Imagine you could discover a new work of art by Picasso. A painting that neither you nor anybody else in the world had seen or even know existed? What if Picasso isn’t your bag? Would you like a new Leonardo di Vinci? Rembrandt? In a universe with parallel worlds, with perhaps infinite earths, such a discovery, such an artifact is possible. I for one would love to own a work that was drawn by Picasso but wasn’t.
That’s the jumping off point for RASL, written and drawn by Jeff Smith and in the hardcover color edition I read, with colors by Steve Hamaker. I’ve not read Smith’s other work, Bone, you might have heard of it, but I’d heard good things about this book so I checked it out.
Collected into a single volume, the book is a long read for a comic and frankly, it reads long; there were times where I felt like I was making no progress in the book even though I had read a whole chapter or two. A lot is happening throughout the book and the main character, RASL, has to explain quite a bit to us. The book is essentially split into two parts; one part follows RASL and the other part is an extended and as far as I can tell, a pretty accurate, biography of Nikola Tesla, one of the great inventors of all time. RASL himself is an ex-scientist who, along with his life long friend Miles Riley and Mile’s wife Maya, used Tesla’s work and secret journal to build a device that lets him drift between parallel universes by bending space and time around him. The government and Miles want to weaponize the technology but RASL disagrees so he wrecks their research and flees into the multiverse, which he calls the Drift. Eventually agents from his home world give chase and begin to hunt and hound him throughout the Drift. Starting in Chapter 4, Smith also tells a pretty involved story of Tesla and his accomplishments, which is interesting in and of itself.
Lets talk about the strength of this book; the art is simply breathtaking. While I haven’t read much of his work anywhere, any comic fan is familiar with Jeff Smith’s art so I thought I knew what I was getting here but I was dead wrong; he really is a master cartoonist. I don’t know if it’s because he is drawing more human beings or he just got better, but Smith absolutely kills it in this book. He is still using a cartoonish style but it’s so much more detailed than Bone. Bone is a masterpiece of simplicity, both in design and execution. RASL takes that and elevates everything about a comic book with added depth of detail that surpasses much of what I’ve ever read. The people look real in a way that is hard to describe. There is a sense of life and detail that jumps off the page. This being an adult book, there are fight scenes that explode and flow in a masterful way; you feel the blows as they are delivered and the damage stays with people in a grim and powerful way. This being a very adult book, there are moments of intimacy between nearly naked characters that are among the sexiest scenes in a comic book I’ve ever seen. Having cartoonish drawn characters engage in adult activities is not easy to do but this book does it in triumphant fashion. Smith’s ability to draw women with a variety of body types and shapes is extraordinary. It’s really something. This book is worth it for the art alone.
RASL originally came out in single issues, though I don’t know if it ever finished, then it came out in a single collected form. Both versions were in black and white and pretty enough, but the color edition I read is the best version by far. Smith and Hamaker collaborate on the color job to add an eerie and disjointed layer to the visual storytelling. There is something simple and clean about the black and white version, but the story and art are better served by the addition of color.
The story, when you finish it, is a pretty straightforward thriller; RASL has knowledge and technology that others desire for their own nefarious needs and he must insure that they don’t. The concepts behind this book are huge; multiple universes, traveling between them, inter-dimensional war and weapons, RASL has access to an incredible technology, but the book shows him using it in such a small and specific way. For all it’s giant ideas and influences, the story is ultimately a small one; a man must correct his mistakes. On that level it’s a very satisfying and entertaining story. After his initial drift and theft, we get page after page of action, sex and intrigue as both his past and present are fleshed out. Only, I never got the feeling that I really knew who the main character was; I got his motivations and his values, but he himself is something of a cypher. So to are the two main women in the book, Annie and Maya, even though we meet several versions of them (or do we?). In some ways I question if they were even needed for the book at all, which is weird because one of them does seem to play a vital role near the end. The climax is a little cliqued and predictable but it does wrap up things in a nice fashion. Overall I enjoyed that part of the book a lot.
I’m torn on the extended biography of Tesla. On the one hand, I’m a big fan of Tesla and he has fascinated me for quite some time. But on the other, I don’t really see it as adding that much to the book. It adds pages and I guess it fills out some of the science background for RASL’s discoveries and experiments but so much of the biography has little to do with the rest of the book. It’s almost as if Smith wrapped a sci-fi adventure around a biography in order to justify telling the story of Tesla, which is simply not true or necessary. Both artist and subject matter could have gotten a Tesla bio published, of that I have no doubt. But that’s a pretty minor quibble really. This book is highly entertaining and a great read.