SPOILER WARNING: The following contains MAJOR spoilers for the final issue of "RASL," on sale now.
After almost five years of work, cartoonist Jeff Smith wrapped his second major epic comics story "RASL" last month, and the artist did it the old fashioned way.
Still self-publishing through his Cartoon Books imprint, the creator of the international comics phenomenon "Bone" this time spun a more adult story that mixed a hard-drinking anti-hero art thief who jumped back and forth between parallel worlds to discover the secrets of famed scientist Nikola Tesla as well as his own life. After 15 single issues, "RASL" wrapped with a multitude of last minutes twists and double crosses before synching back up with its bloody opening pages.
With the project – or at least its first draft – in the rear view, Smith spoke to CBR News about how "RASL" came together from its very beginnings, why his love of noir mysteries made for a challenging storytelling exercise, how Tesla's legend has grown in stature since he started the series, the intersection between science and faith, his view on modern self-publishing and what he may have on tap for his next major work.
CBR News: Jeff, when I bought the second to last issue of "RASL" and saw that it was about to end, I thought, "Already?" but I kind of hadn't realized you'd been at this book for years at this point. I think I was internally comparing it to reading "Bone," which I collected over years...
Jeff Smith: Decades! [Laughs]
Even better! But yeah, I'd read "Bone" from maybe sixth grade until it wrapped when I was in college. How do you compare that time spent as a whole? Did "RASL" take as long as you'd expected, or just generally, how do you view a project like this compared to something you'd been working on in one for or another for your whole life?
Well, it was different from "Bone" obviously for a ton of different reasons. But I always expected "RASL" to be a shorter story. From the beginning, I wanted it to be a little hard boiled tale with a sci-fi twist, and you don't need 1,400 pages to tell a Dashiell Hammett story. It's not "Lord of the Rings." It's "The Maltese Falcon." Though I actually thought this would be shorter originally. What I had in my notebooks was the story divided up into nine issues, so to be 15 issues meant I couldn't wrap it up as fast as I thought. I think I originally thought it would be 300 pages or 350, and it ended up being closer to 500. So it took longer than I intended.
Tell me about the genesis of the book. When it launched, you had intentionally kept a lot of the story details shrouded in mystery, and some of the few hints we got were from you going to the Southwest and drawing some of the specific settings. I know that for "Bone" a major inspiration was the actual setting for Old Man's Cave, but what was the original spark for "RASL"? Was it a mystery? Sci-fi? Tesla?
I think the very first piece, the first spark, was the idea of doing a parallel universe story. If you could go to a parallel universe and meet your friends or go to your place of work, what would it be like? How would they treat you? Would your girlfriend not know you? Would she be married to someone else? That was the first part of the idea. Then I had to start looking around for how do you make that story realistic. I was searching for some science to hang that concept on. And then as I started to read about String Theory, it hit me, "Oh. Parallel universes aren't just science fiction. This is something that physicists believe." That gave me my first peg to hang the story on. There was String Theory and parallel universes, and I could build everything off of that. It made this a little more realistic than I'd initially thought.
As far as the desert goes, once I started creating these characters – especially this screw-up scientist who made a mess of his life. He was a womanizer and a hard drinker with a lot of really bad decisions hanging over him. I had that character, and I had a femme fatale and all these elements for a noir story, but I still needed to create the environment and figure out what it was. And the American Southwest was a place I'd always been drawn to. So there was a point I got to where I decided it was time to quit talking and start drawing "RASL" so I just went out to the desert for two weeks. I spent a long time there and was able to think a lot. Of course, I still had my computer and use Google, but I was able to explore and think and let the pieces fall together.
Was there an influence for you in trying to do something that was the opposite of what "Bone" became? I always got the feeling that "Bone" started as a personal story, and once the publishing business grew around it, you also realized it was a kids story. "RASL" is NOT a kids story. Did you want to push against the children's book category in some ways and do something more adult?
