Once upon a time, romance was the beating heart of comics. In ‘40s and ‘50s, the likes of Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, John Romita Sr, Wally Wood and Alex Toth all worked on romance comics, which were the warm lifeblood of comics at least as much as superheroes.
These days, though, they’re few and far between, with the one exception being February, when a flutter of romance comics tend to land on shelves in time for Valentine’s Day -- and among this year’s crop you’ll find Twisted Romance #1, the start of a new Image Comics anthology series launched by Alex de Campi.
The first issue contains three stories: The lead, de Campi and Katie Skelly’s “Old Flames," which I don’t want to give away too much about, as discovering its premise is a large part of the fun; Megan Cubed’s "Leather & Lace," a prose short story; and Sarah Horrock’s "Red Medusa," about which I can’t tell you too much, because I’m not exactly sure what happens in it. Suffice to say, they all have a supernatural bent as much as a romantic one.
Let’s dive deeper into these stories, in the order they’re presented. “Old Flames” introduces us to Misha, head of Heartbreak Incorporated. It’s a business dedicated to tearing people apart, we’re told, and Misha is tasked with separating a woman’s husband and his mistress.
With a longer page count than your average issue of comics, “Old Flames” takes up the bulk of Twisted Romance #1. The story takes its time unfurling its more uncanny elements: a panel of Misha’s sewn-up chest, a few enigmatic snatches of dialogue, a flashback from its ‘70s setting to Nazi Germany where Misha somehow looks exactly the same.
Skelly’s cartooning has a deceptive simplicity, lending “Old Flames” the air of a slice-of-life comic, but there’s also an eerie edge to her characters. It’s a contrast she has played with to great effect in My Pretty Vampire, and it’s well suited to this comic’s supernatural side. The one weak spot is when it comes to depicting violence -- which, without spoiling anything, is where this story ends. There’s not much impact to Kelly’s bloodshed, and that contributes to an ending which feels a little sudden and anti-climactic for a story that for the most part moves at a leisurely pace.
“Old Flames” might be the lead story, but it’s “Leather & Lace” -- although it’s only eight pages long, and carefully positioned in the middle of the comic -- which ends up feeling like Twisted Romance’s main attraction. That’s somewhat inevitable when including a prose story in a comics anthology. The sheer volume of words you can fit on a page means more information, more time spent reading, and that gives it a weird gravity.
It’s also the one straightforward romance story in this issue. “Leather & Lace” is a tale of unrequited love between two monster hunters -- “slim, willowy vampire” Dorian and “tall Southern boy” Cash. It manages to squeeze in action, suspense and sensual descriptions of Cash’s body that make it easy, even for a straight boy like me, to understand why Dorian wants to be with him. Cubed gets you invested in these characters quickly, and keeps you guessing throughout. Essentially, it’s everything you could want from a romance short story.
Jumping back to comics for the final short, eight pages prove a very different proposition for “Red Medusa”. Horrocks steers into this, sticking fairly consistently to a low panel count and crafting something that’s more vignette than narrative. Horrocks’ art -- which has the crackling energy of Frank Miller or Bill Sienkiewicz at their loosest -- takes center stage, delivering a string of arresting images while the narration talks of abandonment and vengeance.
It ends with a kiss -- at least, I think it does, it can be hard to tell exactly what is happening -- but you’d be hard pressed to classify “Red Medusa” as a love story.
Which raises the question: given how few and far between romance comics are these days, does Twisted Romance actually do much to change that?
These are stories of the supernatural as much as romance. “Old Flames” and “Red Medusa” touch on themes of heartbreak -- at least as essential a part of the genre as successful love -- but it’s not the focus in either case. “Leather & Lace” was the only story to give me any of those butterflies in my tummy, or lower, and that’s flatly not a comic. Twisted Romance #1 might be out in time for Valentine’s, but it’d be just a good a fit in October, in time for Halloween.