Rasputin returns for its sixth issue, following one of the most dramatic and unexpected jump-cuts in the history of comics that ended the previous issue. It isn’t as if this issue walks back those surprises precisely, but it does mitigate and correct what readers probably presumed were permanent consequences. Either way, it extends the story of Rasputin in time and most importantly of all gives us some insight into the conflict moral character of the protagonist.
In previous issues, this very creative book by Alex Grecian (art by Riley Rossmo and lettering by Thomas Mauer) re-told the life story of Grigory Rasputin, the Siberian mystic, healer and charismatic that made himself a fixture of the Romanov dynasty during the years of World War I and the Russian Revolution. Rasputin, in this telling, has quite real magical healing powers that allow him to repair and restore life force to dead or drying living things. These have included people, dogs and other examples. The idea is that Rasputin is the inheritor of an ancient healing power stretching back to the mythic days of the Russian past, invoking the hut of Baba Yaga and Ice Giants (not the Game of Thrones ones). A strange condition of this power is that when Rasputin heals someone or something, there’s an exchange of life energy between them that’s permanent. For example, when he healed the pet dog of the Tsarevich, the dog became, in some small way, Rasputin and vice versa. Every time Rasputin heals something, he becomes that thing in some way. Therefore every healing literally takes a piece away from his own individual identity, making him some strange conglomerate of all the lives he’s saved.
When we left Rasputin in issue #5, he was serving on the Galician Border, during an important and pivotal battle of the World War I. An allied British officer, suspicious of his powers and his influence over the Tsar, ordered him assassinated, and following that bloody event, most of us readers presumed that we had seen the end of the Rasputin. But if history tells us anything about this man, it’s that he’s notoriously hard to kill. The afore-mentioned jump-cut was to the present day, showing Rasputin still very much alive and living in America, looking quite good for man over 100 years old.
In this issue, we see right away that Rasputin is involved in American politics, backing a candidate for President in 2016 who, though her name is “Harrison”, bears an uncanny resemblance to Hillary Clinton. Talking on his cell phone and barking orders to media handlers, he appears to play much the same role for candidate Harrison that he once did for the Romanovs, an advisor and assistant, and preferably one that stays in the shadows. Without spoiling anything, it’s safe to say that his powers are still intact. We also get the end of the assassination story from World War I, and the horrible sacrifice Rasputin made in order to live is revealed.
Rasputin, as a comic, has been very creative in the way that it’s combined Russian mysticism and history. As I’ve written before, the book feels Russian in a peculiar way: emotional and passionate and yet tough and matter-of-fact when it comes to suffering. Rasputin himself is not presented as the wise learned sage, but as a rather simple and very sensitive person, struggling to come to grips with his own power. The real Rasputin had a wife and family, but this character is pure loner. His longevity and special status seem to oblige him to maintain very few social contacts, and one can imagine that absorbing life forces for a century would challenge his ability to hold on to his own identity, forcing constant introspection. That level of power and social isolation almost puts this book into the Superhero genre, but blended with an artful use of culture and history.
The art, by Rossmo and colours by Ivan Plascencia , is very much up to standards. I particularly appreciated the way Plascencia colours the modern-day scenes in almost garish primary tones (she is running in a “Primary” election, so this could be a very deep pun), but the truly arresting work comes in the World War I sequences. The way these scenes are lit, by small shafts of sunlight peeking out from a sepia-toned cloudy sky, is moody and perfect. It captures that late-autumn feeling of rain changing to snow (or snow changing to rain) very evocatively using only texture and colour. Sequence transitions are still done in that wonderful Russian style, with Mauer lettering titles in that big modernist font associated with Soviet cinema, one of his three distinct lettering styes in this issue alone. It’s a formidable comics creation team.
It’s difficult to say what this issue sets up in terms of future events, as it feels very much like the first issue of a whole new story. Now having taken a big step away from the historical record, Grecian is free to take the story anywhere he wants, and while we might mourn the opportunity to see the Russian Revolution through the eyes of this character (we may still see that, by the way), the time jumps and spiritual aspect of the story will no doubt keep us satisfied. The central character is compelling enough to lead us through just about any kind of story.