|Edited by John Morrow||Jack Kirby Collector celebrates the life and career of the "King" of comics through interviews with Kirby and his contemporaries, feature articles, and rare & unseen Kirby artwork. Now in tabloid format, the magazine showcases Kirby's art at even larger size.|
Kirby's Romance Women -Tough Enough?
by and © Richard HowellFrom Jack Kirby Collector #20
Jack Kirby is quite deservedly regarded as comics' "Action King"- master of visual dazzle, raw, kinetic energy, and the most effective illusionist of motion on the static, printed page.
How, then, to reconcile this two-fisted action impresario with the measured, sedate charms of the romance comics genre-commonly perceived by comics readers by its restrictions-no action, no violence, no stylized exaggeration??
The answer to this, going in, is that Kirby's approach to romance comics - a genre he co-created with Joe Simon in 1947 - is in no way a degradation of the commitment and stylistic expertise that he brought to any other comics genre. His command of storytelling and panel composition in his romance comics work is - at its best - as good as it is in any single example of his work from Captain America, Boys' Ranch, New Gods - even Fantastic Four. Better still, Kirby's instinctive grasp of iconography - the ability that enabled him to create- or co-create the ultimate patriotic hero, the most successful "monster" hero, the ultimate super-hero "family," and several versions of the ultimate fusion of super-heroes and pantheic gods - also allowed Kirby to envision the romantic heroine as a symbol of individual female empowerment, and render her as such.
Simply put, Jack Kirby approached translating emotional power to the comics page in the same way he performed similar magic with other types of power: With insight, sensitivity, graphic inventiveness, and raw, kinetic energy.
In 1947, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby introduced the world to romance stories told in comics form, with their ground-breaking Young Romance #1 (Sept./Oct. 1947). The first issue, cover-billed as "For the more Adult readers of comics," was a huge hit, and soon it was joined by two companion titles (Young Love and Young Brides). The comics publishing industry took note of these series' success, and soon released a raft of derivative romance titles, none of which duplicated the excellence of either the sales or artistic level of the Simon & Kirby material.
In story after story during the runs of the S&K romance output, the lead character's quest for happiness and fulfillment involved an agenda of self-awareness and responsibility in the face of social change, respect between equals, and personal independence as a necessary facet of romantic completeness.
To spearhead these narratives, Kirby developed a new, more focused version of his "super-heroine" archetype; retained were the strong features and jaw, the solid shoulders, the athleticism, and the casual grace showcased in previous examples of Kirbyesque femininity, like Betty Ross (in Captain America), and Sandra Sylvan (from Stuntman). Added to their already-admirable selection of personal recommendations was a higher quotient of intelligence, purposefulness, and clear-headed determination. The women of the S&K romance comics would have to face different conflicts than the relatively straightforward threats of the Hollywood Hunch-back, Black Michael, or Agent Axis.
No, the Kirby romance heroine moved through a rough-hewn, stylized milieu of post-War American society, coping with a specific level of real-world drama - and doing it with strength and style.
Ruth Monroe, the heroine of "Fallen Idol" (Young Love #40) is a young wife who not only has to cope with the realization that her husband - a college basketball star - has been taking bribes to throw games, but has to impress upon him that the respect and hero-worship he enjoys from the neighborhood kids is nothing if he hasn't earned it honestly. (Ralph: "I'm a ray of hope to those boys! I'm the guy who came out of the slums to make the headlines... what I can be - they can be! Every kid on this stinking street!" Ruth: "Well, I'm not from this neighborhood! I only know what I was taught! Right from wrong!") Kirby's depiction of Ruth is as a slight woman, tiny next to her athlete husband - but through her moral uprightness, she grows more substantial and forceful as the story progresses.
Irma Williams, in "Different" (Young Romance #30), is a cute, button-nosed brunette who has to face down a different type of moral rot: Prejudice. When the Williams' original family name - Wilheim - is revealed by Irma's visiting grandfather, the town's bigotry rears its very ugly head. Not only does Irma's upper-crust boyfriend pull away from her, but the town's avoidance of the "foreigners" threatens to cause her father's business to fail.
Julie Decker, the heroine of "Mama's Boy" (YR #10) is a study in strength and confidence. Kirby's delineation of her growing resignation in the fact of her medical student/fiance Orin's constant capitulation to his mother's whims and strictures is highly affecting, as is Julie's explosion of resentment ("I suggest you wait until mother finds a suit-able milk-sop for you who'll knuckle under to Mama! I'm not the type!") Later, Orin's mettle is tested during a suspenseful roadside emergency operation - with his younger brother's life at stake - while Julie assists by holding the flashlight on the grisly doings. The famous S&K woodcut-like inking is thrillingly effective here.
Betty Marlowe, the lead character in "All Work and No Love" (Young Love #21), begins as an impish flirt. Her gamine grin and the sparkle in her eyes mark her as a woman who finds excitement and fun times too difficult to resist. When her fiance Jack dedicates himself to night school to ensure a comfortable foundation for their married life, Betty succumbs to the lupine charms of Jack's roommate Howard, throwing away her engagement in the process. After her and Jack's breakup, the two run into each other again at the lunch counter where they first met. (Jack: "It's murder to be a human being, Betty! We can do everything but stop loving!" Betty: "I only know what it means to lose love! In that, I've realized my weakness - and found my strength...") Without changing anything about Betty's face structure, Kirby expertly depicts her passage into the maturity she earns through loss.
