Issue #4 of Rasputin is about essentially one moment, and one moment only. It’s the moment when fear transmutes into serenity. Rasputin has been poisoned, beaten and shot multiple times and even though in the mythology of this book he knew all that would happen to him, he was still afraid. Afraid of death. It was that fear of death, and fear of Rasputin’s special power, which obliges him to take on some of the qualities of any living he heals, that motivates every action here. The final moment of death is juxtaposed with another key moment in his life, namely when he first came into the Romanov family orbit.
It’s a very cinematic comic, with Kurosawa’s knowledge of how to stretch time, and dissect a key moment. The technique is as impressive as anything else, and I’ve mentioned before that this book takes big stylistic chances, such as minimizing dialogue. But it all works, and very gracefully, combining whimsy, drama, horror and intense violence in intense scenes. That sort of heightened drama, literally backed up with mythic forces from Russian folklore, is quite Russian, in its way. Very suitable for the story being told.
[Spoilers possible ahead]
Rasputin, in this telling, knows exactly what’s going to happen to him, but fears it anyway. He isn’t perfectly noble, nor is he perfectly ignoble: Alex Grecian has created a character with some true shades of grey. When Rasputin is first brought into the Romanov household, it’s as a faith healer, but he has a terrible habit of speaking his mind. He mentions straight away that he’s heard of the hemophilia that torments Tsarevich Alexis, which angers the Queen (pardon me, Tsarina), as she understandably wishes that information kept confidential.
The dramatic link between the last moments of Rasputin’s life and that earlier, key episode in the Winter Palace is the line, “A dog could smell it on me.” That’s fear, of course. And the situation Rasputin is confronted with in the Winter Palace is initially one of healing the family dog, about to be put down due to old age. Rasputin demurs, because as we learned in previous issue, for him to heal a living thing requires that he in some way becomes that thing, just as that thing becomes him in a small way. Not wanting to become a dog, Rasputin politely declines and begins to make his exit. But just then, the doctor arrives with his euthanizing solution and one of the children (Anastasia, as it turns out), goes fairly crazy, no amount of sensible, compassionate advice from the Queen (“He’s very old, and it’s his time”) can calm her. Rasputin’s sentimental heart is stirred and he gruffly agrees to heal the dog.
I love how the characters in this story seem truly Russian. Tough, but sentimental, impulsive but yet great engineers. Passionate and yet capable of tremendous organization. Those qualities are, in part, stereotypes, as all such generalizations can be. But in this comic, the characters display all of those qualities, particularly Rasputin himself, who in this scene reaches surprisingly emotional places, eschewing the stern image of the Russian holy man.
In any case, having healed the dog, the now slightly feral Rasputin has a go at the Tsarevich, who is clearly in a bad way, bleeding externally and internally and close to death from hemophilia. Rasputin heals the boy and storms off. The experience with the dog has clearly left him feeling a deep sense of indignity, as he is now part dog. The Tsarina’s doctor, of course, begins the rumours that Rasputin is a threat, a “menace”, in his words. The Tsarina can’t believe what she’s hearing, “Surely you jest?” she replies. But of course Rasputin is, and historically was, a threat to the established court order. Who was this nobody from Siberia? And how is it that he has managed to leapfrog over the usual stages of deference and empire building necessary to place someone in the company of royalty? The notion that someone could, and would, violate the established rules of class and order reflected the Russian aristocracy’s anxiety about the growing revolutionary forces that were, in fact, about to overwhelm the kingdom. Rasputin, it seems, was a symbol of the danger of turning society inside out.
And, in a telling panel close to the end of this issue, the Tsarina spots Rasputin out in the yard building a snowman with the children. The two share a look – she clearly is impressed by this manly holy man with magic hands who is good with children. The book immediately breaks from this moment to the moment where Rasputin is surrounded by the agents of his death, one of whom is the doctor from the previous scene, and we intuitively understand that besides any political threat, Rasputin posed a personal violation of the order.
Now that we have the outlines of a continuous story (Rasputin meets Queen, stirs things up, is killed), the task remains to fill in the bit of the story pertaining to his life with the Romanovs and the Russian Revolution. There’s a great deal more to come.