It’s a bit of a stretch to judge a whole genre on whether or not it’s feminist, I know, BUT since romance is a women’s genre it’s relevant. And really, instead of the whole genre, I’m just comparing two collections: Marvel Romance, which collects some highlights from Marvel romance comics of the sixties and seventies, and Fresh Romance Vol. 1, a modern anthology series from Oni Press.
Back in the day, like the fifties and sixties day, romance comics were at least as popular as superheroes and horror, and they were given the same level of attention. The art was gorgeous, and people like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby wrote for these series as well as the famous superhero ones. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line starting in the seventies, the whole comics industry became much more associated with superheroes, and superheroes as a boys’ genre. The old romance comics have some nostalgia and humor value though, so there are a handful of collections available like this Marvel Romance one.
And yeah, the stories are kinda awful and always heteronormative, but they’re not as sexist as you might think. They’re also about women choosing husbands for their own reasons, learning they can’t change assholes into princes, learning to value themselves. And, as I’ve argued about any number of women’s genres in the past (including things like Disney princess movies), there’s something inherently feminist about a women’s genre. Women speaking for themselves becomes feminist whether the authors really intended it or not, because to attain any degree of realism, they have to talk about their struggles and needs. On top of that, the romance genre is specifically about women’s sexuality and desires. Even the more problematic (rapey) stuff, back in the early days of the genre, was about creating a space to free women’s sexuality without guilt. Romance comics tend to be much less explicit than the average romance novel, but the same ideas hold true.
Still. Problematic. Just because the stuff had feminist implications and effects back in the day doesn’t mean we should still be writing the same things the same way. Fortunately, we’re not. Publishers like Image Comics and Oni Press have been dismantling the comics = superheroes idea since the nineties, and there are some good romance comics coming out again! Fresh Romance is one of them. It’s (at least partially?) funded through Kickstarter, but available digitally as individual issues and in the printed collection, and volume 2 is in progress. This first volume contains two long stories, one shorter one and two very short ones, each by a different set of creators. Most of them have fantasy elements, but one is a historical fiction, and looks like there’ll be more genres in later volumes, and all the stories are real romance stories even in the different settings, which can be hard to pull off. All the characters are important, but the focus tends to stay on the female leads. The romances are queer-friendly, ethnically diverse, and beautifully drawn.
I can recommend both these books for different reasons. Marvel Romance is unintentionally hilarious, but also historically interesting, and the art is genuinely good. Fresh Romance is creative and different and represents a lot more people, and would be a great choice for anyone new to the romance genre, comic-book niche or not. And they’re both feminist in their own way, but if you’re specifically looking for good feminist romance stories, you probably wanna go with Fresh Romance!