Ah, Rasputin. One of history’s great rock stars. And like a great rock star, he died before his time, leaving behind him enough blank spaces in his biography, with enough rumour and mythology, to attract the interest of many a creative storyteller over the last hundred years. Rasputin’s most mythic period, in historical fact, occurred between 1914 and 1916, the year of his death. Therefore, the appearance of a very creative and very atmospheric comic, telling a fictionalized and imaginative story of his life, is highly appropriate this year.
Grigori Rasputin, the Russian mystic, advisor, faith healer, all-around “personality”, played an essential role in the fall of the Romanov dynasty and the early events of the Russian Revolution. Although many still refer to him as the “mad monk” or ascribe to him magical powers, he never received formal religious training (as far as we know) and certainly never joined a religious order. He was a person with great powers of charisma, and was able to create a lot of myth about himself during his own lifetime. He rose about as far as anyone in European society could rise at the time, from a peasant farmer to dining and living with the Royal Family. Other than some sketchy biographical details, with more detail in his final years, much of the information we have historically about this man comes from rumour and conjecture. He’s one of those people about whom historians often use the phrase “there’s no evidence,” in response to a query. Lover of the Russian queen? (We’ve all heard the song.) No evidence. Healer of the Tsarevich’s hemophilia? No evidence. That doesn’t mean these things didn’t happen. But there’s simply no evidence.
Into that knowledge gap leaps writers like Alex Grecian. As he explains in his afterward to the first issue, he had been working on a fictionalized re-telling of Rasputin’s life for a long time, originally intending it as a novel. But he finally told the story in comic book form, and for that we can all be grateful. He refers to it as a “complete reimagining” of a man’s life, and that’s a very apt description. Along with Riley Rossmo and colorist Ivan Plasencia, Grecian, judging by the first three issues, is in the process of creating a modern classic, a substantial and detailed emotional journey through Russian folklore, history and myth, centered around of the most famous episodes of the 20th century.
Probably the most famous part of Rasputin’s famous life, and the incident around which Grecian builds his story, occurred on December 30, 1916. While at dinner, Rasputin was stabbed, poisoned, shot and thrown into the river. The legend goes (I heard this one, too) that after all that, he actually died of drowning. History, sadly, confirms that Rasputin was not a super-being and was quite dead before his body was tossed into the river. But the violence of his death, the extent to which people ostensibly close to him went to make sure he was no longer living – this is great stuff for a dramatic storyteller, and for anyone interested in drama. The obvious question was why did this people want this guy dead so badly? Any story about Rasputin has to arrive at that finish line eventually.
Grecian goes right for the magic, right away, presenting Rasputin in the first issue as someone who was a) aware of his fate that December evening and b) possessed of magical powers so elaborate that even the threat of violent death, he met with cool equanimity. The very first scene consists of Rasputin being served a poisoned chalice and lifting it to his lips (Christian metaphors abound…). But then, Grecian cuts away to go right back to the beginning of Rasputin’s life, in the wintery desolation of Siberia some 40 years earlier.
[SPOILERS FROM HERE ON]
The first character from his past who we meet is is father, whose ghost stays with Rasputin the rest of his life. A huge bear of a man, the skinny young Rasputin is obviously overwhelmed. The father continues his gruff lessons, forcing his son to carry a large armful of wood back to their cabin through the deep snow, and then reveals himself to be a misogynistic, abusive, tyrannical creep. He starts his charming evening by hurling a log at his wife, then punching her out and helping himself to dinner while she lies bleeding on the floor. In the comic, this is presented as if it were an every day sort of occurrence. But then the young Grigori uses some sort of magic power he possesses and heals his mother the minute his father storms back outside. His healing power, as we later learn, involves a transfer of life force and energy. He acquires some of the characteristics of the beings he heals, as they acquire some of his. It’s a small transfer, but significant. After his father is wounded by a bear, Grigori heals the bear, leaving his father to die. Of course, in true poetic fashion, his father’s ghost follows him for the rest of his life. The first issue ends with the flash forward to the central 1916 event, with Rasputin draining his poisoned chalice.
The next two issues expand and develop Rasputin’s early life and finally, in issue #3, reveal some of the details of the nature of his powers. Here the comic takes a hard turn into Russian folklore, suggesting that Rasputin was really part magical himself, part of a legend that involves a Prince who stole the water of life from Ded Moroz, aka Father Frost, aka The King of Winter. (Aka a sadistic mirror-image Santa Claus who steals children from their parents and demands gifts from them if the children are to be returned.) Rasputin, so goes the tale, was that Prince, and destined to marry a magical princess and give birth to a child without magic. As the Abbot of the monastery in which he takes refuge explains to a friend, “He is descended from a simpler time. An age when Baba Yaga roamed the world…” Issue #3 ends with Rasputin drawing his assassin’s knife from his chest in 1916 and rising to his feet with the words, “I have always known what my friends would do to me. And I know how this will end.”
This is very rich metaphorical material, particularly when one contemplates the connections Rasputin later made with the Romanovs, and their role in European and wold history. The notion of marrying a Princess and siring a son with no magic certainly opens the door to the notion that the Russian Prince was actually Rasputin’s son, for example. But we haven’t even approached that part of Rasputin’s life yet, as told in flashback. What’s here so far is a great, dramatic and creative exploration of Russian folklore and culture. A perfect comic for the winter.
The absolute strongest quality of this comic, however, is not the fascinating historical and mythological meaning, but the comic storytelling itself. I haven’t encountered a comic with less dialogue since… heck, didn’t GI Joe #26 (can’t believe I remember the issue) use no dialogue to tell the back story of Snake Eyes? That would be the last time I remember enjoying a comic that tells so much of its story in pure visual imagery, no narration or dialogue. There are, of course, passages with dialogue and everything necessary is explained, but every issue so far here has had multiple panels and pages of comic storytelling at its purest.
The Ice King and his Princess in Issue #3
Take the opening of issue #2, for example, which presents SIX continuous pages where the only dialogue is “Oof!”, but we are never confused about what’s happening. Riley Rossmo is simply brilliant in his delicate painted backgrounds and dramatic, angular figures reminiscent of the style of Kevin O’Neill. I also really loved the “place cards”, single-panel splash images with the place name where the story is now set presented in block Russian script.
For its storytelling and its fantastic, first-rate art, Rasputin is one of the new Image Comics titles I’ll be following in 2015.