The State of Romance Comics

by
True Story, Swear to God vol. 1
by Tom Beland
Image Comics – softcover, $14.99
Love as a Foreign Language vol. 2
by J. Torres & Eric Kim
Oni Press – softcover, $11.95

While subject diversity in comics is stronger than it was ten years ago, romance is a genre that doesn’t seem to have taken off as much as others. I think there might currently be more ongoing Western comics from major American publishers than romance comics. Imagine how different the movie industry would look if that were true of it!

I admit to not knowing a lot about classic romance comics, but I imagine them to be told largely from the point of view of women and the existence of the collection Romance Without Tears implies to me that the majority were fairly weepy and melodramatic (I would love to be corrected on either point, if any more knowledgeable person cares to comment at the bottom of this article). As to their disappearance, I suspect that, as they were being replaced by superhero comics, romance comics were also absorbed by them, as a melodramatic tone and soap opera structure have become superhero staples. In fact, True Story, Swear to God‘s Tom Beland was recently in contention to take over Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, Marvel Comics’ attempt to bring in teenage girls as readers by overtly blending the genres. That romance has been so thoroughly appropriated by superheroes probably explains why large publishers haven’t felt the need to launch separate romance series.

What got me thinking about romance comics was reading the second half of Love as a Foreign Language from Oni and trying out True Story, Swear to God for the first time in its new collection from Image. Though these came out a couple months apart, I happened to get them and read them around the same time and found the similarities––and differences––between them striking. Both feature men as their protagonists, and both play their romantic plots against culture shock stories set in other countries where neither main character speaks the language well. Foreign Language’s Joel is teaching English in Korea and True Story’s Tom (as you might guess from the title, the series is autobiographical) has moved to Puerto Rico to be with his girlfriend, Lily. Each uses periodic narration to describe the fish-out-of-water circumstances of the main character. Beland’s narration is his own, describing his thoughts and feelings as he tries to get by. In the case of Joel, the narration is general, meant to read as if it comes out of a guidebook on Korea and foreign living, and Joel’s experiences reflect its observations.

The differences between True Story, Swear to God and Love as a Foreign Language stem from their respective formats and tones. True Story is an ongoing series released as mostly self-contained standard-sized comic books. The art style is minimalist and stylized. I was not surprised to learn in reading the comic that Beland was originally a comic strip artist. Page layouts are very straightforward and characters are expressive in their cartooniness. Foreign Language is written and drawn in the style of Korean manhwa and released in a digest format. The story is divided into many short vignettes, each with a chapter page featuring a silly pun. Eric Kim’s art style and layouts are heavily influenced by Korean and Japanese comics.

While by no means photo-realistic, Love as a Foreign Language has the more detailed art of the two series, but is by far the more cartoon-like in its action, a kind of stylistic dissonance that comics specializes in. It’s a good match, since the art convincingly grounds the story in Korea and captures the feeling of romance and attraction between characters––Hana, the object of Joel’s affection, is adorable––while still retaining enough plasticity to give animated life to the book’s sillier antics, such as when characters gesticulate wildly or several instances in which they run away leaving a cloud of dust. There’s even a multipage “musical” sequence. Kim handles all of this with wit and fluidity. Despite his relative newness to comics, his storytelling is only unclear on a few pages, where a punchline isn’t emphasized enough or the placement of a panel makes it too easy to overlook. Generally, it’s very strong.

As written by J. Torres, Foreign Language is also the less serious in tone of the books. It’s very much in the movie romantic comedy mold, with most of the characters fitting an archetype (”wacky friend,” “stern boss,” etc.) and a lot of the humor coming from stock circumstances and complications, like when Hana doesn’t return Joel’s looks because she can’t see without her glasses. It’s mostly familiar, but often funny. Ultimately, it lacks much depth; for instance, Hana is pretty much a cipher. Joel falls in love with her from a distance and the book spends little time establishing much about her other than that she is shy and pretty. The fact that she likes comics is her main distinguishing characteristic. By contrast, Kelly, the girl that Joel turns down to pursue Hana, receives much more characterization simply because she’s around him more.

