Thursday, April 15, 2010

Trick Question: Nothing Rhymes With Lust!

A book cover:

What you see above is basically the literary equivalent of those hieroglyphics that show the ancient Egyptians Egyptian-walking around vases with wavy lines in them. Some people — mostly crazypantses whose job descriptions include -ologists that you’ve never heard of before — say these wavy line vases are proof that the old pharaohs had light bulbs with working filaments. But, as we know, if you didn’t patent it, push it and popularize it, you don’t get to claim it. So sorry, Egyptians, but most of use are just going to assume that your “light bulbs” are actually jar-shaped snakehouses, probably in tribute to some god whose head was one animal and his body was another animal. One these animals may be a snake.

The preceding paragraph exactly describes the curious case of It Rhymes With Lust. EXACTLY. Published in 1950, the book was the first-ever attempt to tell a novel-length story through pictures. Yes, it’s considered the first graphic novel, even though Arnold Drake — one half of the duo who wrote Lust — termed the book a “picture novel.” The intended audience was not children but adults — or at least the kind of adults who would enjoy noirish tales of sex, greed, and political corruption. However, these hoped-for readers didn’t take the bait. St. John Publications released another picture novel — The Case of the Winking Buddha, a mystery story — but that would prove to be the last. Not until 1976 did longer comic books start to be widely referred to as “graphic novels,” and they’re still inching toward all-around acceptance in the U.S. today. As the A.V. Club asks in its review of Lust upon its 2007 reissue, where might the genre be today if this false start in 1950 had instead been a success?

Like I said, totally the same deal with the Egyptian snake bulbs and Rhymes With Lust.

It’s interesting to me, this little footnote in the history of comic books, but what I find most tantalizing is not how Lust’s success could have changed the evolution of graphic novels. It’s the cover. Mostly the title. What is the it, exactly, that rhymes with lust? And which of the many rhymes for lust could the title be referring? Crust? Must? Plussed? (The ever-elusive opposite of nonplussed, of course.) Flust? Zizzust? Hippopotamus’d? Given the look of the tan, presumably windblown town in the background, I would presume that the rhyme could be dust. In truth, the thing that rhymes with lust is the name of the story’s femme fatale: Rust Mason. Yes, the story’s epitome of sex and passion is named after the army buddy your grandpa used to go on hunting trips with, before the accident. I don’t want to criticize what is remembered today as a bold literary venture into a genre unknown to U.S. writers and readers, but maybe it would have been more successful if the main female character didn’t share her name with the unfortunate condition of a gardening trowel left out on a wet night. (Left Out on a Wet Night — now there’s a book title! Doris, get creative on the line!)

And yes, by the way, the woman featured on the cover is, in fact, Rust herself. (Given what parts of her are featured, I suppose bust would have been a decent guess, too.) Really, once you look at the woman, the name Rust Mason doesn’t seem so inappropriately unfeminine. She may be linked with lust, at least in someone’s head, but her cropped hair and sharp facial features make her look downright manly. I’m also amused as to what else Matt Baker included on the cover in order to hint at what kind of story It Rhymes With Lust might be: a handgun and a ballot box, hovering magically around Rust’s bust. Personally, I think the whole story seems a lot more appealing if you interpret these images literally. “It Rhymes With Lust is a story about a woman who gets a gun and a ballot box thrown at her moments after she looks directly into the camera while getting her picture taken.” I’d read that. In fact, I think I just did. But I’d also want to have words with whoever threw the ballot box. “Theodore,” I’d begin, even if his name wasn’t Theodore, just to cheese him off, “This is not what we use ballot boxes for. Ballot boxes are not weapons. Guns are weapons. You could learn a lot about weapons from your friend on the other side of Rust, who threw the gun at her. Because guns, Theodore, are weapons.”

To conclude, what I’d like to think is a quote from the It Rhymes With Lust: “But sultry Rust Mason didn’t have to throw guns, not even in a town like Guntoss Gulch, where the streets crawled with the type of miscreants who’d throw their guns at you as clock you in the head with a ballot box. No, Rust Mason threw something else: sex. Which she poured into water balloon and tossed at passersby from her balcony.”

For the record, I would also read a book about a woman who throws sex-filled water balloons.

Comics, previously:

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