Romantic Comics You Need to Read
Travis Hedge Coke
February means Valentine’s Day, and Valentine’s Day means giving and getting chocolate, mad declarations of love and eternity, and comics. Because every holiday means comics. You know in your heart this is true.
Here, listed in a deliberately scrambled order, are fourteen excellently romantic comics you should check out. Buy one for that special someone come the fourteenth. Heck, buy all fourteen for several someones special. Read them before the gifting, borrow them after, or read them together.
The list is highly arbitrary. Note that Urusei Yatsura is not on the list, as overall, it’s an anti-romantic or skewering of romance ideals, but the Valentine’s Day episodes, with a gradeschool girl determinedly pursuing an alien kid and telling him that by accepting her chocolate he has to marry her or the Japanese government will put him to death is the best Valentine’s Day comic possible, and deserves special mention. So why isn’t it on the list by itself? Highly arbitrary.
Now, remember, always, that love means sharing comics.
1. Two-Step (Warren Ellis; Amanda Conner)
Wandering infotainment gal, Rosi Blades, in search of a good feed for her camera, meets a nice, off-beat young gentleman who is busy shooting at people and pursuing stolen property for his boss. Tony’s a zen gangster, and that’s as intriguing and annoying as you can imagine, but what the hell, it’s more interesting that videoing a plastic bag floating in a dust devil like in American Beauty. So off they go, in pursuit of artificial oversized genitals the envy of mob bosses the world over, busily flirting and fighting and flirting and not dying and flirting and flirting and lackadaisically avoiding disaster.
2. Fake (Sanomi Matoh)
Whenever I come back to Fake, via the comic or the excellent short movie, I am reminded I should despise these people. I should, by all reason, wish them not to hook up, and to in fact not hook up with anyone, ever. They’re immature and impetuous, though all in different ways, and everything the main couple or various side characters do is contiguous to assaults, murders, bear attacks, and exploding houses. But, goddammit, they’re lovable! Dee is a completely pushy bastard, an overly violent, cocky, and date-rapey cop, and his partner turned quickly love interest, Randy, is wishy-washy and won’t even humor a scared kid when it comes to ghosts he doesn’t believe in. That, however it sits funny with me, is why they’re loveable. And that it’s a comic that can go smartly from high-octane shoot outs to slow and trembling kisses without being jarring or unnatural… woo!
3. “Calamity on the Campus!” (Jack Kirby; Stan Lee)
This Fantastic Four story is all about the romance (and the giant robot dragons in shortpants). Featuring guest spots by X-Men and Spider-Man, in a couple dozen pages, we see the Thing’s unrequited love of his best friend’s lady, the Human Torch’s desperate pranks against one Peter “secretly Spider-Man” Parker to keep him off the maybe list of his girlfriend du jour, the excellent Dorrie Evans, the aforementioned giant robot dragon’s ability to crush steel and instantly crush on virtually any passing woman, and, bonus of bonuses, a quaint, sappy, awkward and cheesy and overdone so much pause in the action for Reed Richards to stand with his one true love, in front of a tree grown into the shape of a heart, giving a spiel of legacy and fate, in the hopes it assists her in agreeing to marry the goof.
4. Shade, The Changing Man (Peter Milligan; Chris Bachalo; et al)
Peter Milligan has a soft spot for outright romantic comics. He turned Elektra into a romance comic about an interpretive dancer nursing a perpetually broken heart via a friends with benefit arrangement. He only stopped killing people in X-Force long enough to get them to blush and hook up. And, Shade might be his fullest expression in this regard. Every aspect of romance, from the truths to the lies, the needs to the wants, the needy and the wanted, all is turned over and examined and held up like shining jewels under kind but sharp light. Shade and Kathy are it, kids. They are it. It’s LOVE, capital L-O-V-E, and it’s a debilitating crutch. It’s something they need. It feels good, alright? Passes the time. Gets you through. Hurts. And, might, always might have something better at the base of it.
5. Going Rogue (Robert Rodi; Cliff Richards; et al)
It’s the Rogue ongoing, all traded up into one volume! Y’all read this when it came out, right? Right? Okeh, I know. But, you missed out, let me tell you. I’ve never been as anti-Gambit as many, or as repulsed by their relationship, but this comic introduces it, and the characters, as new, and it made me really love their romance by the surest way possible, keeping them apart ‘til we get the point. Meanwhile, Rogue’s got a sexy new guy moving in on her with winking hints about her family and safety, Gambit’s hitching his way to Rogue via cute gals who could resist his charm, if it wasn’t bolstered by psychic radiance that makes him more likeable than is remotely plausible. And, you do — after years of this “they can’t ever touch!” melodrama, that is by now not an issue — now is the time, with this story, that I actually did want them to just get to it. Just waiting for the comic to put them in the same room and just one kiss, at least.
6. Gargoyle (JM DeMatteis; Richard Badger; Bob Sharen)
Once upon a time, an old man looked at the failure of his life and the love he had lost, and swapped bodies with a gargoyle, who thought he might enjoy walking around in some flesh. Then, the gargoyle dressed in a man returned, and offered to swap again, with the added bonus of that lost lover, returned to life and to youth, and the old man in his gargoyle body jumped at the chance like a kid at a candy store. And, like that kid, he didn’t stop to count up his money, or to question the cheapness of the candy, yet untasted. Isaac Christians, old and infirm once more, was left not with the unrequited love of his golden youth, but the dominating user with whom he had spent his miserable middle age, and what’s almost as bad, he may’ve inadvertently encouraged the end of the world as we know it.
