“Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living”
-Arthur C. Clarke
That’s a very interesting maxim to apply to Grigori Rasputin, particularly in the deeply spiritually infested world of the comic Rasputin, moving now into its seventh issue. We know from previous issues that this Rasputin as the power to absorb the forces of death and share life energy, blending with dying living things in a spiritual and physical way. That’s the cost to him, as he wields this power bequeathed by the Ice Giants of the Siberian tundra. But there’s another sort of cost, one associated with the people he deliberately does not save. They follow him, as ghosts, forever. “You don’t get a lot of privacy, do you?” someone asks him in this issue, to which Rasputin wearily agrees. Having the power over life and death is a curse as much as it is a blessing for this strange Russian mystic.
Of the things we know about the historical figure, he was murdered by supposedly close friends on a cold night in December 1916. One conceit of this comic is that Rasputin always knew the time, place and circumstances of his death. When, in this issue, he’s invited to dinner, he knows exactly what awaits him. And of course, we also know that he somehow survives, and lives to this day in America. This is the second issue in which writer Alex Grecian grapples with the problem of integrating Rasputin into 20th century American history, and he does so brilliantly here
History, always in retrospect, has a number of turning points, key moments where things could have gone another way. In American history, one big turning point was the death of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. The images in the historical imagination from that day, particularly as now there are relatively few living witnesses, mostly come from the film shot by dressmaker Abraham Zapruder, whose 8mm film reel is one of the most viewed sequences of frames in the history of the world. Zapruder was, incidentally, a Russian immigrant, who came to the US in 1920, fleeing the Russian civil war. For a clever writer of historical fiction such as Grecian, this is more than enough room through which to wedge a story involving an immortal Rasputin.
Such is the plot device driving this, and one suspects, some future issues, and it’s rich and compelling enough fodder for any of us history buffs who love imagining that there are forces driving human affairs that dip into the supernatural. What makes this book compelling, however, is the character of Rasputin himself. He’s the title of the book after all, and one of the great mystery characters of the recent past. It’s curious how we’re starting to get a sense of the man himself, after seven issues.
One aspect of Rasputin that doesn’t escape anyone’s attention is that he’s immortal. With that immortality, at least it’s portrayed in popular fiction, comes a certain isolation from the world, and a certain reserved irony. These are individuals with many lifetimes of experiences and yet they remain physically youthful. Grecian writes a wonderful line early in this issue, for example, in which Rasputin responds to a request for wine by saying, “I don’t drink wine,” a clear homage to that other Eastern European immortal character who “feeds” off of the living. (The guy with the cape and fangs.) A great deal of this issue seems to be setting up an exploration of Rasputin’s relationship with his friends, one of whom, if we’re to believe it, was none other than Abraham Zapruder. But Rasputin also had other friends, more ominous ones who feared his power, which is admittedly probably a rational response to a super-being. Those friends conspired in his horrific torture and “death” in 1916, according to history. As this issue draws to a close, the suggestion is that we’re going to see that episode, at least, and consider not only how it led our titular character to leave Russia, but how it affected his relationship with other humans.
Rasputin, in this book, has a great power. And as Professor Stanley Martin Leiber taught us all, that comes with great responsibility. The weight of that responsibility is something that Rasputin has had to learn to bear over years, and one that still bears down on him. As we see in his interactions with children, Rasputin is not an especially “bad” or unfriendly character. He just wishes that people would look at him without fear and without hate, as children do. He will respond in kind. But children, sadly, are the exception rather than the rule. In Russia he was hounded by government officials and military people. It’s not that different in America, except perhaps that investigative reporters who are industrious enough to look through old photographs also pose some sort of threat. It isn’t as if Rasputin is hiding, exactly. He just would rather avoid the spotlight, because the consequences of revealing his power to the world have been almost universally negative to him personally.
And that’s what makes Rasputin one of the great comics running at the moment: it’s supposedly an historical fantasy, a proto-superhero story mixed with lots of little nuggets of cultural and political narrative. In fact, and this is increasingly clear in this issue, this is a character study: a careful, deliberate attempt to understand the personal ramifications of great power on one human being. After seven issues, we can’t say that we know Rasputin exactly, but we like him. And we want to know more. That’s just great storytelling.