Love in the Age of Beauty

Project: Romantic

In his short introduction, editor/designer Chris Pitzer dubs this third and final edition of AdHouse Books’ signature anthology the latest step in an “egocentric thematic progression” that tracks his own interests as a young man. Essentially, the 2003 Project: Telstar reflects a young child’s interest in sci-fi television shows, 2005’s Project: Superior signifies that now-reading child’s introduction to superhero comics, and Project: Romantic marks the lad’s blooming interest in matters of interpersonal intimacy.

It’s interesting that Pitzer analogizes these books to the growth of essentially himself as a child; it’s both telling about his personal attitudes toward AdHouse as an entity, a publisher releasing a house anthology that loosely tracks his own life interests, and the Project series as books, all dedicated to visually attractive short works that generally choose to err on the side of the immediate splendor of craft - there is much splendor of drawing and color here, and a distinct absence of complexity or depth to the storytelling. At times, reading the thing like eating a whole bag of those Valentine’s heart candies with ‘I Love You’ messages on it, though a few flavors do stand out.

The book gets off to a decent start with a short essay by Bill Boichel (layout by Jim Rugg) that complimentarily tracks the theme of Pitzer’s essay: romance comics as the onset of maturity. It’s a short but snappy introduction, deeming the genre one of the first to openly flaunt the adult potential of the comics form in the US. One wishes some of Boichel’s ideas had a bit more space to expand - I liked his strong inference that the ‘maturity’ brought to the superhero genre by Marvel in the ‘60s was essentially a cross-pollination of superhero tropes with pre-existent devices of the romance genre (“Thor, during the first few years at least, was very much a nurse/doctor romance comic interspersed with Thor making appearances that could be construed as Dr. Blake’s daydreams”), and I’d love to see a much bigger piece on Charlton’s ‘70s romance titles and their aesthetic connection to the shoujo zeitgeist in Japan. The piece seems almost cut off at the end, turning its focus to independent comics at the outbreak of the underground era - but then, I suppose the rest of the book is meant to serve as the conclusion.

The stories in Project: Romantic can be generally divided into three categories: Cute, Sad, and Funny, with some overlap between them. By and large, I found the Funny ones to be the best, which I’m sure is some reflection of personal bias - if things are going to stay simple and glossy, as they do here, laughter is the most direct road to my heart. And so there’s some good contributions by some talents I’m not familiar with - maybe my favorite story was something titled The Fart of Love by Robert Goodin, a faux-reprint from “True Tales of Christian Romance #16” concerning a woman who comes to associate her boyfriend’s brilliance with oral sex to his uncontrollable flatulence. As low-brow as one can get, but it has an appealingly sickly brownish color palette and lots of goofy laughs -- I even liked the thoroughly out-of-date reference to John Ashcroft and his G-Men -- and I’ll generally take that over vignettes of mugging adorability or weepy loss (and there are a few), no matter how craftily drawn. None of it’s particularly bad, mind you, but it’s a breath of fresh air when Junko Mizuno shows up for four pages of devout gluttony and gutted hogs and passion-drenched sex 'n birth images - it’s poisoned cuteness with the awesome force of myth, something deeper than almost anyone else brings to the table.

Also of note are a typically dreamy, low-key Hope Larson piece, a nice Choose Your Own Adventure type Maris Wicks story that doubles as a recurring feature, Josh Cotter’s wry application of well-observed human romantic foibles to uncomfortably realist animals, t edward bak’s entirely unsentimental vignette of teenage lust/excitement (great dialogue), and Rian Hughes’ suite of ravishing wordless romantic vistas, a great argument for just letting the reader fall into pictures that speaks more in five pages than, say, Scott Morse’s over an extravagant twenty-six. Aaron Renier of Spiral-Bound sports a style I’ve not seen from him before, strongly reminiscent of Craig Thompson though a certain quiet Ron Regé, Jr. influence continues to shine through.

There's a lot of stuff in there - you'll probably find something to like in its 256 full-color pages, and at $19.95 it's a reasonable deal. Just know where the book's attentions are, and what it's aiming to be capable of. Really, though, if you've read the first two books, this child's path isn't all that tough to chart.