Personal blog - and temporary home page until new website is finished - of writer, editor and graphic artist Christopher Mills

Friday, January 09, 2015

Guns In The Gutters: IT RHYMES WITH LUST

Written By Arnold Drake & Leslie Waller
Illustrated by Matt Baker & Ray Osrin

B&W Digest Format, Graphic Novel

St. John Publications, 1950
(Dark Horse Comics Edition 2007)

It Rhymes with Lust was originally published in 1950, and is considered by some comics historians to be one of the first – if not the first – modern graphic novel. Originally marketed as a "picture novel" by publisher St. John Publications, it was written by comics veteran Arnold Drake (The Doom Patrol) and novelist Leslie Waller (together using the pseudonym "Drake Waller"), with black-and-white art by Matt Baker (Sheena, Queen of the Jungle and Phantom Lady) and inker Ray Osrin. In co-author Drake's opinion, "I don't think there is much question that It Rhymes with Lust was the first graphic novel."

The edition reviewed here is a facsimile edition published by Dark Horse Comics, which includes an afterword by Drake, and biographies of Drake, Waller and artist Baker.

It Rhymes With Lust deals with the machinations of malevolent femme fatale Rust Masson, a seductive, red haired siren with an insatiable lust for power. Upon the death of her crimelord husband, Rust moves to take full control of the mining town Copper City – both its legal operations and its illegal ones. As part of her scheming, she brings an ex-lover, disillusioned and cynical reporter Hal Weber, to town and puts him into the Editor-in-Chief's slot at one of the town's two newspapers, hoping to use him as both a propaganda tool and intelligence agent. But, eventually, Weber tires of being Rust's patsy, and with the more wholesome love of Rust's own, blonde stepdaughter, Audrey, Weber finds the strength to stand up to Rust and moves to bring down her empire.

Drake and Waller have scripted a pitch-perfect noir potboiler, a story that deftly combines politics, crime and James M. Cain-styled sexual manipulation into one compact package. This is very much in the tradition of the pulp paperback fiction of the era. The dialogue is perhaps a bit too expositional and the captions a bit too weighty for today's tastes, but this was published in 1950, and follows the comics writing conventions of that era.

Matt Baker's art is exceptional. Known for his superior ability to render the female form, Baker proves to be the perfect choice to illustrate this tale of the archetypical femme fatale. With her short, mannish hairstyle and impeccable fashion sense, Rust is strongly contrasted against her idealistic stepdaughter, Audrey, with her lush blonde mane and soft features. All the characters are distinctive and instantly recognizable, and while the book is very dialogue heavy, Baker manages to keep it visually interesting through careful use of varying "camera" angles. It's superior work.

Overall, I liked It Rhymes With Lust quite a bit. My only criticism is that Drake & Waller's story is just a bit too talky and static. It really could have used just a little bit more action – another fistfight or firefight would have livened things up nicely. Definitely worth checking out, though.

Five out of Six Bullets.

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