Foyer, Guns, and Honeys

It Rhymes with Lust was the first in a short-lived line of Picture Novels from St. John Publications, crossbreeding the comic book with the somewhat more respectable, certainly more adult entertainment of the prose paperback potboiler. Digest-sized, with black-&-white interiors under a color cover, Lust hit newsstands in 1950 and was largely forgotten until Dark Horse Comics released a replica edition in 2007 [ISBN 978-1-59307-728-0].

cover to Dark Horse replica edition of St. John's 'It Rhymes with Lust' / $14.95 / 'Picture Novels' / woman (Rust Masson) in a body-hugging black dress with plunging neckline, smiling amidst a gun, smokestacks, a town, and a ballot box

The honeys are Rust Masson and her stepdaughter, Audrey, vying for the affections — or perhaps just the obedience — of our protagonist, Hal Weber, in the days of dames and dolls.

The guns come out in the climax of the book, when all the principal players converge upon the Masson Mining Company.

The foyer is barely glimpsed in the home that Rust shared with the late Arthur "Buck" Masson — but crucial, as it's where Hal first glimpses Audrey on his way to visit his newly widowed old flame, and it completes the pun for any Warren Zevon fans out there.

panel of Hal kissing Rust's neck / 'Oh, Rust. I... I... didn't think' 'I was wondering, precious, just how long you'd remain so grim and businesslike.'

Arnold Drake wrote Lust with Leslie Waller under the pseudonym Drake Waller. If Julius Schwartz was kinda-sorta the '60s DC equivalent of Marvel editor Stan Lee, as I put forth last week, Drake was definitely the '60s DC equivalent of Marvel writer Stan Lee. He wrote imaginative sci-fi stories and co-created the angsty Deadman and misfit Doom Patrol, the latter's debut in My Greatest Adventure hitting the racks nearly simultaneously with the first issue of the very similar X-Men. That, however, came well after Rust Masson.

In his afterword to the Dark Horse reissue of Lust, titled "The Graphic Novel — And How It Grew", Drake traces the history of stand-alone, grown-up comics in an impressively brief, accessible fashion, arguing not too strongly that he was ahead of his time. Drake & Waller were attending school via the GI Bill in 1949, writing for comic books on the side, says Drake, when he realized: With all the other returned veterans in his position, accustomed to picking up panel-to-panel fiction at the PX, there could be a market for "stories illustrated as comics but with more mature plots, characters, and dialogue". He pitched the idea to St. John, a small but historically significant comic-book and magazine publisher, with his own rudimentary drawings.

Crossing the popular crime and romance genres, which along with Westerns and other non-costumed adventuring were supplanting superheroes in comics as the 1950s dawned, It Rhymes with Lust strikes me as a curious choice for an opening bid to attract the attention of ex-soldiers — more what you'd find on the Lifetime channel if it existed back then and less Double Indemnity. Of course, I'm a habitual comics reader fifty years in the future of that potential postwar audience who may be presuming greater genre-related gender (or gender-related genre) preferences than warranted.

As the story opens, Buck Masson has just died, leaving his second wife, Rust, and his lieutenant, Marcus Jeffers, in conflict over the operation of not just Masson's business affairs but the "state political machine". Hal Weber arrives in Copper City to meet with Rust, who reveals that she summoned him there to take over the city's opposition newspaper. Everyone knows that the Massons own The News-Times, but they own the anti-Masson Express, too, which Rust wants Hal to use to undermine Jeffers. Once a crusading idealist, Hal is now cynical yet still naive, his qualms about reporting to Rust instead of reporting the truth dissolving whenever he's within twenty feet of her womanly wiles — at least until the escalating violence and the lure of young Audrey Masson, daughter of Buck's first wife, begin to change his mind.

stark black-&-white Hal, with cabbie in foreground, sees Rust, equally stark, through a middle area of gray / Hal: 'Rust!' Cabbie: 'Speak of the devil. Now… About that cab…?' Caption: '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 him, a feeling of fear and hate… and love. Hal jumped into the waiting cab and sped off.'

Penciled by Matt Baker and inked by Ray Osrin, It Rhymes with Lust is generally handsome. Whatever debits it may incur in stiffness, by today's standards, are more than compensated by the period charm that very stiffness brings. Baker was renowned for drawing lovely ladies in action features, notably Phantom Lady and Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, and while occasionally uneven the illustrations in Lust are on the whole crisp and detailed, printed in the Dark Horse edition on sturdy paper with just a hint of grayness in the vein of old-fashioned newsprint.

Duoshade or a similar mechanism is used throughout the book in a largely counter-productive way, my one real artistic complaint. This technique is usually employed in lieu of crosshatching or stippling to fill in an area that should be darkened but not fully black; it's also used, as it is in part here, to lighten the linework of the background and so provide contrast. The problem is that Lust uses it to echo a photographer or filmmaker's manipulation of focus in a disconcerting way that often gives us a sharp plane unnaturally sandwiched between two blurred ones or, as in the large panel above, the other way around.

