In my interview with Jeff Lemire, I asked the author behind The Essex County Trilogy, The Underwater Welder, and Green Arrow what inspired his upcoming romance maxiseries, Trillium. While I expected to hear anecdotes about Lemire’s personal history shooting and receiving cupid’s arrows, what he offered was far more practical: there simply aren’t many outstanding romance comics. “I feel like there honestly haven’t been many great love stories done in comics,” Lemire explained. “Most genres have been mastered in one form or the other. There have been some really great crime comics, sci-fi comics, and superhero comics. But it’s hard to think of truly great love stories that have been done in comics.”
The semantics of “comic book love story” can be a tad ambiguous. Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s recent Young Romance collection showed that romance comics were a profitable, marketable commodity half a century ago and Marvel is even prepping their own romance line set to release in June. There might not be many de facto romance comics currently published with melodramatic word bubble covers and soap opera teasers, but that doesn’t mean that love isn’t a vital ingredient in some of the best works released over recent years.
Though we’re crazy excited for the comic industry’s future plans for this neglected genre, we only had to take a quick glimpse at our bookshelves and long boxes to find some of the most 3-dimensional, vivid, and memorable couplings in popular media. Since legacy couples like Peter Parker & Mary Jane Watson, Archie & Veronica, etc. have already been immortalized, this list focuses exclusively on modern characters created during the past few decades. Let us know your favorites in the comments below.
Writer & Artist: Jeff Smith
For those who haven’t read this adrenaline-gushing sci-fi opus, RASL is an acronym for Romance at the Speed of Light, though “romance” might be too optimistic to describe the volatile relationship between scientists Rob and Maya. While working on a risky military project, Rob has a steamy affair with his partner’s wife before tattooing her name on his bicep and leaving his job to hijack priceless art in parallel dimensions. As can only happen in physics-bending noir, Rob finds other versions of Maya in his reality-hopping journeys and continues his fling across time and space. (Is it cheating if you seduce your best friend’s wife in a parallel dimension? Is it cheating if you’re cheating on your best friend’s wife with her parallel dimension variant? Discuss amongst yourselves). The real truth behind this pair is far more insidious than initially presented, but what Rob and Maya lack in stability, they more than make up for with a chemistry that packs more electricity than a Tesla current.
Let’s not be too judgmental toward former psychiatrist Harleen Quinzel. We’ve all dated guys and gals who we probably shouldn’t have, but those folks probably weren’t sociopathic crime lords who attempt to poison entire cities with toxic laughing gas. Probably. Dr. Quinzel entered an incredibly unethical doctor-patient relationship with The Joker when she abandoned the Hippocratic Oath to help her new beau rob banks, terrorize Gotham City, and hit people on the head with comically large hammers. Created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm in the legendary Batman: The Animated Series, Harley Quinn continues her bizarre courtship in comic books. If there’s a lesson to be learned, it’s the value of compromise and fidelity: Harley Quinn still sticks by her puddin’ despite the fact that he wears his severed face like a decomposing Kabuki Mask. Hey, the heart wants what the heart wants.
Y: The Last Man
Writer/Artist: Brian K. Vaughan/Pia Guerra
As the last human male on the planet, Yorick Brown isn’t without options. Though he has decent chances with any given member of the man-stricken human race, Brown has a long-distance relationship with his girlfriend in Australia, a fling with a cute blonde who later becomes his baby mama, and an S&M Queen who whips out some incredibly tough love. Brown only realizes his true affections at the end of Y: The Last Man’s 60-issue journey, when a dream reveals that his personal government escort Agent 355 probably wants to do more than just guard his body. The relationship never reaches fruition as 355 sacrifices her life against a suicidal militant, but the romance lies half-buried within the duo’s witty banter and suppressed desire (contrast 355’s stoic hero theatrics against Brown’s whiny Gen Y sensitivity — it’s gender role anarchy!). Though it’s not overt, Brian K. Vaughan show-don’t-tell characterization works wonders for this unique rapport.
Writer/Artist: Warren Ellis/Bryan Hitch/Various
So an age-old debate asks whether Superman should pair up with model citizen Lois Lane or demigod princess Wonder Woman. The real answer? Neither. Warren Ellis provides his own take through the adventures of Apollo and Midnighter, two thinly-veiled analogues of Superman and Batman who not only serve as complete world-saving badasses, but also as an exemplary, caring gay couple. This pair was the standout of iconic books like Stormwatch and The Authority, where they married and adopted a magical toddler who’s also the Spirit of the 21st Century. If patrolling the darkest corners of reality wasn’t enough, the duo also snagged two GLAAD Media Award nominations in 2003 and 2004.
Writer/Artist: Bill Willingham/Mark Buckingham
The Big Bad Wolf and Snow White have worked through their differences to become the nexus of Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham’s postmodern fairy tale epic, Fables. Once a brooding, enigmatic grump, Bigby Wolf retired from stalking grandmas and pigs to raise a litter of magical human-wolf hybrids with the fairest princess of them all. There’s a lot that could be mentioned about this married powerhouse (we’re on issue #128 for those counting), including their cathartic courtship and parentage of a sentient wind baby, but Bigby and Snow form one of the most mature, stable unions in comics, leaving the drama out of their relationship to focus on the Grimm threats their magical community faces on a daily basis.
