Nothing is more frustrating to write than a review that falls dead in the middle between praise and dismissal. A comic that fails to summon any sort of strong emotional reaction one way or the other doesn't spark the specific passions, leaving a critic left with simply handpicking words to express mediocrity. However, while I find myself unable to champion or denigrate this book, I can't say that it didn't also impress me in many ways. This book isn't even close to terrible, but its weaknesses do distract from its strengths. Fresh Romance is a new indie attempt at putting a modern spin on the now firmly nostalgic romance comic anthology genre. However, instead of the traditional short one-shot stories, Fresh Romance instead gives us the first chapters of ongoing serials. In some ways this is smart. Anthology writing is tricky, requiring a writer to pull out of their reader some pretty strong emotions in a short amount of time. Accomplishing that with the romance genre, with love and relationships being particularly hard to authentically communicate, is a considerable challenge. Given the space of a serialized story lets the writers stretch their legs out a bit and potentially richly explore relationships with greater detail.
However, the biggest weakness of Fresh Romance is the writing. While capable and never irritating, not one of the stories seems to be tailored for the anthology format. 'School Spirit', about a sexy spider web of high school relationships, feels like it's missing pages, or even whole issues, worth of set up, leaving us trying to decode motivation or even establishing relationship between our various players. 'The Ruby Equation', about a secretly extraterrestrial barista doing double duty as a cupid for human relationships, is cute and creative, but has the least real romantic chemistry. 'Ruined', involving a young Victorian woman about to enter a loveless arranged marriage, is by far the best written, dehumanizing and genuinely tragic.
However, 'Ruined' still shares a strange flaw that carries through all three stories, which is not one has a proper ending for a serial. While all have set up to allow for expansion, every story just ends without a true hook. 'School Spirit' didn't give me enough information to understand where the story was going, 'Ruby Equation' sets up a great idea for a continuing story but then ends a few panels before it should to hook us in, and 'Ruined fails to tie the hook from the first half to the end of the second. All three stories leave us adrift, not proper self-contained stories, but also not properly set up to be continued. It's frustrating because I really wanted to like all of it, but felt a lack in an editorial hand hobbled potentially entertaining stories.
However, the art is where the book shines. All three stories are not only well-illustrated; it stands as some of the best art I've seen in an indie anthology. Arielle Jovellanos' work on 'School Spirit' is clean and charismatic, boosted by Amanda Scurti's bright pop-art colors. Sarah Winifeld Searle's art on 'Ruined' has exceptional linework, devoid of cluttering detail, and colored with solid tones of pure delicate color. Sally Jane Thompson's art on 'Ruby Equation' has great character as well, expressive and natural.
These aren't crap stories with great art, they are stories very close to being good but failed in formatting, and only in the case of 'School Spirit', a confused plot. What I do like is that none of these stories are impossible to recover in the second issue, and I would look forward at least in the case of 'Ruined' to see where the story goes. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, Fresh Romance is absolutely worth your money. It is a rare indie anthology that looks this flawless from cover to cover. However, specifically writing for this format, the book was mildly bungled. Whether a challenge for the editor or for the individual writers, it's the only roadblock in the way of this book being a standout entry in the modern romance anthology genre.