Comic Relief with Jeff Smith of RASL and Bone
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Paste: You’ve just completed your second epic with the conclusion of RASL. How’s it feel?
Smith: Oh, it feels great. It was a very fun project to work on. I was completely absorbed for the entire four and a half years I was working on it, and I feel pretty good about the ending. It came together. Sometimes that’s not so obvious.
Paste: RASL launched in early 2008. You’d release Little Mouse Gets Ready a year later for TOON Books, and Scholastic, arguably the largest book distributor for schools, had been publishing Bone in color since 2005. Was there any pressure to keep your work all ages before you published RASL?
Smith: That’s a good question. When I first started talking about RASL, which was like in 2000, I was still in the middle of doing Bone, and in 2000, Bone was not considered a children’s book. It was still being done for the indie, underground market of direct comic book stores. So when I first started playing with the idea of doing a hardboiled story with a sci-fi twist, I wasn’t considered a children’s author at that time. It came together as it was; it was a story I wanted to tell. And in 2008 when I really started RASL in earnest, Bone was by then a bona fide children’s book. And I was aware that the audience would be different, but I couldn’t worry about it. That was the story I wanted to work on and I just leapt into it.
Paste: Geography and places tend to be giant influences on your work. You’d included Ohio locales like Old Man’s Cave and Athens in Bone, and you had said that Arizona was your muse for RASL. What about these places and the desert inspire your stories?
Smith: Well, with Bone I spent so much time as a kid growing up in Old Man’s Cave, which is a real state park about forty miles south of Columbus. It’s a real place. It’s beautiful and has a giant, gorgeous overhang that was clearly lived in year-round by indians 150 years ago. Being there really fired my imagination. So when I tried to build a fantasy forest for my Bones to stumble into, that was my setting for it. With RASL, I’ve always been drawn to the American Southwest. I’d been there a few times as a teenager and then I would go back occasionally on my own. It just fit the idea of a noir story. Noir is about man pitted against himself. What better place to put him than in the a desert where he’s alone and isolated? I was reading the comics Web page Bleeding Cool and it described RASL as a little desert drive-in movie. And I think that’s about right. It’s a little potboiler with a sci-fi twist. I include lots of other things to keep everybody interested, like Tesla and conspiracy theories and physics philosophy, my usual meanderings.
Paste: The Columbus bar references were a nice touch too.
Smith: Are you living through the electric storm, too? (Columbus was experiencing a thunderstorm at the time of the interview)
Smith: Nice to be talking about RASL while the lightning is crackling around us.
Paste: Tesla and the noir genre are the other most recognizable components, along with some Native American mythology. How did all of your research, so much of it that you included a bibliography in your most recent collection, come about? Did the story come first or vice versa?
Smith: Usually there’s a spark of an idea. Something that I wanted. And I had the idea first for the character. He had these warp engines that would allow him to go back and forth between parallel dimensions, then I began searching around for context. The original idea was what if you could go into a parallel world and see what your life could have been like. You could meet your girlfriend in the parallel world, but you’d actually have never met and she’s married to somebody else. That kind of idea. As that bubbled around, I began to think what kind of story it is. I did the same thing with Bone. And I was watching The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, reading Dashiell Hammett stories, so it all came together. I’m a stickler for science in science fiction stories to be hard. I want it to be based on something real. I just started doing a lot of research in many different directions. I spent time in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, I read books, I watched Nova DVDs to get all of my string theory correct. I think that’s the best time, before you’ve actually started the project and you’ve just got an idea. You have research you want to do and you play around with ideas.
Paste: The scenes of multiple realities folding in on themselves were particularly horrific. How did you come up with the initial imagery?
Smith: That was cued off by the Philadelphia Experiment. If you’re an X-Files fan or conspiracy nut, that’s the story of the destroyer escort in World War II that the government wrapped with magnetic cables and ran power through. They not only wanted to make the ship invisible to radar, but they actually wanted to bend light around it and make it invisible. It flashed in and out and disappeared and reappeared like 300 miles away. There are many variations of the story. But the conclusion is when the ship reappeared, the crew was half embedded in the bulkhead. I jumped from there: if you had a big enough magnet, you might open up the pressure between two universes and have a really bad version of that.
Paste: I had never seen anything so creatively disturbing.
Smith: Why thank you (laughs). I throw out a lot of disturbing, spooky stuff in Bone as well, but because they’re little cartoon characters I’ve gotten away with it.
Paste: The locusts were pretty terrifying. Speaking of spooky, villain Sal Crow opens up a philosophical element at the end of the book. His claims that “Ours is the only universe” and “Man was created to dominate nature” could definitely apply to more than a few issues today, but stretch back to the Galileo trials.
