RASL: Volumes 1-3 by Jeff Smith

I was turned on to Jeff Smith’s RASL by The Best American Comics of 2011.  RASL is much different than Smith’s famous masterpiece, Bone.  Where Bone is a epic lighthearted fantasy adventure, RASL is a dark and gritty sci fi noir.  RASL, the main character, is a hard drinking art thief with a mysterious past.  His girlfriend is a prostitute, but he has another girl’s name tattooed on his arm.  There’s time jumping, a history lesson on Tesla, a government conspiracy, and a bad guy who looks like a lizard (think Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) chasing RASL across parallel timelines.  Of course, RASL is not his original name, and I’ve yet to figure out what it means.

The overriding theme is the need to make things right with the past, but the harder RASL tries the higher the cost to himself.  There is some Native American imagery regarding life being a maze, and the time jumping lends to the theme.  There is the recurring image of a pebble being dropped in water and the resultant ripples.  It reads like a blend of Raymond Chandler, Hunter S. Thompson, and LOST. Good, dark  fun all around.

The series is steeped in mystery, and Smith is a master of cliffhangers.  I don’t want to give away much of the plot because the mystery of it all is what drives the series.   Rumors are circulating on the interwebs that the series will come to an explosive conclusion in 2012 or 2013.  Issues 1-11 have been collected in three volumes. You can check out the hardcover volume here.

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The Best American Comics of 2011 edited by Alison Bechdel


coverThe Best American Comics 2011
is the first comic anthology I’ve read.  It convinced me that the comic medium is not well suited for “best of” anthologies, unless the comic is intentionally written to be ingested as a very short piece, like David Lasky’s six-panel “The Ultimate Graphic Novel.”  An excerpt from a graphic novel just doesn’t do the work justice.  What this anthology did was show me I need to get these graphic novels and read them in their entirety.

Comic fans will be familiar with the best, and most obvious, selections: an excerpt from Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza and Chris Ware’s Jordan W. Lint to the Age 65.  Joe Sacco is a master of investigative journalism in the comic medium.  His excerpt in the anthology details a massacre of Palestinian men by the Israelis in 1956. He then questions the reliability of memory when trying to discover the facts of the event.  Chris Ware is doing some of the most stylistically imaginative work in comics while examining the sad mess people make of their lives.

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There are some great surprises in this anthology too.  Angie Wang’s short piece “Flower Mecha” is artistically beautiful and strange.  Pollen is ruining a woman’s picnic and she fights it off in a hallucinatory mix of art deco and manga.  Michael Defarge’s “Queen” is even stranger.  A black glob of a creature walks through a strange alien world picking up pieces of mushrooms, flora, and landscape to turn itself into a freakish woman.  Both of these pieces are surprisingly interesting, but I’m not sure they are the best of the past year.  Looking at the notable mention list at the end of the anthology makes me wonder if there isn’t something better that tells a story using the full capabilities of the comic medium.

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The mix of history and memoir in “Little House in the Big City” by Sabrina Jones was intriguing.  The mix of history and fictional mystery in “The Mad Scientist” excerpt from RASL by Jeff Smith made me immediately want to read the entire series.  “Winter,” an excerpt from Refresh, Refresh by Danica Novgodorrodov, Benjamin Percy, and James Ponsoldt has a great abstract watercolor dream sequence in the middle, but the excerpt simply doesn’t give enough of the story to stand on its own.  It’s another one I want to read in its entirety.  Kate Beaton’s take on The Great Gatsby is hilarious.

Alison Bechdel is the guest editor for this year’s anthology.  She mentions in her introduction that there is a metafiction theme in many of the selections.  The best example would be “Pet Cat” by Joey Alison Sayers.  Sayers documents the history of a comic strip in its many incarnations until finally God takes over the writing of the strip.  The satire comments on how artists are disrespected and exploited.

great-gatsby pet-cat winter

The anthology was an interesting read, and it pointed me to some works that I wouldn’t have known otherwise.  I do have a gripe, and I’m sure I’ll get ripped by someone for it, because Bechdel is well respected as a writer and artist.  The problem is there’s no hiding her subjectivity or agenda in this anthology.  Many of the chosen selections highlight an obvious feminist and gay perspective.  “Flower Mecha” and “Queen” are perhaps overt feminist symbolism.  Other selections, like “Manifestation” by Gabrielle Bell (which opens the book) and “Weekends Abroad” by Eric Orner, are manifestly feminist and gay, respectively.  Again, I look at the list of notable mentions and wonder if there isn’t quite a few on that list that are better comics overall.  When the subjectivity is so obvious, I think we have to question is this really an anthology of the best comics in 2011?  I understand that an anthology of this sort with a guest editor will never completely escape subjectivity, but I’d like to see some semblance of trying to find a true “best” based on the quality of the work and not some other criterion.  Don’t get me wrong.  There are quite a few selections in this anthology that deserve to be here.

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