There was a time — back when a gallon of gas would set you back a quarter and no one gave a second thought about smoking during pregnancy — when romance comics targeted at young women readers constituted a significant share of the funnybook market.
As popular as romance comics were in their time, capsule these tales of chaste CCA-approved passion have not aged well at all. Circumscribed by the prevailing patriarchal gender roles and repressive social mores of the post-WW2 era, angina their thematic content comes off as either quaintly depressing or outright offensive to readers who came of age on the other side of the Sexual and/or Feminist Revolution divide.
Where teen humor comics could skate through the social upheavals of late 1960s and early 1970s by retrofitting their cornball formula with nods to contemporary fads and fashions, buy information pills the comic industry’s restrictions on content made it difficult to keep up with changing expectations for romantic melodrama.
The steamy (yet tame) bedhopping antics employed by televised soap operas during the Me Decade was off the table as far as mass-marketed comics were concerned, while the overall financial-creative retrenchment of the industry as a whole placed a economically sensible (for the short term, at least) emphasis on proven sellers — which is to say “superhero stuff.”
Yet as much as the financial logistics favored power fantasies oriented toward young males, there still remained a largely untapped audience for romantic material as evinced in the cross-gender success of New Teen Titans, X-Men, Legion of Super-Heroes and other superheroic spins on the soap operatic formula (and that’s not even mentioning the many indie and small press books which worked in similar thematic veins).
The notion that this was a merely beneficial niche market was decisively exploded during the “manga boom” which took place at the turn of the millennium, in which a new “mainstream” with a predominantly female readership and heavy focus on romance-oriented fare became a force to be reckoned with.
Given the atrophied and desperate state of the comics biz at the time of the manga bubble, it isn’t surprising that the the same publishers who’d written off young women as a viable audience would rush to grab a slice of the rich revenue stream — either by establishing a manga reprint wing of their own, tapping the Western talent pool for similarly themed material, or by setting loose a ham-fisted in-house auteur to scrawl his own incomprehensibly awful take on the venerable romance comic formula…
…as Marvel did when it unleashed Trouble on an utterly baffled world.
Many of the comics and characters I’ve discussed in this column over the past thirty-two months have been horrible in hindsight — meaning that they might not have set the world on fire when they originally debuted, but did fit into the context of their respective eras. Daddy Longlegs or Looker, for example, were certainly laughable but conformed to audience expectations where lousy, one-note supervillains and baroquely stupid superheroes were already common enough sights.
No one in 2003, on the other hand, had any idea what the hell was up with the Millar-written, Dodson-illustrated, Jemas-approved foray into uncalled for insanity. Even folks who had long advocated for stepping outside the superhero genre box were bewildered when the five issue miniseries was announced and the inexplicably icky photocover images began making the rounds of the comics internet.
The above historical context only goes so far; the very existence of Trouble defies all attempts at explanation.
So what’s it all about, then? That I wish I did not unequivocably abstain from the demon drink? That I should have listened to the little voice in my head and picked Guardsman for this week’s feature instead?
What’s that? Not clear enough for you? Okay, then, time to nut up and face the existential funeral dirge.
Trouble is the tale of two sexy sisters and two hunky brothers who live in some vaguely retro era where 1970s muscle cars coexist with Beverly Hills: 90210 hairstyles. May is the older, promiscuous sister and Mary is the slightly younger, slightly less promiscuous one.
Y’see, a fortune teller once informed the girls that May would never know the joys of motherhood while Mary would be rocking the maternal vibe before she hit her twentieth birthday. As oraclular charlatans run only slightly behind “abstinence only” programs in terms of effective sex education, the ladies wisely base their ritual mating habits upon such pearls of carny devlivered wisdom.
The girls go off to summber jobs at an upstate resort, where they encounter a similarly employed pair of beefcake bros. May immediately goes hot and heavy with Ben, while Mary holds off on doing the same with Richard…who consoles himself by hopping in the sack with May.
As a consequence, May gets knocked up and Mary — whose faith in contraception via palm reading has been forever shattered — decides to sleep with Richard after all. The distraught May moves into a trailer park with an abusive porn-stachio gentlemen, but is rescued by a grudgingly forgiving Mary who has a GRAND PLAN to fix everything…
…by claming May’s baby as her own and using it to force Richard into marrying her, thus vindicating the bullshit prediction which set all this nonsense in motion to begin with.
And here I thought old-timey romance comics had fucked up messages about love and relationship dynamics.
Astute readers may have noticed a certain synchronicity between the names of the players in this turgid tale of sposual entrapment and those of some supporting cast menbers in one of Marvel’s most popular and beloved fanchises. Chalk that one up to the slack-jawed faux cleverness for which writer Mark Millar has turned into an astoundingly bankable commodity…and the editorial coyness of a publisher seeking to hedge its risky bets with an implied nod to the Great Idiot God of Continuity.
(But, hey, I guess the world needed to know that Uncle Ben’s mansauce has low motility.)
Vintage romance comics may not have been the most enlightened works on the stands of old, but they were relatively successful products of their time. Trouble — which reguritated the old tropes for a new era of steaming, bile-drenched grottiness — was no less problematic in its utterly fucked up facsimile of a message, but wore its ugliness with the leering smirk of a self-satisfied ignoramus.
Unctuous, pandering, and entirely void of any redeeming features whatsoever, Trouble is a Sid Davis film minus the moral — thus making it an ideal resident for the bus depot rest room known as Nobody’s Favorites.