It’s interesting, and a little jarring, that in issue #9 of Rasputin, having spent a great deal of time in the “present”, in America, we are thrust back into the thickets of Russian folklore and fairy tales in this, the penultimate issue. The issue begins by, as really every story up until this point, focusing on Rasputin’s death, or at least the moment that the authorities hope is his death. In truth, issue #9 is about his resurrection, and the scary combination of powers that he possesses. But it turns out that he isn’t the only one with powers, and the fight that ensues, between skinny, willowy Rasputin and the muscular, strapping Prince who was involved in his dispatch, is charged with the energy of magic. Everything becomes terribly symbolic in this fight, even though it is on the face of it an old-fashioned slug-fest. By dipping a toe back into the deep past of Russian folklore, Alex Grecian reminds us of the mythic nature not only of Rasputin but of this whole scenario.
We’ve mentioned before how skilled artist Riley Rossmo and colorist Ivan Plascencia are in evoking the magic and mystery of the Russian winter. The way this issue begins, with a man walking through a snow forest at twilight, the place announced by that classic Russian device of a title card with big block letters (thanks to letterer Thomas Mauer), is wonderfully moody stuff. The soft crunching of his boots in the snow, with that sonic intimacy that only the deep winter can provide, is almost palpable. The first few pages are devoid of dialogue, and actually the dialogue in this issue is kept to a bare minimum.
The man, who it turns out is Prince Makarov, the same man who will later fight Rasputin, has marched through the snow to challenge the father of Princess Snegourochka for the hand of his fetching daughter. In Russian folklore, Snegourochka is known as the “Snow Princess” or the “Snow Girl”, and is the daughter (or sometimes granddaughter) of Ded Moroz, a Russian equivalent of Father Christmas. Here in Rasputin, Ded Moroz is portrayed as an all-powerful Frost King with glowing red eyes – not exactly the guy one would want to deliver presents to children on the Ukrainian New Year. But then the mythology gets even thicker, with talking rabbits and secrets to immortality hidden inside a needle, inside an egg, inside another animal. (That might seem needlessly elaborate, but this is the Russian style – think of a Faberge egg.) It’s all very interesting stuff, evoking, as this comic is wont to do, a culture that seems very close to that of the west, but isn’t, exactly.
Meanwhile, in the 1917 timeline, the recently resurrected Rasputin isn’t wasting time showing his wounds and eating fish with his disciples: he’s beating the crap out of Prince Makarov. The Prince’s compatriots seem to know his secret, but they don’t know Rasputin’s. The final twist at the end is the revelation of, without revealing specifics of course, what we as readers already know: Rasputin made his own deal with Ded Moroz, years ago.
As we near the end of this series, and it has been a pleasure to read and review, we’re left with several unexplained twists and a meaning that will hopefully emerge in issue #10. Has Rasputin just been an excuse to put the dirty old monk back in action, and explore his mythic world? Or is there some larger message about the right, and wrong way, to use mystical powers? Rasputin himself lived at a turning point in human history, when the last of the major European countries broke free of medievalism and joined the modern age, almost overnight. Rasputin is an example of the world Russia left behind in the wake of its revolution, but 70 years of communist government couldn’t completely erase the deep superstitions and fairy tales that are still whispered (or bellowed) over vodka and sausages in the deep winter’s night. It may be that Makarov was more willing, with his powers, to live fully in the modern times and Rasputin, with his no less formidable powers, chose to honour the old ways before moving to America and embracing the new in spectacular fashion. Either way, from a character standpoint, this issue is all about Rasputin getting “payback” in a feral, animal way, rather than acting as a kind of Presidential saviour in his later years. There isn’t any delicacy or nuance to his actions here: he’s a violent torpedo of energy, directed precisely against a man/god who has wronged him. In the next issue, we’ll no doubt be given some hints as to what it was all about.