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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Comics Spotlight Review: Rasputin #1

By Chris Brennaman

Pop culture loves Grigori Rasputin. Over the decades, he’s popped up in more than a few comics, TV shows and movies, most often as a villain. As far as real life characters go, Rasputin lends himself pretty handily to fiction in all mediums. And why wouldn’t he? The guy was at the center of Tsarist Russia’s political scene and was alleged to have been a wizard.

An actual wizard. Madness.

Now creators Alex Grecian and Riley Rossmo are making a go of adding to the Mad Monk’s mythos in a new series from Image, the appropriately named Rasputin. In issue #1 we meet a Grigori Rasputin who isn’t so much a one-note villain as he’s typically portrayed in fiction but more…

… well, from this introductory issue, it’s difficult to say exactly what he is because we don’t actually don’t spend that much time with him. At least, not in his present. The issue opens with Rasputin sitting down with a group of men who, he says through narration, are going to murder him. He also speaks to the reader vaguely about seeing the future and what fate holds for him. But that’s about it. We never learn what, if any, goals he has, what drives him, what his endgame is or if he even has one. Nothing.

This is quite the recipe for narrative catastrophe.

Fortunately, a spectacularly crafted flashback story about a moment in Rasputin’s childhood in the Siberian wilderness swoops in for the save. Rasputin’s childhood as told by Grecian is one of constant struggle. Sometimes that struggle is with his frigid, unforgiving environment, but more often than not that struggle is with a monstrous father in both size and cruelty. It’s part survival story, part coming of age story and part origin story and its largely done in silence. If the mandate of comics is to show, don’t tell, then this portion of Rasputin #1 excels.

Then there’s the phenomenal art of Riley Rossmo. Rossmo provides two very distinct visual styles for the two periods of Rasputin’s life showcased in the comic. In fact, these two styles are so distinct it almost seems like different artists were tasked to handle each era of Rasputin’s life. The present is dark, moody and claustrophobic. There’s a grittiness to the line work. Meanwhile in the past, even scenes set indoors are framed as wide open as possible and that grit of the presence is all but gone. During the extended flashback, since there are no text boxes, no narration and minimal dialog everything is carried by Rossmo’s skill. His work in Rasputin #1 is a welcome reminder that comics are a visual medium that shouldn’t have to rely on an endless stream of words to tell a good story.

The strong story told in that flashback and Rossmo’s killer art throughout should be enough to get readers to circle back for a second issue.  Hopefully, by the end of that second issue, we’ll know what this book is actually about. 
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