Book Review

Review: RASL by Jeff Smith

B-

Title: RASL
Author: Jeff Smith
Publication Info: Cartoon Books 2013
ISBN: 978-188896337-3
Genre: Graphic Novel

Book RASL

Sometimes, I see my job as going through a vast collection of books that are clearly labeled as “ROMANCE” and telling you what I think of them.  But at other times, I venture into the basement with a malfunctioning flashlight so I can let you know whether that noise we heard was a serial killer or a fluffy kitty cat.  This is a convoluted way of saying that I heard some buzz about RASL having a great romance – and it doesn’t.  But, it’s a very good noir science fiction comic.

RASL tells the story of this guy, Rasl, who travels across parallel universes stealing and selling art.  Rasl was once a scientist named Robert, who used the lost journals of Nikola Tesla to invent a machine, kind of like a jet pack, that he can use to travel back and forth between parallel worlds.  While he was working on this project, he was working with two other scientists – his best friend, Miles, and Miles’ wife, Maya.  Miles, Rob, and Maya were trying to use this same technology to create a massive source of energy.  When Robert discovers that Miles is determined to proceed with experiments despite them being shown to be unsafe, and that Miles is selling the technology to the military, Robert blows up the equipment and becomes Rasl:  rogue-scientist-art-thief.

I started reading RASL because I heard that there’s an epic romance between Rasl and Maya, who is the wife of Rasl’s best friend.  Well, I don’t care how many times Rasl gets a tattoo that says “Maya” acoss his manly bicep – there’s no romance here.  There’s sex, and there’s death of the “women in refrigerators” variety, but not romance.  Romance suggests love, and there’s not much evidence of love in the air, partly because in keeping with the tradition of noir, no one knows who anybody really is or what they really want.

Rasl got his name from a joke of Maya’s – she called him Rasl because it’s short for “romance at the speed of light”.  But there’s not much of a relationship between Rasl and Maya – they are having an affair, but we don’t see the affair start or any reason why they are drawn to one another except for sex.  It’s clearly a powerful tie.  As Annie, another woman Rasl is sleeping with, puts it,

If you really wanted to fix things between you and your partner, you’d quit sleeping with his wife…You won’t, though.  You’re an addictive personality, Rob.  And I don’t trust this Maya.  She’s up to something.  But that won’t stop you.  You’ll run back into her arms first chance you get.

There doesn’t seem to be any content to this obsession.  Maya is also a scientist, but she’s never seen doing science.  There’s a lot of sex, but no relationship, even though Maya tells Rob she loves him and even though he spends his life physically and emotionally scarred when he loses her.  The women in this story come across as symbols, not people, and so there’s no weight to any relationships.  In Maya’s case, she’s a symbol of sexual obsession, loss, and manipulation.

Then there’s Maya’s parallel universe doppelganger, Uma.  She’s drawn to Rasl and follows him around like a puppy, and he’s drawn to her because she looks like Maya, and she has cash, a place to stay, a shower, and coffee.  BTW, Maya and Uma are both blonde, and it’s noir…could something be up?  Might Maya have ulterior motives for insisting that she and Rasl continue their affair even though Rasl is afraid Miles will find out?  Might Uma have some sort of reason for her Rasl obsession other than the fact that he has great pecs?  Who knows?  Not me.  Nope.  I ain’t saying nuthin.

In all noir there’s a good brunette and an evil blonde (not that I’m suggesting that Maya or Uma is EVIL…).  So in RASL we have Annie, Rasl’s sort of girlfriend who is also a prostitute, but who provides him with a lot of sex, alcohol, and shelter “on credit”.  Annie is a symbol of goodness (in a jaded, cynical fashion) and wisdom.  She’s from the Pima Indian Tribe and consequently she is earthy and grounded with great common sense and some mystical wisdom.  She’s the “hooker with a heart of gold” crossed with the “magical ethnic person”.

It’s clear that Rasl cares about Annie, but it’s also clear that he doesn’t really know her, or even necessarily want to know her.  At one point, Rob tells a version of Annie that he wants her to be safe.  She says, “You just said there are other Annies for you to run away with…why me?”  And Rasl replies, “Because we’re both here.”

At the start of the book, Rasl has lost all dreams of connecting to other people.  He has no goals.  He has no plans.  Rasl is just surviving.  He tried to save the world once, and succeeded, but in the process he lost everything he cares about.   When one version of Annie is murdered, Rasl starts jumping universes trying to save other Annies, and he does it in the same drifting way he does everything else – he detours to steal art and get paid, he gets shot at, he gets beat up, and he meets new women to sleep with, but he persists in trying to save Annie.  The most powerful emotional moment in the story is when Rasl finally lets his emotional wall crack just a little as he begs Annie to take the money he stole for her so she can run away.  For a moment, Rasl and Annie are real people to each other.  They aren’t tools, they aren’t symbols, they are two terrified human beings.  It’s not love, but it’s something.

