its entirety, complete with the following editorial message courtesy of the Liberation News Service

The sisters and brothers of Liberation News Service -- who felt the underground should know what Women's Liberation is up against -- had this to say about the accompanying comic art: "Comics are becoming increasingly more political. We're reprinting 'No Man Is My Master' not because it's so unusual but because it is a good example of what Marvel Comics is up to. Read on and let three men tell you what women's liberation is all about.

One of the things people who aren't familiar with romance comics are shocked to hear is the fact that the romances were in the majority, created by men (in this case, Stan Lee, John Buscema, and John Verpoorten). This spread in Berkeley Barb is a strong and definite push against the story of women being told by men at a time when the role of women in society was quickly changing. While I don’t have a definitive answer concerning if men can completely and accurately tell the experience of women (and vice-versa) I am reminded of something that Irene Vartanoff told me in her 2009 interview for Sequential Crush: "A truly excellent writer ought to be able to write from the perspective of either gender, any age, and any personality, race, national origin, or whatever." In that same interview, however, Irene went on to say,

I think it is part of feminism that we should not have our fantasies dictated to us or even related to us by men. It is important for women to learn what their fantasies are, rather than be told what they should be, or worse, what they should accept as a happy ending.

Irene's words, taken in context of the romance comics, ignite the imagination as to what the romance comics would have been like had they been primarily created by women instead of men. 

So what do you think? Were the romance comics successful depictions of the longings of womens' hearts? Or were they cheap stabs for monetary gain? Was this jab from the Liberation News Service via the Berkeley Barb warranted? I'd like to hear your reaction to all this! 

One other thing before we say goodbye! If you missed it -- last week, Women Write about Comics ran an interview with your truly! A fantastic site worth checking out, and I'm honored to have made a contribution. Check it out!

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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Romance Comics and Black History Month - Jack Kirby's Unpublished Soul Love

Cover of Soul Love #1 (Unpublished)
Image from Heritage Auctions

As Black History Month winds down, lets take a little look at one of the most interesting romance comics ever made; and consequently, not published -- Jack Kirby's Soul Love. Created for DC Comics in the early 1970s, Soul Love was conceptualized, written, and penciled by Jack Kirby, and inked by Vince Colletta and Tony DeZuniga. The origin of Soul Love stemmed from another Kirby story, "The Model" in an equally obscure and unpublished "romance" title, True Divorce Cases.*

"Fears of a Go-Go Girl" page two
Pencils: Jack Kirby, Inks: Vince Colletta
Soul Love #1 (Unpublished)
Image from Heritage Auctions

The stories in the unpublished Soul Love issue appear to have included (not necessarily in the intended order):

1.) "The Teacher"
2.) "Diary of the Disappointed Doll"
3.) "Dedicated Nurse"
4.) "Fears of a Go-Go Girl"
5.) "Old Fires"

Many of the pages are available for viewing over at Heritage's website. For the most part, they are pretty typical romance stories, albeit with a rather hefty dose of stereotypes. Though its hard to judge from the bits and pieces I've seen, "Diary of a Disappointed Doll" about a blooper of a blind date arranged by computer, is probably my favorite of the bunch.

"Diary of the Disappointed Doll"
Pencils: Jack Kirby, Inks: Tony DeZuniga
Soul Love #1 (Unpublished)
Image from Heritage Auctions

Despite having Kirby's name attached to the project, it went unpublished, and was panned for its awkward use of "hip" language and its Blaxploitation feel. While ultimately it is difficult to judge a work unfinished, Soul Love is no doubt an important aspect of the complete story of Jack Kirby, romance comics, and the portrayal of African Americans in popular culture. One can't help but wonder what this comic book would have looked like and the impact it might have had, had it gone to publication and perhaps, refined over time.

*See Jack Kirby Collector #56 (Spring 2011)


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