Yeah, on a certain level creatively I was aware that I wanted to do something different. But I wasn't making a declaration. I wasn't trying to say, "I don't want to do a children's book. I want to do an adult book." And that's because when I first started playing with this idea for "RASL," it was around 2000. I was still deep in the middle of "Bone," and it wasn't a children's book yet. It was made for a comic shop audience, which is mostly guys in their 20s, 30s and 40s in some cases. So it wasn't at all that I had to stop being a children's author because I wasn't one yet. That would come five years in the future. [Laughs] In a parallel universe!
Looking at the characters in the series and how they developed, when I was re-reading the full series, the note I made about RASL, or Rob, himself was this quote from issue #6 which read "Memories are the only good thing I have left." That was a view into who this guy is, but it also showed a bit about how dopey he was in his own situation romantically. You place him in this triangle with a woman in Maya who is forbidden fruit and who also pushes him around a bit and then a prostitute in Annie who despite her supposed illicit profession is a much better human being. What interested you in that dynamic and how it impact this guy who viewed the past through rose-colored glasses?
Well, I think the key to this kind of a story – this hard-boiled, noir kind of tale – is that the characters should all be really damaged. They've created a really bad circumstance for themselves though their own actions and the decisions that they've made. That's what's fun about it. You've got this guy who had a good life. I mean, he had a situation where he had friends and was getting to explore and invent the kinds of things he wanted to, and then things just went wrong. He made one bad decision after another that complicated things.
And when you're dealing with these damaged characters, you start to see these interesting dynamics. Annie is kind of the good girl, and yet she's a prostitute. And then – spoiler alert for anyone who hasn't read it – Maya seems like a good girl who's working in society and is a scientist, but as the story goes on, you realize that she's got a dark side. I thought that was an interesting contrast. Annie's the one you can trust, yet she's obviously not one of society's debutants.
The other really engaging aspect of the series is the real history that informs the science. You reference the Philadelphia Experiment and all these bits of Tesla's life. Were you used to that kind of research, or was it a change to have to let a story play nominally by the rules of the real world?
That's a good question. I wanted to do two things: first since it was a noir story, I'm not used to noir. I mean, I read it, and I watch noir movies. I like the form and the rules of that – the constraints – but I wasn't used to working with them. As opposed to fantasy or humor like with "Bone" which came very naturally to me, noir was something I had to discipline myself into doing right so I could stick the landing. I'll give you a really good example.
In "RASL," you never know anything unless RASL knows it. And when you think about it, that's a much harder thing to write. I can never cut away from him and show what the bad guys are plotting against him or what the bad guys know. From a writing standpoint, that was really tricky. In "Bone," many times I'd cut to the Rat Creatures or the Lord of the Locusts or just to a different group of characters completely. We'd be with Fone Bone and Thorn in one situation, and then I could cut to something ridiculous that Phoney and Smiley were doing and jump all around. But in "RASL" – and this is a rule in this kind of writing – it's first person. You can only know what he knows, and if there was something I wanted him to know, I had to figure out a way for him to know it. [Laughs]
The other part that was tricky for me was my own insistence that the science be real – be very hard. I have no interest in or time for science fiction stories where people have magical powers or ray guns or spaceships that can go anywhere. What I like is a nugget of real science to be at the heart of the story. Arthur C. Clarke used to be really good at that, although his characters were pretty two-dimensional, which was another reason I went for the hard-boiled characters.
So I really thought it was important to go find science that could explain how you could do this. And Tesla was a great stand-in because in all of his science, he was always suggesting outrageous mad scientist ideas that people thought were crazy at the time. And yet, there are so many real connections between Nikola Tesla and our great conspiracy theories like the Philadelphia Experiment or even UFOs or the Tunguska Event and the death ray. I felt like exploring Tesla and making that a childhood interest of RASL and his partner Miles would give the story a flavor of reality and suck you along.
It's interesting because over the course of this series coming out, Tesla has become rediscovered by so many people. He's kind of this hipster icon and has a lot of play on the internet these days. As you were doing this story, did you get letters from Tesla nuts discovering your work through him?
A little bit, yeah. When I started "RASL," people knew who Tesla was, but it wasn't like it is now. Even when I did the sixth issue two years in which was the first Tesla history part, that was all pretty unknown stuff. Now i's everywhere! [Laughs] I mean, people knew who Tesla was. There was the band and the car company and that movie "The Prestige" where David Bowie played Tesla. He's obviously been around, but now he's become this counter culture figure. And I'm happy if I played a role in making that happen. That's definitely a story.
