A groundswell for Nikola Tesla has been building over the last couple of decades. I’d been hugely into science and technology, but other than seeing the Tesla Coil in Command and Conquer: Red Alert, I hadn’t heard much about the scientist. I didn’t know his lab was the basic for the Universal horror films Frankenstein laboratory which has come to be the default lab for any mad scientist. The first time he was brought to my attention was when I was doing my undergrad degree and one of my TAs went on a nearly hour-long rant on how Tesla was a genius who was robbed by Edison. Then he had a small, but key role in the film The Prestige. A year or so ago, The Oatmeal raised money to fund a Tesla museum. It was kicked off by this comic. Why all the fascination with Tesla? The stuff he was doing and trying to do includes both what was science fiction at the time (radio, RADAR, etc) and is still science fiction today (teleportation, free energy, etc). It is the the combination of the two that makes him ripe for use in science fiction dramas and thrillers. (Even moreso than Albert Einstein)
Rasl is the story of an art thief, named Rasl, who travels through dimensions searching for his next big score, or so the book’s marketing claims. This is a huge misdirection on Jeff Smith’s part as this story has almost absolutely nothing to do with the fact that he’s an art thief. He could have had any number of reasons for traveling through dimensions and the story would remain unchanged. Eventually we learn that the technology Rasl is using was developing using Tesla’s research. And the first reveal is that Rasl isn’t an art thief using stolen technology, he’s one of two scientists who developed the technology and is using it to run away. The art theft is simply a way to have money.
The intersection of the real and fictional Tesla turns out to be a perfect framing device for Rasl and its exploration of the ethics of scientific discovery. Tesla was a scientist’s scientist; he wanted, above all else, to make discoveries. Like many scientists before him, he played with forces he didn’t fully understand. Marie Curie and her X-Ray experiments would be a similar example, only it was the direct cause of her death. In real life, Tesla did dream of creating teleportation devices and sources of free energy. In real life he may have abandoned these ideas because they were impossible or he may have been pressured from groups that feared the economic changes that would come with free energy. In Rasl Tesla concludes (although he can’t decisively prove) that the energy is being removed from other dimensions. This leads him to abandon the work. Rasl proves this is the case and argues to his partner that using this energy is, therefore, unethical. There are people living in these dimensions and the effects of using their energy is unknown. Rasl’s partner has wanted to do this research since they were children and is willing to ignore or willingly disbelieve this data in order to continue his research. And, similar to the Guatemalan experiments I’ll mention extremely briefly below, there’s a sense that it’s OK to experiment on the Other.
Of course, this also segues well into another scientific issue Jeff Smith is exploring. Cutting edge research is extremely expensive and requires an entity to devote resources without an immediate payoff. Although in the past some corporations were willing to do primary research (such as the original AT&T and research that led to encryption, transistors, Unix, and the C programming language), only the government has this kind of money nowadays. It’s also a truism that the only thing the government is always willing to spend vast sums of money on is war. The US government paid for The Manhattan Projects for the atomic bomb, not for nuclear energy. The US government paid for DARPANET (Internet precursor) for war communications, not for research (or anything we use the Internet for today). Tesla’s technology is no different in real life or in Rasl. In real life Tesla sought to finance some of his research by creating a Death Ray for the US government. Scientists often end up developing qualms against the weaponization of their research. Many of The Manhattan Projects scientists implored the US government to abandon nuclear bombs once the scientists saw the enormity of what they had created. Similarly, the scientists in Rasl were able to get government funding because they are building offensive and defensive capabilities with the Tesla research. On the offensive side, the teleportation device for putting soldiers behind enemy lines. On the defensive side, the St George Array.
Rasl also comments on the tragedy of military and government self-experimentation. Declassified documents have shown the government willing to experiment on troops and civilians with inoculations (1940-1950s), drugs (CIA), psychological abuse (CIA), and STDs (African Americans in US, Guatemalan prisoners and mental patients). In the book, The Philadelphia Experiment has the military try Tesla’s teleportation technology on a Navy ship full of sailors. They end up subjected to horrible consequences when the teleportation experiment goes awry. Decades later Rasl’s partner and the military chain of command at The Compound refuse to listen to his concerns and end up causing horrible consequences for a town near the facility. (Also similar to real life when nuclear testing has poisoned southwest Native American lands)
Jeff Smith generally does a good job of giving the main characters a gray morality. All too often scientists in literature are either intentionally evil, unintentionally evil, or perfectly good. Rasl tries to stop the experiments when he realizes they are potentially harming other dimensions, but he’s willing to finance his time on the run by stealing art from other dimensions. Additionally, he is sleeping with his partner’s wife. Even though he is willing to destroy the physical journals to prevent their misuse, he keeps a copy on his iPod, which may end up falling into bad hands in the future. As a scientist Rasl is unable to completely let the knowledge be destroyed, no matter the consequences. His partner eventually starts to come around to the view that harm may be done by the technology, but it’s way past the point where he could have effected change.
The only character that’s so one dimensional as to mar an otherwise great story is Sal. He’s a thug/Private Eye hired by the government to find Rasl and force him to give them the journals they could use to rebuild the technology. He refuses to believe anything that would allow him to consider the other dimensions to have real citizens worth saving. He has one mission and focuses on the mission singularly, even when his employers begin to waver in their fanaticism.
Rasl is a good example of the types of stories that can be told outside the usual mold. There’s nothing wrong with the typical hero story (you can see we love them here at Comic POW!), but here’s yet another great story to pass on when people sneer that comics can’t tell a story that doesn’t involve super heroes.
RASL by Jeff Smith is available on Amazon.com in a collected hardcover