It Rhymes With Lust

It Rhymes With Lust cover

In 1950, when this graphic novel was first published, It Rhymes With Lust was a much racier title than it seems today. To modern ears, the reaction might be a mild annoyance — What rhymes with lust? Why not come out and say what you’re hinting at? Then, the spicy allusion promised a whole different kind of world, one driven by the kind of base motivations polite people didn’t even know about, let alone voice.

The answer is Rust Masson, a femme fatale with more curves than a speedway and a fearlessness in using sex appeal to get whatever she wants. She’s summoned old flame Hal Weber to Copper City to be her pet newspaper editor. She’s just been widowed, and she wants to keep control of her husband’s mines, money, and political machinery. Hal’s weak when she turns on the charm, although as he finds out more about her schemes he begins to rediscover moral qualms. He’s assisted in this reawakening by his growing love for Rust’s stepdaughter Audrey.

The heavily narrated story is credited to Drake Waller, a pseudonym for Arnold Drake (co-creator of Deadman and the Doom Patrol) and Leslie Waller. The moody illustrations were drawn by Matt Baker, one of the preeminent “good girl” artists of the period, with inks by Ray Osrin. They use a technique that outlines background items with grey dotted lines instead of solid black ones, bringing the key elements in each panel into sharper focus.

The language is rich and evocative, with lengthy captions. For instance, when Hal first sees Rust, on her way from her husband’s funeral, we read, “As Hal saw her face again, a thousand shimmering dreams flooded over him. Rust… soft, feline Rust, not a day older. And as he watched, a feeling out of the past gripped at him, a feeling of fear and hate… and love.” As in Hammett-style thrillers, we’re told how he feels so we can experience the emotional rush as well.

It Rhymes With Lust cover

With Baker’s gorgeous art, we can’t blame him. Rust has a face to make vows to, veiled from the nose down as she plays the grieving widow, but it can’t hide her greed and self-involvement. She arranges herself just so on a reclining couch before seeing Hal again for the first time, setting the stage to play the scene as she wants it, relying on his inability to resist her physical lure.

Audrey’s similarly attractive, but as the good girl, she isn’t allowed to flaunt it (although Baker does what he can with sweaters and clingy skirts). She’s more of a symbol than a character, representing Hal’s redemption into a good citizen. The sinning makes for a good story, with plenty of canoodling and threats and explosions, but by the end, the virtue of right must be reestablished, and the importance of choosing “true love” over easy virtue, or as the text has it, “Rust’s warm embraces and passionate kisses”. It’s a classic virgin/whore contrast.

For all that they pretended to explore the seedy side of life, pulp fiction like this was firmly on the old-fashioned side when it came to the message. There’s a lot of tawdry excitement to be had while getting there, though, including a girl-girl slapfight. (At times, characterization takes a backseat to creating some dynamite visuals.) If you’ve ever enjoyed, or wanted to, a film noir starring Robert Mitchum or Barbara Stanwyck, you should give this ride a try.

Dark Horse collected the book under single covers after Fantagraphics reprinted the whole thing in The Comics Journal #277. The magazine also provides a look at “where the industry and artform have come from, and where they’re going, including a history of the Direct Market, and interviews with a wide array of creators and publishers”, while the book version was authorized and includes a new introduction by Drake.

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