It's a whole new RASL.
In September, Jeff Smith, who's best known for his epic comic series Bone, is releasing a colored, hardcover version of his sci-fi noir comic series RASL. It's the first time the series has been collected into one book, and the first time it's been available with colors.
Originally launched as a black-and-white bi-monthly comic RASL is a noir-style story of a thief who is able to travel between parallel earths, stealing precious artwork to sell as originals when he returns to his home planet. The story evolves into a tale of intrigue and mystery, as readers learn the truth about his time as a military engineer and the dangerous secret he carries.
RASL is the first major work from the cartoonist since his award-winning Bone series, both of which have been optioned for film. As Smith releases RASL in hardcover, we talked to the cartoonist to find out more about how he put the book together and what readers can expect from the collection.
Newsarama: Jeff, you're releasing this new version of RASL, and it almost feels like a whole new story. It's a beautiful hardcover. Is it just because it's colored?
Jeff Smith: Well the color makes a huge difference, but not only did Steve do this wonderful coloring technique, but I was able to, with Steve, go panel by panel and literally re-draw the panels with the color.
Every single panel was tweaked with light and things that really helped, not only with storytelling but with noir, you know? Really getting the kind of low-level lights that you need for that type of thing.
It's an entirely new reading experience, and I'm extremely happy with it. It's just a very rich and dark and smoky coloring that is exactly the mood I wanted. And we printed it on the really pulpy, matte finish paper. It looks unrecognizable from the black and white book.
Nrama: Can you describe the coloring technique at all? Did it take you awhile to get it right?
Smith: It did. When Steve [Hamaker, who colored Bone] and I first started talking about coloring RASL, we knew that it had to be something different from the way we colored Bone. And we struggled. It was an entire year of experiments! I cannot tell you how many time we colored just the first issue, the first chapter, for a year.
Even up to, like, last Christmas, I was thinking, you know what? Maybe we should just leave this black and white, because I'm just not seeing something that… we'd get a little close, but it wasn't better than the black and white.
And then something happened. Steve tried some textures that he could lay underneath the colors. And then I got very excited about reflected light. And suddenly, there is was!
Nrama: It's almost like someone went in with watercolor or ink wash in the colors and shadows.
Nrama: OK, let's back up a bit for people who aren't familiar with the story of RASL. It's about a thief, which fits with the "noir" style, but the way he steals is more sci-fi.
Smith: Yeah, he's been able to use the lost information and ideas of Nikola Tesla to fashion an outfit — these big jets that he carries on his shoulders — so he can warp space magnetically. And he can cross into parallel universes, figure out where famous paintings are, and steal them so he can bring them back to this universe. And once he figures out in one universe how to get past all the burglar alarms and security, he can go into other universes and just steal them over and over again. And he comes back to our world and fences them in Las Vegas, where they get sold to Chinese clients who was to get these things.
Nrama: So in our world, there may be 10 Mona Lisas that are all originals.
Smith: There are now! Yeah, if RASL had his way, there are many of them. All in private hands, though, so nobody knows.
Nrama: The story also has a visual through-line of the desert. What was it that made you want to set this in the desert so often? Did you think it fit the style or the theme you were exploring in RASL?
Smith: Yeah, I based it on the Sonora Desert, which is a real desert, you know, that surrounds Tucson and Phoenix. And to me, the barrenness of a desert works with the noir concept. Noir originated in San Francisco and was supposed to be about, you know, the maze, the trap that we find ourselves in in modern life, the desperation of man against the elements that he can't control. But I actually think the desert works also. You have a situation where it's just man against himself, and the situation is very primal.
So I wanted to set it in the desert. And my brother-in-law lives in Tucson, so that was a natural place for me to head. And also, I'm a huge fan of the American Southwest. I love Arizona and New Mexico, Utah. I'm just crazy for it.
I was going that way anyway, and then I just ended up in Tucson. And so Tucson became the setting for the story.
In color, it really pops. When you're inside, it's really dark. And when you're outside, it's the desert. It's bright, it's the sun. It's all yellow and blue.
Nrama: It's also symbolic of that nothingness that he encounters when he's going between dimensions, right?
Smith: Yeah, and as I mentioned, the idea is that man's caught in a maze of a city. But in RASL's case, the maze is the parallel worlds, and the lives and the messes he's left behind in each one of them, the complicated web of bad decisions that RASL makes.
Nrama: And of course, there's a love story.
Smith: Yeah, that's usually what's behind your bad decisions, isn't it?
Nrama: How did you come up with RASL? Because it's so different from Bone, which most people are most familiar with among your past work.
Smith: Right, right. It's not Bone. But it was an idea for a story that came to me while I was inking Bone. You know, at 2 o'clock in the morning, when I'm inking a page and it's very quiet, a lot of times, I'll have the television on or a movie going on my laptop, and I was watching an awful lot of Humphrey Bogart movies, you know? Like The Big Sleep and Maltese Falcon, which got me interested in noir.
Then I started reading Dashiell Hammett novels and short stories, and I really got into that whole hard-boiled style. And it's all first person. And yet very realistic in comparison to how a lot of detectives had been represented before Dashiell Hammett. There had previously been proper, British, clean cut people.
Nrama: Even though it's noir, the premise has its roots in sci-fi.
Smith: Yeah! I'm also an armchair physics nut. I'm a buff. I love reading about string theory. I love everything about what physicists think is going on, whether it's in the far reaches of outer space or down inside us.
The more I learned about string theory and M-theory, the more amazed I was at how comic book-like physicist's ideas are. You know? They really think the math proves that there are parallel universes.
So a lot of the science fiction in RASL is not just wild speculation. It's stuff that's really built on the ideas that some scientists are proposing — most, actually.
Nrama: And RASL is in this nice hardcover, which is also new. You'd released it in black and white soft covers before.
Smith: Yeah, we may do a softcover someday of the colored version, but we don't plan to. Right now, we're just going to do this hardcover color version.
Once we discovered this palette, Vijaya and I looked at it and went, "This is it! This is the way the story of RASL need to go out in the word!"
Check back with Newsarama soon, when we talk to Smith about his new free webcomic Tüki Save the Humans, which starts in November, as well as his other upcoming projects.