Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Fresh Romance #5. Written by Kate Leth, Sarah Vaughn, and Sarah Kuhn with art by Arielle Jovellanos, Sarah Winifred Searle, and Sally Jane Thompson, and colors by Amanda Scurti, Justin Lanjil, and Savanna Ganucheau, this romance-comic anthology offers a variety of thoughtful, charming explorations of love, desire, and the complexity of romantic relationships. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)
Where are the romance comics? The genre fell out of popularity in the mid-’70s (largely due to the influence of the sexual revolution on its core audience of young women), but since that time, social views of romance, love, and sex have changed dramatically, as has the comic-book industry. With the emergence of the internet and digital comics, it’s now easier than ever for aspiring comic creators to create and distribute new material to an international audience, and the severe content restrictions placed on romance comics by the Comics Code Authority are no longer applicable. Modern romance comics can explore personal relationships in a cultural landscape hungry for sex-positive stories featuring characters of different sexual orientations and gender identities, so why are there so few of them?
Comic-book journalist, editor, and activist Janelle Asselin noticed the absence of romance comics and set out to fill it earlier this year by launching Rosy Press, which “specializes in publishing romantic fiction and nonfiction aimed at a diverse readership.” The Kickstarter for Rosy Press’ debut title Fresh Romance made nearly double its goal, proving that there’s an audience eager for new romance comics, and after five digital issues (available on Comixology), Fresh Romance has made a very strong case for a larger romance-comics revival. The monthly anthology series features three stories per issue, which are all shorter chapters of longer narratives at this point, along with a regular advice column called “The Divorcé(e) Club” featuring a panel of four divorced writers, short essays on topics ranging from romance comics fashion to the female orgasm, and process pieces that break down the creation of these comics. It’s much more than just a collection of romance stories, but the quality and variety of the comics is the primary selling point of the series.
Fresh Romance #5 is the last issue to have the original line-up of stories, featuring the conclusion of “The Ruby Equation” by writer Sarah Kuhn, artist Sally Jane Thompson, and colorist Savannah Ganucheau. Starring a young woman, Ruby, who belongs to “an otherworldly species that prides itself on assisting other beings with a variety of essential tasks,” it’s a sweet, whimsical tale about a matchmaker reluctant to embrace the romantic feelings she magically stimulates in others, taking a more fantastic approach to the romance genre. The major substance in Kuhn’s story comes from her exploration of compatibility myths, and Ruby’s struggle to make meaningful romantic connections with others stems from her refusal to embrace the full complexity of human emotion. She makes pairs based on shallow first impressions rather than spending time to figure out what her matches truly need from their prospective partners, and she’s incapable of understanding those deeper feelings until she experiences them herself.
The exit interview with “The Ruby Equation” creative team reveals the explicit ties this comics has to writer Sarah Kuhn’s personal life, and there’s a casualness to the storytelling that is very warm and inviting. Thompson’s art is similarly relaxed with an unfussy line and clearly defined facial expressions and physical gestures, and she does great work intensifying the emotion of the script through the characterization of Toff, Ruby’s silent flying familiar that looks like a mix of a squirrel and butterfly. Toff’s exaggerated reactions are used to build tension when Ruby does something Toff doesn’t agree with, but they’re also used to heighten feelings of elation when things go well, heightening enthusiasm by projecting it through an adorable animal hybrid. Ganucheau’s coloring embraces the fanciful angle of the story with a candy-colored palette, and details like the Bokeh sparkles for the romantic climax of the issue make everything a bit more magical.
“The Ruby Equation” is pleasant, if predictable, and while it has the lowest stakes of the three comics in this issue, that lighter tone makes it a good story to end the anthology with, playing the dessert role in this three-course meal of romance comics. The appetizer is “School Spirit” by writer Kate Leth, artist Arielle Jovellanos, and colorist Amanda Scurti, which has a similarly playful tone but more intense personal conflicts. Set in a high school in the weeks leading up to prom, the story focuses on two couples in very different situations: Justine and Malie are two closeted lesbians who deceive their schoolmates by pretending to fawn over Miles, and Miles uses their performance to hide his romance with teen witch Corinne, whose warlock fathers have forbidden her from intimate relationships with mortals.
