Context: In 1991 Jeff Smith released the first issue of a black and white comic book serial called Bone. It was an impressive debut that found Smith, already fully formed, producing unique adventure comics in a notoriously terrible time in the medium’s history. Bone became one of the biggest success stories in comic book publishing, eventually reprinted in color by Disney and Scholastics. Four years after Bone’s 2004 finale, RASL is Jeff Smith’s follow up series.
Story: A scientist turned art thief (RASL) is thrown into an adventure story that involves him having to travel through different dimensions in order to steal priceless, original artwork. His crime spree stops short when he finds himself followed by an odd-looking salamander secret agent and a phantom mute girl. He is being hunted down because of a series of lost journals he has in his possession that once belonged to renegade scientist Nikola Tesla.
Influences and background: Smith’s background is in animation, and he even owned his own small studio called Character Builders in 1993. He’s also cited an early university strip called “Thorn” and its tight daily deadline for 4 years as a good schooling for making comics. His influences are deeply rooted in older works including Carl Barks, Charles Schultz and more importantly, Walt Kelly’s Pogo.
Look and feel: Above everything else what really stands out and is a real joy to look at in a Jeff Smith book is the artwork, especially in the original black and white runs of his books (he often colors them afterwards in updated editions). Another surprising element from Smith is that he is one of the rare cartoonists still working in individual 32 page serial outputs.
RASL’s artwork pops with a real focused line holding a mix of gentle curves and geometric page layout designs. Clean, fast and crisp. His drawings are intelligent enough to avoid using the page as a poor man’s film camera all the while relishing in the medium’s ability to present an exaggerated, malleable, hyper reality.
His animation background becomes apparent in the pacing and overall rhythm of how he makes you travel the page … building up to moments, holding beats, distracting the eye and finally handing you the payoff.
He mostly works within a 6 tier panel grid as the foundation of his design, and then deviates from that when needed. This is traditional, conservative comics pages that rely on grounded storytelling instead of flashy layouts. Seems simple, but too few do it well, especially in adventure comics.
Film noir & science fiction: The tone and mechanics behind RASL is drenched in film noir mannerisms, and to align itself with its ethos Smith presents the story to us through an unlikable (or at least at first, an unreliable) protagonist. A friend of mine recently boiled down the elements to a film noir story as being: A hotel room, a dame and a bottle. RASL has all three.
But any new work in that genre projects, whether you like it or not, a sense of self-consciousness. If done well, the result carries a sense of homage and nostalgia, and at its very worst it turns into parody. Smith is able to keep a tight focus on injecting the story with the right amount of respectable genre elements and at times even jumps into parody, which feels intentional.
So while the dialogue is sometimes a bit clunky, it all evens itself out nicely because of the drawings … that is to say his writing and cartooning are one and the same, he writes in images. And he’s one of the best doing that in adventure comics.
Even tho the story was divided into fifteen single issues (often months apart) Smith didn’t hold back from anchoring the story arch with proper pacing and slowing things down between the action. It meant leaner issues if you read in in the singles (I read it back to back in the softcover editions) but more than anything, it’s this attention and dedication to slower moments that make it enjoyable and rewarding.
Favorite page: Some of the best cartooning in the book is Smith recreating the mysterious, and possibly Tesla related Philadelphia experiment (this section does not fit in the mini history lessons mentioned in the critisism section). The sequence underlines the frightening results of dimension traveling, logistics of emerging in the wrong place, most notably in walls or structures. The page ends up that acting as an emotional reminder of what RASL is fighting to stop.
Criticism: RASL’s narrative sets up a system that allows the story to jump from its main narrative to small history lessons taken from Nikola Tesla’s life. This often breaks a bit of the pacing. They didn’t bother me much other than the fact that the visual treatment of these sections are slightly different than the fiction portions; less cartoony, a bit stiffer and not as polished. I suspect this happened because of possible photo references, but it creates a subtle shift in the mood. And I’m not sure yet if this was intentional.