Smith: Well, that was the idea. I had to look at how a noir story is constructed. You usually have the hard luck hero, the femme fatale, and there’s usually another dangerous character in the mix. And you have a triangle there. And as I worked on these characters and constructed them, Maya became the femme fatale. Of course, she was not seen through most of the book, but she was pulling the strings. And Sal became the violent troublemaker. As I worked on everybody’s motivations, Maya had to have a reason for doing what she does, Rob/RASL had his motivations and Sal had his motivations. First of all, he was assigned to the case to get RASL. But I wanted it to be more personal, so it just kind of worked out that way. He not only wanted to stop RASL from doing what he was doing, but he wanted to completely destroy what RASL had found because it offended him.
Paste: It’s all the more ironic when Sal, a religious character, is ultimately stopped by the little girl referred to as “God.”
Smith: (Laughs) Ironic.
Paste: On the topic of that little girl, everything wrapped up nicely but she is left with quite a bit of mystery. Is there a back story to her or are you leaving that one alone?
Smith: I think that one can just hang there. I don’t think RASL quite knows what she is, but he knows that she’s just not a little girl. He knows that she’s from the multiverse and was able to follow him. I’m quite content to let people puzzle over that and have fun with it.
Smith: Yes, I know who she is. I know where she came from.
Paste: Of course the ending was classic noir. Femme fatale Maya’s deception was planted from the first issue and you laid a lot of clues.
Smith: Does that mean you actually went back and read?
Paste: Were there any readers who popped up mid-story and said “I know it’s all Maya and Uma!”
Smith: Not one. I couldn’t believe it. Not one. I even labeled the third trade book Romance At the Speed of Light, and no one suggested, ‘hey, is that what RASL’s name means?’ I was surprised, because there were some people who guessed some of the surprises ahead of time. With RASL, I slipped through.
Paste: It’s traditional noir, with the femme fatale emerging as puppet master.
Smith: And then at the end, she confesses everything in three paragraphs. I thought that was really fun. (Laughs)
Paste: Rob left the series riding off into the sunset. Do you think you’ll ever return to the RASL universe?
Smith: I’m not really a sequel guy, but RASL is wide open for one. It sure feels like there’s another adventure there. For one thing, Rob’s and Sal’s teleportation suits are laying somewhere on their real earths’ deserts, somewhere. They just left them there. Somebody could find those. So yeah, there’s potential.
Paste: Moving onward, I had heard rumors of a space book discussed some years ago at the end of Bone. Is that another project, or did that turn into RASL?
Smith: I’d been talking about RASL since 2000, and at one point I was talking with Paul Pope about the two of us doing a giant book, and half of it would be RASL and the other half would be a story that he did. And then our schedules never worked out and I just ended up doing RASL.
Paste: So do you have any concrete ideas for your next project?
Smith: I do. I’m working on it right now. I have some props on my desk, that are staring at me getting ready. But I’m going to be mum about it before I get a little bit more to show.
Paste: Can I pry out any details at all?
Smith: I’m not ready to say the title or anything, but I think it will be humor. It’ll be closer to Bone than it is to RASL.
Paste: Is there any current news on the Bone movie from Warner Bros.? Last we heard, Patrick Sean Smith, P.J. Hogan, and animation studio Animal Logic were looking at early 2013 for the first film. Any updates?
Smith: I like everybody involved. They’re all working very hard on it, but it’s becoming apparent to me that I write comics that are just incredibly hard to adapt into movies. So I don’t know. They’re still rewriting the scripts and it’s still in motion. They’re still trying to make it happen.
Paste: Is there a window for when the movie might be released?
Smith: No. No window.
Paste: Are you happy with what you’ve seen?
Smith: Everything I’ve seen I’ve thought was very good. I like the director (P.J. Hogan) on a personal level, and I think his movies are very interesting and good. I’m just waiting for the studio to say they’re happy with the script and get it going. I know Animal Logic is chomping at the bit to get started.
Paste: Is there any news on bringing RASL to the big screen?
Smith: Oh yeah. Wigram Productions picked up the option last year. They’re at Warner Bros. also. They’re the guys who did the big Sherlock Holmes movies with Robert Downey, Jr., and they’re working like hell on it. I just got a new RASL script this weekend as a matter of fact, so I just read it and I know this weekend another Bone script is going to drop. So like I said, everybody’s working really hard on it. Just got to get the stars to line up.
Paste: In a perfect world, who would play RASL?
Smith: Oh, man. Every now and then I’ll see an actor, and a young Charles Bronson is just like RASL. What do I know? Half the time I was picturing Brad Pitt, the other half of the time I was picturing Matt Damon. But I don’t really think about that too much.