Nikola Tesla, the man that Thomas Edison viciously attempted to discredit, has emerged from the fringes and regained his role as the top wizard in the public’s mind. Among the new crop of science fiction that he’s inspired, there is Jeff Smith’s remarkable new graphic novel, “RASL.” Originally a comic book series, starting in 2008, this hardcover collected work goes a long way in stoking the fires of popular imagination.
“RASL,” which stands for “Romance At the Speed of Light,” is a multi-layered roller coaster of a story. Our hero, or anti-hero, goes by the nickname of “Rasl” and, in our first look at him, he appears to be little more than a thief, although a highly unusual and sophisticated one. We see him hang off a high-rise ledge, pop into a penthouse apartment, and make away with an original Picasso. He fights off a lizard-faced man. And he escapes by being zapped by a turbojet contraption. Yeah, then things really go nuts.
Rasl, it turns out, is far more than the coolest thief ever. He’s Dr. Robert Johnson, a genius-level scientist who has gotten a little too close to the military industrial complex. The good doctor knows too much and is left burdened with figuring out what to do with this special knowledge. Much like all of humanity has been burdened since the atomic genie was let out of the bottle, something else is on the horizon to threaten everyone–but this one is not going to fit in any silo.
In matters of life and death, all bets are off and anything can happen. Smith plays quite well with this sort of high-octane tension. It’s a “North by Northwest” kind of pacing mixed in with a doomsday scenario that cleverly unleashes many a favorite sci-fi theme. You get the Philadelphia Experiment mashed with the Tunguska Event. And you most assuredly get a close look at the world of Nikola Tesla. It is Tesla technology, after all, that allows Rasl to “drift” through dimensions.
What keeps this narrative grounded is Rasl and the circle of characters he interacts with on his journey. There are two women, for instance, that are key to helping him maintain his sanity, let alone complete his mission. There is Annie, who only really knows Rasl as a bushy-haired hoodlum. And there’s Maya, who only really knows Rob, the great man of science. She also happens to know Rob as her lover. Too bad she’s also married to Rob’s lab partner, Miles. Between the two of them, Miles and Rob can provide the greatest scientific breakthrough in ages–if only it were that easy and morally unambiguous.
Drawn in a very clean and animated way, “RASL” is a joy to behold. The characters are all very compelling and the storytelling is immersive. It is perfectly tuned which is what makes what unfolds all the more captivating. Rasl must not only deal with what to do to potentially save the planet. He must confront what it means to exist in the first place. Not only that, given the magnitude of this misadventure, the very notion of reality is explored, just like it is in any good work of science fiction. What makes Smith’s tale special is his thoughtful selection of what to bring to the table.
“RASL” is published by Cartoon Books, available now, and you can check it out here.