Smith, Jeff (2010), Rasl: The Fire of St. George, Cartoon Books
Jeff Smith is an extraordinary writer and artist. Ever since he started publishing the Bone comics on his own imprint Cartoon Books, he has been consistently brilliant and fun. The whole of Bone, now available in one indispensable, addictively readable volume is one of the best graphic novels of the past decade. Since the completion of that series, he has undertaken a few smaller projects, all of which are highly recommendable, but many readers have been waiting for another epic work to approach the narrative scope and power of Bone. Two years ago, Smith did just that when he published the first volume of his new project, Rasl (pronounced like dazzle). I reviewed that first volume, which collected Rasl issues #1-3, on this blog (click here), and recommended it unreservedly. Rasl: The Drift is a fascinating work, a take on an ensemble of topics and literary traditions, from the noir to time travel books; it showed us a rough, unshaven young man, the eponymous Rasl, who travels through different dimensions, to find out he’s being hunted by a lizard-faced villain in a trench-coat who can travel the dimensions with as much ease as Rasl himself, and threatens his girlfriends in several dimensions. Does this recap confuse you? Well, it is confusing, as is the book. Rasl: The Drift is a dense introduction to what promises to be one of the best contained graphic novel series of our time. Jeff Smith introduces us to a plethora of plot strands, ideas, and lots of other suggestions. The Drift is a dazzling display of the range of Jeff Smith’s mind, and at the same time, it raises very high expectations for the rest of the series. When I picked up the followup volume, Rasl: The Fire of St. George, which collects Rasl issues #4-7, it wasn’t without hesitations. The expectations that The Drift raises are almost impossible to fulfill. And yet, The Fire of St. George is a deeply satisfying read, both following up on ideas and suggestions of the first volume, as well as further raising expectations for the next volumes.
Rasl: The Drift told us little about the protagonist. We learned that Rasl has a lover, and that there’s a version of her in every dimension he travels to, which is true for other people, as well. We find out that Rasl is a nickname of sorts or a pseudonym. His real name is Dr. Robert Johnson and he used to be a physicist, working with a friend, Dr. Miles, and a female co-worker (who eventually became a lover) on an exiting but obscurely dangerous new project. We infer that their professional relationship has gone sour and that this demise is connected to his current existence as a dimension-hopping art thief. This aspect comes somewhat late in the book and the overall topic of (serious) science was but one of a multitude of tangents that The Drift proposed to us readers. Instead, while we were busy trying to make sense of all this, Smith offered us several other kinds of explanations. Masks and symbols suggested myth and religion to us, while the lizard-faced man, the variations between the different worlds and the rough-and-tumble manner of traveling between dimensions had a strong whiff of the paranormal, with its implications of X-Files-like intrigue. All this appeared to be part of the tangle of Rasl. I say ‘tangle’ because The Drift makes no serious attempt to explain anything, it just piles reference on reference and plot on plot and character on character, stringing its readers along, offering but small clues here and there. This is is stark contrast to the new volume, which at times almost seems earnest, as it slowly, carefully and patiently explains a few of the allusions and suggestions of The Drift. The aspect Smith decided to shed light on first is the science bit, but he doesn’t explain what exactly is happening, scientifically speaking. Instead he has Rasl tell us the story of how he and his friend came to make a momentous discovery; at the same time, he tells us about Nicola Tesla’s life and his discoveries, his scientific genius and his eventual downfall.
Tesla has become a touchstone of geek-culture these past years, especially since the advent of steampunk fiction. On TV, Tesla has featured prominently in shows like Sanctuary, and the steampunk-fest Warehouse 13. In literature, apart from the use Alan Moore makes of him in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the perhaps most prominent appearance of Tesla is in Thomas Pynchon’s masterful Against The Day. Tesla appeals to a certain demographic because he’s just the right amount of anti-establishment, mixed with a dash of unorthodox genius. His attraction for writers is also due to the fact that for every invention that was eventually realized and used, there is an obscure, unfinished, rumored invention. And because we don’t really know, writers are free to imagine anything, and so Nicola Tesla, whatever the facts about the historical Tesla, has become some kind of real-life Jules Verne character, just as outrageous and mysterious as Captain Nemo. In The Fire of St. George, Smith even proposes that Tesla was the inspiration behind the Frankenstein in James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein movie that deviated quite strongly from Mary Shelley’s novel. This idea is then followed up by a short re-telling of Tesla’s life as a scientist. For anyone even remotely familiar with the man, these sections of the book will seem a bit tedious, a reiteration of what seems to be common knowledge. Telling one’s readers about some relatively well know historical fact is something that many lesser writers do in order to manufacture some fact-related credibility for their far-fetched plots. The most annoying example of this is probably Dan Brown, but these days, that’s all the rage, from Kostova’s Historian to Mosse’s Labyrinth and the books by Preston/Child, bookshelves groan under the weight of annoying, simplified knowledge. Smith, however, isn’t a lesser writer, and his use of these historical sections may seem similar, but they are in fact far more complex and intriguing than that, but they don’t wear this difficulty on their sleeve.
