RASL by Jeff Smith — available in four paperback volumes — is a fifteen-issue story that recently took me by complete surprise. However, I should have known how good it would be: Smith’s well-known comic Bone — an epic work of fantasy for all ages — is one of the great contemporary comic classics. However, I must warn fans of Jeff Smith and Bone that RASL is not a book for kids. Please do not pick this one up for little Johnnie’s next birthday gift. You’ll have a lot of explaining to do — from the birds and bees to the scientific theories of Nikola Tesla and Einstein.
Tesla seems to be a favorite historical character of current comic book writers — he’s a main character in the Atomic Robo series, and in RASL, though Tesla is not actually a main character, he is a preoccupation of the main character, and Tesla’s life, experiments, and theories are central to the science fiction aspects of the comic book.
This graphic novel — it’s so well constructed a story I feel compelled to call it a novel — is about a scientist named Robert who — in the process of working on the implications of Tesla’s theories — has invented a way to travel between parallel worlds. RASL will appeal greatly to readers who are fascinated by the concept of parallel worlds, particularly how they would differ from ours and how they would affect one another. I wouldn’t say I have ever thought much about this concept, but, even so, I was intrigued. Jeff Smith spends a larger percentage of panel space than I would have anticipated talking about the science behind the concept, really emphasizing the science aspect of science fiction. However, as someone who usually does not like this type of emphasis in typical science fiction prose novels, I found that it worked well in a comic because it didn’t slow down the pace of the story, and from what I understand, Smith did extensive background research to make sure his speculative science was as sound as possible.
In fact, the pacing was phenomenal: My wife finds it completely unfathomable that I can stop reading a book or watching a movie in the middle of an action scene or a revelation of suspense and not pick up the narrative until the next day or week. For that reason, I often have twenty, thirty, or more books going simultaneously (hence my love of the Kindle’s carrying capacity). Some books — including digital comic books — just remain unfinished, lost in the depth of my digital device. But I could not stop reading RASL until I fell asleep in the middle of the night in the middle of an issue. And I woke up the next morning and finished it immediately. Coming from me, that’s the highest praise I can give to the narrative drive of a work of fiction.
So what makes RASL so incredibly interesting? Basically, I had no idea where this strange comic book was going. I just couldn’t guess. This comic is very odd, and some things in it are never fully explained, particularly the reason why the guy/creature chasing Rob looks the way he does. Is he human? What is he? I have no idea, and we are never told. Quite strange. But he’s a great character — with his black slouch hat and black coat — who adds a slight noir aspect to the story. We find out his name is Agent Crow, and he’s working for somebody who wants to catch Robert — or RASL as he goes by — for several reasons: First, RASL is the name Robert uses as an art thief, and this criminal activity explains why he is being pursued by Agent Crow. But it turns out that Agent Crow’s interest in RASL goes deeper: Is he more interested in RASL the art thief or Robert the scientist? And what about Agent Crow’s personal agenda and ultimate loyalties in all this? One’s ontological view of parallel worlds affects one’s actions in those worlds. If one believes they are as real as our world, then the lives of people there are equally sacred. If those worlds are mere shadows, illusory fictions, then people’s lives there might not be worth much — an interesting ethical issue presented to us by Jeff Smith through his own fictional world.
And perhaps that meta-fictional quality is what ultimately appeals to me: These worlds Robert visits are always almost identical with each other and with the one he (and we) consider to be “reality.” For example, in one world he visits, Bob Dylan has recorded and issued all the same albums we know, but he has issued them under the name Robert Zimmerman (the name he was born with in OUR reality) instead of under the recording name he used in our world — Bob Dylan. One way of looking at this difference between realities emphasizes how confusing the concept of “reality” is: The name we consider Bob Dylan’s real one in our world is actually fictional since he made it up for recording purposes! Perhaps our own reality is a little fuzzier in definition than it might first appear to us, author Jeff Smith seems to be telling us. This book is as a philosophically fun and thought-provoking as the chapters on time, watchmaking, and Dr. Manhattan in Alan Moore’s Watchmen. And it’s just as well written and drawn.
If we consider RASL the comic book a parallel world to ours, then it should be identical to ours… almost. And it is… almost. There’s that strange man chasing the main character who doesn’t quite look like a man. This comic book world also lacks all color. We could say it just happens to be a black-and-white comic — as was Bone originally — but we could also argue that it’s just one more slight change between that world and ours. Almost everything else seems the same. We hardly cry over a character killed in the parallel world of a comic. That being the case, it turns out that we might have a lot in common philosophically and ethically with Agent Crow who doesn’t cry over dying characters in parallel worlds, characters who Robert claims are as real and as deserving of life as we are.
Visually, the comic book is interesting as well. I’ve already mentioned Crow’s odd appearance, but all the characters have a slightly different aspect to them. Some are tall and skinny, but not stick skinny — they are more like stretched bowling pins. Other characters are drawn in an almost childlike way. In other words, they seem to have the proportions of children, particularly the main character and his two love interests, but they act like adults: They smoke cigarettes, drink in bars, and have sex. It’s not that these activities define adulthood to me. Rather, it’s just that these activities are the strangest ones to watch child-like characters act out on the page. If you’ve read Bone, they resemble Rose, so it’s odd to see one of these female child-adult characters smoke a cigarette and have a stiff drink with just a robe on and partially covering her after having sex with the main character. The main character looks like a very angry young boy, wiser than his years. But all of this visual oddity seems normal after a few issues, or at least normal enough to not get in the way of your reading the comic.
