Romance is a part of every day life, but in comic books ... not so much.
Someone is looking to change that.
Last month former DC editor (and Newsarama alum) Janelle Asselin announced a new romance anthology titled Fresh Romance that’s she’s publishing through her new company, Rosy Press. This digital comics magazine is due out in May, with it already breaking through its $28,000 Kickstarter goal just a week into its campaign.
With their familar melodramatic covers, the notion of romance comic books might ring a nostalgic and slightly anachronistic note in reader’s minds, but Fresh Romance is looking to update those antiquated perceptions and rebrand romance comics as a viable genre. From Outlander to The Fault in Our Stars, there's no shortage of romance fiction on bookshelves, televsion or movie theaters, and Asselin wants that to be the case in comics too.
“I told all of the creators that I wanted something that was in between the classic romance comics of the 50s and 60s and the modern romance novels in stores today,” says Asselin. “Other than that, I left it up to them exactly what that meant for their individual stories. Oh, and I told them that sex is allowed and encouraged as a natural part of romance, but that we should avoid shots of penetration or bodily fluids. That note was usually met with some amusement.”
Asselin describes Fresh Romance as thoroughly modern and mature and intended for all adult readers, but she also knows where her bread will be buttered.
“While I want everyone (well, every adult) to feel comfortable reading Fresh Romance, our typical reader will be women aged 18-35,” says the editor. “That’s a growing audience in comics and an audience that romance novels really appeal to. It’s also an audience that’s too often underserved by the comics industry.”
Kate Leth says her story, “School Spirits,” in Fresh Romance was a chance to write a teen drama but focus it on an under-represented facet previously in romance comics.
“She was and is very supportive of doing a story focused around a queer couple,” says Leth, “so I wanted to take a chance and tackle all those teen dramas I love with the kind of relationship we rarely see in them.”
Leth is working with artist Arielle Jovellanous on "School Spirits," with Fresh Romance #1 also containing a Regency-era romance by Sarah Vaughn and Sarah Winifred Searle as well as barista-centered story by novelist Sarah Kuhn and artist Sally Jane Thompson. Asselin said that Fresh Romance all started with the writers, whom she approached individually without doing a ‘cattle call’ style approach at recruiting talent.
“I didn’t want to put out a call for teams of contributors because I wanted to operate quietly during the set-up phase,” says Asselin. “Everyone I contacted had to sign a non-disclosure agreement so that the word didn’t get out early. So I started by getting in touch with writers that I thought might be interested, and once we had their story ideas, we started reaching out to artists that fit the kind of stories they wanted to tell. After the artists were on board, we nailed down the stories and moved into scripting and all that. “
Writer Sarah Kuhn is making her comics debut with Fresh Romance, but tells Newsarama that she jumped at the chance to be involved, revealing that her one of her first interactions with Asselin was over their shared love for romance fiction.
“I’ve always wanted to write comics! I’m so happy Janelle asked me to and I really love her vision for this project,” says Kuhn. “I’m a lifelong fan of the medium in that ‘scary room dedicated entirely to longboxes’ kind of way. Most of my prose writing includes some kind of nod to comics—my rom-com novella, One Con Glory, is set at a comic book convention and my forthcoming novel, Heroine Complex, is all about snarky superheroines. And my work usually contains majorly swoony romantic elements as well (those are often my favorite parts to write), so this is an awesome chance to write a really fun story that brings romance and comics together in a whole new way for me.”
Asselin says that she “loves” pairing writers and artists together, and realizes it’s hard for comics newcomers to find collaborators. That being said, she’ll also be open to “more complete teams” pitching for future issues of Fresh Romance.
Although some publishers pay little to nothing for anthology stories or require some time of ownership stake, Asselin tells Newsarama that all of the Fresh Romance stories are fully creator-owned and that all the contributors are paid within 30 days of completion of their stories – with some already being paid for work in the anthology. Although Fresh Romance is seeking funds via Kickstarter, Asselin has started the publication – and Rosy Press – with her own funds.
“No one has to wait until the Kickstarter campaign concludes or anything,” says Asselin. “Everyone also gets royalties, and folks will get raises if we hit certain milestones above and beyond our goal. I’m really, really committed to paying people and to trying to add another venue where cartoonists can actually get paid to do the work they love.”
