By Andrew P. Stevens. The deck was already stacked against Alex Grecian’s Rasputin, not because of any politics within the comic book industry, but because of something he says in the back of issue #1, “I’ve tried to write about Grigori Rasputin before.” It’s a comment that underlines the difficulty of approaching such mysterious figures, the occult, and historical fiction. From that comment comes forth a chronicle of Grecian’s twenty year journey with Rasputin, from its beginnings as a potential film script, an attempted novel, and finally with its new home at Image Comics. One doesn’t finish Grecian’s words with the impression that Rasputin has arrived in his intended medium. Instead, Grecian’s afterward pinpoints the general anxiety one feels in reading Rasputin #1: the idea may feel directionless and long-shelved, but it’s still full of potential.

Comic books that source historical figures well (say, C.O.W.L.’s use of former Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley) often slate the character to the side, letting them function more as an intricate set piece who contributes to building atmosphere rather than as a protagonist. An air of mystery further complicates the choice of Rasputin as a main character: characters who function within an air of mystery – be they within the occult or otherwise, like Pinhead in Hellraiser or Star Wars‘ Boba Fett – function best with brief appearances that serve more to their iconized imagery than as a force for exposition. (Rasputin has worked this cameo magic before, in the pages of Hellboy.) The occult complicates this further in that it too functions as an atmospheric force, and often fails as a primary source for support within lengthy story arcs. Thus, we arrive at a story using the tired plot contrivances we’ve all seen often, where clairvoyance, resurrection, an abusive father, and a victimized mother all play a part.

Rasputin doles out most of its story in flashback, the tale of Rasputin’s childhood book-ended with the night of his death, all of which is narrated by the man himself. The small amount of narration offers the reader what they already knew before opening these pages – “I’m going to be murdered by my closest friends in the world.” The reader seizes on this enticing morsel by readying themselves for a smattering of plot pieces, and instead receives a wordless flashback featuring a patriarchal, wife-beating giant battling with a bear. While these scenes work in isolation they never congeal. One expects mysteries and the anticipation of paths that lie ahead, not a simple nod toward the impending arrival of such happenings in later issues.

Despite these complications, artist Riley Rossmo works some magic into this piece. He uses the entire whole of every page, and smashes panels on top of two-page splashes, which couples the existential anxiety of a lifeless expanse with the confining power small panels can provide. Rossmo squeezes the reader out of their comfort in stashing away the common visual tropes we might expect. He accomplishes that feat in the hierarchy of detail he establishes in landscape and background, both realized in place of empty, white space.  Faces alternate between detailed and blurred, emphasizing a sense of action and emotion.  Grecian seizes this creative opportunity by implanting images within the dialogue bubbles instead of words.

One could imagine a version of Rasputin drawn in a heavy-handed, Gothic tone of gray and black, a book that boasts intrusive narration and campy dialogue that would pair well with Type O Negative playing as its soundtrack. Instead,  Rossmo employs a pinch of zip-a-tone style – recognizable from famous Pop Art pieces and Silver Age comics – with the help of colorist Ivan Plascencia. Together they create a style of bold lines and simple color choice, which merges the grit of violence with a cartoonish simplicity that enhances Rasputin‘s brutality. But what’s at work in these pages moves beyond enhancement and instead evolves toward a displacement of perception. As a result, the reader shuttles through the “last supper” sequences that house Rasputin’s narration, and the book’s mid-tale Siberian flashback with their breath held, as the narrative relentlessly hurtles through time. If this team pursues the mission etched out in its illustrative work, Rasputin will become a comic to watch. If the  directionless plot relies on a murder mystery as its driving force, this historical piece will likely fail.

Grecian, Rossmo, and Plascencia create a world where ghosts may exist, the dead can be resurrected, and ten-foot tall figures walk the earth. Despite the inherent intrigue offered with the slew of provocative images in this issue, one gets no sense of where it’s headed. One doesn’t need every question answered, or any for that matter, but one must know where they are. The reader deserves more than a mere hint of why Rasputin’s close friends will murder him. With no dialogue offered in the bookends, the reader can only appraise Rasputin’s “friends” by their appearance alone.

Rasputin‘s lack of characterization complicates this new release. Grecian offers Rasputin’s full name, his father’s first and last, but the mother -a woman Rasputin resurrects from the dead after she is beaten to death – is merely addressed as “mother.” The father – Elfin Rasputin – has a few defining features: a hulking mountain of a body, a penchant for sadism toward his family, and an innate ability to wield an axe, but there is little else to glean from. The source of his cruelty seems to owe more to archetypal tropes of a historical context than to anything else.

Elfin exists as transparent blue form behind Rasputin’s chair at the dinner table in the opening and closing pages of this issue. His presence goes unacknowledged, but promises a potentially haunting plot line, not unlike the victims who trail the protagonist in American Werewolf In London.  

Overall, one must grant a serialized format the opportunity to chart a course and offer surprises. As it stands, Rasputin has the potential to either crash on the rocks or steer itself into safe territory. Maybe the team has already channeled some the clairvoyant powers of its protagonist and know just where they’re headed. But so far, the rest of us are in the dark.

Image Comics/$3.50

Written by Alex Grecian.

Art by Riley Rossmo.

Colors by Ivan Plascencia.

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