In the first of three issues of "Rasl" planned for 2009, Jeff Smith begins pointing toward a larger story, partially explaining the technology that Rasl uses to shift from one world to another. The explanation isn't exactly needed since the story of Rasl's multi-universal thefts is engaging enough, but the hinting of a bigger picture is intriguing.
With an odd man named Sal who looks like an animal having killed someone close to him before jumping worlds, Rasl heads after him, but is soon at the disadvantage. Their interaction provides clues of who Sal is working for and what they're looking for, while also tying into the story that Rasl gives to begin the issue about the US Navy encountering an odd phenomenon. What exactly is going on remains to be seen, but Smith drops a lot of clues in this issue.
The construction of the plot here, beginning with the Navy story before getting back to Rasl and Sal, is engaging. The Navy story obviously provides some insight into what's going on as it's where everything begins, though, instead of providing answers, it just raises more questions. As does history related later involving Tesla, Roosevelt, and Einstein stretching from the first World War through to the second.
Rasl himself remains a mystery in many ways, but is a compelling character. You can't help rooting for him despite his criminal activities, particularly when his antagonist is the slimy Sal. Their conversation here acts as a bridge between the two histories related by Rasl, and also provides more information about moving between worlds, like why Rasl has never encountered an alternate version of himself.
Smith's writing is rather good, but his art is better. Working in black and white, he uses the contrast well, but is unique in the lack of black often employed. Normally, "black and white" is code for "heavy inks with the occasional white spot," but not here. If you look at the opening pages, you'll note how little ink Smith uses, preferring to draw only what's needed. Or, shadow hints at something grotesque, like the discovered sailor on the second page.
Even in the scene between Rasl and Sal, white has the larger effect, despite it being nighttime. The spare blacks heighten their impact when they do show up, giving added emphasis in particular spots. The approach is really interesting and could easily have failed given the darker nature of this story, but Smith's cartooning skills make it work.
Beyond that, Smith's figures are all unique and tell you a lot about their characters without any words. A flirtatious encounter between Rasl and a bartender later the issue is drawn with such skill that the art overpowers the words quite heavily in getting across what each character is thinking.
While more "Rasl" would be a great thing, Smith's slower pace of three 30-page issues each year is producing some spectacular work.