THE SHARPEST LIVES ARE THE DEADLIEST TO LEAD
The recent death of Arnold Drake was tragic, just as any passing is, but all the more so due to the timing of it. It Rhymes With Lust, his classic pulp graphic novel--what he called a "picture novel"--was just about to be reprinted by Dark Horse, and Drake had been dreaming of seeing the book re-released in its intended format for many years. Originally released in 1949, I'd been curious to read this book ever since I had heard Drake talk about it in Telling Stories when I reviewed the DVD a couple of months ago. I had no idea anyone was intending to reprint it, but it turns out that my old boss Diana Schutz was already heading up the restoration campaign.
It Rhymes With Lust was written by Drake and Leslie Waller (they are credited in the book under one pseudonym, Drake Waller) and drawn by Matt Baker and Ray Osrin. It's a crime story very much of its time, filled with salty language and narration that is purple in its hue. Only, I wouldn't dare call the narrator "purple" to his face. He's far too manly to take such insults.
The story focuses on Hal Webber, a reporter whose promising youth as a crusader makes him the last person anyone would expect to head a dishonest newspaper. That's exactly why Rust Masson calls on him when her husband dies, leaving her the ownership of Copper City's two rival rags. Well, more specifically, that crusading reputation and the knowledge that there is no moral belief Hal won't toss out the window for a look at Rust's gorgeous gams. No one knows that Rust owns both papers, and so with Hal as her mouthpiece, she'll use the Express to tear down her rivals without anyone knowing she's behind it.
As calculating and evil as Rust is, her stepdaughter Audrey (such a pure name!) is good-hearted and courageous. Not realizing they have a past, Audrey tries to steer Hal away from her stepmother, and her clean-cut beauty removes Hal's blinders and exposes Rust for the fatal femme she really is. That is, until Rust is in close proximity again. Then Hal gives in to his urges, to that thing that rhymes with Rust, and falls right back down into moral degradation. The comic's plot is the tug of war for Hal's soul. Can he ever again stand on his own two feet as the moral newspaperman he once was? Will he ever deserve Audrey's devotion?
Drake and Waller have a real feel for the twisting and turning plots of pulp fiction. There isn't a lot of mystery here, we pretty much know where everyone stands at all times, so the thrill of the read is how many bends there are in the narrative. Though from what I can tell this was published in one go, it's actually written like it was serialized, broken into compact chapters that run 22-pages in length, which just happens to be today's page-count standard for a single issue comic.
As entertaining as the story is, however, the real draw of the book is the artwork (no pun intended). Matt Baker is known as an artist who is quite adept at drawing lovely ladies, and in any hardboiled tale, that's an important talent--particularly when dealing in the femme fatale vs. honest dame paradigm. I was even more impressed by the overall technique of the finished art, however. Baker uses some wonderful screentones, achieving the kind of effects we don't really see in comics anymore, as digital toning has sucked a lot of the innovation out of the process. (Exceptions being Steve Lieber's work on Whiteout and Eduardo Barreto on Union Station.) Baker has a great way of screening out the backgrounds so the line art appears as dot patterns, leaving only the main figures to stand in solid ink, bringing them away from the setting and giving them a stronger visual punch. There are also many great single-page illustrations that would make great paperback covers or movie posters. Much credit goes to Dark Horse for making it look so good. My understanding is they didn't have much to work from.
Like watching an old film noir or reading a classic Hammett novel, It Rhymes With Lust has an untainted immediacy that sets it apart from most modern crime comics. It also is unabashed as an exercise in style, neither hearkening back to anything that preceded it or using the technique as a pose. It's straight-ahead two-fisted storytelling at its best.
Rest in peace, Mr. Drake. You left us a great one with It Rhymes With Lust. You did so much more, but if this were all you were remembered for, it would be a greater legacy than most manage to create.
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Current Mood: impressed
All text (c) 2007 Jamie S. Rich