The System of the World : Jeff Smith – “Rasl”

“Give them some of the old rasl-dasl” – Kander and Ebb, “Chicago”

ABOVE: Rhymes with ASL.

Jeff Smith’s Cartoon Books imprint was home for a while to Linda Medley’s “Castle Waiting.” “Castle Waiting” and “Bone,” ( Jeff’s epic name-maker) share an all-ages, timeless sensibility. Not so for “RASL”. It deliberately swings away from “Bone” toward decidedly adult sci-fi noir.

Few graphic artists can easily go from rated G to rated R while retaining their visual identity (Osamu Tezuka aside, but then  he made everything seem easy.) Smith is one of those, and he takes to genre-hopping gleefully, leaving no doubt that he can draw beat-up boozers and solicitous strippers  as skillfully as he drew adorable plush toys. “RASL” abandons the cutesy evocation of Walt Kelly, and heads for Paul Pope territory. “Blade Runner” meets “The Bourne Identity” may be a little misleading, but it’s Smith’s own favored pitch. (His current project, the web-comic Tuki, is another thematic departure.)

RASL (a nickname for the hero which I will explain / spoil below) is an art thief who uses “T-suits” to teleport into alternate universes, (or “drift.”) When not stealing valuable blue-period Picassos from slightly divergent realities (such as one in which Robert Zimmerman never bothered to come up with a stage name), RASL runs away from a very memorable lizard-looking thug called Sal, who’s after Nikola Tesla’s lost journals – the ones that have allowed RASL his scientific breakthrough.

ABOVE: Sal had a rare deformity that made him look like a reptile, but don’t judge him for that. Instead, judge him for his inability to hit easy targets.

Sal and a couple of other characters, (in particular a very effective Creepy Little Girl TM) reminded me of Junji Ito’s facility with deformity. But Smith doesn’t really stray into horror mode (Sal isn’t a monster, he’s just drawn that way.) It’s fringe science and conspiracy chatter that dominates “RASL.”

But, most of all, “RASL” is dominated by the figure of Nikola Tesla, and even serves as a biographical primer of the magician behind AC currents, the Tesla coil, the Wireless World System, and, some say, the DEATH RAY.

ABOVE: You know you’re no longer “obscure” when David Bowie plays you in a Christopher Nolan movie.

“Tesla understood the universe, he just didn’t understand the world.”

The story of how Nikola Tesla got screwed over by Thomas Edison ( and possibly J. P. Morgan, and Albert Einstein, and the universe at large), of how he rose to electrifying heights and wound up bankrupt and feeding wounded pigeons in his loneliness, has become one of our most persistent techno-myths in recent years, to such an extent that I no longer buy him as the self-effacing pauper which the sporadically wealthy showman never really was. (REAL obscurities don’t get referred to in “Family Guy,” or wind up on the cover of Time magazine. TWICE. )

ABOVE: Time after Time

Geeks appreciative of underdogginess  have turned Tesla into a veritable human nexus of conspiracy theories, at the center of everything from the Tunguska Incident to the Philadelphia Experiment to the Roswell Crash… and so he’s perfect at the center of “RASL.”

ABOVE: Ride the lightning.

For an amusing take on Tesla’s life, why go further than “The Oatmeal”? If the “hyperbole and a half” praise seems a little too unquestioning and breathless, it IS, but Tesla seems to provoke that in geeks. After all, this is a man who brought down lightning from the skies. He, far more corporeal than Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, is the Modern Prometheus.

Although a quiet sunset feeding pigeons beats becoming eagle food.



I particularly love Jeff’s covers for the series (with the distinctively colored RA and SL): they have a glow-in-the-dark energy that invites cosmic dreaming.

ABOVE: RASL was a huge fan of Maya Angelou’s early work.



I wasn’t all that satisfied with the explanation for the acronym RASL (“Romance at the Speed of Light.” Our hero picks it up after an uncharacteristically poetic comment by his love interest.) It’s saying something that in a story about alternate universes and fringe science and a Creepy Little Girl (TM) named God, the only thing that rings false is that little word.

As an acronym, it’s strained enough to be a villainous organization from a James Bond novel ( Why not RATSOL, for that matter?) As a thematic allusion, it doesn’t fit the not-that-romantic nature of the story. As an assumed name, it’s  it’s just not believable: “I think from now I’ll call myself Romance at the Speed of Light!”

Perhaps all the Tesla talk put me in conspiracy mode, but I can suggest a much cleverer, masonic explanation, which I hope Jeff Smith borrows whenever he gets asked at conventions what he was thinking with the dopey name:

Ra and Sol are, respectively, the Egyptian and Latin names for the Sun. In a graphic novel about cosmic energy sources, how much more fitting would  THAT be? It’s never too late to fix it, Jeff!

ABOVE: It’s never too late to fix it!


6 thoughts on “The System of the World : Jeff Smith – “Rasl”

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