Book Review

'RASL' dazzles: Jeff Smith's science fiction noir

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In Jeff Smith’s “RASL,” a stone hits the water, a singular event that ripples outward, affecting everything with which it comes in contact. RASL, pronounced “razzle,” is an art thief with a twist. Using stolen secret technology he is able to “drift” between alternate universes.

An original Picasso is easier to procure in another universe where Picasso is not quite as famous or successful. In his home reality, however, it is indistinguishable from the real thing because, well, it is the real thing.

By Jeff Smith
Cartoon Books ($39.95)

In spite of the Sci-Fi Noir trappings, “RASL” is not a crime caper. It’s a meditation about cause and effect, the consequences of big ideas in small minds, and of technology in the wrong hands. RASL may be using technology for personal gain, but he stole it to keep its potentially world-destroying capabilities from the military industrial complex.

As a member of the research team that developed the Drift technology he alone discovered the existence of alternate realities. The use of the technology may have small effects here, but the ripples it causes can destroy these countless other dimensions.

Of course, the government wants it back, and RASL is the only person with the secret to make it all work. Over the course of the story he encounters government agents, a strange lizard-faced man, Native American art and mythology, various different versions of people he knows in separate universes, and a strange little girl who may or may not be God.

Interwoven with this plot is the history of Nikola Tesla and his inventions and discoveries. While liberties are taken with the historical accuracy of Tesla‘‍s work (RASL’s discovery of Tesla’s “lost notebooks” are what allows his scientific breakthroughs), most of the information presented about his life is accurate.

The image of the rock striking the water intersperses the story, an apt symbol of how a single action can have unforeseen effects and resonances. Creator Jeff Smith is best known for his previous series “Bone,” a highly acclaimed all-ages fantasy first published in the early 1990s.

“Bone” has won numerous awards, is regularly listed on “Best Ever Graphic Novel” lists, and is embraced by schools and libraries as a prime example of the best that comics have to offer. “RASL” is not “Bone” (and unfortunately, this is a critique Mr. Smith is likely doomed to hear about any project he ever undertakes).

First of all, this is not an all-ages appropriate comic. There are scenes of violence and sex that would not be welcome on middle-school shelves. That is not a criticism because in the context of this story they fit. It is a warning to those who want to give the next book by “that guy who wrote Bone” to their kids.

Mr. Smith’s art remains the high point of his work. His lines are expressive and bold, allowing a wide range of evocative emotion. He allows body language and subtle changes in his character’s faces to tell his story. Like “Bone,” this was originally published in black and white,and the high contrast gave the images weight and power. The collected volume is in color, adding an emotional palette to an already powerful canvas.

“RASL” is not easily digested in one read, but the images and ideas will linger, and new connections and insights will be made. Like the stone in the water, the story will continue to ripple out after first contact with this work.

Wayne Wise is a freelance writer and novelist living in Lawrenceville.

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