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BOOK REVIEW

Graphic novel's trip to different world

By Stephen Weiner
Globe Correspondent / February 14, 2009
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Jeff Smith, best known as the creator of the enormously popular fantasy epic "Bone," stretches his cartooning skills, themes, and his storytelling abilities in his new series, "Rasl."

The first of a projected three-volume series, "The Drift" begins with the hero stealing a Picasso in a world very similar to Earth. This is not only a different world, it's a different dimension as well, and Rasl begins to wonder about things when he finds "Blonde on Blonde" on a jukebox recorded by Robert Zimmerman (as opposed to Bob Dylan). Rasl's stolen Picasso becomes worthless when someone following him puts a bullet through it, making it impossible to resell. Although Rasl believes he's the only one who knows how to travel between time and dimensions, he's being pursued by someone intending to kill all the people Rasl cares for. Before becoming an interdimensional art thief, Rasl was a scientist who helped create the technology that allowed movement between space and time. But the experiment went awry, leaving Rasl the scientist dead while giving birth to Rasl the thief.

Smith is a master of the cartooning medium, and the pacing in "Rasl" is absolutely perfect. The warm drawing style that worked so well in "Bone" has been replaced with hard lines and shadow-filled panels that evoke the bitter life Smith's new hero leads. Where "Bone" was a light story that lent itself to big panels and color, "Rasl" is a story told in black and white. The artwork consists of both long and close-up shots; the panels vary in shape, helping to give the book a claustrophobic feel that echoes Rasl's state of mind. This mood underscores the book's theme: If you play with the gods, there's a price, and self-redemption doesn't come easily.

In recent years, several graphic novels have broken through to mainstream readership. Most of them either are autobiographical, such as Alison Bechdel's "Fun Home," or ride the wave of the current superhero hit movies, such as Alan Moore's "Watchmen." "Bone" has proved to be an exception to these trends, and despite the fact that "Rasl" is aimed at adults rather than all-age readers, it's another book that isn't easily categorized.

Before drawing the attention of mainstream readers, "Bone" was first released through Smith's publishing house, Cartoon Books, and sold through comic-book stores. "Rasl" is also released through Cartoon Books, which means that it's available in comic-book stores rather than bookstores. Look for Book 2 of "Rasl" late this year.

Stephen Weiner's newest book is "The Hellboy Companion," available from Dark Horse.

RASL: Book 1 - The Drift By Jeff Smith

Cartoon Books, 112 pp., paperback, $13

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