The assassination of Rasputin, the mad Russian monk who was arguably a big motivating factor in Russia overthrowing its aristocracy and becoming a communist nation for much of the 20th century, is one hell of a story. To kill Rasputin the assassins had to poison, stab, and shoot him and, to make sure he didn't come back from that, rolled him up in a blanket and dropped into the Neva river in the dead of winter, crashing through the ice into the freezing waters below. That is one tough dude.
A dirt poor peasant who became known as a holy man, Jesus reincarnate, who also looked like Satan, and who managed to get into the good graces of the Tsarina who lavished attention on him for seemingly being able to cure her haemophiliac son, Rasputin was a fascinating figure. But if you didn't know anything about him before coming to this book, you won't find out much info on him here. Instead, this book focuses on an Irishman called Cleary who is working for the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). This book is set in 1916, during the First World War and Cleary has been tasked with keeping the Russians at war with the Germans.
Rasputin has allegedly been whispering to the Tsar to make peace with the Germans but if this were to happen then the Germans would be able to transfer their resources from the Eastern Front to the Western Front and overwhelm the struggling British. Cleary is then tasked with murdering Rasputin to scupper any chances at a truce and to ensure Russia and Germany remain at each others throats, thus ensuring Britain's relative safety.
Officially, Rasputin's death was never put down to Britain's interference or the SIS though it has been a theory for many years. The bullets he was shot with came from a gun the British military used and a known British spy was in the house Rasputin was killed in. "Petrograd" explores this theory from the perspective of Cleary, the British spy who kills Rasputin.
I enjoy reading historically-based comics and initially I thought I was going to love this book but Philip Gelatt's approach to the story made it seem far less interesting than it could've been. This book focuses on Cleary, a somewhat boring character who spends most of his time moping around Petrograd, fighting with his colleagues, not really knowing where his loyalties lie. Through Cleary we get a sense of the situation in Russia with a lot of unrest due to the war not going well for Russia and the poor organisation of public services, due to the Tsar's bad decisions, meaning while there was food available it wasn't getting through to the cities and people were starving more and more each week. We get a sense of the situation in Russia reaching crisis point and the fact that the Tsarina is hanging around a man many believe to be evil and making things worse for them doesn't help.
But it just goes on for too long. The background detail is kind of tedious especially if you're familiar with this time period like I am as it just went over events and things I already knew. It didn't give me a better understanding that I already had, and seeing people grumble about food shortage and the nobility behaving like asses, isn't very interesting to read. This goes on for 140 pages (out of a 250 page book) before we get to what I thought was the point of the book, Rasputin's assassination. This section is great - Gelatt doesn't try to explain how Rasputin drank so much poison in the wine and lived, he just shows it. Similarly the stabbing and the shooting, all of which is done in a clumsy way by the unprepared and hopeless assassins, not helped by the manic energy of Rasputin, makes him seem as superhuman as he always claimed for taking that kind of punishment. It's interesting in a morbid way and creepy too without being overtly supernatural.
And then we're done and back into the main story which is about the aftermath and Cleary going on the run after being abandoned by his government and his fellow conspirators. He's suspected of the killing, pursued by the Russian police, evades them, and meanwhile things in Russia go from bad to worse until the 1917 revolution happens. While I would've initially thought to summarise this book as being about Rasputin's assassination, 200 out of 250 pages don't feature him at all and instead are about a rather dull English agent and the well-known (at least to students of history) troubles Russia faced at this time. Yet the main reason I imagine most people would be picking this up would be to read about the mysterious figure of Rasputin. Rather than focusing so much on the background, I would've loved to have read more about Rasputin - even for just a few pages. Establish who he is to people who don't know. What was his background, how did he become so notorious, why is he the centre of an international assassination plot - if you don't know who Rasputin was, you're going to have to look elsewhere to find out, and that really shouldn't be the case in a book about his death. He's the centre of the book yet there's barely any information on him at all.
Tyler Crook's art is outstanding for the most part but I felt that his character models looked a bit too similar - at least three of the main conspirators are all white, male, same build, same haircut, and it was hard to distinguish between them when they got together in a scene. It's not helped by the intentionally bland colour palette of black, white and a pale rusty watercolour red which covers everyone's clothes in the same colour scheme.
The book itself is really well put together. It's a hardback with top quality paper that's bound very nicely. The touch of the paper is really pleasant too and feels good in your hands. I read digital comics as well but sometimes the tactile feel of a book can't be beat. I'd give Oni full marks on the presentation but the cover is at least half cloth covered (the title part) and the gold lettering on it that says Petrograd is starting to come off in little spots after just one reading, which is a bit disappointing. Otherwise, this is an excellently produced book.
Petrograd is a somewhat interesting historical comic book which is at least partially about the death of one the most enigmatic figures in the history of Russian politics. If you know anything about this time period or its main characters, don't expect to learn anything new, but if you're a fan of John le Carre's Smiley books you might enjoy this more. I was expecting a far richer reading experience based around Rasputin and came away feeling unsatisfied with what I got in Petrograd.
on 21 November 2012
I think this is one of the best graphic novel of all ages. It tells the true story of Rasputin's assassination. Russian noblemen, agents of British intellegince, Russiann secret police, Communists are all involved in the whole story. The central character is a British spy that played a key role in the case. The graphic work is excellent and reminds Hugo Pratt. It is a surprisingly good graphic novel.