Note: Steve Bissette and I are teaching a course in contemporary comics history (Survey of the Drawn Story II, as it’s properly known). Our students are required to submit an essay, in blog form, on an aspect of contemporary comics history. They are restricted to the period of 1969 – present.
Today’s essay is by Josh Kramer. Enjoy!
– Robyn Chapman
In the Shadows with Jeff Smith’s RASL
by Josh Kramer
Jeff Smith is of course the cartoonist responsible for Bone. Smith describes this 13-year work as his love poem to Donald Duck, Walt Kelly’s Pogo, and classic Disney animation. Smith’s Cartoon Books was heralded as one of the pillars of self-publishing throughout the 1990s, and the series lives on in a complete 1,332-page one-volume collection and in color versions published by Scholastic. In the nearly twenty years since Bone began, it has gone on to become a canonical work, especially for young readers.
Now, Smith works to escape shadow of Bone without abandoning his readers. While inking some of the last issues of Bone in 2000, Smith watched movies like The Bourne Identity, and began thinking about drawing action-filled sequences set in modern times. He wanted to do a new long comics project that was the anti-Bone. In interviews, Smith has described wanting to do an “adult book” that could have, among other things, drinking, smoking, and sex in it.
And indeed, Smith’s current title is decidedly unlike the work he is best known for. RASL is a story about an inter-dimensional art thief, who uses technology he has invented to jump back and forth stealing the same paintings from different dimensions. He is a scientist who talks with a Raymond Chandler narration. But the titular character is no Humphrey Bogart; his girlfriend is a prostitute and he gambles and drinks away all his money. Smith combines a love of psychics and fringe science with a love of noir storytelling and aesthetics. Two questions loom over this work: Would a rotten character work in the lead part? And, would Smith be successful with another long-running title so different from Bone?
In regards to the first question, Smith’s protagonist works extremely well as a mysterious anti-hero. There’s nothing “normal” about Rasl, but he is instantly relatable. In terms of genre, Smith somehow manages to make fringe science and detective fiction fit together brilliantly with a splash of Native American myth. The uncertainty of quantum mechanics jives perfectly with detective-style narration. This isn’t classic noir where there’s some big mystery that the reader is being distracted from by incomprehensible twists and turns. However, it keeps to the genre in that more and more is revealed as the story progresses, now well into inventor Nicola Tesla’s crazy biography. Smith is currently working on RASL number seven, and so far issue number five stands out as the best. Tangential elements of the plot come together, and the story really begins to make sense.
Beyond the basic story there are fascinating things going on under the surface. Rasl uses thermo-magnetic engines to travel in “the drift.” This is a painful process and it takes days for him to recover. To return to a specific plane, he has to bring his focus to “zen perfection.” Perhaps Rasl’s flight between two extremes is a metaphoric representation of Smith’s own artistic struggle. Smith also employs a very successful narrative device of cutting up a sequence with other panels, like a stone falling into water or a “man in the maze” symbol.
Even more interesting to me are the changes taking place in Jeff Smith’s art. One of the key elements of noir style is of course, noir. While Bone had plenty of spot blacks, RASL may be more black overall—rich with the contrast of the Arizona landscape. Perhaps the southwest setting is a tribute to George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, of which Smith read heavily at the Ohio State University library as a young cartoonist. In fact, comics-heads might be interested to know that Smith now uses some of Milton Canniff’s own brushes that were given to him by the OSU library. Everything else is drawn in blue pencil and inked with a Winsor Newton Series Seven size one brush.
And it’s those tiny details drawn with that tiny brush that make this a Jeff Smith comic. Just as Smith traveled to Nepal to sketch and study Katmandu as a model for the city of Atheia towards the end of Bone, Smith’s research in RASL is apparent. Because all of the parts of the story, even the more sci-fi elements, are presented plausibly, nothing distracts and pulls the reader out of the narrative. Smith cites his influences for RASL as movies like Blade Runner and books like those by Arthur C. Clark, where the stories tend to transcend normal genre conventions.
As for the question of success, the first issue of RASL sold 20,000 copies when it debuted in February 2008. It’s hard to put this number is perspective, but it still seems affirmative in the context of contemporary direct market sales. Smith originally planned for RASL to last only three years. However, after writing three issues a year for 2008 and into 2009, Smith announced on his blog in May 2009 that beginning with RASL number five, the book would be 24 instead of 22 pages. Also, starting with number six, Smith changed to a “bimonthly” or “at least five times a year” schedule.
Every incarnation of Bone seems to get either smaller or more colorful. Because of this, Smith had wanted to print the individual issues of RASL at a larger size, but retailers warned him not to, so it has been printed at normal comic book size from the beginning. However, the paperback collections will be nearly twice-up at 10 inches by 14 inches. The first six issues and the oversize collection of issues one through four—called The Drift—are available wherever comics are sold or through Cartoon Books on Boneville.com
– Josh Kramer
Note: Information for this post was taken from interviews in the posts and podcasts of Indie Spinner Rack, Comixology, iFanboy, The Electric Playground, SDCC’s Panels message board, and last year’s graduation ceremony of The Center for Cartoon Studies.