After the massive, nearly two-decade long success of Bone, Jeff Smith began an ambitious new project: the sci-fi thriller Rasl. The tale of a scientist turned art thief who hops between dimensions to ply his outlaw craft (and catches the attention of some incredibly nasty people—most notably, the evil Sal) also ties in the works of inventor Nikola Tesla and the myriad conspiracy theories that about abound when his name is mentioned. Rasl is both compelling and gripping, and it’s easily one of my favorite series currently being published. So I was thrilled when I heard Smith was releasing the first seven issues of Rasl in a new Pocket Edition—so-called because the regular collections are oversized. This new volume is a more standard size that will hopefully bring the work to even more readers.
I caught up with Smith by phone and managed to catch him in his office, while the busy writer/artist was right in the middle of working on Rasl.
Are you working on issue #8?
Yeah, I am. I’m inking as we speak. However, I’m going to put the cap on the bottle now.
What’s different about this new Pocket Edition versus the collections that have come out previously?
There’s very little that’s different about it except the size. We did that because the collections I have been doing have been the oversized, European-style editions, which reprint the pages almost the same size that I do the original art. That was for me, and I thought that would be fun. But I could just tell that there were people wanting a more normal sized version of it. So that’s what we’re putting together. So this Pocket Edition will be the first seven issues of Rasl. But I do update the comics as I put them in collections, and this will have the same updates that I put in the big oversized versions.
What updates have gone into the collections before?
Well, for example, in issue four of Rasl, which started the second collection, Rasl: The Fire of St. George, I didn’t get the reaction from people that I wanted from the character Sal, who’s the bad guy. So I went back in and I rewrote a lot of the dialogue and added three pages of fight scenes between Rasl and Sal to kind of give Sal a little more motivation. I wanted readers to understand where he was coming from. That’s one of the benefits of doing the comic books in a serialized form. For me, anyway. I get the feedback on what works and what doesn’t and then when I collect it, I can get the benefit of already having some kind of feedback.
When did you first become interested in Tesla and his work?
A couple of years before I started the comic. I had originally thought of the idea for Rasl, the plot points, including the parallel universes, but I hadn’t really found the nugget of the story, the thing that everyone was after. And I just was doing some digging around on the internet and I started to come across Nikola Tesla. I have some friends who are really into all these conspiracy theories around Nikola Tesla. And then I read that when he died, there were a bunch of papers that he kept stored in a trunk that went missing and that the Department of the Navy had swooped in on the room where he was staying and confiscated everything. There are all these rumors that there’s all these journals he had kept, especially this black journal, that no one knew where it was and supposedly the Navy has it. So that gave me my nugget. That gave me my thing that everyone was after. And once you find Nikola Tesla, you just see him everywhere. He’s at the heart of every conspiracy. You name it—aliens, UFOs, Area 51.
I would imagine you get a lot of varied feedback from a lot of different groups of people based on the nature of Rasl.
Yeah, I started talking to this physicist up in Cleveland named Howard Fine, and I actually thank him in the back of the second book, because he’s into that kind of stuff. He does research and things like that. I started to communicate with him and he was a great source. He was able to help me understand [the science] and then I could turn it into comic book ideas.
What made you want to do a series like Rasl after coming off Bone?
I think it was just because I was watching a lot of [thriller] movies while I was inking, sitting up late at night with no one to talk to when I’d already played all my music a million times. I just watch movies on my laptop, and I was watching a Jason Bourne movie, I was watching The Maltese Falcon, and Bladerunner, and I just started thinking it would be fun to tell a story like that. The other impetus was, in Bone, the most fun character to write was Phoney Bone, the little selfish troublemaker who always did kind of bad things. And I thought, I wonder if you can write a comic where the main character was Phoney Bone, who wasn’t that good, whose impulses weren’t for the betterment of mankind. I just kind of went from there.
Rasl does some bad things, but in a real way, he’s very sympathetic. He does seem heroic, despite his flaws.
