One of the questions with historical fantasy books like Rasputin or Manifest Destiny is how close they’re going to parallel the true recorded history. In the case of Manifest Destiny, they follow the general outlines and throw in their own elements along the way. With Rasputin, it appeared to me, based on the first four issues, that writer Alex Grecian would essentially follow Rasputin’s very interesting real life, with the added layer of myth and magic essentially commenting on or complementing the narrative. Based on this latest issue, #5, I was spectacularly, hilariously wrong. But that just makes the book better.
This issue also marks a turning point in the story, where, as the bold Kubrick-inspired typeface proclaims at the end, we have reached the end of the first half of our story, subtitled, “The Road to the Winter Palace.” (I can’t give away just here where the road leads next, but I’ll mention it in the spoiler section, and you would never guess it.)
[SPOILERS from here on]
The real Rasputin died in December of 1916. That event, and his pre-knowledge of it as a piece of metaphysical certainty, has provided the narrative frame around all the events of the story so far. We have flashed forward to the scene, back to earlier episodes in Rasputin’s life, and back to the death scene again. So far, just about everything has fit within the context of the real life of the man himself. Which is why it’s a bit surprising to open this comic with Rasputin on the front lines of World War I, specifically the Galician border, presumably in 1915. Even more surprising is that Tsar Nicholas II is there, leading the troops.
To address the history very briefly, this front in Galicia turned into a major defeat for the Russian army in 1915, fighting against better weapons and suffering huge losses. Their retreat allowed Central power forces to claim Warsaw, for example. This turned a lot of the domestic tide against Nicholas, particularly focusing public anger around the presence of Rasputin in the palace. I’m sure it was no accident that Grecian and his collaborators picked that historical setting.
Rasputin has been brought in, in the world of the comic Rasputin, in order to heal the Tsar, who has suffered a mortal wound. Rasputin is still, on the whole, reluctant to use his special powers, in a large part because, as we’ve seen, whenever he heals something or someone, he takes on a bit of their essence. If he heals too many, too fast, he’ll lose himself completely. But there’s no question about the Tsar – that goes without saying, and Rasputin quickly heals him.
He’s also introduced to a British intelligence officer, who has many questions about his sway over the Tsar and what his real power is within the corridors of power. In historical fact, many people at the time had the same questions, and the same concerns about this odd “monk”. Mr Rayner, the British visitor, is outraged by Rasputin’s lack of deference and lack of respect for the orderly process of institutional decision making.
Rasputin, for his part, swats away the British officer as a minor irritant. Much more important and appalling to him is the suffering of the soldiers he sees all around him. Rayner also sees the suffering men, but accepts their fate as the cost of war. “War isn’t measuring by its costs,” he explains to Rasputin, “It’s measured in results.” Rasputing doesn’t accept this equation for a minute, and before long he’s performing a mass healing, spending an extraordinary amount of energy to save the lives of dozens of men.
Rayner puts it this way: he needs the Russians to stay in the war. Which means he doesn’t need someone like Rasputin going around reminding the Tsar of the cost. Russia has one thing England lacks: an almost endless supply of men willing to die. In the great war of attrition that World War I became, that’s strategically important. So, Rayner grabs a rifle, climbs up to the top of a hill overlooking the camp, and shoots down Rasputin even as he hangs over the camp, suspended by his own magical energy.
The significance of this can’t be overstated: the very first thing this book told us was that Rasputin knew exactly when and how he was going to die. Every part of the story was leading up to that. And here, now that all literally comes falling down to earth. The last thoughts going through Rasputin’s head as we fade to black are, “How could I have been so wrong?”
And then we cut to two bold, dramatic pages of all-caps text, one announcing definitively that this is the “END” of the road to the winter palace. And the next card… The next next says, “The Road to the White House begins June 24,” and we get one final splash page of Rasputin sitting in the back of a limousine, sipping a Martini and checking his cell phone. “You can’t keep a good man down,” reads the lettering.
I’m sure my mouth-agape expression at reading those last four pages was mirrored by many readers all over the world. Of all the places I had expected the creators to take the novel, a House of Cards-style modern political drama would have been pretty low on the list. But Alex Grecian, artist Riley Rossmo, colourist Ivan Plascenicia and letterer Thomas Mauer (great lettering work in this issue) have taken me this far. I’ll go with them to the next story, but my head’s still spinning a bit.