The first one is: Boy meets girl, what stands in the way of their progress, how it ends in tears and whether they are tears of joy or sadness. The second is: How these artists sold their idea, how they ran things, and whether they came out of it with their shirts. Nowadays we should expect the second story to attract as much interest as the first.
As to the first, these comics are among the best in their genre without a doubt. They have been selected for the variety of their conclusions; we're six stories into the collection before we get one that ends with the lovers in the classic romantic clinch. The short story was the staple of comics back then, but there are three in this collection that stretch to 14 pages, with weighty enough material to justify the extra length, such as “The Town and Toni Benson", the extended story in Young Romance #11 of a young married couple who first met in Young Romance #1 (which is not included in this collection). Such attempts at continuity in romance comics were not just rare, as this may have been the only one. The couple is making a serious go of it, but the small town won't let them forget his past as a gambler. It's a well constructed and moving story in which the solution to the crisis arises naturally out of the facts as presented. That big serious type of narrative is balanced against several more flippant short pieces such as “Norma, Queen of the Hot-Dogs": “Norma didn't want much out of life- just everything that a big bank roll could buy. So she got an idea-- a ridiculous idea for a classy gal like Norma. It smelled of sauerkraut and mustard and lots of money! But what has this to do with love, you say?..."
The book covers 12 years 1947 to 1959. By '55 we're past the introduction of the comics code and things have become more constricted. Stories are now always seven pages or less. There a lot of parents railing against teen-agers: “You make noises like a man... But you're only a kid... A young KID! I know you better than that girl or anybody else. I'm your father... And I'll tell you when you're ... OLD ENOUGH TO MARRY!" Also, people hanging out around the pool, as in "Resort Romeo". At the same time, Kirby's art is beginning to look the way it will look in the Marvel Age, more streamlined and blocky, the way we remember it from his early collaborations with Stan Lee. Gone are all the raggedy ink-lines of the early issues that we are presumably to associate with Joe Simon, but more on this below. You may resist the obvious ploys attempting to play upon your emotions, including, in separate stories, a blind guy and a gal in a wheelchair. The book ends on a note of emotional absurdity, so high-pitched as to be comical, and not untypical of the post-code romances. Across the whole comic book field there's a clear division between pre- and post- code, and it's a mistake to view it it all as continuous. If you are to make a statement about romance comics, be clear about which side of the line you're addressing.
As to the second kind of story, young Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, famous as the creators of Captain America, were back at work after WWII and on the lookout for something that hadn't been tried before. They fastened on the idea of a comic book version of the kinds of stories that had flourished in the romance pulp magazines, stories that dealt with the more adult themes that could appeal to young people of the time. The comic book had grown up in other words (under the title banner of the first three issues of Young Romance was the slogan “Designed for the more ADULT readers of COMICS"). The thing that has recently attracted me to the subject of romance comics is the late discovery that it is possible to find material of a high quality in the genre. My particular interest is comics about ordinary life, and falling in love is the experience of ordinary people everywhere.
The pair put a first issue package of Young Romance together and sold the idea to Prize comics, an imprint of magazine publisher Crestwood for whom the they were already packaging two crime comics, titled Headline and Justice Traps the Guilty. For comics, Prize was a small operation, and Simon and Kirby negotiated half-ownership of the new title. This was to prove very lucrative when Young Romance took off immediately and the print-run rose to over a million. A second romance title, Young Love, was added a year and a half later so that they were now packaging four bi-monthly titles. Then another two titles were added, Western Love and Real West Romances. There was a big rush on the western-romance hybrid in 1949, though it was short-lived.
That makes six titles that Simon and Kirby were packaging for a period, or three whole comics per month. To keep this up they had a studio, with an in-house staff consisting of at least Simon and Kirby themselves, a letterer (Ben Oda) a colorist, probably two other artists, of whom, for a time at least, one may have been Mort Meskin. But knowledge of this is sketchy because nobody was interested enough in romance comics to get it all down while the principals were alive. A great deal of the material was also out-sourced to freelance writers and artists including Leonard Starr, John Prentice, Ann Brewster, Jerry Robinson, and many other known names as well as many recognizable styles with no attachable names.
