Every once in a while, an artifact surfaces that suggests a whole direction pop culture might have traveled but didn't. What if, for instance, Big Star's power pop had been truly popular, carrying on a tradition of '60s songcraft into the next decade? Or what if the late-'80s series Frank's Place (long overdue for a DVD release) had caught on, ushering in a new depth and sophistication to sitcoms? The 1950 "picture novel" It Rhymes With Lust is a similarly tantalizing dead end. Released at a transitional time in comics—between the golden age of superheroes and the '50s horror boom—it offered a full-length, self-contained story inspired by the era's noir films. Co-writer Arnold Drake repeatedly referred to it as the first graphic novel. It has rivals for that honor, but it's certainly one of the first. Drake, who went on to create the Doom Patrol and Deadman for DC, co-wrote it with budding novelist Leslie Waller. To draw it, they enlisted Matt Baker, an artist famed for his sensual depiction of women—and, as an African-American, a pioneer in the comics field, even if at least some of his employers never learned his race.
Their ambition comes out more in Lust's form than its content. The tale of a journalist who regains his sense of pride while taking down a small city's corrupt machine—a machine run by his femme fatale ex-girlfriend—It Rhymes With Lust is satisfied with imitating the B-movies that inspired it. But while it never transcends its inspirations, it at least lives up to them. Drake, Waller, and Baker probably didn't need more than 100 pages to tell their tale, but they pack it with fast-moving melodrama, violence, and as much sexual intrigue as they could get away with, as their lead grapples with his love for a good woman and his attraction to mannish villainess Rust Masson. (Why "Rust"? Look to the title.)
Lust and its successor, The Case Of The Winking Buddha, never took off, and the emergence of comics as a medium for adults would, at least in America, have to wait a while. But it remains a fun read, and a fascinating peek at what might have been.