[16 February 2009]
When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Fantastic Four at the height of the Cold War, the space race was a matter of tremendous international importance. Former Nazi scientists, recruited by the United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration, worked tirelessly against Mother Russia and her regime of “godless Communists”. Lee and Kirby’s heroes— The Human Torch, The Thing, Mr. Fantastic and The Invisible Girl (now The Invisible Woman, thankyouverymuch)—used an experimental spacecraft as they slipped the surly bonds of earth and touched the face of science.
Over the last few years, many comic book creators have tried to recapture the spirit of those stories and the imagination of the initial readers of those four pivotal science adventurers. Series like Warren Ellis’ Doktor Sleepless, Mike Allred’s Red Rocket 7, and Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man have attempted—and quite valiantly—to return high concept science fiction to an art form where it so clearly belongs. This is being done in a period of even greater political and cultural turmoil, as the world begins to be torn asunder by wars both holy and secular, and politicians find new excuses on a regular basis to deprive their citizens of their basic rights.
Most of these books feature their heroes attempting to outrun something, usually a person or organization. Furthermore, all of these books always feature lead characters trying to submerge the deepest, darkest parts of their own souls, lest they be devoured. The titular McGuffin of Red Rocket 7 was eventually doomed by alien assassins and his secret past as an extraterrestrial clone, just as Yorick Brown, the protagonist of Y: The Last Man, attempted to outrun both the Israeli army and his burgeoning emotional maturity before both finally caught up with him
Such is the case with the latest heir of Lee and Kirby’s Silver Age superheroes, Jeff Smith’s RASL. Smith’s first self-published work since Bone tells the story of a dimension-hopping thief on the run from what appears to be a gun-toting humanoid lizard who wants him dead, as well as the secrets of his own past. Smith has made a very clear departure from his previous work. It’s darker, moodier and more adult than Bone or Shazam! and the Monster Society of Evil. All the sex, drinking, realistic violence and drugs that didn’t wind up in Shazam! have found their way to this wondrous little story in a thankfully non-gratuitous, non-exploitative fashion.
It’s more character-driven, less epic and feels a whole lot more personal. Smith has also made the leap from Lord of the Rings-style fantasy to hardcore—yet somehow small-scale—sci-fi. Scientifically, everything from Einstein to Tesla to String Theory is included in the framework of Smith’s latest fictional universe, and that’s no small feat, especially in a book that revolves more around characters and emotions than ideas and theories.
Smith’s writing is the tightest it’s ever been with RASL. The confusion, distress and drive felt by the lead, Rasl (or Robert), is echoed by the reader, and helps make the series an extremely addictive work. Sadly, this can serve to infuriate the reader as the series ships quarterly. The art is strong, and is more reminiscent of the darker segments of Bone than the happy-go-lucky portions.
The oversized trade paperback collection allows Smith’s art to really shine, as it is shown in its greatest possible detail. Even after reading the inaugural three issues in their original format, it felt as if the most beautiful television show I had ever seen had been transferred to the big screen in the highest definition possible.
The collected edition also allows Smith to fix what he must have perceived as “mistakes” in his writing, with the addition or removal of the occasional word. The most perplexing segment of the trade, however, is a three-page “deleted” sequence inserted into the third chapter that did not exist in the original third issue, serving to explain how Robert obtains a Jeep, a plot point that never really seemed like it needed filling in. In these three pages, Robert meets a Joshua Norton stand-in who refers to himself as “The President of the Street”. The reinsertion of this scene into the narrative only serves to slow the story down, which is probably why it was removed in the first place, especially given the taut, intense nature of the narrative. Unless “The President” factors into the story at a later date, there’s really no purpose into splicing this scene back into the book.
Clearly treading in the footsteps of Lee & Kirby—and following in the recent “hardcore science-fiction” revival attempts of Ellis, Allred and Vaughan—Smith’s RASL is an exciting, thought-provoking, thoroughly addictive read, with just the right aura of mystery injected into its heart. It’s a shame that it’s not a monthly series, but if the length between issues allows for a consistently high quality, then it is well worth the wait to fans of sci-fi, both old and new. And in the long run, isn’t the wait—the anticipation—the greatest part of a chase?