Every woman in this story other than a little girl and a villainess approaches Rasl either openly asking for sex or engaging in flirtation.  Seriously, why are women compulsively and consistently throwing themselves at this guy?  I like a rogue scientist as much as the next heterosexual woman, possibly more, but given the fact that he keeps showing up fresh from a fistfight and covered in grime and sweat and blood, doesn’t he smell terrible?  He didn’t make me feel all sexy, although he’s so horribly beat up most of the time that he did make me feel pretty maternal.  I’m fairly certain that if I met him while, say, tending bar, I would say, “Hell no, you can’t order alcohol after walking through the desert!  You can have water!  And a shower, clean clothes, this large box of Band-Aids, and a bag of ice!  Now stop trying to feel me up and go to sleep!”

So obviously, the romance aspect to RASL was…disappointing.  In fact, it was all pretty misogynist, which, you know…noir.  But the other aspects of RASL are remarkable.  The mix of noir and science fiction is seamless and interesting.  The structure is clever.  The twists and turns are twisty and precise.  Above all, the art is gorgeous.  The version I read is a hard cover compilation of the complete story.  While originally it was done in black and white, the hard cover is in color and the colors alone take you from the shadowy back streets of Tucson, to the oranges and yellows of the desert in the daytime, and the gray of WWII and the steely harshness of the laboratory.  Of course the Tesla connection is geek crack, and there’s some great wisecracking humor along the way – not tons and tons, but enough to lighten the mood before it gets crushingly oppressive.  It’s a gripping story, one that kept me reading and re-reading.  I got my copy from the library and I’m truly bummed out that I have to return it.

The noise in the basement was not a fluffy kitty.  It was a serial killer.  Bummer.  But it was a cute serial killer, with a heart-rending backstory, who just needs some cocoa and understanding.  I loved this comic even though the misogyny and the racial stereotyping made me crazy.  I was able to compartmentalize and focus on other aspects of the book, and they were quite remarkable.  I can’t recommend this book as a romance, but if you like noir and/or loopy sci fi, and if you are able to handle some of the more problematic content that is typical of noir in terms of gender and race, then this book is definitely worth the effort.  I’m giving this book a B- because altough it's flaws are significant, they are pretty much endemic in the genre it represents.  I’m not sure it’s fair for me to read a noir book and pick on it for being sexist any more than it would be fair to watch a slasher movie and pick on it for being violent.  It’s the literary equivalent of Wolverine – it’s the best it is at what it does, and what it does [in terms of gender and race] isn’t very nice.

As a total aside, I googled “feminist noir” because I like to live in hope, and I found this:  it's an artcle about some revisionist noir stories, from feministe.us.  So grows the TBR!


This book is available from Goodreads | Amazon | BN

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Darlynne says:

    You had me at the basement and malfunctioning flashlight. What a great, detailed review. I can’t say that I’ll read RASL—for the many reasons you mentioned, even though noir doesn’t generally make me run the other way—but you’ve made me so darn curious. Can the novel measure up to your very entertaining description of it? I’ll have to find out.

  2. 2
    kkw says:

    Have you seen High Sierra? It’s been a while, so I could be wrong, but I recall Ida Lupino playing a fantastic atypical female noir character. Also, although I assume she’s brunette, the movie is black and white, and in the colored in movie poster I saw her hair was yellow.

  3. 3
    Darlynne says:

    I must add how weird a library search was for “Smith, Jeff” and all the Frugal Gourmet books that appeared. “The Drift” is available so I’ll take it for a spin. Thanks!

  4. 4
    CarrieS says:

    @KKW – adding to the TBW pile!  Apparently Bogart’s dog played his character’s dog.  Awww.

  5. 5
    kkw says:

    @CarrieS Seriously?! That dog is awesome, and he comes with Bogart and Bacall?! How can I retroactively join their household?

  6. 6
    Jodi Scaife says:

    If you want more feminist noir try Mr. Blank by Justin Robinson.  It’s available on Amazon at http://amzn.to/1onfRBL . I found it more female positive and funny than most of the noir I’ve tripped across.  There isn’t any great romance though.

  7. 7
    Vasha says:

    Gun Crazy isn’t quite noir, but it’s an old black-and-white crime movie that has an excellent female main character (Annie Laurie Starr, oh yeah!)

  8. 8
    CarrieS says:

    I peeked at Mr Blank and OMG it looked hysterical!

  9. 9
    Jodi Scaife says:

    @CarrieS I got to read it for review for the second book about Blank, ‘Get Blank’ back in June.  I’m not a huge noir fan, but I liked it.  Justin’s a great writer.

  10. 10
    SarahB says:

    If you’re looking for feminist noir, I HIGHLY recommend the Claire DeWitt series by Sara Gran. They’re about a tough, punk rockish, yet self-destructive detective who’s dedicated her life to a loopy, existential philosophy of investigation.

    Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead
    Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway

  11. 11
    Beth Not Elizabeth says:

    I went through a female noir phase a while back. Not necessarily feminist noir, but female authors with a fresh perspective on the genre.

    I would highly recommend Megan Abbott. Queenpin was very true to the genre. She writes very nice, tight plots with that lovely smokey atmosphere.

    Gillian Flynn does more contemporary noir and really plays with the genre. I’m not totally in love with her writing style and pacing, but she does great unlikeable, untrustworthy main characters. And gritty plots.

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