Romance Ripped From The Comics
By Raymond M. Lane
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, Feb. 6, 2009
The script stinks.
"No, really, it stinks," concedes Lane Pianta, the 33-year-old College Park director who dreamed up "My Comic Valentine: A Comic Book for the Stage," a tongue-lightly-in-cheek theatrical celebration of the Big Day. It opens Wednesday at Fort Fringe downtown.
"We're using romance comic books from the 1940s and '50s as our script," Pianta says. "They're originals I found at an antique shop. Kind of musty and falling apart. I think they're older than my parents."
And popular for that generation, too, according to David Hajdu, the author of "The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America." Industry figures show that in 1948 alone, more than a billion pulp comic books were sold nationally. Many were adventure, sci-fi and tough-guy yarns, but a significant portion were aimed at female readers, the "weepy readers," as Hajdu calls them.
Pianta and his eight-person cast are tackling such titles as "Darling Love," "Love Diary," "First Love" and "Confessions of Love," all comic books published from 1948 to 1953. These comics are not your "Archie" and "Veronica" variety still popular today, Pianta says, adding, "These old romantic comics were surprisingly direct in their attitude about adults' love life, their concern for romance."
The show promises lots of peppy dialogue, comic book illustrations projected onto the theater walls and the actors in clothes and hairstyles from the period.
A "Hot Number" vignette features Rita, who as a child was so homely that her parents said she looked "like a circus clown." Rita believes she'll never find happiness in love and makes up for it by becoming a "good date" when she gets to college, all lipsticky and poodle-skirted in the arms of strangers.
"I know you think I'm a hussy," she confesses to her best friend, cautioning that, nonetheless, "before this little gal cashes in her chips, she's going to have plenty of fun!"
After a series of encounters with frat boys, she meets Jack of the Clark Kent hair. He falls for her in a blink, and she can't believe it's real. They fight and fall apart, but as the house lights dim, they are entwined in "true love."
Then out pops Annette Greene, a gum-snapping advice columnist who responds to a letter from a young woman asking: "Is there any harm in meeting men in bars?"
Greene lays it out -- "Men never respect girls they meet in bars" -- even as she keeps cracking up on stage.
Slam-bam the show goes, with snappy, page-turning performances, including the actor hawking a $1.98 book that gives the scoop on how to break the ice on a first date and how to say "those little things" when a relationship ripens.
But it's not all funny stuff. "There's compassion and affection for the cartoon men and women wrestling with love on the pages," Pianta says, "as if the illustrators and authors were sincere about the tenderness, the doggone agony of romance."
Does that reflect Pianta's own take on relationships?
"Love will find a way," he says. "It does for everyone. I fell in love with my wife the moment I saw her. It happens."