"Fresh Romance" #1 arrives from Rosy Press, which was founded by Janelle Asselin and launched through a successful Kickstarter campaign. It's a romance anthology, and the first three serial stories debut with one chapter each. Asselin's choice of stories and creative teams shows that she's given consideration to breadth and diversity within the genre. The artists have mature, distinctive styles, and the stories -- "School Spirit," "Ruined" and "The Ruby Equation" -- fall into three distinct sub-genres: the school romance, the historical and the paranormal, respectively.
"School Spirit" by Kate Leth and Arielle Jovellanos focuses on intersecting high school love lines. Jovellanos' art is clean and angular with lots of fun fashion details. Scrurti, Chau and Dezuttii's warm, flat hue combinations make each page pop. The facial expressions are good, especially for Corrine's misty-eyed and delighted response to Malie's note. The only problem is that Justine and Corrine look a little too much alike in facial shape. I had to keep checking their hairstyles and clothing to tell them apart.
The plot has lots of energy and movement in it and plenty of sexual and social tension. Malie makes a strong impression as a fierce and fabulous Queen Bee. The trouble is, there's too much going on with all the different matchups, and the characters seem more motivated by possession than affection or passion. Leth handles the exposition solely through dialogue, but it doesn't ground the reader quickly enough. It's nice that the plot is ambitious and atypical, but it's also confusing. I like how "School Spirit" is an interracial, LGBT-friendly romance, but diversity and originality don't equal an automatic win for the characterization and chemistry. So far, there's no shortage of surprises in "School Spirit," but not enough emotion.
"Ruined" by Sarah Vaughn and Sarah Winifred Searle is a classic Regency romance. Of the three stories, it's by far the most derivative, but this actually works to its advantage. Vaughn and Searle make the most of the groundwork laid by genre conventions and focus their skill on making the details count. A reluctant marriage to a seemingly cold husband is a standard romance plot. Based on the genre tropes, Andrew Davener will almost certainly be the hero, and the marriage will blossom after the initial coldness and a series of misunderstandings.
Vaughn's exposition clues the reader in through a letter, direct conversations and the whispers of the audience at the wedding. These cover the facts, but the real meat of "Ruined" is in the atmosphere and the pathos of Catherine's ruination. Vaughn and Searle do a superb job of showing instead of telling the reader about Catherine's emotions. The dialogue is strong, especially Catherine's father's harsh words. Vaughn makes every word count and wisely gives Searle a lot of space. The first appearance of the groom is stunning because of the tired, chilly look on his face. The beat between the first glimpse and the close-up is perfect. Searle's art also has appropriate clothing choices for the time period, and her subdued color palette works well for the mood and tone.
Out of the three stories, "Ruined" has the strongest hook in its opening chapter. This is partly because less exposition is needed for a story that cleaves more closely to existing tropes, but it's also because Vaughn and Searle are so skilled with pacing and suggesting strong emotions.
The last story, "The Ruby Equation" by Sarah Kuhn and Sally Jane Thompson, has an unusual mix of fantasy and a hipster cast. Technically, it's not really a romance yet, since the main character doesn't have a love line. It's a matchmaker story mixing fantasy and a contemporary setting and is devoid of romantic tension so far. Thompson's art has energy in it, but her pacing and transitions aren't exciting. Worse, Kuhn and Thompson don't generate any reason to invest in the couples in the cafe, and the "math" vs. "chemistry" debate between Ruby and her friend is too superficial to add much to the world-building. Ruby herself comes off as too jaded and competitive to be instantly likable. That said, the ending panel does have some suspense to it, because it promises a look at Ruby's homeworld.
The behind-the-scenes look at the art is a nice extra. I'm torn about the advice column. It's a great idea but, as someone who has intermittently followed all kinds of advice columns from "Savage Love" to "Dear Sugar," I find both the letters and the advice weak. The advice is heartfelt but much too nice, taking too much time to get to the point. Both questions can be answered more simply with that tired line, "He's just not that into you."
I applaud Asselin for reintroducing romance comics in the U.S. market, especially given the obvious popularity of ShÅjo and Josei manga here. "Fresh Romance" is a great addition to the shelves and a solid debut overall, especially if the stories deepen and strengthen in future issues.