Daily Graphic Novel Recommendation 134

RASL

by Jeff Smith
Genre notes: sci-fi-ish crime-ish noir-ish thriller-y thing
520 pages
ISBN: 1888963204 (Amazon)

Jeff Smith’s RASL is sometimes billed as sci-fi noir but is really only sci-fi that’s influenced by noir. And that’s okay. It’s okay because, for the most part, the book is really good. And at the end of the day, even if the thing you want more than anything is Billy Madison 2, you’re still gonna be pretty happy if you get Last of the Mohicans instead. Apple? Orange? Who cares so long as it’s tasty and refreshing.

One of the most immediately discernible positives about Smith’s book is the art. If you were a fan of Bone's illustrations, you’ll be right at home in RASL. My young daughter saw me reading the book, looked inside, and asked if it was a new volume of Bone. She’s three-and-a-half and she could pick out Smith’s style at a glance. He’s built the book around the same strong use of positive and negative spaces, the same fine-lined figurework and exaggerated postures. And just like Bone was dominated by beautiful pages, so is RASL—even if the New Mexican desert isn’t half so lush as Thorn’s Valley.

Like his prior opus, this new work allows Smith to explore the divide between the visible and the spiritual, between the empiric and the elusive. The scientist-on-the-lam hero, Rob, is caught between mysteries his methodologies have a chance at explaining and the myths that roam his world unheeding the requirements of physics or the natural laws. He encounters the god he trusts, Nikola Tesla, through diaries, journals, and academic papers. He blunders into a god he’ll never understand through simple acts of providence. Whether he encounters the divine or not is something that Rob is not equipped to discern. And in the end it doesn’t really matter. After all, this is a thriller, dammit, and Rob’s trajectory and the conventions of his narrative will not allow us to dwell overlong on philosophy or metaphysics.

We can’t forget that Smith is modeling Rob’s journey on the comfortable formulae so native to the noirish mode. Rob’s a dirty angel, but he’s our angel. He’s morally tarnished (and was so even before he went off the grid to flee a government bent on information and revenge), stealing art and shacking up with a prostitute. He’s a man of deep appetites and his use of Tesla-inspired world-skipping technologies only serves to enlarge his antiheroism and needs.

And as much as he’s caught between science and spirit, Rob finds himself wedged between any number of other duets. Some abstract, others less so. Tormented by the ghost of a scientist and the ghost of a woman. Crushed between his rational mind and his hungering passions. Full-bodied romance and the stale whiskey of base desire. Selfishness and sacrifice. He’s the hooker with a heart of gold, only he’s selling his soul instead of his body. He could be a character out of Chandler if only he had a chance with the snappy patter. He’s hard-boiled alright, but not much of a talker. He’s closer to John McClane than he is to Philip Marlowe.

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Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:

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