There’s a strong Archie Comics influence in Leth’s concept, but with a modern twist: What if Betty and Veronica showered affection on Archie to distract from their lesbian relationship, and Archie used their performance to hide his relationship with Sabrina? That Archie connection is reinforced by the art; Jovellanos has a fashionable, expressive style reminiscent of current Archie artists like Fiona Staples and Annie Wu, and Scurti’s bold, minimally textured coloring evokes a retro aesthetic in the vein of classic Archie creators like Dan DeCarlo and Stan Goldberg. “School Spirit” is strongly aligned with romance-comics tradition, but it’s able to address material that would have been taboo in the past.
A public profession of love is a standard event in romance comics, but it’s groundbreaking when it involves a biracial same-sex couple, and introduces a much different set of consequences for the characters. The chapter ends with Justine and Malie’s parents showing up at the school after the girls’ public display of affection goes viral, and the anticipation for that coming-out conversation makes it the story’s best cliffhanger yet. Social views of sexuality aren’t as oppressively conservative as they were during the heyday or romance comics, which opens up new storytelling opportunities that could help revitalize the genre in the American comics industry.
Just like the romance-novel industry, romance comics shouldn’t shy away from the different forms of romance that exist, whether it’s monogamous or polygamous, heterosexual or homosexual, transgendered or cisgendered. Comic companies are aggressively trying to tap into the female market, and a romance comic revival could be a huge boon in this regard. According to Romance Writers of America, women made up 82 percent of romance-book buyers in 2014, and that’s a valuable audience to cater to considering the romance-novel industry brings in over a billion dollars a year.
The entrée course of each issue of Fresh Romance is “Ruined,” a Regency-set period drama that replaces magic with maturity. Written by Sarah Vaughn, who also penned Image’s sci-fi romantic drama Alex + Ada (one of The A.V. Club’s best comics of last year), the script is a tense, heartwrenching journey into a young woman’s turbulent emotions when she’s married off to a stranger and moves to a lonely, aging estate. Catherine’s reputation has been tarnished by rumors of her losing her virginity the previous summer, and she’s haunted by the memory of that past intimacy as she enters a new life with the icy Mr. Andrew Davener. It’s the most sophisticated of the three Fresh Romance stories, with a decompressed pace that draws the reader deep into Catherine’s experience by accentuating the atmosphere around her. The reader can feel the solemnity of Catherine’s wedding and the awkwardness of her first ride to a new home with a new husband, and Vaughn fully trusts her artist collaborator Sarah Winifred Searle (with coloring assists by Justin Lanjil) to project those moods without text.
Vaughn’s story is given significant gravitas by Searle’s nuanced character work, and the opening dream sequence of this week’s chapter concisely summarizes Catherine’s inner turmoil through facial expressions and body language. The opening panel showing Catherine standing inside a stone gazebo highlights how alone Catherine feels in her current situation, her nakedness radiating a vulnerability that is emphasized by a chilly shrug just before her former lover Hector greets her. As he wraps his arm around her, Catherine turns with a smile on her face. In that moment, she is warm, comfortable, and protected, but then the dream takes a turn and her husband Andrew replaces Hector in the fantasy. The shift brings a change in Catherine’s composure; her face is distraught and she pushes Andrew away. She feels exposed when her husband touches her, and her nudity subtly reinforces that emotion.
The “Ruined” creative team has a strong appreciation for the time period of their story, and Vaughn has used the social mores of the Regency era to build a complicated, captivating story about the emotional repercussions of physical relationships. Searle’s artwork brings the past to life with a graceful line and refined color palette, and she expertly navigates the tonal shifts in Vaughn’s script. The final scene of this week’s chapter introduces Catherine to Andrew’s sister Gemma, and it brings a refreshing burst of pleasure as Catherine applauds her sister-in-law’s piano playing. After four chapters of bleak personal discomfort, it’s nice to see Catherine find something to admire about her new situation, and Searle’s art makes it very clear that Catherine appreciates the brief respite from her dreariness.
The stories in Fresh Romance spotlight the variety of romance comics, offering three very different stories about love told from a female perspective. This is a book by women that is explicitly targeted to women, and the bonus material works to create an environment of support and encouragement for women looking for creative and romantic assistance. “The Divorcé(e) Club” addresses specific reader concerns about physical and emotional intimacy without judgment, the informational essays shed light on topics that may be elusive to readers (like the scientific differences between desire and arousal and how they relate to each other), and the process pieces provide a creative foundation for aspiring artists who may not know what a comic script looks like or what a letterer’s job entails. There’s a communal element to Fresh Romance that makes it more than just a romance-comics anthology, setting a high standard that will hopefully inspire more creators and publishers to focus their attention on the romance genre.