Borderland Speakeasy #8: Arnold Drake's Secret Identity
Years before creating some of the strangest superheroes (Deadman and later the members of Doom Patrol), Arnold Drake penned what would arguably become the first graphic novel.
Before co-creating at least two of the strangest superhero comics in history, Arnold Drake co-wrote one of the leading contenders for the title of "first graphic novel": 1949's It Rhymes with Lust.
The tale of thoroughly corrupt Copper City, its competing criminal overlords, a cynical newspaper editor and the women who compete for his heart and soul, Lust brings to mind Dashiel Hammet's Red Harvest and The Glass Key, and seems to share qualities with the 1952 movie Deadline USA. It isn't on par with those classic crime stories, but Lust's non-stop seediness and garish immorality, combined with an almost Douglas Sirk-level of melodrama, make it a strange classic in its own right.
The titular "It" that rhymes with lust is Rust Masson, a sexy and powerful femme fatale who is also a ruthless criminal leader. She just might be one of the greatest female pulp antagonists: a ruthless manipulator whose sole purpose seems to be securing power for herself, she's entirely self-created, right down to choosing her own name. There are even suggestions throughout the story that her use of sex (or the promise of it) is pathological, and possibly a form of psychological self-defense in a world populated by thugs.
"I've seen a lot of the world in my time, and I know one thing: the little animals are eaten by the big animal," she tells one of her victims. "I don't intend to be eaten; I intend to have the world on a silver platter... and a knife and fork in my hands!"
It also becomes clear within a few pages why the word "lust" is the most prominent one on the cover. Rust's sexual allure and lust for power form the axis around which every element of this story revolves. As the cynical sap who plays the hero here, Hal Weber may look like a square-jawed good guy, but he has "blasted the promise of his career for her fatal embraces."
Republished in an appropriately pulpy package in 2007 by Dark Horse, Lust is a digest-sized paperback with an eye-catching cover that recalls classic crime comics and vintage pulp fiction artwork.
Back in 1949, the idea for the project developed while Drake was attending school under the GI Bill of Rights, and supplementing his income by writing comic book stories. Under the pseudonym "Drake Waller," Drake co-wrote Lust with novelist Leslie Waller.
"Ten million comics a month were read by GIs," Drake writes in his afterward to Lust. "With half of the soldiers now at college, leaping from Batman to Beowolf, we guessed that most would never read more than their textbooks. Then why not a bridge between comic books and book-books, stories illustrated as comics but with more mature plots, characters, and dialogue. We called them 'Picture Novels.'"
The book featured artwork by Matt Baker and ink by Ray Osrin. Drake would later go on to co-create Deadman and The Doom Patrol, and like that collection of misfit heroes, the Lust team was a fascinating and unusual gang of artists who collaborated perfectly on a single project.
(Waller went on to write best-sellers and novelizations of movies as varied as Dog Day Afternoon and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Long after Baker's death in 1959, he become recognized as one of the Golden Age kings of "good girl art," and is often credited as being the first African-American artist to publish mainstream comics. Osrin would go on to become an award-winning editorial cartoonist.)
Lust is as melodramatic as it sounds, and at times, the story approaches romance territory. Much of it could be read as dated by today's standards, but there's a vitality and plot-hungry drive that lifts this "picture novel" above the level of cliche or ironic stereotype.
Along with the voluptuous and cunning Rust Masson and the ethically wishy-washy Hal Weber, Lust also introduces us to the "good girl" Audrey Masson, Rust's step-daughter, as well as "tight-lipped killer" Monk Shirl, who also has a "half-crazed longing" for Rust. Then there's the "evil political genius" Marcus Jeffers, who battles Rust for control of Copper City.
After a breathless 120-odd pages of hard-boiled action, soul-searching and double-crosses, the over-the-top (in every sense of the term) climax ought to assure Lust's place among the cult classics of pulp fiction. This "picture novel" brims with confidence and excitement, and even though its claim to be the first graphic novel is open to debate, it feels as if it was created with the passion of people who believed they were onto something new.
Borderland Speakeasy appears every other week and explores classic and contemporary horror and crime comics.