Review of RASL

This review first appeared in The Morpheus Tales Supplement #17.

RASL #11

RASL #11

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.

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2 responses to “Review of RASL

  1. Hi, I saw your thread over on the other site where you posted the link and requested writing feedback. It took me a while to read through some reviews and I don’t want to bump the thread, so I’ll post some random thoughts here instead.

    First of all, I like that you type written reviews instead of doing video reviews. Everybody these days uses their webcam and it’s getting seriously annoying. I prefer reading stuff, and I hate having to watch through videos with my crappy internet connection. I want to read things, in my own pace.

    Another thing I want to mention is that I tend to like light-hearted reviews with some tongue-in-cheek moments. Like how Cracked articles have this not-too-serious tone, and they’ve always got silly image captions. I used to read some computer magazine simply because that mag had silly image captions, and I stopped reading when they stopped using them.
    So yeah, just saying that as a general writing tip, IMO cracking jokes makes articles more entertaining and eye-catching.

    I’m not sure if I’m good at reviewing reviews, but I thought your stuff looks pretty good. Here’s a couple of thoughts on some articles:

    “Before Watchmen Might Be Okay”
    -You mention about that “Watchmensch” details the Moore vs. DC dispute better than you could. I haven’t read Watchmensch and it’s nice to hear a new recommendation, but I still would’ve liked to read your description of what happened between Moore and DC. (I know what’s going on already, but IMO it might be better to go into a little more detail in the review for those readers who haven’t been reading about it before.)
    -When it comes to “Before Watchmen”, people have been asking whether this is a story that needs to be told at all. It’s a pretty obvious, shallow cash-grab continuing on a story that ended long ago, and the book series is walking all over the original creator’s rights as well. So, I thought it was a little odd how little the article addressed that topic. From the title, I was expecting some kind of defense of DC’s actions. (Personally, I figure that people always need to wait and see before making up their minds and I think this was the case with Before Watchmen too. But I still felt the article probably should’ve argued the whole controversy a little more.)
    -Did I get it right, did you feel that the creators behind “Before Watchmen” have “shaky” talent? Or did I misread? Because I thought a lot of them are fairly talented people.

    “Adventure Time Review”
    -Pretty nice introduction to the series. I’m glad you explained the lesbian controversy; I heard about it but never learned what exactly happened.
    -Fedex joke was good because jokes are fun. However, I wouldn’t use the term “shipping” in a professional article. Mainstream audience isn’t familiar with a fandom term like that; the word needs to be explained to the reader. It’s fine to use that word in fandom writings but IMO not in actual publications (at least not without introducing the readers to the word first).

    “Essential Stuff for Writers: Notebooks”
    -English isn’t my native language and I was often uncertain which kinds of notebooks exactly you were talking about. In this article, some images could have helped.

    Overall your writing style’s nice and I can’t spot any too glaring issues.
    …oh wait, now that I’m attempting to post a comment, I just noticed there’s two checkboxes that say nothing. But if I select area around there, apparently the boxes are about email notifications. I’m not sure if I’ve got some script messing up the writing or whether the font is white for everyone else too, but that’s the only issue I’m seeing right now, and it’s not really writing-related.

    • Thanks for the feedback, kind anon. All points noted. I’ll fix the problems I can based on your advice. (It’s especially weird I didn’t notice the check-box thing before, since it’s messed up on my end, too.) Thanks again!

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