Jeff Smith: RASL: Romance at the Speed of Light

Smith, Jeff (2011). Rasl: Romance at the Speed of Light. Cartoon Books.
ISBN 978-1-888963-33-5

This is going to be a short review, because it’s a review of the third volume of a series that you shouldn’t start in the middle. You should start at the beginning. If you click here you can find my review of the first volume, as well as general comments on Jeff Smith’s remarkable work, and if you click here, you can find a review of the second volume. If you need a summary of all my reviews, here it is: RASL is one of the best creator-owned comics we currently have, and if you haven’t yet, you should start reading it as soon as possible. Jeff Smith is one of the best graphic novelists of our time. Read him now. The whole RASL project has been, from the start, a fascinating undertaking. In its mixture of myth and science fiction, it resembled Terry Moore’s extraordinary (recently finished) Echo (see here my review of the first Echo trade), but with a much darker and twisted core. Readers coming to find a second Bone will be disappointed. This is no warm, full, engaging fantastical tale. The richness of Bone’s woods, mountains and ravines is in stark contrast with the desolate stretches of desert we’re offered in the RASL books. It’s really hard to believe that the same writer who gave us the gorgeously detailed rat monsters and fantasy foliage in Bone is the same that creates vast expanses of white emptiness in RASL. While I’m obviously commenting on a work in progress, it seems clear that there is less consolation in Smith’s most recent work than in his most famous books. The warm heart of Bone was palpable in its protagonists, the cartoonish Bones, and the lovably odd villagers. Even the monsters threatening to destroy the idyllic life are drawn with a playful love for furs and twinkles and the humorous moments of epic adventuring. True, there was much drama as the story of Bone unfolded, and a serious tragedy at the center of it, but it was all part of a much brighter, more colorful whole. RASL, on the other hand, starts off on a bleak note in volume one and maintains that mood throughout the second and this one, the third volume. Even the glimpses of love and sexual relations are shrouded in the anticipation and memory of loss and impending doom. By the third volume, sex is presented less like a loving act, and more like a desperate way to be less broken, less alone, less adrift in a multitude of worlds.

RASL: Romance at the Speed of Light is the best installment so far, as expected. It is the first time the plot and its characters really come together. I admired the way Smith took his time with the plot, without offering his readers easy satisfaction. The first volume, RASL: The Drift, is full of mysteries, full of beginnings and ideas, and it’s not an easy book to figure out. There was never any doubt that the end result would be magnificent, but the exact direction was unclear, as we readers were left impatient asking for more. And just as the first volume was full of beginnings, so the second volume, RASL: The Fire of St. George, was clearly transitory. Instead of whispered hints and intriguing settings, we were offered more muscular developments and a great deal of information was injected into the book. It seemed as if Smith tried to make up for the vagueness of the first by being extremely specific in the second volume. As a read it was much different, but every bit as brilliant. In it, Smith treats us to the (by now well known) story of Nicola Tesla and fleshes out most of the principal characters and their relationships with one another. Additionally, we are offered more background on the protagonist, and how he came to be this disturbed traveler between worlds, haunted by guilt, and driven by something dark lodged deep inside. Finally, we are introduced to the book’s MacGuffin, Tesla’s journals, which contain some powerful, brilliant secret that Rasl, as the books’ protagonist is called, endeavors to hide from his friends and the government. Tesla’s brilliant ideas have often served as pivotal elements in science fiction or steam punk culture. One of the most recent examples is Christopher Nolan’s movie The Prestige, where Tesla’s near-magical science provides the mechanics of one magician’s attempt to reproduce another magician’s magic trick (which, as it turns out, was achieved in a much more profane and simple (though not easy) way).

Indeed, The Prestige is a fitting reference because of how the RASL books are perched at the divide between magic and science. In fact, we might be reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous third law, stating that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. In Smith’s work, magic is replaced by religion and myth, but the basic question remains: if something extraordinary happens, is it a scientific success or a miracle in a religious sense? The third volume puts considerable emphasis on this part of the book. As our memories of Tesla’s historical experiments slowly recede, we fall back into the protagonist’s attempts to fully make sense of what’s happening in his rapidly expanding world. Government agents are added, and questions of self and reality are invoked again, but most importantly. Smith evaded providing a faux-scientific explanation for the dimension-jumping. Instead, he confronts his readers with the bleakness of a man lost between multiple copies of the woman he loves and the multiple worlds that woman lives on. Rasl has no great plans: when he jumped into another dimension, he did so impulsively, and ever since, his actions have been less driven by careful deliberation than by impulsive acts. The first of the (so far) three books gave off a strong noir vibe, which is more expounded upon in this volume that affords more space to Smith’s protagonist. Like a character straight from Hammett’s pages, Rasl drinks in order to deal with the labyrinthine world around him (although in Smith’s work, the effect the world has on Rasl is a palpable, violent one as dimension-hopping exerts a heavy price on the person doing the hopping), he is quick to threaten and execute violence on other men, and his sexuality doesn’t lead to happiness or peace, au contraire, it’s as desperate and violent as everything else in his new life.

Like all extraordinary works of science fiction, Jeff Smith’s RASL books use the freedom afforded by the added and changed vocabulary in order to tell a story about the world that discusses issues on the fringe of knowable and expressible facts. Tesla’s scientific work proves to be a red herring, as it is his journals, which contain a secret discovery that makes sense of the scientific and metaphysical puzzles of the books, journals which are treated just like sacred texts. In Smith’s art, we are also presented with technically advanced objects that look like mythical or ritual artifacts. With every new issue, Smith continues to put the screws on what we feel can be easily said. He works within the languages of masculinity and violence, but at his hands, they blossom into possibility. Jeff Smith is a very good writer who, so far, had written two vastly different masterpieces, Bone and Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil. RASL, still a work in progress, is ready to join their ranks. When it’s finished it might well be his finest achievement yet.

A short personal note (January 2013). As I am trying to finish two manuscripts and getting back into reviewing books, I have a hospital bill to pay off, which means all kinds of issues for me. If you have a buck or two to spare, I would be more than thankful. There is a paypal button on the right hand side of this page. That’s just in case you feel charitable. As it is, I am happy enough about every single one of my readers. There are more of you than I ever expected, even through the dry months in the past year, and I am thoroughly humbled. Thank you all.

Jeff Smith: Rasl: The Fire of St. George

Smith, Jeff (2010), Rasl: The Fire of St. George, Cartoon Books
ISBN 978-188896322-9

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.