There would have been a great deal of business paperwork and editorial work, overseeing, reading and changing bought scripts etc. and it's never been quite clear exactly what Joe Simon's end of the work would have consisted of during this period. Late in the process of putting the book together editor Michel Gagné revealed his table of contents online. At that stage he had credits in place showing Kirby as penciller on all the stories and Simon as inker on all but a couple of late ones in which a more austere style becomes noticeable, as observed above. Several knowledgeable commenters indicated some problems with the credit assumptions which resulted in Gagné removing the whole lot. The reader is left to his own conclusions, and if he/she is coming to the material fresh as a daisy, I'm not sure what those conclusions might be. The book sure could have used some elucidation about the running of the studio that produced all the material of which these 200 pages are only a small fraction (Young Romance itself, leaving out the other titles for a minute, ran to 124 issues before DC bought the title and inventory in 1963).
Here's an example of the kind of problem I'm talking about in the above paragraph. I noticed in my first flip through the book that there are two stories that Kirby didn't draw. Scholars of old comics tend to give Kirby the layouts for both stories, but I don't even see that. My guess is that Kirby has gone over the finished art on them, tidying up editorially here and there and fixing one or two details. The female face in the last panel of page 2 of “Kathy and the Merchant of Sunset Canyon" (originally in Western Love #2 1949) looks like a Kirby face. In “The Perfect Cowboy" (originally in Real West Romances #4 1949) there's an artist who looks like he might have been studying Meskin on DC's Vigilante. The two figures in the splash panel are as nice a couple of evening strollers as I've seen in a comic. They appear to be drawn by a different hand at the top of the second page but there's a sophisticated manipulation of pictorial space in the very small panels at the bottom that shows a great deal of skill of a sort that I once discussed in reference to a Jerry Robinson comic. The girl at the top of page 3 has a different facial construction from her close up at the bottom of page 4. Kirby Scholar Harry Mendryk, who covered these romance comics in a long series of blog posts, says the inking is too fine to be Simon's. So we have: a pseudo-Robinson, a brief look-in from Kirby, a tidier inker than Simon, at least one other somebody else and I'm sure as blazes I see some Simon retouching on one of the pages. No wonder Gagné chose to delete all the credits. However, it's odd that a story on which a bunch of people worked against a deadline crunch makes it into a “best of" collection. Its value from my own standpoint is that it gives us a glimpse into the workings of a very busy studio, since we're not treated to such a thing in the book's brief commentaries.
One writer's credit oddly did make it onto one of the original printed pages. “Fraulein Sweetheart" (originally in Young Romance #4, May 1949) presents itself as the first person narrative (Romance comics are conventionally written in the first person) of a woman in post-war American-occupied Germany who falls in love with an American soldier. It's a story that has been cited as an excellent example of the genre (Nolan, Love on the Racks). There's a small plaque near the title that reads “translated by Sgt. J. Oleck". I knew Oleck's work from the 1970s when he would pop up at DC doing mystery and war stories, but I knew nothing else about him. I find this reference to him from a Joe Simon interview quoted by scholar Harry Mendryk: “Jack Oleck, my brother-in-law, who had been the number one scriptwriter for Simon and Kirby since the early days of Young Romance..." Perhaps they gave him a credit on his first story as a way of welcoming him. Otherwise, it's nigh impossible to posthumously credit stories to writers in this era of comics history.
Simon and Kirby tried their hand at actual self-publishing as Mainline comics in 1954/55, but the timing was all wrong. Their partnership did not survive long past the arrival of the Comics Code. Still, they did well out of it all and the Prize period was certainly the period of Jack Kirby's greatest commercial success, and also the period of work which posterity has most neglected. For that this book is to be cheered, though there is much else to be happy about in it. There is the excellence of Gagné's restoration work. It's of a kind of cleanness which in the past, in archival projects by others, has often resulted in garishness. This is countered here by the paper used throughout the book, which is a of a very off-white creamy complexion, immediately noticeable by contrast with the ivory white endpapers. Thus the muted effects of the newsprint are preserved. There are a number of archival projects that could have benefited from that approach, including the recent Toth book, Setting the Standard, also published by Fantagraphics (2011). If we add to that John Benson's Romance Without Tears (2003), and Confessions, Romances, Secrets and Temptations (2007), it appears that Fantagraphics, perhaps by accident more than planning, is the only publisher to give us any coverage of the long neglected and just about forgotten 1950s genre of romance comics. Somebody else needs to step up!