The fact that the comic is black and white is also not distracting. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I am often one to turn down a comic that’s in black and white in favor of an alternative choice that’s in color. I’ve even read Bone in color — though I don’t know if that’s because the single-volume, black-and-white edition is just too unwieldy, particularly compared to the more reasonably-sized books in the nine-volume colored edition that I purchased for my kids. In this case, however, I actually enjoyed the black and white aspects of RASL. I liked looking at Smith’s drawing. I also think the black and white is important in emphasizing the mood — often purposely oppressive — conveyed through shading. Therefore, I think color would have distracted from, rather than emphasized, Jeff Smith’s fantastic and deceptively simple art.
Also of interest visually is Smith’s decision to make Robert’s transportation device an awkward one to carry. Instead of having Robert create a small, hand-held, or at least some sort of portable device, Smith has as part of Robert’s machine two, large cylinders that must be carried around or stowed away for future use in two-large duffel bags with zippers. So, not only is Robert a small, muscly man, he often has to be drawn so that he is visually dwarfed even further by his having to carry two large duffel bags while on the run.
I could write on and on about this comic. There are other great secondary characters, particularly Miles, Robert’s best friend from childhood and ultimate partner in science with a competing vision for the applications of their work. This conflict is related to the issue of financial backing from the government and the military and how that influences the ethical choices of scientists. There’s also a love affair with its varying motives and conflicts of interest. All of this is layered with metaphysical questions without losing narrative drive. Really, what more could one want?
There’s no doubt in my mind at all that RASL is five-star comic book, an instant classic, a future staple in the canon of great comics. And I believe it will stay in print as has Bone. I’ll be curious to see if Smith ever puts out a color edition — I don’t think doing so will make it any better (though there’s a possibility it might make it worse), but I’d certainly take a look at it, even if it were just an excuse to read it again. After reading Bone and RASL, I have added Jeff Smith’s name to my list of must-read comic book authors: If he writes something new, I don’t care what it is, I’ll check it out. If he can make me interested in the strange and different characters of Bone and RASL, I would imagine he can pique my interest in about anything.
Please consider adding RASL to your list of must-read books. It doesn’t matter if you are interested in science fiction, fantasy, noir, or even comics, this is a book to be read by all who like unique characters, a compelling narrative, and books that make you think after you put them down. In order to place this book within the larger canon of comics, I would argue that RASL is truly on the level of Watchmen, but it will appeal to those who have no interest in superheroes. Therefore, though I think everybody who loves great literature should read Watchmen, I think RASL might appeal to an even broader audience, as does another recent comic Daytripper by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba (see Marion’s excellent review). In fact, of all the books reviewed by me and others for Fanboy Friday, I would argue that the two works that deserve to be instantly placed on the list of great literary comics AND would have the widest appeal are RASL and Daytripper.
Final words: I hope those of you reading these reviews are finding new works to explore, and though I hope fans of comics are visiting this site, I am addressing primarily adults who have a passion for reading but may not have read any, or at the most, have read only a few comics — basically, I am addressing the person I was about five years ago when I decided to start reading comics. I was totally lost and overwhelmed. How does one find good comics? What if you don’t like superheroes (or think you don’t like superheroes, as I did!)? What if you like Batman, but just want to read a few of the great Batman stories written for a mature, intelligent audience? As I said in my introductory columns on “How to Read Comics” last year, I want to use this column to offer up some of the best comics I’ve found, ones that I want to share with my best friends, ones that I think, “If only I could get a person who has never read comics to read this, he’ll see what all the fuss is about!”
As a professor of literature and passionate reader, I regularly read comics and think, “I can’t believe I was fully prepared to go through life missing these great books!” I even defended my desire to not read comics without having read enough to make a valid defense. So, this is a plea for those of you who might be reading this review and haven’t found the right comic yet: Don’t give up! When you find the perfect comic, you’ll never give up seeking for that next one. There’s something magical about the combination of words and images that’s very different from and just as special as the magic found in text-only narratives, movies, and lyric-based music. Sometimes it all comes down to one perfect panel in the middle of a comic book — one perfect moment to be studied and admired. RASL, Daytripper, and other comics like them have many of these perfect moments.
I’ll continue to pick a few current comics to review — a review of the latest Daredevil title by Mark Waid will be posted in the coming months! — but mostly I’ll pick the comics that I think are the best ever created. I hope you’ll take the time to look over the steadily growing collection of comic book reviews on this site under the Fanboy Friday category. I also plan to have a few feature columns that recommend the best titles in certain categories: The Best Batman Comics/Graphic Novels, The Best Noir Comics, The Best Sandman Stories, and lists based on writers (or artists): The Best Comics by Warren Ellis, Ed Brubaker, Alan Moore, Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Waid, and Greg Rucka. And if there are particular titles you’d like to see reviewed, just let me know — I’ll see what I can do! Also feel free to make recommendations in the comments. Finally, if you read any of the books reviewed, please come back to the site and leave comments. I’d love to hear what you think.