The halcyon days of British comics in the 1950s and 1960s were a fertile landscape that produced many titles fondly remembered today: the knockabout fun of the Dandy and the Beano, and the thrill and adventure of Victor, Valiant, The Hotspur, and Roy of the Rovers’ original home, Tiger.
But what of Mirabelle, Valentine, Marilyn and Serenade? Almost completely forgotten today, these comics formed the vanguard of Britain’s huge romance comics industry, selling millions of copies over a decade.
Now, thanks to a 40-year mission by one comics historian to track down and preserve these titles, they are going to get a new lease of life with a book that will reprint the strips for the first time in six decades.
“These comics were hugely popular in their day, and from the late 1950s until the early 1970s every publisher was putting out weekly romance comics,” says David Roach, whose lifelong obsession with comics has led him to assemble what he says is the biggest collection in the country, with at least 600 issues each of Valentine and Mirabelle. “The first British romance comic I can track down appeared in an issue of women’s magazine Glamour in 1950.”
After scouring secondhand shops, contacting private collectors and trawling the internet for copies, Roach has put these together in a book called A Very British Affair – The Best of Classic Romance Comics, which will be out in January.
It was harder to find old issues of the romantic comics than more traditional titles from the era, which may have been to do with the way they were treated by their readers. Boys might have been more likely to collect their comics, while girls’ titles were perhaps seen as disposable ephemera to be got rid of after reading.
The romance comics genre was huge in America from immediately after the second world war, with titles such as Young Romance, featuring strips by comics luminaries Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, who also created Captain America. But, says Roach, the British versions took their lead from Europe, where Italy especially had pioneered romance comics in the magazine Grand Hotel. Indeed, many of the first strips in the British titles were translated versions of the Italian comics. Roach says: “Initially, the British comics used homegrown artists, but from about the mid-50s onwards they increasingly got Italian and Spanish artists to illustrate the stories because there were so many romance comics but not enough British artists to do them.”
He approached the British comics company Rebellion, which publishes the long-running sci-fi weekly 2000AD, with the idea of collecting and reprinting some of these long-lost strips. Editor Olivia Hicks leapt at the idea – she had done her PhD in girls’ comics and had harboured an ambition to repackage some of the old forgotten titles.
Hicks says: “One difference between British and American romance comics is that the US versions were often concerned with young girls in the first flush of love. The British stories often feature women about to get married, or having crises about relationships, and forced into choices about what will make them happy.
“They often deal with working-class women and issues, and have more in common with the kitchen sink dramas of the cinema at the time than the teenage American romance comics.”
One of the strips selected by Roach for the collection is drawn by Mike Hubbard, who illustrated the long-running Jane strip for the Daily Mirror. It features a working class girl falling for an unsuitable man against the wishes of her mother. Another deals with a woman in an abusive relationship. “They are very British,” says Roach. “And then, later on, we got stories with huge amounts of glamour injected into them thanks to the Italian and Spanish artists, with very stylish heroines in the Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot mould.”
The collection also shines a light on some of the writers and artists on the strips – who very often didn’t receive a credit, especially women such as Jenny Butterworth, Pat Tourret, Shirley Bellwood and Diane Gabbott. In the late 1970s, the comics’ popularity waned and they were replaced in magazines such as My Guy and Jackie by photostory features that aped the comic form but used staged pictures of young models for the panels.
Hicks adds: “This timely book is going to set the record straight and finally give these amazing comics and their creators their moment in the sun. Brilliant, beautiful, heartfelt and occasionally downright bizarre, this is the essential selection of British romance comics.”