Friday, September 05, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #248: RASL by Jeff Smith

It's always worthwhile to watch a creator very carefully, when he's coming off of the biggest success of his life. Will he try to replicate that same success? Will he do the same thing over again with the serial numbers crossed out -- or, even less daring, just do a plain sequel?

Jeff Smith had a massive, worldwide hit in the nine-book Bone series, and it took him more than a decade to get that story down on paper. (And that doesn't count the time before the first issue that it was percolating in his brain and pen, or the years since when he was reissuing it in new formats with new partners.) I am sure that there have consistently been people dangling large checks in front of his face to do Bone: The Next Generation or The Boneville Chronicles or Untold Tales of the Bone Cousins, and it's to his massive credit that he didn't do any of those things: everything even remotely similar was clearly a side project, and never positioned as "the next Bone."

No, instead Smith decided to exercise entirely different storytelling muscles. Instead of semi-medieval fantasy, he'd have modern-world SF. Instead of romantic struggles to save innocents, he'd have one morally compromised main character fighting to save himself. Instead of the cute little Walt Kelly-esque Bones, he'd have scientists and soldiers and government functionaries and whores. Instead of dragons, he'd have the spirit of Nicola Tesla. And so to follow Bone he made RASL.

Rasl is a dark, noirish book, and if all of its disparate pieces don't entirely come together -- the explanation for the name Rasl is silly, and Rasl himself transitioned in a suspiciously short time from duplicitous government scientist to cunning master art thief in the backstory -- it's compellingly told, with the energy and darkness of the great noir stories. There's a bit too much Nicola-Tesla-was-soooo-cool narration -- seriously, there needs to be an inoculation given to the geeks of the world to avoid Tesla Fever -- but, most of the time, Rasl moves at a strong pace, explaining the things it needs to explain but knowing that some major elements can and should remain mysteries.

Noir has not historically been kind to women, and that's the case here: all of the women here are whores or femmes fatale or victims or schemers, or more than one at a time. But that's OK: this is the story of Dr. Robert Johnson, who became the art thief and dimensional traveler Rasl because of what he discovered, and who went on the run so that his inventions wouldn't doom the whole world. He's a deeply flawed man, but, like a Chandler hero, he will go down those mean streets and do the things that have to be done.

Rasl is even more complete and final than Bone was: even if someone wanted Smith to tell more stories of dimension-hopping, he's definitively completed this story, and anything new would be entirely separate. And, as of last year, it's all available in a single book, to be read through all at once, the way it was meant to be. So go to it: even, or especially, if you thought Bone was too soft and twee and light. This is an entirely different thing, and a sign that Jeff Smith intends a long cartooning career: he won't be "the Bone guy," but the creator of a sequence of very different, equally compelling stories.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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