Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Irene Vartanoff and Romance Comics

Over at Sequential Crush Jacque Nodell has posted a wonderful interview with Irene Vartanoff who had worked at both Marvel and DC back in the early '70's. It covers a variety of topics and is just great reading both from the sociological aspect as well as the comic aspect!
DC Comics made a heroic effort to produce modern, relevant romance comics. But they never dared cross the line into the sexual revolution (or even the social revolution) that was the key to reaching the mass of women. All the comic book heroines were still crying over men and living soap opera lives and hanging out at the country club.
and Irene goes on to make her case as to why the romance comics died in a very conclusive manner. Comics could not approach sex, premarital sex, whatsoever, and so lost the little relevance that they had.

What I have always rather discounted was the effectiveness of the Gothic Romance culture from the 1960's, something that Irene brings up:
A strong line of female-oriented Gothic romances might have worked a few years earlier to transition the romance comic audience, but the Gothic comics eventually produced were mostly male-oriented weird mystery tales. And they were all started too late, after the subgenre had peaked, and after the romance comic audience had wandered away.... This would be like doing vampire love stories à la Twilight (but from a male point of view) five years from now. Too late.
Ah yes, this is comics all over. Late to the party and poorly done even when they finally show up.

The discussion in the comments section then veers off of this question from Pat:
One question I would have asked her is whether she feels that the reason comics are so male-dominated is that men are much more visually oriented.
And that is an interesting question. My personal take, without having the time to go research things on line and see what studies might or might not have been done: men are more visual when it comes to sexually oriented material, but certainly not more visual over all. Far from it. I think that women are extremely visually oriented, and that there is a likelihood that they will process visuals differently, taking different cues from them.

I believe that romance comics suffered from being stuck in a male oriented industry: male writers, writing from a male point of view, with male artists doing their level headed best to do comics that they might want to look at (and thus with a male-centric point of view when it comes to storytelling as well as character design). Certainly 40 years ago you wouldn't have had a huge stable of female artists with the chops and skills to draw from when putting together your gothic romance comics, even if you could have found a distributor. You only have to go find a collection of female written porn edited by Suzy Bright to see that there while there are certainly similarities to porn written by men, there are clearly differences as well.

The reality is that, had you founded a magazine (so as to get around the comics code) in 1972, and found someone to print it and distribute it, you'd have had a tough sell to put enough sex into the romance to have found an audience.

I also think that very few artists in comics excel at the smaller moments which are easy to describe as a writer, but harder, much harder, to pull off in a comic format. Anyone who has read Love and Rockets thinks it looks easy because Los Bros. pull it off so easily... and pretty much everyone else fails miserably. Since comics oriented towards women wouldn't be about people punching each other through walls, you really would have to find artists who could communicate on a more sophisticated level as well as making art stylish enough to intrigue the readers. Some of the Filipino artists in the 1970's that DC employed certainly had enough style to do that (although everyone looks a bit swarthy, but the women were always very sexy.).

Manga sales demographics have shown us that the old chestnut that women don't buy comics, don't like comics or aren't visually oriented is just that: an old cart before the horse myth brought to you by the old men of comics who couldn't figure out how to sell comics to girls. Way to go guys, way to go.


Matthew Grant said...

Thought provoking post!

In addition to your comment about manga, I think a quick lap around a convention like APE ought to convince anyone that comics are not lost on women. I also happen agree that the greater comics industry has seemed to stacked the cards against themselves as far as gaining new readers, especially women.

I also liked your comment about "the smaller moments." Very very true.

Jacque Nodell said...

Thank you for the thoughtful post on the interview with Irene. It definitely brought out a lot of things to discuss! I don't know what it would take to get more female readers reading mainstream stuff. Indie books, manga, etc. seem to be much more appealing to most women. I did like Marvel Divas a lot, and was intrigued by the covers of the Pride and Prejudice series, but never bought because the interior art just didn't do it for me.

Irene Vartanoff said...

I agree with your "small moments" concept. When I was at DC in the early 1980s and trying to put together a plan for a romance magazine--to sell to Warner management, not the comics, but to include some comic art--the limitations of male comics artists gave me pause. How could I convince the accomplished, but pre-baby boom generation that underwear shots and generic clothing weren't good enough? The majority of these men had made a living drawing in a certain way. What was their incentive to learn a different way? I never found an answer, and never made the pitch, either.

inkdestroyedmybrush said...

And i don't mean to bag on male artists (especially since i am one) but the reality is that we develop certain skill sets, and the ability to sell the fantasy of someone punching someone else through an entire building (and make it work) is a completely different skill set from being able to communicate delicate emotions. You need only read the manga NANA to see the different camera shots, the different pacing, and realize that it would take time to develop that vocabulary. Its not that it can't be done, but it would take time.

I think that the indy revolution, adrian tomine doing new yorker covers, love and rockets becoming an institution, all of these have helped expand the number of artists working in different styles, which is a good thing.

you could probably make the pitch today with much greater success.

Darci said...

Wow, Irene remembers 1980s DC differently than I do! To me, DC threw out all the "old men" in the 70s and replaced them with guys from Marvel and Charlton. Looking at http://dccomicsartists.com/dchistory/DCHISTORY-7.htm the editors changed quite a bit between 1980 and 1985 (I don't know of a similar comparison for artists). Ah, what might have been!