December 2, 2014

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Rasputin Gets Knocked Out (and beaten and stabbed and shot), and he gets up again

Rasputin (Issues 1 and 2)
Written by Alex Grecian
Illustrated by Riley Rossmo
Colors by Ivan Plascencia
Letters by Thomas Mauer
Published by Image Comics

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend" - The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Alex Grecian and Riley Rossmo, the creators of Rasputin, have take the above quote to heart (it actually appears on the back of issue 1). Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, the man, lived from January, 1869 to December, 1916. Rasputin, the legend, has lived on much longer in popular culture, including in comics.*  The circumstances surrounding his mysterious life, his affiliation with the occult, and his prolonged death has fascinated people for generations, and led them to ascribe Rasputin almost supernatural abilities. Which is where Rasputin comes in. Rather than a strictly factual inquiry to Rasputin's life, the creators have taken a "true-ish" approach to the story in order to get at some deeper truths and craft an interesting story.** The first two issues of the series set a lonely, haunting mood, and establish the magical world of Grigori Rasputin, thanks to the spare but effective narration from Grecian and stunning art from Rossmo.


The story begins at the end, as Rasputin sits at a table surrounded by his enemies (including the ghost of his father).***  It seems there's no shortage of people who want to kill him. Rasputin is aware of this, and not particularly interested in fighting the inevitability of it. The story then flashes back in time to when Rasputin was a boy, in the barren wilderness of Siberia with his loving mother and cruel giant of a father. In those scenes, we see (according to his recollections) Rasputin use magical powers to heal at least one of his parents from what may have been certain death. The past and present continue to move forward in the second issue, as the "present" Rasputin appears to move passively towards his fate, and he flashes back to when he was a young man.

This time around, the story revolves around when Rasputin meets a French army officer named Dulac after helping the man in a bar fight (Rasputin is handy in this situation) and healing Dulac's injuries. Rasputin accepts Dulac's invitation to leave his small town of Pokrovskoe and head to another city in Siberia, Verkhoturye, where he meets his future friend Brother Makary. The flashback ends as we see that ultimately all of Rasputin's friends will turn on him.

These first few issues are moody, sparse, and haunting, but it doesn't mean the overall story is decompressed. The situations depicted really convey the sense of a man at the end of a challenging life, reflecting on the key moments that got him to this point in time.

As shown in these first few issues, Rasputin seems to be a man at peace with his own impending death. The minimal narration makes sense within the story (as there would be no reason for him to be excessively wordy). Moreover, as the flashback sequences are taking place within memory, what Rasputin takes (and we take from our own memories) are images--flashes of certain moments, rather than every detail of what was said or overheard.  Lastly, what's interesting is that the supernatural elements of the story (at least thus far) seem to take place only in Rasputin's memories. Is he engaging in self-deception? Remembering his early life with a fanciful eye? Or has he started to believe his own legends and myths?  These are questions yet to be answered. 

Most of the heavy lifting story-wise is done through the art.  For a lesser creator that might be a issue--thankfully Rossmo, Plascencia and Mauer are up to the challenge (and it also feels like there is a lot of trust between writer and artist). This is one of the most visually striking books I've seen in a while. To start, there's some excellent lettering in this book. Rasputin's internal monologue is conveyed in a more script-like style (almost as if this was a diary), and the locations of flashbacks are announced with very enormous lettering across double-page spreads which feels like a very deliberate choice (it also conveys something "epic" about the nature of the flashbacks).

The art team skillfully shows both lonely, quiet scenes (the barren, desolate landscape of Siberia) and intense action (the bar fight, Rasputin's "friends" beating him senseless). Rossmo's figure work is first rate, as he captures the essence of Rasputin at 3 different ages (child, young man, older man).  In his facial acting, we can clearly see the sense of goodness in the young Rasputin, and the wisdom, intelligence, and resignation (and also maybe something sinister) in the older version of this man. The sequential storytelling in these first few issues is also spare and highly effective. In both issues there are multi-page sequences without a single line of dialogue or narration. The body language of the characters, the facial interactions, Rossmo's dynamic and visceral depictions of fights and action - these things give us everything we need to know.

Plascencia's colors here set the scene in both the past and present. In the outdoor sequences in Siberia, the pale blues and whites convey barrenness and cold (as does the nice touch of Rasputin's cold breath).  Rasputin and his father are at one point almost completely surrounded by the white. By contrast, the rich, dark colors of the interior scenes convey (in the case of Rasputin' childhood home) warmth, or (in the case of the place of Rasputin's demise) a more sinister atmosphere. The art team also uses pixellation to intense and interesting effect throughout the series (somewhat reminiscent of Jock's art style) to convey shading and emphasis. Perhaps most striking is the effect when Rasputin uses his abilities to heal people. in those moments we something of their skeletons, and is is a white-hot, intense effect, surrounded by pixellation which feels a little like "Kirby crackle".


The "problem" (such as it is) with the series is that the art has such a forward sense of motion that it moves the reader rapidly through the story. Combined with the lack of dialogue or narration, this makes for a very quick read. So, you'll want to read through this series several times. First to get the story, and then again to savor the subtlety of the art and the wit of the narration. There's a lot to enjoy here, visually and otherwise. I'd recommend you give Rasputin a look.
 
* For a great, more historically grounded take on Rasputin in graphic form, I'd recommend Petrograd by Philip Gelatt and Tyler Crook.

** Grecian and Rossmo previously collaborated on the clever mystery series Proof, which reveals the true nature of creatures such as Bigfoot and fairies.

*** Reminiscent of Psalm 23:5 "Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over."