RASL #1-7 review by Ian Burns

Posted by on April 29th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Jeff Smith; Cartoon Books; 32 pp., $3.50 ; B&W

An art thief named RASL hops through dimensional barriers, hiding out on various parallel worlds. Because he only “drifts” laterally, or without being displaced in space and time, RASL operates in the same geographical and temporal setting in each dimension. The worlds are almost identical to our own (let’s call it “A”), and any inconsistencies lie hidden in pop-cultural minutiae: perhaps McDonald’s of Earth A is McDaniel’s on Earth B, on Earth C Apple Inc. just released their new iTab or, as in RASL #1, the Bob Dylan of Earth A isn’t Bob Dylan on another. Therefore, because of these trivial differences, RASL can easily acclimate to each parallel world. If trans-dimensional travel provides RASL with a hideout only, is it really necessary? If RASL operated in the same town on the same world would the story lose anything?

RASL #1-#3 answers these questions with a resounding ?yes?; the intrigue of the opening arc would be absent without the trans-dimensional device. The idea of parallel worlds as hideouts is simple and effective, but there’s enough foreshadowing to suggest the idea has a larger significance. But from #4 to the most current, #7, the feverish, minimalistic storytelling Smith utilized in #1-#3 is replaced by clunky captions and exhaustive exposition, and as a result RASL loses a lot of momentum.

It’s troubling because the narrative is still promising. Before he became RASL, the inter-dimensional fugitive, Robert Johnson was a scientist/inventor specializing in electromagnetism. He and his former partner Milo were ardent admirers of Nikola Tesla, and based their ultimate project, the St. George Array, on Tesla’s dream of an ultimate anti-weapon. Fearing that the St. George Array would instead be used as a terrifying electromagnetic weapon, Robert shifted his focus to his ancillary project, the dimension-hopping T-Suits, one of which he stole while sabotaging the St. George Array.

The theft and sabotage is the crux of RASL’s adventure thus far, but in order to have the proper emotional weight, the flashback (beginning in #3 and culminating in #7)  needs to show intimate moments with Robert and Milo, two life-long friends with united visions broken apart by moral discrepancies. Instead, Smith reveals, predominantly, only tired tricks: Robert sleeps with Milo’s wife, Milo sells out to the government, both men accuse the other of changing. And when their slow-boiling conflict finally climaxes, when Robert and Milo’s friendship is painfully torn apart, Robert devolves into a flat, simpering character. For an unknown period of time, Robert has been keeping quite a secret from Milo: he has acquired, and studied, Tesla’s hidden journals. “You want me to shut down a multi-billion dollar program,” Milo asks Robert in their final confrontation,” — my life’s work — because of parallel universes? Where’s your proof?” Robert repliesm, without preamble, “Actually my figures are based on writings I found in some of Tesla’s journals.” The admission is not only disingenuous, but also unrealistic. The most challenging moment in a lifelong friendship should be tense and passionate; if not, it’s difficult for the reader to understand why two people were even friends in the first place, and if they weren’t, why should the reader care? Smith tries to make up for it in the ensuing argument but, sadly, the scene lacks the spark that starts the fire.

Still, Smith can dazzle when he needs to. In RASL’s first confrontation with Sal, the villain who hunts him across parallel worlds, RASL sits in a bar, drinking himself silly and smoking a cigar. Suddenly he realizes he’s on the wrong world, and could be in danger. RASL looks behind him. Under the chiaroscuro lighting of the bar’s front door, a shadow creeps along the wall. Then, a panel later, Sal’s sick serpent-face leers around the corner, peering at us, preparing to pounce. Smith choreographs this entrance in a way that pulls the reader into RASL’s point of view. It’s a four-panel page: the first panel has RASL turning to look at the door, his face is still visible; in the second panel where the shadow appears, RASL’s back is to us; and in the third panel, which is Sal’s entrance, we’re in RASL’s point of view in time to confront Sal ourselves.

Because this scene is almost entirely wordless, it moves at a frenzied pace. In fact, the only word is in a caption of RASL’s, placed two panels after he spots Sal. “Shit,” RASL thinks, dodging bullets and stumbling toward the back door. From that caption on it’s all sound effects until RASL knocks Sal out in an alley behind the bar.

Action sequences are almost always enhanced by verbal brevity. A brawl does not require a soliloquy from both hero and villain. Smith capitalizes on this idea by controlling the pace of this sequence with body language and posture. For example, when Sal pauses in the alley, searching for RASL, the reader is invited to pause with him. Sal’s posture is stiff and he holds his pistol lazily, aimed at nothing in particular. Then, over the course of three panels, Sal slowly turns, finally spotting RASL perched on nearby roof, his pistol tilting upward as if it were dictating a shift in the location of the action.

Although the complaints about story above can, to a certain extent, be balanced by Smith’s elegant visual narration, RASL needs to return to its fever-pitched roots if it’s to keep the convoluted plot palatable.

all images ©2010 Jeff Smith

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