Meg O'Brien, from "Gang Sweetheart" (Young Romance #23) is a truly superb embodiment of Kirby womanhood; Young, blonde, beautiful, slender, expressive, and self-possessed. Kirby shows her sadness, her fire, and her sweetness with an economy of line and gesture, and a deep understanding of human emotions. The descent of Meg and her boyfriend Jimmy into the morass of gang life is reflected in the increasing harshness in the faces and the slump of their shoulders.
Ginny Crain, of "Love or Pity" (Young Romance #8) begins her story as a bright-eyed, full-cheeked Claudette Colbert lookalike. The light, airy tone of the story's beginning is mirrored in Ginny's pure joyousness and fey mannerisms. As the story progresses, Ginny's brother Perry is arrested for suspicion in a government swindle and the town's judgment and disapproval weighs hard on them. Ginny's gestures seem more informed by the seriousness of the situation and she gains in stature and maturity as the circumstances worsen for the Crains. In an unusually powerful scene, Ginny returns home to find her mother crying, and her father informs her that he's been asked to resign from his post as a professor at the local college. Ginny calls her father's persecutors "jackals" and her father describes the town's malaise: "It's been touched by scandal-a social virus-a malignance that must run its course... strangely enough it shall be we who will remain untouched when it's over-and those who flee from us in panic shall stand pitifully in their shame as the real victims!" Ginny runs into the garden, overcome with emotion, and collapses sobbing on a bench. Kirby's depiction of Ginny's despair is amazingly forceful and sensitive. As the story reaches its conclusion, Ginny comes to terms with her family's place in the town, and makes her peace with it, but the fairy-tale grins of the girl in the opening pages are gone, replaced by the experienced visage of a more mature, worldly woman.
Being tested through adversity is a common theme in the S&K romance comics, and many a Kirby woman gains in depth and gravity in the story's course. The heroines of "Back-Door Love" (Young Romance #15), "Just No Good" (Young Romance #18), and "I Was a Pick-Up" (Young Romance #1) pass from indecisive girlhood into their full womanly strength in fourteen pages (or less) and Kirby's approach to depicting them brings their full range of emotions into sharp focus, as well as making them sensitive, strong, lovely women. As if any human being could remain unedified in the face of Dot's mother's speech (in "Back-Door Love") which includes: "The loss of love wounds only the heart... but this sort of thing consumes all the values that strengthen us mentally and spiritually." Dot gains in self-awareness, self-possession, self-respect, and finally embarks on a real love relationship with a man who values her and her finer qualities. Stormy, the smoky jazz vocalist who's the focal character in "Just No Good," begins as a brassy broad with a heart that only beats to the rhythm of her band's current numbers, but she surrenders her vulnerability-and her heart-to Buddy Vance, the band's clarinet player, and her stylized emotional stance gives way to a full-souled fortissimo.
Another tough chick with a chip on her shoulder has her life's most crucial juncture depicted in "One Way to Hold Him" (Young Romance #31). Lee Jarvis is the roughest of Kirby tough women and sneers and swaggers her way through her recruitment to be the roller-derby queen until she falls in love with her boss/impresario "Whizzer" Wilson and their inevitable face-off on the roller rink serves as the climactic event in their rough-and-tumble courtship.
Intensely sizzling, sexually intense women also had a presence in the Kirby romance repertoire, most notably the langorous Lola from "The Girl Who Tempted Me" (Young Romance #17). The masterful narrative - a modern-day "Jude the Obscure" - is not only a depiction of a serious conflict between asceticism and sensuality, but is also an action-packed, steamy rip-snorter of a romance classic, and anyone who's ever been benighted enough to doubt Kirby's ability to draw sexy women should be compelled to examine this story before their inevitable capitulation.
Lola was eventually established as a woman of character, however. In "Fraulein Sweetheart" (Young Romance #4), beautiful Annaliese's romance with her handsome American soldier is derailed by her refusal to let go of her sense of loyalty to Hitler and his preeminence to her countrymen. The series of panels in which Annaliese's soft features become contorted with fierce pride in the lost Nazi cause are unexpectedly chilling.
The common defining qualities in each of these superlative works of comics art are their translation of emotional power into graphic energy and the sensitivity to translating the story's needs with the utmost in style. The S&K romance comics experiment, spearheaded by the powerful penciling of Jack Kirby, turned romance comics into an experience that was, in turn, thrilling, exhilarating, masterful, and deeply touching - and as entertaining as any other comics anywhere, any time.
Each of these narratives is a superb piece of comics craftsmanship, aided immeasurably by Kirby's depictions of the stories' heroines. For this genre, his new archetype was entirely appropriate, with enough intelligence and glamour to satisfy the huge female readership of Young Romance and Young Love, plus ample pulchritude to engage the males' attention (and keep it). Kirby's technique - as always - was satisfying on so many levels as to deserve the huge success that the S&K romance comics enjoyed.
It is possible to assert that these heroines - Kirby's "tough" women - were the crucial component that assured the immense success and long life of the romance comics genre. It is impossible, though, to deny the achievement that they represent. Romance comics might have debuted - perhaps thrived - without Jack Kirby, but to think that anyone could have done them so well... well, that's just too tough to imagine.
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