But really, depth has never been the appeal of romantic comedies. As an audience we generally demand funny one-liners, a few absurd situations and then an affirmation of love at the end, all of which Foreign Language provides (and if you think that’s a spoiler, you need to see more movies). Torres has some fun with conventions, especially during Joel’s protracted search for a sign to tell him what to do about Hana and Kelly. Also, with my own genuine fear of kimchi, the jokes about that never got old. And I admit that the way the end played out got to me a little. All told, I had a lot of fun with Love as a Foriegn Language, although I don’t know that I’ll be rereading it much.

I’m more likely to reread True Story, Swear to God. Perhaps it’s the softie in me, but of the two books, I liked this one better. Among autobiographical comics it has a rare openness and honesty, which I mean in the sense of how thoughtful and deeply felt it is, rather than Joe Matt-style confessions (though there are a few fairly personal revelations in here). The narration goes beyond simply explaining what’s happening and gets into the larger issues that inform each anecdote, as well as how Beland continues to feel about them. He also gets outside himself, depicting situations with Lily that he was not present for and describing his take on how she feels about them, which creates a more complete feel to the narrative than autobiographical comics usually achieve, since they’re focused on the experiences of one person. From the way he writes about her thoughts and feelings, it’s clear how much the real Tom loves the real Lily.

I was initially disappointed when I opened the book and realized it was a collection of the first six issues of volume two, as I had assumed that Image was reprinting the original series before collecting the new one, but the stories are self-contained enough that I was quickly sucked in anyway. The back cover explaining why Tom is in Puerto Rico provided all the necessary background. Actually, with Tom and Lily’s meeting and Tom’s decision to move to Puerto Rico out of the way, the comic almost moves from the realm of romance into slice-of-life territory, but the relationship between the two remains the emotional core of the series and the focus of the narration.

Through this, the stories are fairly self-contained, each involving a complete anecdote or situation, with a few ongoing details, such as the fate of Lily’s radio show, carrying over in the background. Stories involve things like Tom’s attempt to get paid for some illustration he’s done, Lily’s decision to shave her head, and a trip to New York. The humor generally comes from conversation and observation; there isn’t any of Foreign Language’s slapstick, though there is some situational humor, as when Tom gets badly sunburned after falling asleep in the sun and can barely move. Beland also reaches the point that Harvey Pekar hit long ago, in which his narrative has caught up to the time when he started telling it. The final chapter involves his decision to print the first issue of the original True Story, about meeting Lily at Disney World, which he has kept in a box. What follows is an informative look at the process of getting a comic book printed and distributed.

Beland’s art is considerably less detailed than Kim’s, but his eye for the telling detail creates the necessary sense of place. The characters are simple, but animated. The art often looks like it would pass the test described by Jeff Smith that a reader should be able to tell the emotion of the character even if they were in silhouette. Backgrounds are minimal and the angle is generally straight-on, but for so internally focused a narrative, those qualities serve to limit distractions from the mood and ideas of the stories. The only real problem I have is with the lettering, which occasionally distracts when letters run together in weird ways and it takes a moment to decipher the word.

I hope that the success and acclaim of True Story, Swear to God opens up some possibilities for more romance in comics outside the superhero genre, including more fictional romance comics. I hope some of them are as good as True Story, too.

Love as a Foreign Language: Somewhat Recommended.

True Story, Swear to God: Highly Recommended.

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3 Responses to “The State of Romance Comics”

  1. Dean Haspiel Says:

    Hey Brendan–

    I ran across your review for romance comics and I thought I’d hip you to my romance comic, IMMORTAL, featuring a “war of woo” between Billy Dogma and Jane Legit:

    http://www.deanhaspiel.com/immortal.html

    Enjoy!

    –Dino

  2. Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Sept. 4, 2007: It’s Celebrate Spanish Royalty Week! Says:

    […] Brendan Wright on two romance comics: Tom Beland’s True Story, Swear to God Vol. 1, and J. Torres and Eric […]

  3. Tom Beland Says:

    Thanks for the very kind words! I agree with your point on the lettering. My lettering used to be very clean, but somewhere along the way, it’s become the most difficult part of the process. I’m working on it, since I’m too old-school to switch to computer lettering. I really love looking at a page of comic book art and seeing everything there.

    As for the first volume of TSSTG… Image is currently working on a TSSTG Omnibus, in the Essentials-format which will collect all 17 issues of my self-published run. This should be a very huge issue, since the first four issues were double-sized books.

    I would also highly recommend Dean Haspiel’s work. Dino’s got some fantastic stories. Anything with Dino’s name on it warrants a look.

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