Monday, May 31, 2010

It Rhymes with Lust

The debate over what was the first graphic novel rages on, with people typically giving credit to Will Eisner for popularizing the term in the 1970s, with his series of anthologies. Impressionistic, wordless woodcut narratives were published in the early 20th century, and Milt Gross's He Done Her Wrong, a cartoon narrative of Klondike gold prospecting, love, and betrayal, was published in 1930, but these works do not have the interactions between words and art that are a hallmark of graphic novels. Because of that distinction, It Rhymes with Lust, originally published in 1950, is considered by many to be the first actual graphic novel.

This book was an attempt to capture an adult reading audience using the conventions of the widely popular comic book and pulp novel formats. The story contained within is not especially note-worthy, chronicling the machinations of a political boss and a conniving femme fatale named Rust Masson (whose name just happens to rhyme with lust) to wrangle control of Copper City. Caught in this web of political corruption is Hal Webber, a prototypical, cynical newspaper reporter trying to crack the big story while also fending off Rust's advances. Rust's stepdaughter, Audrey plays the role of the angelic woman who strives to win Hal over to the side of good. Also, there are lots of shoot-outs, explosions, and women wearing bed-time apparel (though nothing too racy).

Drake Waller, the credited author of this work is actually two people, Arnold Drake and Leslie Waller. Drake was a noted comic book writer who told off-beat stories and created the characters Deadman and the Doom Patrol. Waller was a spy fiction author who also moonlighted as "Patrick Mann" writing novelizations of popular movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Dog Day Afternoon. The art was provided by Matt Baker, an African American artist famous for his provocative drawings of the Phantom Lady and various jungle queens. Inking Baker's art was Ray Osrin, who worked for decades on various comic books before beginning a 30-year tenure as editorial cartoonist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Considered a precursor though not a classic, the book has received mixed reviews. Jon Mathewson points out the various cliches and flaws in the book but also notes that it held up well despite them. Ken Phipps at the Onion A/V Club wrote that it was "fun"and a "glimpse at what might have been" if such books had caught on in popularity. Brian Heater called it "a celebration of the height of low art."

Out of print for decades, It Rhymes with Lust was reissued in 2007 by Dark Horse with a new Afterward by Drake and short bios of the creators. They offer a free preview here.

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