One thing that the narrative does very intelligently — and which reinforces my feeling that this is as much a book to introduce prose readers to comics as to bring comics readers more adult material — is ease itself into the panel-to-panel continuity. The first story page has one small, boxed illustration surrounded by narration rendered in some of the tightest hand lettering you'll ever see. We then get a full-page illustration, but with a printed newspaper clipping pasted atop it. Only then, on the facing page, does a wordy caption begin the first multi-panel page. Whether or not this was intentional on the part of the authors or publisher, it acts as a sort of prose-to-comics decompression chamber.

Page 1 of the story. A panel shows Hal stepping off the train above a block of prose. 'The baldheaded conductor cleared his throat and shouted: All off for Copper City!' Hal Weber tugged nervously at his hat brim, picked up his suitcase, stepped off the 3:14 express and onto a wild, dangerous merry-go-round of bullets and embraces. Follow him as he weaves through a tangled net of double-cross, dynamite, and disaster with a woman who bartered torrid kisses for his soul, a man who spoke with a .38 automatic, and a girl in whose shining eyes he saw reflected the tattered rags of his conscience.'
Page 2 of the story. Splash of city street lined with buildings and roadsters, over which a large newspaper clipping is shown. 'Buck Masson Funeral Today / Whole City in Mourning as Beloved Magnate Laid to Rest / text'
Page 3 of the story. Panels of Hal Weber talking to a man at the train station about the lavish funeral precession, which he is surprised to learn is for a man named Buck Masson.

It Rhymes with Lust is ultimately a historical curiosity, but a welcome one that can certainly be enjoyed as period melodrama. The hero dithers until it's almost too late, undying love is professed at the end of the first chapter after one night of dancing, and you nearly root for the villainess because even though she's a witch she's the most determined character in the story. You'll find soap-opera poetry in such full-page, silent shots as Rust in an amorous embrace with Hal the day her husband was buried, surrounded by his portraits. And even though this Picture Novel often opts to tell when it could show, sometimes the overwrought prose is the only deliciously florid way to convey the characters' emotions, all the more fun when it clunks now and then, like so: "Her heavy perfume was heady and seductive, the touch of her fingers arousing. There had always been something irresistible about Rust. He had never been able to put her out of his mind, even after she had walked out on him many years ago... without saying good-bye. He had drifted in those years from one job to another, drenching his memories with hefty drinking. But now she was real, alive, enticing! It was hard to rationalize. With a sweep he caught her in his arms."

St. John Publications gave up on the Picture Novels line after just one more book in 1950 from another creative team; The Case of the Winking Buddha was billed as an "Original, All-Picture Mystery" and has yet to be reprinted. While that and Lust would have cost you a quarter apiece on the newsstands, Dark Horse's replica edition retails for $14.95 — not exactly a bargain for the material on its own merits unless you're a scholar of the medium and industry.

There's a lengthy, informative history of St. John's Publications at Ken Quattro's Comicartville website, with personal commentary from Arnold Drake on It Rhymes with Lust on the first page. The online American Art Archives has remarkably vivid examples of Matt Baker's comic-book covers. And Mark Evanier wrote a remembrance of Drake upon his passing in 2007; having attended the 1999 San Diego convention where Drake was given the Inkpot and agitated for recognition of Bill Finger with what he called the Fickle Finger award, I'll attest to the fact that he would have been a worthier foil for Rust Masson than Hal Weber.

If you'd like to buy one of the items shown and can't do so locally, please consider clicking through to Amazon; Blam's Blog may receive a small commission on the sale of anything placed into your cart and purchased during the session. Note: Dark Horse's edition of It Rhymes with Lust is no longer in print, although you may find it in stores or elsewhere online. I haven't yet seen the edition in the Amazon link above.

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Arben said...

I can't believe I've never commented on this post before. (Actually, I think I did once, before you had all those posts vanish completely and comments weren't preserved, but I don't mean to bring up bad memories.) My point is that this is a great piece and I know you're proud of it and you should be. Whatever you need me to do to help you take bolder steps back into the publishing world, whenever you need it, I stand ready, pal-o'-mine.
PS: Bitchin' title!

Henebry said...

What makes you think that pulp novels were "somewhat more respectable" than comics? I always had the sense that cheap sexploitation fiction was pretty close to the bottom of the barrel. But I was born in 1967, so my instinctive sense of these hierarchies isn't necessarily very accurate.

Blam said...

I was born in 1970, Henebry, so our perspectives are probably pretty similar.

The remark came in large part from a general sense over my lifetime — certainly the first 15 years or so — that while trashy prose might be dismissed as escapist at best and for lesser minds at worst, comics were often used in TV or movies to indicate someone was not merely juvenile but literally an imbecile if not (never mind the contradiction/paradox) outright illiterate. Arnold Drake's afterword speaks of making comics more adult by infusing the medium with this potboiler melodrama, so at least implicitly (if not explicitly, although I think so; I haven't reread it in a few years) his aim is to make the largely short-story, periodical, pictoral medium of comics more adult by (re)grafting the pulp-novel feel onto it. I've quoted him in the piece as proposing "stories illustrated as comics but with more mature plots, characters, and dialogue"; of course, "mature" and "adult" have dual and almost divergent connotations of classiness when it comes to sex in particular.

I should point out too that I do qualify "the prose paperback potboiler" as "somewhat more respectable" [emphasis added here] and use the contrasting phrase "certainly more adult".