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posted March 14, 2008
: Jeff Smith, Steve Hamaker (color covers)
Cartoon Books, comic book, 32 pages, February 2008, $3.50
Reviewing the first issue of a Jeff Smith comic is a sucker's game. Smith's comic books are exactly that: they're not pamphlets to advertise a potential movie property or an argument with reluctant consumers that he's providing something of value. They're not even really serialized graphic novel chapters, or at least they don't read as such to the detriment of the individual comic. They're exactly what they need to be, and if you don't like it, go spin. If as with this first issue all that's required of the story being told is to plunge the reader right into a situation faced by an art thief sporting Jack Kirby-style equipment, old-movie fighting moves and a thirst for alcohol while he scrambles to rectify his current situation, then that's all you're going to get. Since Smith proved last time around that he's perfectly willing to use several issues
of the serialized comic book to establish an emotional base line against which the stakes of his wider story could be measured, this fast-moving adventure story could by issue #8 turn into a delicate meditation on the meaning of art and life. We simply don't know. The critic and the reviewer are in the same boat on this one: describing scenes, noting a potential contrast in tone between this work and Bone
, wondering after this book's apparent not-nice protagonist vs. Bone
's appealingly kind one, and speculating as to the eventual direction of the plot.
It's a pleasurable first issue, that's for sure, and one that holds promise. Smith's first great comic book was something he had carried around in one form or another since he was a boy. By the time of its execution, Bone
had grown to encompass an early lifetime's set of issues, including a lot of typically self-reflective ones about the nature of the project Smith had undertaken. The mix of Barks and Tolkien fantasy traditions in Bone
, for instance, is an exploration of how a certain kind of art works, the kind of thing you see in a lot of first novels. Years and pages away from any measure of success, it's typical for a younger artist on some level to try and convince himself he's not wasting his time. Now that Smith stands on the other side of that early work, he has a lot of thematic capital accrued, and I think what he chooses to explore and how will be a key to RASL
as much as any application of his chops or the pleasure of the story being told. There's plenty of both of those things, too. Smith makes great use of landscaped panels to establish a kind of hurry up and wait pace to the book. This provides the entire affair with a kind of unsettled, anxious energy that tells you a lot about the lead character and also allows that he'll be operating out of a human set of psychological motives and appetites instead of coldly acting like a video game participant. The best thing about RASL
#1 in a visceral sense is the physicality of Smith's slightly unpleasant protagonist. He evinces a kind of coiled, Steve McQueen-like intensity that didn't have any place in Smith's long-running fantasy; in fact, the divide between the physicality of those characters and what they could accomplish was one of that book's longest-running jokes.
If I had to hazard a guess, I'd offer up that the nature of art and the manner in which it is assigned might be one of recurring issues in RASL
. The lead character is a thief that apparently targets very expensive and well-regarded paintings while 1) not seeming to assign any value to them other than the utilitarian one of what he's paid to steal them and 2) tagging the locales in which they're found use the sometimes-despised art of graffiti. That's a potential rich layering of metaphors. Such thematic exploration would be a natural fit for Smith. Few cartoonists have been as financially successful and as critically well-received. Further, he works in one of those rare art styles that people recognize as pleasurable and utilitarian. People like looking at art in the Walt Kelly and Carl Barks' traditions. They also recognize how easily and broadly it communicates character and personal reaction to driving outside circumstance. Smith also I don't believe sells his comics art, and has barely given any away. How he values his art and how he perceives people investing it with value I think may inform the series' development. But what do I know? No one quite foresaw the importance of issues of family and home that developed in Bone when all we saw in front of us was a future that might or might not include a Great Cow Race. The protagonist in RASL
has even more immediate needs. It's hard to say if those won't have more of an influence on what happens than elements of the author's creative outlook.
As the author of one of the great one-man, one-book comics showcase stories of the late 20th Century, I would have been happy to allow Smith a next personal project that consisted of nothing more than his driving around the country and slapping Bone
readers he didn't like in the face. RASL
doesn't feel like a gimme, and if it's nothing more than the author trying to fold more subtle and adult concerns into a story that means something to him on its face, I'd definitely follow him there. I suspect there will be more. We're too early to know what RASL
is going to feel like 200 pages from now, but it's clear that the combination of Smith's personal experience and his continuing promise as an artist should contribute to whatever we take away from this new series. What that will be, we just don't know yet. Let's find out.