Project: Romantic edited by Chris Pitzer
For their third and final comics anthology, AdHouse seemingly veered away from comics on space (Project: Telestar) and superheroes (Project: Superior) to focus on “love and love stuff.” But like any good addition to a comic book series, Project: Romantic hasn’t strayed far from flying daredevils and robots.
The book begins with an essay on the history of romance comics by Bill Boichel and Jim Rugg. Fittingly titled “Romance Comics: A History,” the essay charts the rise of romance comics as a genre, beginning in 1947 with the comic Young Romance by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, from the popular true confession-type magazines of the '30s and '40s, to the decline in the 1950s due to a one-two punch delivered by the censorious Comics Code of 1955 and television’s burgeoning stranglehold on American storytelling. The essay text is laid-out over a collage of red lips, furrowed brows and bulging biceps from the covers and pages from romance comics. It looks beautiful. The words themselves feel constricted (perhaps by word count), giving only a slight analysis of the place that comics held in America’s past, but the essay works well as a start for those who want to learn more.
Maris Wicks’s painfully cute, richly colorful illustrations and choose-your-own-adventure-type narrative weave throughout the pages of Project: Romantic and set a tone of expectation and longing that permeates the best of the 30-plus comics. Various interpretations of romance fill the book, but most are about people who like like each other, and the stages of romance from schoolhouse crushes to love after death are explored.
Middle school idolatry takes root in Austin English’s “Valentine.” Little Austin becomes fascinated with a schoolmate, “she held her bag in this amazing way,” and his child-like drawings in colored pencil give the wavy-armed kids a special energy that is lacking in the love stories told from an adult point of view. T Edward Bak’s comic, “Trouble,” plumbs the world of pre-adolescent desire and asks what do you do when your wild best friend threatens to leave you and your crappy town for a boy who’s all lips and boners? In Aaron Reiner’s “Reflectors & Rutabagas” the hide-n-seek of a crush in the city is sweetly rendered in his story about two hippie punks dumpster diving, building bikes and falling in love in an urban tree house fantasy. The beautiful reds and greens of the kids’ romance create a parallel love story of the surprises that a bedraggled city can hide. Four Sweetie ‘n Me comics by Joel Priddy pop up in random places in Project: Romantic and chart the lives of two scientist-adventurers after marriage. Insecurities about boredom and routine plague the husband in his long-running courtship of his wife Sweetie; Priddy shows the tension in keeping romance alive in a long-term relationship with crisp cartoon-y art and fantasy settings.
A few comics tackle the romance of a lover that is present only in memory. Scott Morse’s “Over Yonder” is wordless piece made up of full-page panels set in an island paradise blooming with deep reds and purples instead of the average bright colors of sun and sand. Liz Prince’s sketchy, big-eyed characters sit in the park and canoodle and party in “Benches.” When an accident kills the object of the main character’s desire, she is stunned and feels lost. Upon returning to the bench, a ghost gives her a shoulder to rest on and the feeling that her boy is still with her. Even when death interrupts, the artists of Project: Romantic seem to be optimistic about the possibilities of finding and sharing love, which is a nice change from angsty, neurotic relationship comics a la Jeffery Brown, even if that means that the bulk of the stories stay rather on the surface of the subject.
Romance is an adventure up there with space exploration and crime fighting, and this anthology is a fitting end to AdHouse’s series. Compilations have the annoying tendency to be carried by one or two strong pieces, but Project: Romantic offers a glimpse into the styles of many exciting artists and leaves you wondering what they did before (and after) love, or as in Evan Larson’s contribution, Cupid’s undiscerning assistant, came to town.
Project: Romantic edited by Chris Pitzer