In Print: ripping on romance | Calendar | Chicago Reader

In Print: ripping on romance 

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Steve Darnall is flipping through Girls' Love Stories, a romance comic book from the mid-60s. "Look at this!" he says, pointing to a scene in which a young woman is being interviewed by a potential employer who sternly tells her that women usually fail in business because they quit to get married. Convincing him that her career comes first, she gets the job and then, of course, ends up falling in love. In the final scene, the woman, out of a job, snuggling tearfully in the arms of a handsome junior executive, sobs, "Oh, darling! You're right. The real failure is losing you."

Darnall grins. "You just smack your head....These stories were written by 40-year-old men, and the ultimate message is women, feel free to sublimate your career." But, he says, "they are funny--if you read them in a very cynical, ironic kind of way."

That's the attitude Darnall takes as he combs them for ideas for his own book, a darkly funny send-up of romance comics called Empty Love Stories. An annual publication--though a year and a half passed between issues one and two, the second released in August--Empty Love Stories looks and reads a lot like romance comic books, a genre from the 50s and 60s that was killed off by superheroes. Darnall's protagonists are always lonely people, mostly women, who look for love in all the wrong places--and find it. They imitate the genre's syrupy dialogue, and their stories are narrated in the same breathless prose.

But there's always a twist. In "One of the Walking Dead," Darnall lampoons the old chestnut of lovers from two different worlds coping with a disapproving society: "There were never two people less likely to come together than Mitch Allen and myself. We weren't only from opposite sides of the tracks; we were from opposite sides of the GRAVE!" An illustration shows a woman in a strapless gown and elbow-length gloves slow dancing with a decaying corpse, flesh falling from his face, flies buzzing around his head.

"White Trash Romance" tells the story of a woman who's abused by her husband--mocking the genre's sentimentalized masochism: "When Bobby threw that punch, I knew he was saying the words that he was normally too inarticulate to say...I knew, in his own way, he was saying 'I love you.'" The story ends with the stereotypical romantic reconciliation, the woman hanging on the man, tears streaming from her eyes as she thinks, "Oh, Bobby--you're the best cousin a girl could ask for!"

Darnall got the inspiration for that story from his experiences at college in San Antonio during the early 80s. "At the time I lived down the street from a couple who every few weeks you'd see the flashing of police lights and hear the man yelling at the cops and the cops yelling back, 'You going to be civil? You going to be civil?' And the man would shout back, 'Get your fucking hands off me!' And then the woman, in tears, would cry out, 'Don't take him! Don't take him!'"

Darnall started writing comics after he took a job at a comic book store in the Loop. Comic book artist Alex Ross, then an art director at Leo Burnett, would often visit the store and eventually struck up a friendship with Darnall. The two worked on early versions of what would later evolve into Ross's successful series "Marvels," which retold the stories of Marvel superheros from the standpoint of a regular Joe reporter. When Ross sold the idea to Marvel, Darnall turned down the chance to write the final draft of the story--he was more interested in the burgeoning world of independent comics. "Still, I feel like the guy at Decca who turned down the Beatles," he says.

In 1992 Darnall took a job at a now defunct comic book journal called Hero Illustrated and while there developed the idea for Empty Love Stories. "My first slogan was: 'Why do fools fall in love? So other fools can ridicule them.'" He sent out proposals to a number of publishers, and eventually Slave Labor Graphics, a small company in San Jose, California, picked up the book. The first issue hit the stand in November 1994.

"Growing up my favorite writers were S.J. Perelman and P.G. Wodehouse, Bob and Ray, and Stan Freberg. Comics don't have an S.J. Perelman yet or a P.G. Wodehouse. Comic books are still a comparatively young art--two, maybe three generations old. So there is still room for someone to come into the field and do something really extraordinary."

Darnall will be signing copies of Empty Love Stories and discussing his work Wednesday at 7:30 at Barbara's Bookstore, 1350 N. Wells. Call 312-642-5044.

--JACK HELBIG

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Steve Darnall by Nathan Mandell; cover and panel of "Empty Love Stories" comic.

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