This collection of reprints features examples of weird love stories through the lens of traveling carnival life. The lead protagonist in all but one story is a young white carny girl looking for love. This is typical for this dual genre; romances are almost always written from a female perspective and carnival life has made its way into many horror stories because of our cultural fascination with the people who choose to live as roaming “freaks.” This may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but those that love horror and romance comics from the 50’s should definitely pick this one up.
The biggest problem I have with this collection is that, in my opinion, only one of the stories would be considered any kind of a horror; the fact that a carnival is the setting does not inherently make a story “weird” as far as I am concerned. This is not to say that there is no horror involved. Allusions to sexual assault and the dangerous power dynamic between the women and the men who desire them are both very prevalent. Perhaps surprisingly, this is handled fairly well as these moments are seen through the eyes of the women experiencing them making it as painful to read as it should be. That said, it is also doubled down upon in some stories with “Carnival of Love” in particular sticking out. An example of this is when Jeannie’s boss claims to be entitled to know everything about her life and then proceeds to tell her boyfriend what to do without ever asking her what she wants. The story does nothing to show that that behavior is unacceptable. Ultimately, no matter how wild the girls may seem, the stories problematically affirm strict gender roles and could even be triggering for some. Also, as these were written in the 50’s, the suitors are all typical wealthy white men who talk about things like the “Orient” and call carnies the “salt of the earth.” Nothing here is too shocking though and these kinds of things are to be expected. None of these unfortunate snapshots of history completely ruin my enjoyment of the art style or the type of writing common in the era.
For those less familiar with the genre, the issue contains a “Weird-itorial” by Mike Howlett who explains why horror and romance are genres that go together because of their shared themes and emotional responses. While unmentioned, many of the great horror comic stars also did romance comics as well confirming this train of thought. In the end, he flags the huge pre-code artists A.C. Hollingsworth, Bob Forgione, and Bob Powell just in case readers didn’t know who they are. The stories themselves are standard fair. Most of them boil down simple romance stories about two people who live very different lives making them widely relatable. The most unique, and the only one that feels representative of the issue title, is “Spell of Love,” which is featured on the cover. Like the other stories, it has the classic legend at the top of the first page, heavy word balloons and narrative boxes, as well as colorful halftones mixed with garish lighting during intense moments. I particularly love the simple comic short hand such as the dashes between the characters eyes to symbolize serpenta’s hypnotizing abilities. The main plot is typical of the romance genre with love winning out in the end along with the inclusion of the same kind of poetic justice seen in horror comics. Comments like, “To the evil… retribution always comes at last!” somehow fit perfectly right next to “And we’ll be married on Sunday, my darling!”
While nothing is new in this comic series, it contains seven reprints from publishers such as the loosely DC affiliated ACG and Vin Sullivan’s ME making them very worth picking up for fans of that era of comic’s history. One does not have to be a fan to enjoy the stories though as the experience of feeling alone and the fear of being seen as a freak are things that many people can relate to. Regardless of your starting point going into this collection, there certainly is a lot to dig.
(W) Various (A) Various (CA) Al Avison