Friday, January 31, 2014

RASL, Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith, whose sable brushes brought us Bone, has a new collected epic to burden your bookshelf with: RASL.

Smith’s work is a genuine labour of love. A self-publisher from the very beginning, he crafts the sorts of stories he’d like to see — something recognizable if not immediately familiar, but also recognizably different, and pleasantly so. His characters are easily identifiable “types” — heroes, antiheroes, put-upon secondary cast members, etc. — he invests with subtle call-and-response flourishes rarely seen in the comics industry. Those of us who retrieved the Bone books off our kids’ bedroom floors were astonished to see the sensibilities of Carl Barks and Walt Kelly merging seamlessly within a Lord Of The Rings epic cycle.*

Bone: all this, and "Good Girl" art, too!

RASL is similarly cracked: “a gritty, hard-boiled tale of an inter-dimensional art thief caught between dark government forces and the mysterious powers of the universe itself,” according to Smith’s own press kit. I’m not sure “gritty” applies — other than Will Eisner, whose depiction of NYC’s litter-strewn alleys evoked genuine stink, you’d have to go deep Underground to find “gritty” — but “hard-boiled” seems about right.

During the early chapters of RASL I was reminded of my first reading of Frank Miller’s original “Marvin” storyline in what became the Sin City franchise. Dark Horse publishers had clearly given Miller the go-ahead to do whatever he wanted, and what followed was a parade of, “You mean I can do this?” followed by, “And how about this?” and guttural guffawing ever after. Smith seems similarly energized, giving himself, for example, the freedom to explore the female form and the desire it elicits.

Unlike Miller, Smith is disinclined to settle for a surface exploration of noir tropes, but instead uses them to launch into some physical and even metaphysical questions with unusual depth.

I’ll get into some of that in my next post — but forewarning, there will be spoilers. Nothing I say would have ruined my read of the book, had I known about them in advance. But to each their own. Proceed at your own discretion, when posted.

RASL is an advancement of ability for Smith, and a recommended read. My only caveat: holy cow, what a (physical) monster. I do not have room for that on my shelves (I gratefully borrowed a copy from the local library), and look forward to a day when I can purchase the digital edition.

More anon. Smith offers a RASL preview, here.

*The first six volumes of Bone still astonish, with their artful juxtaposition of slapstick and yearning, menace and subversion of expectations. The final three, however, settle into an apocalyptic rut—entertaining enough, but no real surprises.

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