Jeff Smith's RASL is one the most exciting serial in comics right now, balancing plot and character with in-depth explorations of its themes, the whole thing feels remarkably fresh every issue. The latest issue's taken a distinct turn towards horror, with sailors' heads embedded in iron bulkheads and a creepy, zombie-like child. The series hasn't abandoned its previous tone, but it's added a deeper and even darker layer to the already tense atmosphere.
The first issue, like any good narrative, throws you into the middle of things with little explanation...just a plethora of wordless panels and images, locking into Rasl's quiet and brooding mood from page one. But like the atmosphere of those wordless panels suggesting something more, Rasl's beyond a simple brooding anti-hero, he's genuinely considering his life and its consequences. Rasl's internal monologue from the beginning of issue #2: "We're all going to die anyway. We flit in and out of existence like sparks from a fire. One minute we're here, the next we're gone...All the hassle, all the pain...is it worth it? Must be." It's the inclusion of Rasl's thoughts that move the comic towards something meaningful and relate-able and not just a weird, Science-Fiction comic--emphasis on the Science, with all the Physics and theory in this one...
The series is becoming increasingly plot-heavy but it manages to connect all that to Rasl's emotions to plot and constantly moves the story into a direction where new questions keep getting asked. In issue #4, the new question's are asked through revealing the inner-workings and history of Rasl's dimension-hopping. And it does this "scientifically" while not removing the excitement or flooding the reader with exposition. Jumping's ramifications are still unclear, but they're becoming increasingly dire especially with the emergence of the mysterious zombie child. It’s beyond simply affecting Rasl negatively at this point, it's starting to mess with the people in that dimension.
As more and more parallel universes are stacked on, it seems as if Rasl's travels are becoming a metaphor for how memory is affected by the normal passage of time. Issue #1 sets this metaphor up by jumping panels back and forth between different times in Rasl's life. It's similar to the maze idea that Annie presents in issue #2--each jump for Rasl confuses him more and more. Each jump is a benchmark in time and the things from his past become increasingly hazy the more he jumps. When he's shown meditating, he's so focused on the moment that he loses sight of simple things like who Bob Dylan is.
Events, actions, and emotions, even the most devastating become distant due to jumping. After Annie's "murder" Rasl goes into a different dimesion and encounters another Annie; She's just like the other Annie but is slighty different...somehow. It has the same effect as when the reader meets Annie for the first time, unsure of the relationship between the characters, and because Rasl was gone so long, things are slightly different. It's a great way that sci-fi can help illustrate what is going on between characters and relationships in real life, by moving it into this crazy conceit and then threading it all through real-life emotions.
The biggest problem with RASL is its slow production schedule. A general problem with serialized comics, especially when a creator has a larger picture in mind, is focusing obsessively on what is the equivalent to a single chapter in a book. RASL suffers intensely from this reading experience. Since each issue has several months in between it forces you to go back and re-read the entire series with each new issue. In a way, this works conceptually, as time between issues changes your feelings or focus, much the same way Rasl's jumping changes his life. While it works conceptually, it's occasionally frustrating in terms of enjoyment because RASL’s pacing is so quick that it gets away with it for now, but as issues and continuity and everything else builds-up, the series might grow increasingly rewarding as a straight-through read and frustrating issue to issue.