As previously mentioned in our discussions of Rasputin, one of the more curious aspects of this historical figure is that we all know how he died. That’s the first and sometimes only thing we learn about the real Rasputin. We also know how the Russian Revolution turned out for the Romanovs (badly). So, the real challenge for writer Alex Grecian in this comics series, which comes to an end here in issue #10, is to proverbially walk us up to that finale in a creative and interesting way that incorporates what we already know with the mythic alternate-universe fantasy that he and the rest of the creative team have concocted. While it’s great to see all the pieces finally fit together, and we’re left with little doubt regarding Rasputin’s past, present and future in the world of this story, it’s a almost a shame to see the story come to an end. The upside is that the finale is stylish and smart, just like the previous nine issues, and the complete arc will someday make for a beautiful collection.
The previous issue (#9) was sometimes weighed down by excessive Russian mysticism and magic, involving souls hidden in the form of needles hidden within rabbits, and ice Gods granting the gift of immortality. That’s all undoubtedly wonderful material, but the strength of a book like Rasputin is in how it can dock those magic realist tropes with a more grounded take on history in this world. As readers, at least in my case, we’re keying off our knowledge of world history and Russian culture in our understanding of this book. It’s the sort of comic where there are a lot of historical “in-jokes”, and finally here they all come together. Grecian and the whole team have been masterful in the way they’ve managed to combine the Romanovs, the Russian Revolution, the JFK Assassination and celebrity culture both at the turn of the 20th and the 21st centuries through this most enigmatic of historical characters.
For one thing, the creators place the killing of Rasputin centre stage in the developing Russian Revolution, implying that the population’s faith in the Romanovs was linked to this strange Siberian priest. “I let you become too important to these people,” says a character, pointing out the window to streets beginning to run red with revolutionary zeal. Rasputin, of course, is not dead, but he does have the opportunity to take advantage of what most people believe. It seems that one of the keys to a successful immortal existence is being relatively low-key. If the population at large knows that an individual is a magical, powerful, immortal being, then they will tend to follow that person, or at least keep a close eye on his or her activities. But if the world thinks you’re dead, that allows the sort of freedom that immortality can provide, and that’s Rasputin’s very real and practical challenge in this issue.
The great thing about that plot twist is that it refocuses the entire plot of the book on Rasputin’s death, which as we mentioned before is the most infamous thing about him. To put it another way, it’s implied that there’s a reason why we all know how Rasputin died: he wanted it that way. Thus the real world and the world of realist fantasy have an organic and poetic link.
In terms of style, this final issue has all of the strengths of the previous issues: long sequences with no dialogue, strong imagery and composition (courtesy of artist Riley Rossmo), bold lettering that serves a dramatic effect (from Thomas Mauer) and a varied colour palette used, among other things, to indicate the passage of time (by Ivan Plascencia). The Revolution sequence in particular is well-realized, borrowing from our shared knowledge of the iconic images of the period, from such films as Battleship Potemkin. And there are glorious little details, such as using the Romanov’s dog as a readout of the Romanovs’ emotional state, and that of Rasputin himself (recall that when he healed the dog, he also exchanged some of his life energy with it). The team even finds time for a flirty gesture between Alexandra and Rasputin (implying that he may indeed have been the “lover of the Russian Queen”, without ever confirming that suspicion).
The final sequence, naturally enough, takes place on the Malaya Nevka River, the very location of Rasputin’s death and now the place of his literal and metaphorical rebirth. Rasputin was, historically, an ally of Russia’s last royal family, but history is vague on exactly why. This comic is also light on character motivation, it seems, for Rasputin’s generosity and sacrifice for these people. They certainly provided him with a place to live when he needed it, and allowed him to move in the upper levels of Russian society, but he doesn’t appear to share very many of their values. Rasputin, both in history and in this fiction, remains just out of reach, his motivations seemingly coming from a deep, spiritual level. Almost as if fate itself was working within him to bring about inevitable historical change. It’s by doing a favour for the surviving Romanovs (yes, one of them is Ananstasia, citing another popular history myth) that Rasputin comes to America, for example. And it’s this path to America that involves Abraham Zapruder, whose film would become so historically significant half a century later.
It’s only at the very end that Rasputin himself begins to tell his own story, and reveal something of his own perspective on all that he has seen. Appropriately enough, he speaks and writes of his death, and knowing exactly how he is going to die, once again, the same thing we all know about him. But Grecian, probably wisely, ends before Rasputin can go much further in his own reflections. This leaves the character, as always, just beyond our ability to understand, possessed of a certain mystique, and capable of surprising us. As he says himself, “I’ve always known what fate has in store for me. But I wouldn’t mind a surprise or two along the way.” That’s exactly the line that Rasputin has walked for the past ten issues: balancing what we know and expect with what can surprise us, without stretching history too far. We may not know Rasputin, but becoming lost in this textured and imaginative artistic take on his life has shed some light on what he means to our culture, our history and our present.