Originally published at HiLobrow.com on February 14, 2020
Old loves can seem like much happier times in retrospect, and the labors of artist Jack Kirby — best known for defining the superhero form but just as significant for having co-invented romance comics — grow more cherished over time. Supposed commercial failures like his cosmic Fourth World cycle come to be revered as cultural milestones, so it makes sense that the comics he didn’t even get into print are considered lost masterworks.
I for one have been waiting all my life for one of his legendary passion projects. Kirby had been trying to help comics grow up since the 1950s, when he and Joe Simon started a line of books in genres more familiar from grownup pop-media — Westerns, war, police-procedural and romantic soap-opera — for former boys who’d seen battle and former girls who were asserting the importance of their inner life. This venture was ironically swept under by a manufactured political panic over comics being a bad influence on kids. By the end of the ’60s when those kids had grown up to demand more substance in their leaders and more truth in their mass culture, Kirby attempted the “Speak-Out Series” of quasi-journalistic comics addressing social issues, marketed to 18-and-ups, and distributed with “real” magazines instead of on the comicbook racks.
Once again, Kirby was looking beyond the borders of his medium’s frame of reference, like some newspaper cartoon-strip character become self-aware and peeking outside the boxes to the current events right next to him. The self-help era was in bloom and one of Kirby’s responses was a concept fated to be unrequited but fabled for decades thereafter: True-Life Divorce. This was not your parents’ romance comics — but for the generation that would have read it, it was your parents’ story. Regardless of Simon & Kirby’s ill-starred ’50s publishing venture, the Young Romance title they’d started for another imprint in 1947 was a sensation that spawned scores of imitators and kept the comics industry alive. Melodrama would recur as tragedy with True-Life Divorce’s tales of decidedly unromantic middle-age.