Rasl is a parallel universe-hopping art thief on the run from the military for damaging experimental hardware based on the science of Nikola Tesla. He’s being tailed by a lizard-faced man out to capture something valuable in Rasl’s possession. Also each jump – or “drift” – Rasl takes, damages his health to the point where his life is threatened every time he drifts.
You know how some books start off really promisingly by throwing a lot of mysterious and confusing but exciting ideas and scenes at you and you just get caught up in it, enjoying the ride? That’s how the first book in this series reads like. Rasl – we never know why he chose the name when his real name is Robert – dimension-hopping, wearing bizarre technology and stealing art while on the run from shadowy, lizard-faced creeps? That’s fun. The fast-paced first book, “The Drift”, is helped by being largely dialogue-free as Jeff Smith sets a blistering pace for the series and I flew through the pages, loving this strange but enthralling story. And then I got to the second book.
The second book, “The Fire of St George”, is where Smith all but puts the brakes on and decides to slow the plot waaaaaay down and cram the panels with exposition. So this is the part of the story where all that mysterious, weird stuff gets explained – and man, is it tedious stuff!
Through a series of flashbacks we find out that Rasl, or Robert Johnson as he was known before he became a time-fugitive, was a promising scientist and with his fellow scientist partner and best friend Miles had created a massive array called St George’s Fire which would somehow manage to produce renewal clean energy forever. Robert also created a T-Suit which straps what look like airplane turbines to your shoulders, allowing the wearer to jump between parallel worlds. That is, it’s the same world – Earth – each time, but different in some trivial way like Bob Dylan recording under his real name Robert Zimmerman.
Robert and Miles disagreed over the safety of the technology and Robert winds up sabotaging the array believing it will kill millions, stealing his T-Suit and dimension-hopping indefinitely. We catch up with him a couple years later and he’s become an art thief still on the run from the military.
I’m sure Smith wrote all of that with the idea that it would explain things to the reader but it really doesn’t! Why would Robert go from being a conscientious scientist to an art thief just because he can drift between parallel universes? I realise he’s on the run but shouldn’t he be coming up with a better plan than steal art and make money? He metaphorically drifts through his life, drinking and whoring around in between art thefts so it’s not like he’s saving up for a nest egg or something. He doesn’t seem to have a long-term goal, he’s just schlubbing about for no reason, and it’s really frustrating to see such a fast-paced story all but grind to a halt when the writer has no clue what to do with the character. Oh right, the military are after him. Doesn’t seem to bother him much though, not really, not until the lizard-faced guy shows. Writing!
While RASL is a much darker, more adult book than Bone, it feels that way only superficially. Sure we see sex, drinking and smoking, and violence, but where is the nuance and subtlety in the characters you would expect to see in a book aimed at an older, more sophisticated audience? Rasl, despite his initial mystique, becomes dull and flat very quickly, just reacting to things and the more the reader finds out about him, the less personable he seems. His relationship with his best friend Miles just isn’t believable and the confrontation that signalled the end of their decades-long friendship was laughable – it didn’t seem at all real and Miles goes from reasonable guy to supervillain in no time at all. There’s a government type character in this representing the US government – guess how she behaves? Yup, she coldly threatens Rasl, vaguely insisting on paranoid theories and aggressive tactics in dealing with these unknown parallel universes, then says gormless things like “this conversation never happened” and “you have 24 hours or you’ll disappear forever into one of our deepest, darkest prisons”. Sigh. The lizard-faced guy is your average bad guy, leering as he talks about killing Rasl’s loved ones, while Rasl’s affair with Miles’ wife was contrived at best.
But while Smith can’t come up with interesting characters, he can draw really, really well. His layouts for the first book are flawless. Using a minimum of dialogue, he communicates action perfectly from the opening art theft to the drift to the bar scene and gun fight that ensues, the pacing and perspectives are spot on. He also draws expressions really well, communicating emotion on all of his characters’ faces perfectly. His design for the T-Suit is odd but the coup de grace is the tribal mask Rasl wears when he drifts which is an amazing touch that instantly captures your attention and makes that outfit memorable. Also, it’s a minor detail but he draws hair really well. It’s just something I noticed on most of the characters, especially those with long hair, but it looked really natural.
The first book is an excellent start to this four book series but, for me, the second book was a flat-line. The plot is just too convoluted and the characters a bit too bland to convince me RASL really is the great series I initially hoped it would be. I want to like it because it’s an imaginative and at times engrossing story, and I really like a lot of the elements in it, it’s just that when Smith tries to pull them together, they don’t gel and feel very awkward and uncomfortable together. But it is an ambitious and highly creative series, both of which are positives, and coupled with Smith’s masterful understanding of the language of comics, RASL is definitely an above average comic book. Overall I think general readers of comics will be far less critical than I’m being and will just enjoy the ride despite not being perfect, so peep it out if you’re a Jeff Smith fan or are into indie comics with a sci-fi flavour.
RASL, Pocket Book One by Jeff Smith is out now in paperback.
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