Comic: Various Scott Pilgrim Volumes
Writer/Artist: Bryan Lee O’Malley
Unless you’re one of those fictionally-mature individuals who discovers his or her soulmate in middle school, most dates tend to carry a grimoire of past lovers who might come back to haunt you at any moment. Sometimes seven of those exes form an unholy alliance over Craigslist to stop you from dating the love of your life. And one of those guys? He’s a telekinetic vegan. Such are the trials of slacker icon Scott Pilgrim, whose 6-volume series transformed quarter-life crisis love into a postmodern explosion of 8-bit nostalgia and indie rock escapism. Pilgrim’s significant other, Ramona Flowers, isn’t exactly a wish-fulfilling Manic Pixie Dream Girl; she’s indecisive, evasive, complex, and ever-so-slightly cold. But Pilgrim takes this challenge like a true hero, accepting his new lover warts and all. And Ramona lets him. Despite its bombastic fights and lesbian ninjas, Scott Pilgrim presents a surprisingly grounded, realistic relationship between its two enamored leads.
Writer/Artist: Brian K. Vaughan/Fiona Staples
Saga ruffled feathers a few weeks back for including some risque imagery in its latest chapter (come on folks, Saga has always featured weird aliens strutting around in their birthday suits). But the largest engorged organ behind this stunning title is its heart, beautifully exemplified between star-crossed lovers Alana and Marko. The first issue captured the endearing chemistry of its married couple as they gave birth to their first daughter, Hazel, propelling two militias on a cosmic goose chase to capture the new family. Despite vicious bounty-hunters, planet-sized monsters, and vengeful ex-fiances, Marko and Alana show that love perpetually conquers all no matter the suicidal odds. And speaking of unconventional couples, a miniseries starring The Will and The Stalk (the most creepily attractive spider mutant Paste has ever seen) wouldn’t be a terrible idea, either.
Writer & Artist: Craig Thompson
My fellow Paste reviewers gave me some friendly ribbing after I awarded the 2011 reprint of Blankets a Perfect 10, the only time our department had ever done so. In retrospect, Blankets probably isn’t faultless in craft, but it is peerless in passion. Craig Thompson’s autobiographical journey through the teenage onslaught of insecurity, lust, and self-realization is painfully evocative. The story follows a young Thompson as he meets beautiful coed Raina at a Christian Camp, then spends two weeks with her and her family under the pretense of plutonic friendship. Obviously, the two fall in fevered, mind-shattering love in a way only two unaffected high school students can, and therein lies this book’s singularity: Blankets will bring you back there. To that unadulterated, wondrous state of mind where love was a new frontier filled with angels and ecstasy. Those same angels also serve as Thompson’s main conflict, as his fundamentalist upbringing clashes against the groundswell of emotions he feels for his introductory inamorato. It’s real love with real problems. But the innocent delights Raina and Craig provide each other are only marginally greater than those given the thousands of readers who have fallen madly in love with this book.
Writer & Artist: Garth Ennis/Steve Dillon
Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s blasphemous neo-western Preacher is a punch in the face from issue one to 66, but third arc “All in the Family” remains its undeniable high point. Ennis carried his themes of self-empowerment and rebellion over from Hellblazer with greater helpings of depravity and violence, but this chapter stands on the strength of its characters and their growing devotion. Holy man turned cowboy car thief Jesse Custer introduces his main squeeze Tulip to his sociopathic family and the bayou coffin they locked him in for saying bad words. Though the logical course would be to run very far away, Tulip stands by her man and helps him overthrow his kin with the aid of a double-barreled shotgun. While the pair go on to address absurd threats (like, um, God), some of Preacher’s greatest moments are the soft exchanges between its two enraptured warriors, finding peace in each other’s arms in the dwindling moments of their unending war.
Writer & Artist: Craig Thompson
Habibi fundamentally shares the same themes as Craig Thompson’s previous romantic foray, Blankets. Both focus on inaugural love, religious introspection, and how the two inform personal identity, but Habibi is also a meticulously-researched masterwork that could almost pass as a modern Cecil B. DeMille epic. Habibi follows a young prostitute and the orphan she adopts and their relationship’s trajectory through a gritty Middle Eastern faerie tale. Thompson took seven years to produce Habibi, and it shows. Harem prisoner Dodola contemplates her existence through the templates of Islamic faith, but it’s the absence of the young orphan she nurtured back to health that plagues her daily. Ashamed of his sexual impulses for Dodola, that lost orphan, Zam, resigns to life as a Eunuch. Habibi presents an exhausting journey for its characters and readers alike. When (SPOILER ALERT) Dodola and Zam finally unite, it’s a moment of pure joy and catharsis. Though Zam’s new physical alterations leave him unable to form a physical relationship with Dodola, the implicit harmony of their bond requires little more than each other’s company to find perfect happiness.