For Sarah Vaughn, Fresh Romance was a chance for her to dive deep into the romance genre with a story she’d been working on previous as a prose novel that she found fit the comics medium perfectly.
“’Ruined’ is a serialized story about an arranged marriage in early 19th century England,” says Vaughn. “Catherine and Andrew marry as virtual strangers, and struggle to create a life together while dealing with their own issues. Catherine is still reconciling herself to her past as Andrew is burdened with bringing his family out of financial disaster.”
Asselin, who has worked as a comics editor for DC Comics and several other publishers, has a degree in Publishing and didn’t approach the launch of a new business lightly.
“I’ve been thinking about launching my own company for a long time, but after finally deciding to commit to the freelance lifestyle, it made sense to take the plunge towards launching my own company this year,” says Asselin. “I wanted to start with something manageable that also offered a range of comics for readers, and so an anthology made sense - but I also wanted something that was ongoing. Thus, the monthly comics anthology magazine that is Fresh Romance was born.”
Although the American comic book industry was born out of anthology titles and the romance genre was, for a time, the industry’s most popular genre, there’s a dearth of both on comic shelves today with those books being a rare special project or second-tier title. Asselin has been on both sides of the desk in this regard, as a fan, a writer covering the industry and working inside the industry at DC Comics, and has a good answer why modern romance comics are so rare.
“I think it was a big risk for a long time - in years past, most publishers seemed to feel unsure that there were any women reading their comics at all, so to do a genre like romance that has traditionally been aimed at women wouldn’t seem viable,” says the editor. “Now, of course, there have always been women in comics, trying to make a place for more women in comics, but unfortunately it’s only been in the last year or so that most publishers seem to really embrace that women are a viable audience.”
When asked what Rosy Press and Fresh Romance has that other publishers don’t in terms of attracting a sufficient audience for a modern romance comic, Asselin says her company’s small size is a big advantage.
“A willingness to hire women, a small press’s ability to pivot quickly to hit trends in publishing, and a willingness to reach out to an audience that may not come easily? I mean, there’s a lot that major comics publishers have that we don’t have (like, for instance, a large operating budget), but there’s also a lot of baggage that comes with working at or publishing through some of the larger publishers,” Asselin says. “I’ve had people - decision-making people in comics - laugh at me for getting my Masters in Publishing. I’ve taken this business seriously from the day I started as a pro, and I’ve taken researching our audience seriously too. But like any new audience, it takes extra effort. Rosy Press is willing to put in that effort because we all feel that expanding the comics audience is important.”
For Kate Leth, she says the romance genre has been overdue for a comeback, rooted in the classic romance comics but also speaking to modern audiences and romance in other mediums.
“I love the classic, trashy, ridiculous stories from Young Romance, and I grew up on Pals & Gals,” Leth says. “There aren't many comics focusing specifically on romance and relationships in a fun, sexy, exciting way these days, and I'm very excited to be contributing to bringing that back. The interest and support is obviously there; I really hope it spawns more projects like it.”
In addition to the comic creators with work inside Fresh Romance’s debut issue, Asselin has also used her address book to enlist some mainstream comics A-Listers such as Chris Burnham, Gene Ha, Dustin Nguyen, Jeremy Haun and Cameron Stewart for some Kickstarter rewards.
“I called in all of my blackmail… *ahem*… I mean, I reached out to friendly folks that I thought might be interested in chipping in and offered to throw some money at them if they’d help out with the Kickstarter,” Asselin says. “They were all super gracious and supportive. I wouldn’t rule out seeing some of them do work for Fresh Romance down the line, although most of them are intensely busy all the time.”
Although Fresh Romance broke through her Kickstarter goal just a few days into the campaign, Asselin has lined up a number of stretch goals – with the hope of expanding th project into an ongoing series.
“We have a bunch of stretch goals lined up, but I think the basic thing for backers to keep in mind is that we want to be ongoing, which means every bit above our goal that we get will help make that happen,” says Asselin. “Whether that’s $1000 over our goal or more, every little bit helps make Fresh Romance an ongoing magazine.”