This review first appeared in The Morpheus Tales Supplement #17.
Talk about a tough act to follow. Back in the 1990s and 2000s, cartoonist Jeff Smith had one of the biggest indie comic hits ever with his comedic fantasy series Bone, which cleaned up on Eisner and Harvey awards, and flooded the coffers of Cartoon Books, Smith’s self-publishing company. His follow-up is RASL, a noirish science fiction series about a dimension-hopping art thief on the run from the government. Intended for mature readers, this title is about as different from the family-friendly Bone as you can get. Put out since 2008, RASL has almost finished its run, with just a handful of issues to go. For a series infamous for its haphazard release schedule, now is the best time to get on board with RASL.
The main character is Robert Johnson, a physicist with a speciality in electromagnetism, who quits his job with the American military over fears that his bosses will weaponize his life’s work. Rob sabotages his own project beyond repair and makes off with a pair of shoulder-mounted engines that enable him to jump the dimensional barriers between parallel universes.
To make a living, Rob now travels to alternate earths, stealing priceless paintings and hiding out from the government agents hot on his trail. Amusingly, he snatches multiple versions of Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist”, an appropriate choice, since cubism informs RASL’s depiction of the strange intersections of space and time generated by Rob’s technology.
Regardless of the dimensional shifts, the action stays in the same region across worlds, mostly around Tucson, Arizona. The historical differences among the various universes Rob visits are insignificant compared to what they could have been. In one world, for example, the most obvious deviation is that Robert Zimmerman never took the stage name Bob Dylan. Some might view this triviality as wasted potential, but RASL is a human-scale story, and the more personal divergences, while minor in the great scheme of things, are important for the character. For example, in one universe a doppelganger of Rob’s dead lover is still alive.
Given this narrow focus on Rob, the main fault of the series is that he is not the most sympathetic of protagonists. The weakest part of his characterization is the stilted presentation of his relationship with his best friend and colleague, Miles. Rob sleeps with Miles’ wife, Maya, and, in his grief over her death, pursues a seedy lifestyle full of strippers, prostitutes, and booze.
One of the better aspects of RASL is the way Smith fuses the science fiction elements into real, albeit embellished, historical events such as the Tunguska explosion, the Philadelphia experiment, and the life of Nikola Tesla. These flashbacks slow the narrative, but add a much-needed richness, and the comic always keeps these sequences entertaining in their own right. Smith is a master cartoonist, although his artwork in RASL could have used a more naturalistic edge to better match the grittiness of the story.
All in all, RASL is a world worth visiting.