Review: Rasputin Volume 1: Road to the Winter Palace by Alex Grecian and Riley Rossmo (2015)

Rasputin: Road to the Winter Palace

Rasputin: Road to the Winter Palace
Image, 2015 (containing material from 2014-2015)
Writer: Alex Grecian
Artist: Riley Rossmo

Review by N Emmett.

Ah, Grigori Yefimovitch Rasputin. Alongside Vlad the Impaler, Elizabeth Bathory and Jack the Ripper, he is one of the few historical figures to enter the popular imagination as a horror character comparable to Dracula or Frankenstein – as evidenced by the 1966 Hammer film  Rasputin the Mad Monk. In fact, he is possibly the only such figure to occur in twentieth-century history. There is something enthralling about this dark magician, who held sway over the court of the Romanovs and showed a seemingly superhuman resistance to assassination attempts.

But yet, a look at the facts shows that there is precious little to substantiate this idea. Rasputin’s rotten reputation came about largely because he was a convenient scapegoat for the public’s resentment towards the ruling class. The bizarre story of his death, meanwhile, was likely embellished a good deal by his murderers: Richard Cullen has posited the theory that the five known assassins were covering up for an sixth man, a British spy named Oswald Rayner. This spy, so the theory goes, was ordered to murder Rasputin before the holy man could convince Russia to pull out of World War I.

It is high time that popular fiction gave Grigori Rasputin a re-evaluation. Writer Alex Grecian and artist Riley Rossmo have risen to this task with Rasputin Volume 1: The Road to the Winter Palace, an ambitious attempt retell the Rasputin legend with all of its supernatural intrigue while, at the same time, acknowledging that the man was not as bad as he has been painted.

rasp2Grecian’s story follows Rasputin’s journey from peasant boy to courtly adviser, earning the trust of the Romanovs by healing their haemophilic son. Along the way, the tale introduces two key twists.

The first twist is in how the comic portrays Rasputin’s gift for healing. He is able to bring people back from the brink of death in an X-ray burst, but at a cost: every time he heals a person, he absorbs one of their characteristics. Sometimes these are positive, such as his mother’s kindness or his friend’s agility, while at other times they are negative. Rasputin’s legendary uncouthness, we learn, was the result of healing the royal family’s pet dog.

The second major twist in Rasputin is the connection it makes between the historical figure and Russian folklore. While traversing the frozen wilderness Rasputin encounters rasp3Ded Moroz and Snegurochka, two Slavic personifications of frost and snow. In this dream-like sequence, he is told that he is a descendent of Prince Ivan, a folk hero who stole the Water of Life from Ded Moroz. “He is descended from a simpler time”, remarks one character. “An age when Baba Yaga roamed the world in her mortar and Koshchei kept his soul in an iron chest.”

At the beginning of the comic, the young Rasputin is very much a fairy tale figure himself. Like Jack or Hansel he is a blank slate, ready to be inscribed upon by the world around him. The storyline itself starts off with the clarity of a fairy tale: an early scene shows Rasputin’s abusive father fighting a bear, with both parties fatally injuring each other. The boy Rasputin opts to revive the bear, allowing his brutal father to die. It is a moment that combines power with simplicity, the kind of thing that legends are made of.

Grecian freely swings from this kind of robust fantasy to something more ambiguous and intriguing. After the above incident, Rasputin is followed by the ghost of his father, rasp1who never interacts directly with the story and instead watches the proceedings in silence. Shortly before encountering Ded Moroz, Rasputin is joined by a second spirit, that of a small boy. Presumably one of the children spirited away by Ded Moroz over the years, this figure perhaps represents the childlike innocence that Rasputin loses during the course of the story. It is telling that the boy is at his most prominent in the climactic scene, when Rasputin is amongst the dead and dying of World War I – a ghost from the age of folklore, haunting the mechanised horrors of the twentieth century.

Some elements of the comic are rather obscure, but then, the story is clearly keeping a few secrets from us: the cliffhanger ending indicates that the comic will depart drastically from history as we know it.

rasp4Long stretches of Rasputin contain little or no dialogue, relying instead on the artwork of Riley Rossmo. The illustrations take us from a grimy representation of the early twentieth century to a spectacular vision of a snowsept faerie, retaining a stylistic consistency throughout. Rossmo’s art is broad to the point of being cartoonish – there is a definite touch of manga, perhaps even of Disney, about his work, despite the gritty overtones. But perhaps the closest comparison point is with German expressionist cinema, which would take off a few years after the comic’s setting. Russmo shows the same interest in blending traditional images of fantasy with a modern medium, and creates a familiar-yet-otherworldly atmosphere that israther similar to Nosferatu or The Golem.

Up until now, it seems that we have lacked a definitive treatment of Rasputin in fantasy fiction. Alex Grecian and Riley Rossmo’s Rasputin may well fill that void.