Wednesday, February 27, 2008

RASL-DAZL

Jeff Smith's long-anticipated RASL was released today. Like many other folks who I expect will be buying this book, I was a big fan of Bone and are getting this primarily on the strength of Smith's name.

Let me start by saying that there are no "stupid, stupid rat creatures" in issue #1. I doubt anybody was seriously expecting to see them make an actual appearance here, but there are no metaphoric ones either. RASL has a very different feel and tone than Bone -- there's really no humor or levity at all. No amazingly fast oncoming winters, no cow races, no Ted the Bug, no giant parade balloons being worshiped as gods, no "Fone Bone! What's yours?!" or anything that you might remotely connect with Smith's earlier work. Bottom line: don't buy RASL expecting to see Smith rehash old material.

So what is RASL? The story opens with the lead character -- battered, bruised and bloody -- stumbling through a desert. We flash back to his breaking into an eighth-story apartment to steal Picasso's The Old Guitarist. After grabbing the painting, he spray paints "RASL" on the wall and soon finds himself being chased into a back alley by the police. He dons what looks like a couple of jet turbines and teleports away. He goes to a bar to recover from the effects of the teleport, where he learns he's teleported to the wrong place. Before he can act on that, however, he finds himself being shot at by a weasel-faced man in a black trenchcoat. A chase and a fight scene later, RASL turns his attention to trying to get home. The issue ends flashing forward again to RASL's trek through the desert.

There's lots of intriguing story points here. Obviously, there's the question of how RASL wound up in the desert and, although I skimmed over the point in my summary above, there's the big question of how RASL wound up in the wrong place. Because it's not just a matter of being in Manhattan instead of the Bronx, it's a matter of landing in a world where Bob Dylan is known and publicized as Robert Zimmerman (his given name). There's certainly a question about this so-called "Siren" who's after RASL, as well as how RASL came by the Kirby-inspired machinery to teleport around. There's a number of minor questions, too, such as whether or not the character is indeed called "RASL" or if that is, as the cover coloring of the book suggests, an acronym for something else; and who or what is the "Maya" that RASL has tattooed on his bicep? From a story perspective, it's an excellent start to get the reader interested, involved and coming back for more.

What I found more noteworthy, though, was the actual art of the storytelling itself. Smith has proven himself, over the years, to be a consummate master of comic book art. A large part of the humor we saw in Bone only worked because he has an incredible sense of design/timing when it comes to graphic storytelling. And, while he doesn't use humor here, that same sense of design/timing is clearly on display as Smith does a very effective job at giving readers exactly what they need to know to jump from panel to panel throughout the entire book. What's more, he seems to make a pointed effort to let his artwork tell the story. Captions and narration are kept to a minimum and, indeed, almost half of the pages have no dialogue on them at all. As many artists will no doubt tell you, that is a much more difficult task than might be readily apparent.

There is, in fact, a third "plot" running through the book as RASL idly throws pebbles into a body of water. These story elements are interspersed throughout the book and shows off more of Smith's brilliance as he navigates us through those, the "main" story, and the framing sequence with amazing ease. What's more, he does all this without falling back to "traditional" comic book trappings like scalloping the panel edges or changing artistic styles.

For as much as I've enjoyed Smith's work in the past, this first issue of RASL is the best work I've seen from him and I'm eagerly looking forward to seeing what else he does with this book. I would highly recommend this to anyone -- even if you don't care for this particular type of story, it's well worth looking at just to see a master craftsman working at the top of his game.

2 comments:

Don MacPherson said...

Great review, and we agree on the strength of the artistry and the hook of the emphasis on mystery.

I don't have my copy in front of me at the moment, but we disagree on one panel, in which the hero looks back and refers to "sirens."

I don't think he's being pursued by a mysterious group known as "Sirens." I interpreted that to mean that the violence and gunplay attracted the attention of the police, and when he hears sirens, he knows he has to make himself scarce.

Admittedly, I may be the one who's misinterpreted that element in the story.

Sean Kleefeld said...

Thanks, Don. I enjoyed your review as well.

Your interpretation of the "Sirens" reference is much more obvious than mine. Especially in light of the mysterious character not having any identification. I have no idea why that never occurred to me. I'd bet that I'm the one who's doing the misinterpreting here.

Still, I need to call these otherwise nameless characters (both "RASL" and the "Siren") something! :)