Romance comics of eras gone by tend to get a bad rap. These soap opera tales of the 1950s-1970s, the peak of the genre in comics, are often criticised and ridiculed for being cheesy, overly dramatic, and playing into conservative gender roles. However, when this is discussed, it tends to be through the lens of the American offerings. As A Very British Affair: The Best of Classic Romance Comics highlights, a wider breadth of storytelling possibilities was happening simultaneously in England. This new Treasury of British Comics collection unearths some of the best British romance comics, highlighting a stunning array of artists, youth culture, and some bizarre genre fusions.
The British romance comics of the 1950s-1970s are not well documented like their US counterparts. However, A Very British Affair tries to change this with this attractive collection that contains 57 tales curated by comics historian David Roach. Here, Roach resurfaces dozens of comics that have rarely or never been reprinted from comics magazines Mirabelle, Valentine, Marilyn, Serenade, Roxy, and Mates.
The comics featured in this collection are a broad range of romantic tales. By far, the girl-meets-boy model of storytelling is the most present formula. However, none of these stories feels repetitive because of the variety present. The flirtatious conflict of Head in the Clouds, the workplace melodrama of I Wasn’t Chasing Boys, the fashion boutique-focused of Some People Have Got No Idea!, and even the soccer hooligan-themed A Quiet Vandal are all examples of how this formula can be spun in different ways.
Inversely, just as many stories focus on existing relationships, primarily from the female perspective. As is often the case, there’s a tension in the relationship that’s either resolved (by fixing a misunderstanding or having a mature conversation) or the focal character realises that the relationship needs to end. Again, these tales are spun in several manners, such as I Like It, which focuses on an unconventional hairdo; the exploration of jealousy in The Wrong Boy; and Getting Better, a tale of a girl frustrated with the monotony of her life and relationship.
As the publications were published weekly, there was always a demand for new and varied strips. Some of this resulted in experiments in the genre. The collection includes rare romance tales from the male perspective, such as Love? Not For Me! and Land of Make Believe. What Jenny Saw is another from a different point of view, this time through the eyes of a little sister. Other explorations include Letters To Lesley, an advice column in comic form. Here, the first half is a question to a columnist detailing a problem that requires guidance, with the second half giving an answer. It bluntly gives actional advice about relationships and friendship that the readers could use. Whether or not the letter is legitimate is unclear. However, it doesn’t really matter if it’s sound advice.
A Very British Affair also includes many crossovers into other genres. Some of these add excitement, such as the opening tale Dark Secret, which involves a jailbreak and hostage situation. Other times, the genre-blending is more of a twist involving ghosts or visitors from another world. There are also a few bizarre ones, such as the caveman-focused Cave-Man Courtship. These are all welcome additions to the collection, which added more variety, piqued my curiosity, and gave me a few chuckles.
While there are no POC or LGBTQIA+ narratives, like there are in abundance in today’s offerings, these British offerings of the era show that hetero-centric storytelling doesn’t have to be as dull as the American offering. As with most story collections, there will be some tales you’ll enjoy more than others. Some have shown their age when it comes to attitude relationships. Others have narrative conveniences that might seem cheesy to modern readers. However, there’s plenty to enjoy if you treat them as period pieces and are open-minded to the genre.
While the teenage and 20-something readership of the time would’ve read these stories for their entertainment value and as an opportunity for escapism, many have a message. They offered advice about relationships, such as what to do with unappreciative boyfriends. Other times, they gave affirmation that it was okay to be single and that the right person will eventually come along. While future generations would turn to magazines like Cosmopolitan or online outlets, these were some of the few outlets for girls trying to make sense of relationships.
The comics make a lot of effort to relate to the readership, with almost every story starring working-class or middle-class women. They mostly lived ordinary lives, worked common jobs, lived with their mother or flatmate, and had familiar interests and woes. While some were boy-crazy, others featured in the collection were driven by personal goals and dreams. This contrasts with the American romance comics, where the end goal was becoming a wife and mother.
A Very British Affair is an apt title, as these comics dug into the youth culture of the time. These magazines filled in much of the demand and included articles about pop stars and fashion – pillars of youth culture – alongside comic stories. The comics went even further by having titles named after hit songs. The stories were not so much based on the song’s premise but instead inspired by the title. I looked up many of these hit songs. Most were released a month or so before the comics’ publication. I’m sure having that freshness, where the tracks were likely still on the radio or on regular rotation on turntables, added appeal for many pop music fans.
The romance comics of this time were very fashion conscience – leaning into the readership’s interest. You see the evolution of style throughout this collection, noticing shifts that align with trends in youth culture. In the mid-1950s, women dressed with elegance or glamour in mind, favouring blouses, long skirts and dresses. However, there is a noticeable shift in the material from about 1963, with styles that focused more on sexiness starting to appear. At the same time as minidresses, miniskirts, and long boots appeared on the streets of London, they began to appear closely after in the comics. Artists went all in, especially the Spanish artists, diving into different geometric patterns to create fabulous fashions.
As an aside: It didn’t matter what era or the character’s background everyone has fantastic hair in this collection.
A Very British Affair is also a treasure trove of art, highlighting dozens of artists from the UK, Spain, Italy, and France. Some artists featured are well known, with stories in this collection being early examples of their work. A few of these include Carlos Ezquerra, best known for co-creating Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, and several other strips for 2000 AD; Shirley Bellwood, who drew many strips in the girls’ comics of the 1970s; Gerry Haylock, one of the definitive artists on the original Doctor Who comics; and several Spanish artists who would work on Vampirella for Warren Publishing. On the other side of the coin, this collection surfaces many artists whose work has been neglected up until now. It’s great that this it can spotlight some of them so a new audience can enjoy and appreciate their work.
This collection is a smorgasbord of styles and has dozens of artists featured. Each creator is different in their approach, but there are certainly some trends throughout the ages. Tight linework and spot blacks were prevalent throughout the 1950s material. These cleaner styles helped give the pages a more elegant look. Other pages of the era took on more of a pulp aesthetic with watercolour washes that evoke the painted covers of romance novels. The linework became looser as the comics got deeper into the 1960s, especially from the Spanish artists. Shape and form were still important, but the looseness gives the art a rawer energy that plays into the more extravagant fashion, fabulous hair, and some of the explorations into different genres.
Except for the serialised tales, the stories in this collection are only 2-4 pages long. The pages are dense, and it’s not uncommon for them to have more than ten panels. While that can make for a busy page, jammed packed full of art, it’s not unreadable. Legibility is not an issue. I could make out what was happening, even if some of the art was on the small side. It got a bit trickier in some of the work from the 1970s when less-conventional layouts were deployed. These don’t work so well with the density, and there were a few times when I had to stop to figure out which panel I should be reading next. These are not regular but appear towards the end of the collection.
A Very British Affair is a fantastic look at a neglected corner of comics history that’s only starting to be celebrated now. Through excellent curation, it has unearthed many fun tales, stunning artists, and weird oddities almost lost to time. It shows that the romance comics of the 1950s-1970s could be more than the American offering alluded to and should be added to the conversation when discussing romance comics’ history.
A Very British Affair: The Best of Classic Romance Comics can be found at all good comic book shops, online retailers, eBay, Amazon/Kindle, and the Treasury of British Comics webshop.
Have your say!