I haven't read up on every little bit, but this conceit from the series where there are lost Tesla journals that conspiracy theorists believe tie everything he did together...that's a real thing?
Yes, that's real. When he died during World War II, he was very old at that point – probably in his late '70s or early '80s. And he was pretty washed up by then. Albert Einstein had kind of taken his place in the world of science and physics. But Tesla was still trying to sell the U.S. government this death ray. [Laughs] That sounds like something out of a Superman cartoon from the '40s, but that Superman cartoon is based on Tesla's death ray. People kind of thought it was a joke, but he had a lot of weight back in those days in certain scientific circles. He got tired of waiting for the government to take him seriously as Nazi Germany was getting closer and closer to Yugoslavia, which is where he was from. He freaked out and sent really detailed drawings to all of our allies including the British and the Soviet Union, who were our allies in World War II.
And when the Soviets got interested in his death ray, the White House set up a meeting which was on June 8, 1943 where they'd meet with Tesla and look at his death ray. But then he was found dead in his apartment the day before on June 7. Perfect conspiracy theory setup, right? [Laughter] Who killed him? The U.S. government? The Soviets? Did he just die of old age? Whatever happened, the U.S. government went into his apartment and cleaned everything out. They took all his papers and everything and shipped them off to Wright Patterson Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio – which was the original Area 51. And then a bunch of his papers and notebooks had disappeared, and nobody knows where they are. So to this day, conspiracy nuts believe that the U.S. government took these journals and still has them.
It's interesting to consider that all in terms of your book because you set him up as this figure in the middle of a question about science and faith. You've got all this hard science, but there are also a lot of spiritual questions surrounding RASL's connection to the maze of the Hopi art and then Sal the lizard man turning out to be a kind of apocalyptic religious nut at the end of the book. We bounce between people who say everything has a logical purpose and people who argue for divine intervention. And then there's the creepy little girl, too. [Smith Laughs] But in some ways it reminded me of this play that Steve Martin wrote about Picasso and Einstein.
What's this? I love Steve Martin. I've got to find this.
It's called "Picasso at the Lapin Agile," and it's kind of these dialogues between Picasso and Einstein about the similarities between artistic creation and scientific discovery. How much were you working to ask questions about faith and science and art? This book makes no argument for one truth, but those ideas complicate these characters broken lives?
Well, that's probably a slight glimpse into the frightening maze of my brain. All those things that you're talking about...that's life. That's what it's like to be in our world. There are people on one side or the other, and these forces exist and come together in a big cauldron. I did the same thing in "Bone." There's quite a bit of references there to things beyond what we can see or explain. And nothing is every explained, but our characters still have to deal with not only the reality of the universe as they find it but also the reality that everybody else approaches it too.
What did it take to stick the landing on this book? Like you said, you gave yourself the challenge of opening on an image and then having to get back to the moment in the finale of the story. And I was really surprised by how many things you save until the very last issue to reveal. It's almost as though every secret was saved for the last few pages.
[Laughs] Yeah, there's really no justification for that. It was just crazy. I would never have done that with "Bone." There I was very careful to parse out the answers and make it more gentle. But with this kind of story, that's what this is. If you read Dashiell Hammett's "Maltese Falcon" or the Continental Op, everything gets revealed on the last page. The bad guy confesses, or the detective explains everything. Boom! There it is. Like I said, there's no real justification for that. I just think it's a great way to end the story.
And I did feel like the structure of this book was very different from "Bone" – not just the first person element of it, but I kind of wanted to do a Quentin Tarantino thing. Like "Pulp Fiction" has these crazy, out-of-order story elements. And then at the end it just all comes together. I thought it would be really fun and challenging to try and do that. What you see is that the end of the story is page one.
And that makes it challenging for the reader. It's not just an adult story because it has sex and booze in it. It requires some work to put the pieces together. Did you find yourself working harder to figure out yourself where everything would go?
