Jeff Smith is mostly known for his all-ages comic Bone, but he just devoted over four years to RASL, a science fiction adventure aimed at adults. It’s best feature is the great black-and-white art you would expect from him: Distinctive characters and strong, fluid line-work make for clear, visually-pleasing pages. For this story, he drew slightly grittier and more detailed pictures, which gets in the way of the fluid action that made Bone scan like a moving animation. It’s still a pleasure to see Smith’s artwork, of course. Despite that, this story never became that interesting.
The main character, who goes by the alias “RASL”, is introduced as a hedonistic art thief with a device that lets him travel between parallel universes. But a “lizard-faced man” is also jumping between worlds to hunt him, a wide-eyed mute girl appears and disappears mysteriously, and it turns out that RASL is actually an on-the-run scientist. After the first third of the series, that art-thief anti-hero is forgotten, and in his place is a man racing to stop short-sighted scientists from experiments that threaten the world. (The perfect example of this change in atmosphere is the effect that “drifting” between worlds has on RASL. At the start, it’s established that each drift takes such a toll on his mind and body that he needs to lose himself in a drunken, womanizing haze to recover. By the end, he and the villains are jumping between worlds every few minutes, and staying alert enough to trade punches immediately afterwards.)
Despite a lot of strange mysteries on the periphery, the core story could be a by-the-numbers action movie, probably starring someone midway between Nicolas Cage and Bruce Willis. The main qualification to be a “scientist” is the ability to handle yourself in a fight, and RASL’s big breakthrough had more to do with discovering Nikolai Tesla’s lost notes than with research or experiments. It’s all perfectly fun popcorn fare enhanced by occasional philosophical puzzles, but it would need a couple more explosions and car chases to qualify as a summer blockbuster.
In some ways, it’s like Smith bit off more than he could chew: All the extra bits made this confusing to follow while it was being serialized (with long delays between the two to four issues per year), but if you read it at one time, it’s difficult to reconcile the set-up of the early issues with the plot that takes over. Interesting, but never actually satisfying, this is a half-successful experiment from one of the great cartoonists of our time. It’s good to know that Smith isn’t going to be pigeonholed by the runaway success of Bone, but I hope he finds a better mix of elements for his next story.