September 9, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

raslRASL by Jeff Smith


Everyone knows Jeff Smith, the creative wunderkind behind Bone. I’m not sure if everyone knows what he’s done since then, like this book, RASL. I didn’t, not until a year or so ago, and it still took me until now to get around to reading it. It just seemed like something far different from what Smith did with Bone, so it took me a while to convince myself to read it.

RASL is a surprise, because it’s such a departure from Bone. The premise of the story involves a scientist turned art thief, Robert Johnson, who travels between parallel worlds in order to protect the world from itself. Once he travels between worlds, he realizes the danger the technology poses to all of them, and begins working to undermine his own research. His two associates — his best friend and wife, with whom Robert is also involved — try to work against him, and that forms the conflict of the story.

The story draws on history as much as science fiction. It references Tesla’s inventions and research, and even brings in the fabled Philadelphia Experiment. All of it ties in with the story well enough to feel seamless, but not so much that the story doesn’t have a lot of loose ends. There are several characters who enter the story just to serve a plot point and are then dropped. Smith has given the story a sense of otherworldliness, not just through the plot but via the artwork, but that’s not a justifiable way to discard characters when they’re no longer useful.

In addition, there’s a vein of misogyny to the story that doesn’t rest well with me. Robert is our hero, and all the women who surround him in the story are there simply to move him along. Maya, his old associate, doesn’t appear to be as involved in the research as Robert and her husband, and her disappearance just serves as further motivation for Robert. Later, his new girlfriend is killed, again to give Robert more motivation to move forward. I’ve only recently heard of the “woman in the fridge” trope, but it feels like Smith threw two of them into his story.

The characters also don’t have the amount of depth I would have expected for this kind of work. Robert isn’t a likable character, even if he is somewhat sympathetic, and he’s the only character given any kind of real background. Everyone else in the story is just window dressing, including the protagonist, whose entire background seems to be “Kill Robert”. Aside from working for the government, he doesn’t have any motivation, and while being evil for evil’s sake works for some stories, it doesn’t work here. Plus, as odd as that character looks, I was surprised there wasn’t any attention paid to why he looks that way. at the very least, I thought it would be related to Robert’s research, creating a factor similar to that between Lex Luthor and Superman, but it was never resolved, or even discussed. It seemed like a missed opportunity.

Regarding the artwork, there were several times when it simply didn’t work. I’m willing to give Smith some leeway when it comes to how he portrays his characters here — the shifting between worlds would reasonably explain subtle changes in their looks — but sometimes characters just didn’t look right from one panel to the next. Robert’s forehead sometimes got tremendous, as did his jaw, and other characters had the same kinds of transformations. Add into that the fact that the sweat on their brows (and there’s a lot of it) was drawn as single droplets, and it winds up taking the reader out of the story more often than not.

The main difference between this style and that of Bone is that this one is intended to be realistic, while Bone didn’t. Sure, Smith populated that story with human characters, but with the Bones and the Rat Creatures, he indicated early in the story that this wasn’t our world. RASL is clearly meant to be our world, and when the style deviates from the norm, it’s too distracting.

While I was reading this book, I was fully engaged, but when I stopped to think about it after I finished it, I couldn’t make sense of a lot of it. The story is ambitious and entertaining, but still seems to miss the mark. Fans of Bone probably won’t be able to resist the book, but I can’t help but feel like they’re going to be disappointed, too. It’s just too different in style and tone to capture that same scope of Smith’s first story, and like it or not, it’s the story for which he will always be known.

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