It was quite a bit of work. I have a little notebook, and I'd figured out all the characters in the story in there. I had the three big tent polls in there and knew where things would break out, but I ran into trouble a couple of times. I'd get to a point where the bad guys would be planning something, and RASL couldn't know it. Working around that was a struggle. And I remember running into some trouble in that little Mexican standoff at the end where he's trying to take over the compound and they catch him. It was a scene that stretched over two issues, and I remember thinking that there was so much information that had to come out, but I didn't want the story to slow down, and I had all these reveals to mix in. I'd been working pretty hard to keep the story moving and keep it entertaining and set up the ending. It was a lot of work, but that's also what's fun about doing this.
I think the one reveal that comes in the second-to-last issue was that Maya was still alive, btu as Sal said that in the standoff, I remember thinking, "She's not actually on the page, so we may be getting hosed here."
[Laughs] Yes, well I wanted you to wonder if Sal was lying or not. And RASL says there, "Even if I did believe you, I wouldn't change what I'm doing here." And a big part of the joke at the end – it's not a joke, but I'm using that term – was whether RASL would figure it out in time. I kind of wanted you as the reader to figure out that the girl he was hanging out with was Maya. Like, "Oh no! She's trying to kill him!" But we couldn't be sure if RASL knew it or not. Or if he'd have the strength of character to stop himself. I was hoping all those pieces were in there, but so far it seems like everybody got blindsided by it.
The last thing to talk about is format. I think maybe you and Terry Moore are the last men standing doing these single black-and-white issues. Of course, you also did the treasury trades and then the pocket editions, and I assume a big one-volume version of "RASL" is in the works. But what do you find from a self-publishing standpoint the future of that floppy single issue is? Do you think it's still viable, or are you and Terry able to do this just because you've already got the audience to do it?
I'm not sure. "RASL" did fairly well, but it didn't sell anything like "Bone." So as far as a business model, it's okay. But that's not why I do it. I do it because artistically I get some feedback from readers and friends and people who follow along on my blog. I view the comic at this point like the opening night of the play, and I'm getting notes from everybody. If people have questions or they don't get what's going on, I can go back in the collections and tweak it a little bit to make it work better.
In fact, we were talking before the interview started about how in the trade books, there's some story information that you don't have because you read it in single issues. For example, I think it's the third trade or around issue #9, there's a scene where RASL is out in the desert with the President, who is this homeless guy. And the little girl shows up who the President says is God, but she doesn't speak. In the comic, they talk and get some story points done and then walk through the desert back to Vegas. But in the trade, I actually have them stop and draw with their fingers in the sand so RASL can discuss Tesla's unified field theory. And, I can't actually show what that was because I don't actually have his journals. But I was able to infer from some of his real thoughts about the cosmic puzzle, and with the help of some physicist friends of mine, I was able to actually draw a three-page segment that wasn't in the comic but which I could tell was missing from reader reaction. I think it significantly improves the story and makes the science that much more believable.
So you've had "Bone" colored, and you've done multiple editions of "RASL" with these extra pages. Are you going to George Lucas it and keep revising forever?
[Laughs] No no. With "Bone," I'm done. It's a complete story. It was 12 years while I was working on it, and while I was working on it for 12 years it was a work in progress. I thought it was fair then to try and fix it. I mean, I didn't go back and change anything. I just worked to make it more clear. It's the same with "RASL." The four and a half years I've been working on it, it's been a work in progress. But when I put out hte one-volume edition, it'll be done. That's it. It's still opening night right now, though.
So you now you've done one project that took many, many years and a second project that took almost five years. Do you think you'll keep winnowing down and eventually take on a project that you can do in a year?
I've always enjoyed longer stories. I think they have a little more heft to them and are more enjoyable. And I think it takes a little bit of page count to get a full story. So even though "RASL" was only half as long as "Bone," it's still going to be 550-pages. And I'm not sure that I'l think about how many pages the next book will be ahead of time, but I've got some characters that I've been developing. I've got a world I'm building, and I'm trying to figure out the story just like I did with "Bone" and "RASL." And I'll let the story tell me how long it's going to be. We'll just have to see.
And so next are you going to take a two-week trip to Siberia or somewhere to take reference photos?
A trip to Africa might be necessary. [Laughs]