Yeah, it appears he’s made some bad choices and is really struggling to get out of some of the situations he’s found himself in. or trying to fix some of those mistakes. But it’s very difficult. Well, that struggle is the story. That’s what’s interesting.
How far down the line do you have the series planned out? How far do you see it going?
In a similar way to Bone, I figured out the ending first. Then I kind of work my way backward. I’m about halfway through it now. I think it’s going to be roughly 16 issues, or maybe 20.
Any upcoming plot details you can share?
Oh, jeez, what can I think of? We’re kind of entering the second act, and anything I can think of off the top of my head are the big ones. The fun thing that I’m planning now is this little girl who has shown up—she’s just kind of spooky and she doesn’t really talk. I have a big scene with her in the issue I’m working on right now. This character’s very interesting. I just don’t know what to say about it except that this is one of my favorite characters that I’ve come up with in a long time.
Visually, she’s fascinating too.
Yeah, and where she comes from and what she is, I think is going to be fun and a big part of the story. I can’t say anymore than that though. Not yet.
I love how Rasl has a letters page. As you connect with your readers, do you find any of them are starting to figure the story out?
I’m just now starting to get some guesses. I had a lot of fun doing Bone as a serialized comic and having people guess. And what’s fun about that for me as a writer is playing to people’s expectations. They’ll say, “Oh, I see this is going to happen or that” and you know, depending on how the story is going, I can either deliver for them and I know they’re going to like it, so I can really play it up, or the opposite: I can really set them up and do the opposite of what everybody’s expecting. Sometimes it’s more fun to turn and give you the opposite. And as I mentioned before, sometimes I will get a feeling from the readers that I haven’t communicated what I wanted. Like I was getting a lot of questions about who Sal was and what does he want? I was trying to say that in the fourth chapter, so I didn’t really pull that off. So then I went back when the collections came out and rewrote some pages to seal that deal a little bit better. I think even with Bone I always thought of them as complete novels and I knew that Bone, even in 1991, that the first page of the comic book would be the first page of a gigantic single novel. But as much as I think that, I enjoy the interaction with the readers. I enjoy the comic book stores. I enjoy the little pamphlet with staples. I want to do both. I want to have both experiences. I want to have the comic book and the book.
How difficult is the distribution process for the comic book issues at this point? Do you have a model down that you can easily follow, or is it still challenging as an indie publisher?
Thanks to Bone, I was able to get Rasl going a little easier than the last time. It’s still hard to get the sales just because it’s just difficult. I don’t have the same kind of a company like Dark Horse or Marvel—they have so many titles that every month they’re going to create a certain amount of money in the system. Just by the sheer volume of the titles they have. And I can never compete with that. I only have one every couple months. In that sense, it’s difficult, but I have to believe that quality will win in the end, at least to some degree. Even if Rasl never hits the kind of sales numbers that Bone did, I have noticed that after two years that it’s starting to get the traction that I was hoping it would get. The Tesla stuff especially has really gotten a lot of interest. As long as it pays for itself, I can justify doing it.
Do you mind saying how successful it is at this point in terms of sales?
I’m not very secretive about it, but I don’t actually have that number off the top of my head. It’s maybe in the 18,000 copies range as a comic book.
Are there any Easter eggs or hidden clues in the panels of the pages that we should be looking for—any that you can reveal?
Well, the spooky girl is definitely one of the Easter eggs. And I did throw one into the collections that wasn’t in the original comic books. I have this three-page scene where this homeless guy who calls himself the President of the Streets appears. So those are going to be connected. Those will be a little Easter egg trail. We’ll find a little bit more about them in the very next issue of Rasl, which is number eight.
Any plans for a movie version?
I don’t know yet. I did have one little bout with Hollywood. Hugh Jackman and the Donner Company were interested. But we couldn’t sell it with the amount of information that was in the comic book at that time. So maybe we’ll come back to it. Who knows? I wasn’t far enough along. I couldn’t really tell them where it was going. I mean, I did try to, but even I don’t know some things yet.
Do you verify the science in the series?
