In the world of comics, it seems there are far too few examples of romantic relationships. Maybe it’s because love is a complex and vexing thing to try to explain in just 24 pages or maybe it’s because readers would rather read about heroes, villains, and fighting. Either way, love stories are few and far between.
Over the years, there have been plenty of attempts — most notably Superman and Lois Lane — but few serious books have hung their hats on romance. Sure, some have teased romance, but it always seems to be a fling on the side, secondary to the main story. Think about also Warren Ellis‘s Apollo and Midnighter from The Authority, as well as Tulip O’Hare’s attachment to Jesse Cutter in Garth Ennis‘s Preacher. Black Cat went looking for love with Spider-Man, but it didn’t really work out. And while the Thing’s romance with Alicia Masters gives hope to everyone that love is more than skin deep, these passions of the heart only lasted a few panels, at best.
For the most part, the floppies have never risen beyond a passing flirtation with romance, which makes it hard to find a good comic love story to give on Valentine’s Day. However, graphic novels offer more hope, since their authors are often unrestrained by a long story arc and can focus solely on a single tale. Books that come to mind include a couple of gems by Jamie S. Rich, who is responsible for 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, which tells the nonlinear story of a young couple’s relationship from disastrous first date to romance, and A Boy and a Girl, where two people find love in a Bladerunner-like world. For those looking for something a little more, ahem, adult, check out SEX Volume 1: The Summer of Hard, which is worth mentioning because the writer is Joe Casey. It’s essentially a superhero tale done with mature scenes. Not for kids!
But when it comes to love and romance in comics, there are really two titles that spring to mind. The first is the Scott Pilgrim series by Bryan Lee O’Malley. You’re likely aware of the title because of the 2010 film, but if you haven’t read the comics, you really should. Printed in stark black and white, Scott Pilgrim’s story is bigger on the page than on the silver screen. The comic weaves a more complex and detailed saga as Scott tries to win Ramona’s love by proving himself against Ramona’s seven evil exes. Character development is richer, the jokes are more plentiful, and the fight sequences bigger and better. All told, there are more than 1200 pages in six volumes, which might sound overwhelming but it’s a story that moves very quickly, while still being engrossing and sentimental. It’s packed with language and references that are very pop culture, but its themes of love lost, the awkwardness of new love, and overcoming the memory of previous lovers are timeless.
Still, the romantic comic I like best is Craig Thompson’s Blankets. I like most everything Thompson does; he has a distinctly lyrical quality to his work. Thompson recently touched on love in the ambitious and sweeping Habibi, which is impressive, to be sure, but not really a romantic book to give on Valentine’s Day. Rather, the Harvey and Eisner-winning book, Blankets, is emotionally-charged, sensitive, and, above all else, tender. It does an outstanding job of capturing the essence of first love, which is considerable since, for many of us, first loves hold significant memories for our entire lives.
The graphic novel is a memoir for Thompson, beginning as a lonely and clumsy boy in a strongly religious home and progressing through teenage years to adulthood. Along the way, Thompson meets and falls in love with Raina and the panels where he describes their love have to be seen to be appreciated. Through his illustrations and prose, Thompson describes the confusion and obsession of falling in love for the first time so well, you’ll likely travel through time to the memories of your first love too.
The comic is a strong coming-of-age story that encompasses all aspects of a relationship and presents them with an honesty very seldom seen not just in comics, but anywhere. At times, you’ll hurt for Thompson, at others, you’ll cheer for him. Be warned, though. There is so much emotion in this book, it’s almost guaranteed that at least once you’ll find yourself wiping a tear away before turning the page.
Any of these comics are great gifts for your Valentine this week. Or, you could pull out a clean sheet of paper and draw your own love story — that’s a gift anyone would enjoy receiving.