Michael Barson has been a comics collector for decades, in addition to his day job as co-director of publicity for Putnam/Riverhead Publishing. He’s collected some of the finest examples of 1940s and 1950s love comics in the new anthology Agonizing Love.
In the panels of the brightly colored comics that once filled newsstands, young women of the era picked up pointers on finding and keeping love. These tear-jerking pop culture delights feature such stories as “The Man I Couldn’t Love,” “My Heart Cried Out” and “I Loved a Weakling.” Cheesy as the comics might seem to the modern reader, Barson thinks these vintage “morality plays” might still offer all of us some important lessons on love.
We asked Barson to tell us more about his obsession with collectibles, the appeal of romance comics and the agonizing nature of love through the ages.
How and why did you begin to collect romance comic books?
I started pretty late in life in terms of collecting the classic Romance comics. I had been collecting all sorts of other genres since the mid-60s—Superhero, War, Sci-Fi, Horror, even Funny Animal—but it wasn’t until I bumped into a big collection of vintage Love comics that was being offered for sale in the early ‘80s at NY’s Forbidden Planet store, in their collectible comics section, that it suddenly clicked—How cool are these? It was a group that contained most of the early Simon & Kirby Young Romance issues, and those proved my entry point into collecting this category for the first time. Later I bemoaned the fact that I probably had passed over several hundred (if not several thousand) tasty Romance issues over the previous 10 or 12 years while collecting in all those other genres; love comics just didn’t register for me at that time.
Why did you decide to share your collection with readers?
What’s the fun in collecting something for almost 30 years if you can’t share it with others? Let’s face it, 99 percent of the world out there would never have a chance to read any of these little gems if someone—in this case, me—didn’t take the time and effort to rescue them from obscurity. I feel I am performing a service, however modest, for humanity.
For those who aren’t familiar with the genre, can you give us a capsule description of what a “romance comic” is?
To oversimplify terribly, most of the stories that appeared in Love comics during their golden period—to me, 1947 to 1960 or so—are little morality plays that have been given a seven- or eight- page stage on which to play out. Sometimes the resolution is a happy ending, but not always. But I think it’s fair to say that in 98 percent of the cases, a lesson is learned by one of the characters in the story—a lesson that will change their attitudes and philosophy going forward.
These comics look hilariously cheesy today. Do you think readers took them seriously back then?
To the extent that even a teenage girl or young woman (probably the target audience for these comics) would take any kind of comic book in a totally serious manner, I would answer with a qualified “yes.” In that pre-Ironic era, the main reason for someone to buy and read Love comics was because they connected to both the medium and the message. They weren’t partaking of these in order to get a quick laugh—there were humor comics such as Archie and Betty and Veronica for that purpose. So while the readers of the day were not treating these romance issues as the second coming of Madame Bovary, I believe they were reading them in a serious frame of mind.
Do you have a favorite romance comic cover or story?
I don’t have a single favorite, but I will admit to being partial to the Mother-in-law subgenre. There’s something about those that just tickles my fancy, even though my own real-life mother-in-law is perfectly benign. But not so in the stories about them that I’ve included here! And I do have friends in real life who are very much embroiled in a problem of this exact nature.
What's the most important lesson you've learned about love from a romance comic?
If you just got hitched, don’t invite your mother-in-law to move in with you on your wedding night. That goes for both of you!
Is love any different today than it was in a half-century ago?
Love, and its surrounding mysteries and problems, is exactly the same, I am convinced. The only difference is that eHarmony didn’t exist in 1951. Not that it (or any of the other popular dot-com dating sites) seems to have done all that much good.
Is love always agonizing?
In my experience, yes. Because if it isn’t you that’s doing the agonizing, then the other person probably is. The real question is, would we really have it any other way? The empirical evidence of the past 100 years suggests the answer is no.
You’re the father of three sons. If you could give your children one piece of advice about love, what would it be?
Collect stamps instead. Or at least try to avoid the 434 mistakes I was too dumb to avoid.
You’re an avid collector of pop culture memorabilia—everything from postcards and posters to magazines and comics. Where on earth do you keep all this stuff? Does your collecting drive your wife crazy?
Yes, I have in fact driven my wife crazy because of the millions (nahhh, it’s really just thousands) of pieces of moldering antique memorabilia over which she stumbles every morning. And afternoon and evening.
But let me ask you—does that make me a bad person?? Right—I was afraid of that.