#CBR6 Review #1 – RASL
Profile: Graphic Novel, Speculative Fiction
After Action Report:
If you look around online, the reviews for RASL are decidedly mixed. There are complaints about the pacing, the protagonist, and a laundry list of other, minor issues that plague the graphic novel. But the real problem most of these readers seem to have with the book, is that it isn’t Bone. Jeff Smith really carved out a place for himself with Bone, capturing the attention of fans and critics alike but now those same fans can’t seem to move past it. That being said, I haven’t read Bone. So with any luck, this review will be a little less biased.
RASL opens with the narrator/protagonist, a man only identified by his calling card, a graffiti tag with the letters RASL in green and pink, stealing a Picasso from a loft apartment. The heist goes wrong and RASL escapes into an alley where he straps on four miniature jet engines and an African mask. When the police round the corner and fire on him, he vanishes in a flash of light. RASL can ‘Drift’ between dimensions courtesy of technology he developed from the notes of Nikola Tesla. He makes a living stealing parallel copies of famous painting and selling them on Earth Prime. But the jumps between dimensions are taking their toll on his body, and now someone is chasing him between the worlds.
The story takes a very nonlinear path, jumping between the current plot of RASL evading his pursuer, and his past working at a military lab, the place where he developed the ‘Immersion Suit.’ The whole thing ties together when we learn that the man chasing RASL is from the military lab, and he wants to reclaim the notes RASL stole when he fled the facility.
The nonlinear nature of the story combined with the dimension hoping makes for a somewhat confusing read. There are a number of visual tells that exist to help keep everything straight, but if you are powering through the book, or just scanning the speech bubbles, it can get a little overwhelming. This is one of the primary complaints about the novel among other reviewers but I disagree. It isn’t really a major issue. Anyone who could keep up with Pulp Fiction, or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind shouldn’t have any trouble here.
The book borrows a lot, thematically and visually, from film noir and specifically from science fiction noir. Thick, black shadows loom throughout the panels, even in the bright daylight of the desert scenes, and many natural features, such as clouds or water, are just inky black shapes. Smith’s characters walk an interesting line between realistic and stylized. RASL comes off as a hard-boiled man-on-the-run and dresses the part in noir styles and unkempt hair. Other characters, like the mysterious pursuer, are so distorted they don’t even look human. But where the art really seems to shine is on the pages of exposition, explaining the history of Tesla, spiritual concepts and touching on the nature of universe. Smith reproduces Native American and African artwork, alongside homages to early 1900s photography in a spectacular blend of comic artistry.
At the same time, these expositional elements bog down the flow of the story a bit. They are absolutely necessary to the concept but they add another layer of complexity to the already erratic flow. Complexity isn’t a vice, but I do understand how it could put some readers off, particularly anyone not passingly familiar with Nikola Tesla, or any examples of nonlinear storytelling.
Still, I find that overall, I like RASL. The story is very strong, if you can get into it, and really draws you in. If I were to list any complaint, it would be that the story draws out its climax just a little too long. I have a certain fondness for these kinds of achronological stories, as they are very common in the world of anime. Shows like The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Serial Experiments Lain and Baccano! play with many of the same concepts, including dimensional travel and the nature of reality. Regardless of what you think of the story, Jeff Smith’s beautiful artwork is dynamic enough to make the book a must read for any fan of graphic novels.