When I was in high school, all of us history nerds (or nerds in general) knew one thing and one thing only about Rasputin: the way he was killed. For a young and growing boy, with the natural interest in all things gruesome and violent, combined with a hormone-fuelled interest in physical toughness, the notion of a man who was able to take a beating, a poisoning, multiple gunshot wounds and get tossed in a river, only to die by drowning was almost irresistible. This was a man with “stones”, to use the slightly less vulgar term (this is supposed to be a literary magazine, after all). The nature of his death multiplies the levels of fascination we have with his life, which when examined, is interesting enough on its own. Here is a great story from history, a person from obscurity who rose as far as he could within his society and was consumed by the political forces of his day. And moreover, he was morally ambiguous the whole time, carefully hiding his true motivations and loyalties, even to himself, and with the added layer of whispers of magic powers. His name alone conjures up images of a character on the border between the sad and grim realities of the Russian Revolution and the Great War (which, by the way, is much more emphasized in the history curricula of Canada and the other commonwealth countries than is World War II) and forces of supernatural magic and mystery that we all hope still exist somewhere in the wild parts of the world. Rasputin, to put it another way, is a character who makes his own gravy.
Given that early fascination, it’s a rather admirable act of restraint that Alex Grecian and Riley Rossmo (along with superb colorist Ivan Plascencia and letterer Thomas Mauer) have taken eight whole issues to finally arrive at the most well-known moment of Rasputin’s life. Yes, folks, this is the issue in which Rasputin dies. Or, at least, this is the issue where we see the historical events of Rasputin’s death: readers of the comic have known for months that death did not hold him, and he lives to this day in America, still the “Queen’s” lover and still sporting a formidable beard. But here, Grecian and Rossmo get to render out their take on one of the most gruesome and famous deaths in history. The teenager in me loves it, but the adult in me is more fascinated with how it fits into the larger story the creators are spinning.
We all know by now that Rasputin’s “power”, inherited from ancient forces in his native Siberia, is the ability to absorb life force from other living things. He can heal, even bring back living things from the dead, but the price is that he and the entity he’s saving exchange a part of their soul. Rasputin becomes part of them, and they become part of him. For example, in an earlier issue, Rasputin heals the young Tsarevich’s dog, and becomes part dog himself. More significantly, he is followed around by the ghosts of the people he has let die over the years, most importantly his own father. A catch is that these spectral ghosts have the ability, in turn, to heal Rasputin himself, at the cost of their own existence. We were shown this in the previous issue, dealing with the Kennedy assassination, but here the invocation takes on new layers of meaning.
Looking back to issue #1, released less than a year ago (it seems much longer than that), Rasputin had a very problematic relationship with his beast of a father. That first issue featured his father beating his mother to death after throwing a piece of firewood at her (charming…), so we’re clearly not meant to feel much sympathy for the old man, essentially a burly, pot-bellied version of his son. Later, his father is attacked by a bear while they’re out fishing, and Rasputin chooses to save the bear rather than his father. (We should pause and note the obvious but still effective metaphor that the thoroughly Russian Rasputin has become “part bear”.) Rasputin is forced to spend his supposedly eternal existence in the company of people he hates, and people upon whom he has passed the ultimate moral judgement. That certainly casts a pall over the notion of eternal life on this earth. The elder Rasputin is always seen, lurking in the background of his son’s long life, standing like a towering figure of vulgar, working-class power in contrast to the willowy and spiritual Grigory. It’s in this issue that we finally get the pay-off for all of that accumulated angst. In a deeply metaphorical sense, it’s the completion of Rasputin’s Oedipal trajectory: by saving his mother from death, he “fused” with her, and now at the moment of his own death, he achieves freedom from his father in that classic Greek sense.
To go further would be to offer too many spoilers, but frankly there are few elements of this story that can truly be spoiled. We all know what happened to Rasputin, as I mentioned right from the start. And we also know that, in this reality, Rasputin lives. It’s only a question of how. This issue is all about the style of storytelling that Grecian and Rossmo have developed, which relies heavily on dramatic imagery, particularly of people in the act of violence, and of extreme poses and bold visual statements. A very Russian style, as I’ve mentioned before. Sentimental, but strong. Spiritual, but big and bold and solid, like a Russian church.
We can allow that, by the end of this piece, Rasputin has discovered the power of his familial values, of being a working man from a lower class, who wants above all to be respected by the elite. This is the cry that echoes through the early years of the Revolution, and one in which Rasputin has a considerable personal stake. His death is presented as a turning point in the cultural history of Russia, a switching of allegiance from pandering to Royals and bourgeoisie patrons to a more ferocious, American-style class loyalty. In an important sense, the road to Washington begins on that cold night in the Malaya Nevka river. We shall see, as the series goes on, how far it can take him.