In The Drift, readers knew they needed to look for clues to find their way around the bewildering events of the book, and so most will have read the book with care, parsing the panels for hints and subtleties. The tone in The Fire of St. George appears to be very different, the narrative far more clear and conventional. The X-Files reference has become stronger, with a mixture of unexplained phenomena (in the 1940s, a ship vanishes in the middle of the ocean), sober scientific explanations and the beginnings of a governmental conspiracy or cover-up operation. Jeff Smith, however, is a talented and insightful writer, and so even simple-seeming stories have unexpected depths. There is, for example, the absence of mysticism or religion from this volume (with a few eerie exceptions) although the first volume strongly hinted at these issues. But in the retelling and the images thereof, there are ellipses, and smaller nudges that one could almost have overlooked, from the fact that Rasl tells us about the creation scene of the Frankenstein movie, but omits the line “In the name of God! Now I know what it’s like to be God” that is one of the central lines of the movie and is, I think, one of the underlying themes of the whole Rasl story, that will be talking about issues like the creation of dimensions and the question of the humanity of people in other dimensions. Smith’s art contributes to this, by abandoning what feels like a dark, hollow black-and-white style for an almost flat iconicity in his biography of Tesla (except for a few panels where the Tesla bio bleeds into Rasl’s disturbed own life. This is but one example of countless others. Smith has abandoned the nested detail of Bone for a style, both in the writing and in the art, that seems more simple, dominated by large swathes of black and white, with sweaty, scared, hunted Rasl aka Dr. Johnson trying to make sense of the trench-coated man who follows him everywhere, making ominous threats. For all the explanations, we are doing the same, because every answered question opens up another pack of questions.
To the mysterious symbols introduced in the first volume, a mysterious silent child is added. The symbol tied into a whole discussion about native American myths, and its speculative connections to mysticism and extraterrestrial life. Since the symbols only appear in the ‘new’ dimensions, i.e. dimensions different from Rasl’s original one, questions about the nature of chronology and the laws of cause and effect are raised. Also, skeptic doubts about the validity of referring to any world as the ‘original’ one. The child, as well as Rasl’s multiple lovers add to this questions of the body, and of its connection to intra-dimensional energies. If this makes it sound as if Smith were engaging in weird esoteric speculation, he isn’t. Instead he is using common scientific knowledge (there’s a very short bibliography appended if you happen to not know some popular books on the subject (I’m betting all of you know at least 80% of them, so common is this knowledge)) and his own inspiration as writer and artist to launch questions and suggestions at his readers, nudging them, egging them on, raising expectations again and again. To be honest, there’s so much build-up even in this second volume, that it’s hard to see how on earth Jeff Smith’s going to make good on his promises, but experience tells us that he might manage. After all, if we remember all the things that happened between the first Bone volume and the last, we might almost be confident that it works out to the best. If it does, the Rasl narrative might turn out to be one of the best graphic novels of our time, similar to writers like Grant Morrison or Thomas Pynchon, but more grounded than the former and just plain different than the latter. Already, an announcement of a new Rasl volume is a great bit of news, but so far, all we have are teasers. If Smith follows up on them, we are bearing witness to a great work in progress. Already, Rasl: The Drift and Rasl: The Fire of St. George are excellent reads, intriguing, well written, fantastically penciled and inked. I recommended the first volume in my review of it, and I do so again. Read Jeff Smith, and read Rasl. The next volume will be called Romance at the Speed of Light.