One of the running gags I used to enjoy on The Simpsons was the dreaded educational filmstrip. Whenever Bart or Lisa’s class would settle in to watch one of these out-of-date filmstrips, the faded color, visible scratches, and pops in the audio would make it clear that the film was older than most of the students’ parents. The gag was funny because, for so many of us, it was true. In a world where public education is perpetually underfunded, educational materials are invariably a generation out of date.
I was thinking about this the other day when my son told me how much he loved Thomas Edison. He had just watched a cartoon, part of a series called Animated Hero Classics, which features 30-minute stories about people like George Washington, Harriet Tubman, and, apparently, Thomas Edison. My son, who loves science, was now anxious to tell me all about the greatness of Thomas Edison. Not wanting to be the wet blanket, I simply nodded and mumbled, “Well, that’s cool.”
But it’s not cool, is it? It seems like every couple of months we hear yet another story about how the legendary Thomas Edison actually stole someone else’s idea, crushing a more innovative competitor. With Edison, the more you learn the less you like, and we appear to be entering an era of Edison backlash where we spend more time honoring his rivals like Georges Méliès, as readers of The Invention of Hugo Cabret or viewers of Hugo will quickly tell you.
And then there’s Nikola Tesla.
To be honest, my knowledge of Tesla doesn’t go back very far. Though I learned all there was to know about the Wizard of Menlo Park while I was in school, I didn’t consciously notice Nikola Tesla until David Bowie’s performance in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. Since that time, I started seeing his name more frequently, but nothing has ever invoked quite so much Tesla fascination as Jeff Smith’s Rasl. Rasl is a nearly 500-page love letter to Nikola Tesla, enveloped in a mashup of science fiction and film noir. It’s also as fun and engaging as anything I’ve read this year.
The story began as a black and white series in 2008, but last fall Smith published a beautifully colorized hardback collection of the complete story. Rasl is aimed at adult readers, unlike Smith’s most famous creation, Bone, and it’s a remarkable bit of storytelling—as clear and coherent as anything you’re likely to read this year. In fact, at the risk of sounding like an old fuddy-duddy, it’s refreshing to see what a truly clean piece of storytelling looks and feels like. Not once did I stare at a flashy panel and scratch my head at what was going on or how it connected to the next image. Such basic fundamentals sometimes feel like a lost art, but Smith has them nailed down as well as anyone you’ll encounter.
He uses very few panels per page, often only three or four, and he frequently alternates between silent panels and those with text. The effect creates an effective rhythm for Smith’s version of decompressed storytelling. You learn new information in one panel, then pause just long enough to absorb it before moving forward. He doesn’t try to overwhelm the reader with information. As I learned from the Scott McCloud lecture I wrote about last week, with Smith’s work there is nothing you need to know that isn’t in the panel you’re looking at.
The one exception is when he delivers his history of the life and career of Nikola Tesla. Most of the book is tightly focused on the character of Rasl, an inter-dimensional art thief, but halfway through his story, Smith inserts several expository pages on Nikola Tesla that detail both the facts of his life and the unexplained myths. Normally such breaks in the narrative would feel like terrible intrusions, but the myth of Tesla is the power source that drives this book; he is the hero of the protagonist, his ideas provide the source of the technology in the story, and his notebooks provide the MacGuffin. As a result, despite all the universe hopping, burglary, gunfighting, murder, and romance, the heart of the story is really about Tesla. So when Smith pushes pause on the story of Rasl and gives us the history of Tesla, it’s not an intrusion—it’s fulfillment.
And by embracing the Tesla of popular myth, Smith gives us a figure that serves as a symbol of possibility. He has come to represent every great lost idea, and for residents of a globe that continues to warm, where ice caps melt, bees disappear, and energy sources are drying up, the mythical Tesla shines brighter than ever. What did we lose when we lost Tesla? How close was he to producing global-wide wireless energy? What might he have accomplished had he not been tangled in all those competitive battles for funding, many projects living and dying on the whims and fortunes of the corporate titans of the day?
Which brings me back to Thomas Edison. Edison has long been a lionized figure in American history, and he’s an especially easy one for the establishment to embrace. Who hasn’t marveled at the stories of the obsessed inventor who filed patent after patent and “gave” the world almost all of the practical technology that defined the first half of the 20th century? It’s an inspiring story—one that specifically reinforces the mythical spirit of the power of the American free market. The Edison story promotes the virtues of practical science, expansion, industrial colonization, control, power, and money. American history reveres Edison for many of the same reasons every school child learns about Henry Ford instead of Preston Tucker. The Tuckers and the Teslas of our history are embarrassments because their stories speak to an economic system that does not always work—a system where the most innovative mind still gets shut down, boxed out, and ripped off, a system where mediocrity can still triumph, provided it’s well organized, has deep pockets, and employs a crackerjack team of lobbyists. (As I write this, Comcast is making unprecedented moves towards controlling the nation’s communications and media delivery as well as much of the media content itself—all despite having a miserable reputation for customer satisfaction.)
So Tesla, the brilliant, forward-thinking innovator, has become the patron saint for the innovative creative artist who is crushed by someone else who is better at gaming the system. The comics industry has its own fair share of Teslas, where all too often names like Kirby, Finger, Siegel, Shuster, and Simon are more recognizable as plaintiffs in failed lawsuits than as beneficiaries of their greatest work.
All of which makes Smith’s Rasl particularly compelling. But Rasl, with its celebration of a real-world science legend, also seems quite timely. In terms of scientific ideas, it explores two of the most trendy—the theoretical concept of the multiverse and the ethical complications of the militarization of science. But the book resonates well today for another reason, coming as it does at a time when we are increasingly feeling the effects of our culture’s scientific illiteracy.
I’m writing this a little over 100 miles away from Dayton, Tennessee, where almost 90 years ago John Scopes was put on trial for teaching what was already established scientific theory. Since that trial, immortalized in Lawrence and Lee’s play, Inherit the Wind, it sometimes feels like not much has changed in the way we approach science. The only difference is that now, instead of inheriting wind from having troubled our own house, we inherit “media noise”—an immobilizing form of disinformation, dressed up to pass as news. It’s a noise that prevents us from doing anything about climate change because it presents a disagreement between 98 scientists on one side versus 2 on the other as a wash. Significantly, in Rasl, none of the forces at work truly understand the science, and the chief antagonist, like some leftover figure from the Inquisition, clings to an irrational commitment that other universes are hallucinations despite all evidence to the contrary.
In this way, Rasl serves as a reminder that just as scientific knowledge has very real, tangible effects on the world, scientific illiteracy causes very real, tangible problems. And I’m writing here, not as a science geek trumpeting my hobby, but rather as a convert who has been drowning alongside the rest of the illiterate masses. I won’t lie—as someone with a strong humanities background, most everything I know comes from a novel, play, poem, movie, or comic. And as my children like to remind me, I’m someone who, only a couple of years ago, was under the vague impression that bats laid eggs and penguins could fly. But thanks to things like Rasl and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos, I’m beginning to learn a few things. All of which means there may still be some hope for us, if not in this universe, then maybe in one of those parallel ones.
You know—the one where penguins can fly.