7. Savage Dragon (Erik Larsen)
The sex and violence comic, where a villain once sprayed poop all over Dragon and his date? Shut up. Sex and violence are romantic, and let’s not forget “once sprayed poop” leads up to “Dragon and his date.” Yeah, Dragon has to get soaked in blood or lose an arm every couple issues, and half his friends admit to using him for sex at some point or another, but he’s a friendly guy, and from the moment he woke amnesiac in a field on fire, he’s had a difficult time negotiating distinctions between debt, friendship, romance, compassion and protection. But, he keeps trying. He’s tenacious. He’s like a big, green, fin-headed Pepe Le Pew who can take no for an answer. He’s gone to the altar with the same wonderful woman twice, and the only reason he didn’t marry her twice was because someone killed her the first time.
8. “Sanctuary” (Mark Waid; Ron Garney)
Waid and Garney closed out their first run on Captain America with a one-shot story of Sharon Carter, Captain America, a mad teenage dictator, and fields of slaves. By superhero standards, the entire comic is massively understated, except for the intense chase scene involving motorcycles, machineguns, and gigantic aircraft. It’s a story of how Captain America put foreign slaves above himself. A story of how former POW, Carter, affects dispassion to avoid feeling abandoned. How Captain America doesn’t leave you behind. And, ultimately, it’s a story of how loving someone does not mean having to control or keep tabs on them. It’s about respect.
9. A, A’ (Moto Hagio; trans. Matt Thorn)
How do you do a comic about grief, loneliness, breakups, abandonment, callousness, slander, and hope, and make sure the reader smiles nearly every page? Moto Hagio apparently didn’t have a magic wishing ring, so she had to make do with conviction and talent, and woo boy, does she make it sing. Possibly the most subtle masterpiece in comics, in a large way because you don’t see the subtlety for the singlemindedness of the characters’ perspectives and hang-ups. She covers a huge amount of ground, going deep into the social-sexual soil and right out through the upper atmosphere of hope and fantasy, to bring to light what love and care and even what good callousness might bring forth. From a cloned young technician who no longer bears the physical scars of her youth to a transsexual junkie who dies rather than deal, A, A’ deals in heartbreaking dynamics, intense relationships, because all, even the saddest, can drive us towards something beautiful. No tried truism of romance is left unexamined, the most dangerous of them eviscerated, the functional, illuminated, paths are delineated, and possibilities…
10. Maison Ikkoku (Rumiko Takahashi; trans. Gerard Jones)
One of the best Rumiko Takahashi comics of all time, the central romance between a dude who can’t get into college and his recently widowed building manager is enough to put it on this list, because oh hell does this comic sell it, but the smaller, orbiting romances put it over the edge, for their range and understated potency. Understated is a weird word to use with this series, a broad humor comic that embraced slapstick and situational panic on every page, but it’s apt. The balance between lampoon and humanity in Maison Ikkoku is so carefully wrought I didn’t notice there was a balance until I tried to articulate, years back, why I felt so sentimental over it. It makes you laugh big enough the realness can get inside while you’re distracted, and yet, that never undercuts the hilarity.
11. Troubled Souls (Garth Ennis; John McCrea)
Garth Ennis knows how to write romance, and how to write about people completely, every step of the way fucking up their chances at maintaining a romance. But he did it in Troubled Souls first, and I think he may’ve done it best there, as well. It’s the story of a guy who gets roped into terrorist actions during the Troubles, but it’s that’s the surface plot, the real motivation for most of his actions are his desire to impress a certain woman and then, repeatedly, to stop being unworthy of her, frustrating her, making a monster of himself, and in general to stop mucking it up. It’s a good romantic story that makes you sympathize with one and fall in love with the other, but when it gets you to crush on both, as Troubled Souls does for me, that’s something magic.
12. Oh! My Goddess! (Kosuke Fujishima)
Oh! My Goddess! should annoy me. It’s central romance is exasperatingly chaste, with both characters attempting desperately to be these paragons of virtue to the point of absurdity, and the side characters frequently overtake the narrative and are the only reason the comic moves forward at all. It’s a comic about a guy calling a 1-900 number and getting an actual goddess fired off to him over the phone; so, a porno plot-starter that’s generated over twenty years of excessively non-sexualized comics. But, that’s how he’s made it work; every side character and every reader want to push the two together and make’em kiss. If genre isn’t in the actuation of the thing, romance isn’t in the hook up, horror isn’t in the scary part, but is sold by the delays to such actuation, then Oh! My Goddess! is formula perfection.
13. Kiss the Girls (Belle Hiver/Mel)
A wonderful strip, in each take, though the first, more sitcom version remains my favorite: the simple story of a woman, her girlfriend, her family, and aaaaaaaaangst, wavering between diary window realism and ensemble of eccentrics arch comedy. It reads as if the author were embarrassed by the earnest pleasures and had to cover it with glib, and that makes it more endearing, that layer of artifice or disaffectedness that cannot hold, like unemotional plastic wrap over a hot dish that keeps melting it away. Kiss the Girls has been started at least twice, in significantly different style, and to my knowledge no version has been complete. Far as I can tell (since earlier versions appear to have been wiped from the web), the author also used at least two different pen names. I wish it would come back.
14. “In the Afternoon” (Kita Konno)
There is no official English language release for this short comic, but Lililicious have done a translation. It’s beautiful. It’s short, it’s incredibly sweet, it has references to various Audrey Hepburn movies.
Plica, My Faith in Frankie, School Bites, 9 Chickweed Lane, the Stormwatch collection Finer Worlds, Blankets, Jack Kirby’s Mister Miracle, Preacher, Ouran High School, and many Peter Milligan comics did not make it on this list, nor did any Archie comics, because I have a terrible time trying to separate those out and figure which ones are genuinely superior to others, but those are also worth seeking out and reading with someone cute on your shoulder. As are Colleen Coover’s Small Favors and Adam Warren’s Empowered. And… and… and… let’s be glad I didn’t make this a list of fifty comics, yes?