Yep, Jeff Smith is quietly producing one of the best comics out there right now. What arrived with a great deal of hype and interest has apparently waned issue-by-issue, though the quality of the comic hasn't changed at all. I anticipate each issue with a kind of crazed madness. I follow other series and the comparatively slow release schedule leaves me a bit strung out, but RASL has yet to disappoint. With each issue, Smith weaves layers of background, science fiction, and character motivations into the story of RASL, all the while holding tight focus on the story and the character, Rasl. RASL is a perfect example of how the format of comics should be. Obviously extremely interconnected and focused on the picture as a whole i.e. the trade, but works so incredibly well on an issue-by-issue basis.
The latest issue is an excellent example of Smith's instinctual ability to push the storyline along, without it becoming rote or predictable. It's the ideal time for a tangent and Smith provides it here, with the issue "diverting" into telling the story of Nikola Tesla, "forgotten" inventor who has developed a cult following. Rasl and his inventor friend, Miles, were pretty into Tesla in High School, and the issue is essentially Rasl explaining his interest. The tangent of Tesla never takes over the comic, but is put on the same level, as a parallel to Rasl's. The more Rasl reveals his interest the more Tesla's own story becomes intertwined with Rasl's.
Tesla is linked to Rasl’s dimension-hopping ability in some fashion, which is established through a well-executed panel transition in which Rasl's power is visually linked to a similar manifestation in Tesla's hands. But ultimately the main focus is on character, both Rasl's and Tesla's, rather than superpowers or plot development. Rasl sees himself as a Tesla-like figure: an obscure scientist searching for a deeper meaning, as opposed to one driven by a desire for wealth or glory. He finds his Tesla through his search for the origin of the “It’s alive!” scene in Frankenstein, another high school interest. The scene in the movie, as Rasl explains it, is directly inspired by Tesla, and Victor Frankenstein, the scientist, NOT the monster, was inspired by the popular conception of Tesla at the time. Frankenstein has a sort of big picture mindset, which is echoed in the approach to science favored by Rasl and Tesla. One panel quotes Frankenstein as saying, “where should we be if nobody tried to find out what lies beyond.”
Rasl sees something of himself in the hardships Tesla faced, mentioning that he was always attracted to the tragedy of Tesla. The tragic pathos of Rasl's life becomes more apparent with each issue. Two of the major themes running throughout RASL are the titular character's inability to control events surrounding him and the constant weight put on his shoulders by the scientific/spiritual knowledge he's uncovered. Smith makes sure to show the excessive sweat on Rasl's brow and the dirt accumulated on his clothes. His life is clearly unraveling, and he's not sure how to get things going his way. It hasn't been quite revealed yet, but there has been some event that splintered the friendship of Rasl and Miles. It's presumably over Maya, but we know for sure that Miles is no longer in Rasl's life. Rasl recognizes echoes of his own betrayal in the story of Tesla and J.P. Morgan.
Though Rasl claims he's attracted to Tesla's tragedy, it is clear that he views his hero through rose-colored lenses. Tesla is presented heroically in each panel, defiantly staring down the reader and Rasl. In one panel, Tesla stands triumphant, bathed in the sea of electricity that proves the success of his experiment. Rasl reveals his hopes and dreams through Tesla, and even though he's drawn to Tesla's tragedy, he is inspired by his triumphs and ideas. At the end of the issue Rasl is back to stealing paintings, drinking and gambling. His vices and cavalier attitude are particularly disturbing here because we've had a glimpse of his ambition and potential. Instead, Rasl is squandering his scientific gifts by using them for self-serving ends, wallowing in his suffering and betraying the example of his hero.