Well, I have a couple of physicist friends I talk to. I do a lot of research. Before I started the series, I studied physics, string theory and modifications of it, like M theory, for about a year, really looking into what real physicists think is going on beyond what we see. And then I spent another year studying all the conspiracy theories and all the crazy materials out there. So the science in there is as real as I can make it.
It’s always interesting to me how science—and sci-fi stories—can intertwine so easily with conspiracy theories.
Oh, sure. That’s why X Files was so popular. Or Lost. Because it interwove science and natural phenomena and craziness. It’s all around us. We can’t avoid it.
Are you ever baffled by some of the things you’re writing about?
Well, there are moments. I’m not a scientist. I’m just a comic book guy trying to tell stories about it. There are times when my head almost explodes. And I can almost get it. There are very popular films from PBS, the Nova programs and stuff like that, for example, that can kind of help me figure it out. Tesla is still the mind-blower. I just can’t believe that guy invented everything that our modern civilization runs on, everything from radio to AC current in our houses. I mean, he invented everything, and he was just completely written out of history books.
Yet he’s kind of making a return to the popular conscious.
Well, he’s kind of coming back. He’s making a comeback, but he was unknown for about a hundred years. And he made some bad decisions. That’s why I kind of use his life career path as a parallel of Rasl’s in some of the flashbacks. And I think he was kind of bitter in the end. He was also very eccentric. He was a little nuts. He had really strange ideas and behaviors, like he couldn’t touch human hair. So I think at the end, he became kind of bitter and reclusive, and as I suggest in Rasl, I think he was the model for Frankenstein in the film. He was the dreamer who wandered and who played with incredible forces that nobody understood. Did you ever see those Superman cartoons that the Fleischers made, the very famous one in the ’40s where Superman battles a mad scientist with a death ray? Superman actually punches the ray beam. That was clearly based on Tesla’s death ray that he was talking about in public in the ‘30s and ‘40s. So some people just thought he was crazy; that’s all. That’s what happened to him.
Are there any conspiracy theories related to Tesla you believe to be true?
Some of them. I mean, I think he really almost came up with this death ray, and I think some of that technology has been advanced [since then]. One of the conspiracy theories is there’s this array up in Alaska called the HAARP, which stands for the High Frequency Active Aural Research Program. It basically takes some of Tesla’s ideas about pulsing energy into the atmosphere but with modern understanding of microwaves. And you can do things like superheat the atmosphere and actually create a bubble up in the atmosphere that could intercept missiles. There are things like that. Also, Tesla believed that the frequency that radio projections incurred affected people’s mental health. He believed all kinds of things. And there’s something going on with that. In fact, the St. George Array in Rasl is based on this HAARP array up in Alaska.
The art style in Rasl is very different from Bone. Is that by choice?
With Sal, I think that shows my love of Chester Gould, the creator of Dick Tracy. I really love the early Dick Tracy stuff from the ‘30s and ‘40s, where his villains were Flattop and the Mole, all these villains who had such distinctive looks. And I guess the idea was not only did they do evil, but they looked evil. So that’s what Sal is. He’s based on a salamander, because I thought of him as a slippery character. But as far as the rest of the world, I’m not consciously trying to draw differently from Bone. I just think I’m drawing it as good as I can. Which is the same thing I did with Bone. But my characters in Bone were so cartoony, I think it just looks different. I think if you had Rasl standing next to Bone and Grandma Ben, ultimately it’s the same kind of cartoony construction that I’m working with.
Speaking of Bone, any news on anything going on with the series?
We’re still working on the movie. Warner Bros. is doing it. The producers are actually flying out to visit Old Man’s Cave with me. I’m looking forward to that. The 20th anniversary of Bone is going to be next year, and I think we’re going to have some really good surprises for fans of Bone. We’re going to start working on an oversized three-volume, four-color edition of Bone for the 20th anniversary. I’ve always wanted a one-volume in color, but I can’t technologically pull that off yet. But I can do it in three volumes. And printed larger than the Scholastic ones. I think people are going to like that. At San Diego Comic-Con, we’ll have a sneak peek at that.