Romance Reading

My mom didn’t ban romance reading – neither books nor comics — when I was a kid.  She was much too smart for that.  Instead, I had access to my parents’ bookshelves (Freud on Wit and Humor was memorable), my mom read age-appropriate stories to me (in “voices” – heaven!), she read grown-up appropriate works to me (selections from the then current Best American Short Stories and the like), and she supplied heaps of appropriate books for me to read on my own.  I devoured biographies of Clara Barton, Helen Keller, and Thomas Alva Edison, “realistic” adventure fiction such as Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, classics such as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Little Men, a pale tooled leather tome entitled Wonder Tales of Old Japan, and Danny Kaye’s Around the World Story Book.

There was a huge Doubleday bookstore on the west side of Fifth Avenue between 56th and 57th Streets.  My mother and I would make our pilgrimages to buy books there – the children’s section was in the back on the left.

To satisfy our more lowbrow tastes, we went to our neighborhood newspaper and magazine store, Epstein’s.  It doesn’t exist anymore.  Where Epstein’s once stood, on the southwest corner of Madison Avenue and 93rd Street, is now an upscale restaurant, Le Paris Bistrot Français.,+New+York,+NY+10128/@40.7851417,-73.9556874,3a,60y,303h,90t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1sKag6EdvVxkfXMUNfRDTpMw!2e0!4m2!3m1!1s0x89c258a3d0753de9:0x2a1ddb0d22b80fdc!6m1!1e1

Le Paris Bistrot Français is on the right.

No matter.  Back then, Epstein’s was a tiny Wonderland for me.  There were zillions of comic books from which to choose – all just inside the door to the right.  My mom must have steered me towards the relatively innocent Archie series while she browsed fashion magazines or bought The New York Times.  She never bought gossip magazines – she told me they were hurtful and untrue.

Actually, the gossip magazine discussion often seguéd into a discussion of McCarthyism, blacklists, and how the beneficent power of The Press can be corrupted if we, The People, are not vigilant.  Then, I was taught never to sign a petition for anything because the header information on the petition, the very words that induced one to sign the thing in the first place, could be, and sometimes were, easily removed and different material could be substituted (before scanners and home computers, mind you) so that your name could be used to support a Communist cause.  And then you might never get a job.

But I digress.

Romance paperbacks and comics, with their melodramatic covers, were looked down upon in my home.

And so I read mom-approved works ~ until my one encounter with a romance comic book.  For purists and comic book devotees, it could have been True Romance or perhaps Secret Hearts.  Or one of their close relatives.

Across the hall from our apartment, two girls, P and K, and their mom moved in.  P was about two years older than me, and K was two years older than P.  That made K unreachably cool.  K had little use for P, but she taught me how to draw a cardigan.  P and I often played together, tumbling in and out of each other’s apartments.

One day, when I was across the hall, waiting for P and K to finish getting ready so that we could go out, my eyes fell upon the not-explicitly forbidden bounty, a romance comic book.  A Benday-dotted young teenage girl with a blonde ponytail and Capri pants was sitting in a tree looking down upon the slightly older (not creepy older) handsome boy-next-door.  It’s possible his name was Brad.  He was passing by in a convertible with a raven-haired beauty.  Our Benday-dotted heroine was desperately in love with Brad, but he barely knew she was alive.  Oh, the heartache!

Once in a while, if she mustered enough courage to greet him, he’d wave, “Hi, kiddo,” (or so I remember).  From her window, or from behind a fence, she watched as he squired around one after the other of sophisticated teen beauties.  You knew they were sophisticated by their coiffures, shoulder-exposing dresses, and thick eyelashes.

Then, he went off to war.  She grew into a late-teen Benday-dotted beauty, and she always thought of Brad, no matter what she was doing or whom she was with.

This wasn’t an actual specimen from that comic, but it is evocative of the genre:

And then ~ Brad returned home!  He was a changed man, and not for the better.  He sported a head bandage and used crutches.  He was no longer carefree.  There was no longer a bevy of beauties around him.  I don’t think Brad could drive anymore.  Somehow, I think our Benday-blondie offered to help him – or maybe his mother welcomed her to help him.  Brad didn’t quite remember Our Girl.  Oh, Brad!  Oh, the heartache!

The bittersweet end (and, spoiler alert if you ever find this comic from the 1960s) is that he fell in love with her, and she remained in love with him, even though the comic book made it quite plain that she would be doing some serious caregiving in the happily-ever-after.

My first and only romance comic – and pretty heady stuff for a kid.  I think I read the whole thing standing up near K and P’s dining table right inside their front door.  It was an oh-no-he-didn’t/oh-no-she-didn’t page-turner.  Then, P and K were ready and we went out to play.

I didn’t hide this reading experience from my mother, but I never thought to discuss it with her, either.  We had bigger fish to fry when I allotted more time to Archie than I did to my summer reading one year.  That resulted in a comic book ban altogether.  It was back to Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain and Louise Andrews Kent’s He Went With Marco Polo: A Story of Venice and Cathay.

It wasn’t long after that that artist Roy Lichtenstein appeared to burst on the art scene, recontextualizing the art of comic romances, stripping them of their extended narrative, but preserving their intensity of emotion.  My parents were big fans of the work of Lichtenstein; I am, too.

Abruzzo’s original art (left) upon which Lichtenstein’s pop art interpretation was based (right).

My parents and I, however, did not delve into the merits of the original works, not the art nor the stories, that inspired Lichtenstein. I’m sorry, now, that we never discussed Lichtenstein’s source material, or my reading of it, on its own merits.

I would love to have known what my mom thought about true romance.

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