Posted by Don MacPherson on February 27th, 2008
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Jeff Smith
Publisher: Cartoon Books
Price: $3.50 US (not printed on publication)
The new Indy Movement is underway with the release of a new, self-published title from one of the three biggest names in comics self-publishing. Jeff Smith amazed us all with Bone, and he even broke through an industry barrier, capturing the attention of non-comics readers, tapping into a wider market. Last year’s announcement of this new project was one of the more exciting pieces of North American comics news, and now, it’s finally here. It’s a delight to see more work from Jeff Smith, but what’s most interesting and engaging about RASL is the dramatic shift it represents in his storytelling. The softness and expressiveness we’ve come to expect from Smith’s art is still apparent, but the subject matter and protagonist boast a harsher tone, making for a surprising change. Don’t misunderstand me, though… it’s a welcome change. It’s entertaining to watch Smith exercise some different muscles in terms of plotting, characterization and dialogue. His rogue thief hero and the mystery that surrounds him will no doubt appeal to just about any reader, and not just those familiar with Smith’s work or fans of the medium.
A young thief plies his trade in style, pilfering the homes of the rich of art treasures, and he does so in a rather unusual manner. The burglar has access to some mysterious kind of technology that allows him to move through time and space to avoid capture, but his latest job has ended with an unexpected side trip. Not only does he find himself in a world that’s not his own, he’s also the target of a gunman. Why he steals, how he came to possess technology that access “the Drift” and why he’s being hunted are not known.
I’ve said the same softness that distinguishes Smith’s cartooning style is to be found here, but he also brings some grit to the visuals as well. The rogue at the center of the story certainly boasts a grizzled look, even bordering on nasty in appearance. Nevertheless, Smith instills a boyishness in his look as well, and it’s that visual cue that brings vulnerability and even likeability to the unnamed character. Smith makes excellent use of inky, black narrative panels, reinforcing the tension in the script. His design for the inhuman gunman is thoroughly effective. The lithe, almost reptilian look is creepy and breaks through the almost-normalcy of the backdrop.
RASL offers a great balance among a number of genres of fiction. The dominant atmosphere is a noir one, in keeping with the criminal element that characterizes the main character’s everyday life. But Smith also includes science-fiction and supernatural elements as well, not to mention dark conspiracies and even a hint of a spiritual journey. I find Smith’s juxtaposition of the more incredible elements of the story with mundane settings to be rather intriguing. Despite the impossibility of what the hero is able to do, there’s not really a sense of wonder at play in the story… at least, not one experienced by the characters.
For now, all we know of the story’s title is that it’s the main character’s tag/calling card when he carries out a heist. Whether or not it’s his name, an anagram or acronym remains to be seen. I rather enjoyed the mystery of it all. If anything, RASL is shaping up to be a mystery, just not in the “whodunnit” sense. We know nothing of the main character save his skills and his temperament. We know nothing of the Drift technology, how he came to possess it or why some kind of tribal mask accompanies the devices. We don’t know who his enemies, and apparently, neither does he. One could argue that Smith provides us with little more than a series of teases, offering no answers and no clear plot direction. And if others are like me, the audience will lap it up and come back begging for more.
According to Tom Spurgeon, today is Jeff Smith’s birthday, but he’s the one who’s delivered his readers a gift. 9/10