Wednesday, April 10, 2024

It Rhymes With Lust - Arnold Drake, Leslie Waller, and Matt Baker

Last week after I reviewed Arnold Drake’s novel THE STEEL NOOSE, a friend reminded me that Drake also co-authored what is considered by some the first graphic novel, IT RHYMES WITH LUST, published in 1950 as a digest-sized paperback by the comic book publisher Archer St. John. Drake co-wrote the script with Leslie Waller under the pseudonym Drake Waller. The black-and-white art is by Matt Baker (pencils) and Ray Osrin (inks). This book has been reprinted in both paperback and e-book editions, so I picked up a copy of the e-book to check it out.

IT RHYMES WITH LUST is set in Copper City, somewhere in a Western state. If you want to figure it’s loosely based on Butte, Montana, that works for me. Buck Masson is the kingpin who runs everything in Copper City from the criminal underworld to the mines. But when Buck dies, control of his empire falls to his beautiful, cunning, and ruthless wife Rust (whose name rhymes with lust, get it?) who brings in an old flame of hers, newspaperman Hal Weber, to edit the local paper that supposedly is opposed to the Masson criminal empire. Weber is supposed to be a crusading journalist who’s out to reform things, but he’s really just a tool for Rust to use to undermine Marcus Jeffers, her late husband’s second-in-command who now figures he’s going to take over. Weber wants to play things straight, especially after he meets and falls for Audrey Masson, old Buck’s beautiful blond daughter by his first wife. But can Weber escape from Rust’s clutches?

This lurid, hardboiled crime/melodrama is very reminiscent of the type of yarn Gold Medal published all through the Fifties, only IT RHYMES WITH LUST was published just as the Gold Medal line was getting started. The main influence on Drake and Waller’s script was probably the noir movies of the late Forties. It works very well in graphic novel format. The script has the rat-a-tat-tat pace you’d expect. The art is easy to follow and very effective.

I talked about Drake in the last post about him. Leslie Waller wasn’t nearly as prolific, but he wrote some well-regarded thrillers under his own name as well as some popular movie novelizations. Matt Baker was a well-known comic book artist in the Forties and Fifties. Ray Osrin worked as an artist and inker in comic books and later became an editorial cartoonist. All of them do excellent work in IT RHYMES WITH LUST.

Archer St. John followed this publication with another mystery graphic novel, THE CASE OF THE WINKING BUDDHA, written by Manning Lee Stokes with art by Charles Raab. This one seems to be a lot harder to find than IT RHYMES WITH LUST. Neither sold well, and that was the end of the experiment as far as St. John was concerned. Since IT RHYMES WITH LUST is readily available, I don’t hesitate to recommend it to fans of hardboiled crime fiction. I really enjoyed it.


Dick McGee said...

This really is a great piece of work, and (despite its relative obscurity in the modern day) an important historical milestone in comics history. Whether you credit it as the first true graphic novel or not it marked a big stepping stone for comics as a medium that wasn't just for kids, a dismissive attitude that still rears its head now and then even today. Recommendation seconded for sure.

Anonymous said...

Too bad it was not in color. What comic book reprinted a Dashiell Hammett story? Trivia question.

Paul S Herman said...

That would be Feature Book #48 "The MALTESE FALCON" by McKay. They really followed the book
as by having Sam Spade be blonde haired, as well as having Gutman's daughter Rhea? put in an appearance.