The Rasputin series currently being published by Image is a very quiet, eerie, haunting affair. It’s historical fantasy, an imagined version of Grigori Rasputin’s life, or maybe only half-imagined, since even the real Rasputin was believed by some to have extra-human powers. Mixed in with all the magic, though, is a certain amount of fact, including, in issue #4, the introduction of the Romanov family, particularly Alexandra and her son Alexei. The real-world Alexandra did indeed form an intimate, perhaps even romantic, relationship with Rasputin, founded in large part on her faith in his abilities to treat Alexei’s hemophilia. In Rasputin #4, we see the beginnings of the comic’s take on Rasputin’s connection to the Romanovs, which includes the scene of Rasputin’s first encounter with Alexei. It is that scene I want to discuss here, or really just its first page, because it’s a singular example of the potential of comicbook storytelling at every level, from the broadest concepts to the tiniest details.
The page in question has only three panels, each taking up the entire width of the page so that they are stacked atop one another in three lines. The top and bottom tiers seem to be more or less equal in size, small rectangles the hold in place the much larger central panel with the page’s dominant image. That central panel is the most important, but what directly precedes and follows it in the other two panels adds significant context and weight, so all three sections work nicely together to form a whole, the entire page acting as a metapanel that delivers a cohesive message and produces a specific atmosphere.
What actually happens on the page is exceedingly simple: Rasputin is shown Alexei so he can assess the child’s condition, and it’s worse than he anticipated, so it shocks and even slightly terrifies him. That’s all there is to it, yet the effect is chilling, haunting, and bold. Rasputin’s surprise and horror is also the reader’s, as we are confronted by the severity of Alexei’s condition at the same time. Indeed, though none of the panels are from Rasputin’s point of view, they still all serve to help us share in his experience when viewing Alexei. We are mowing through this story alongside Rasputin even as we’re watching him in it.
In the first panel, Rasputin is barely visible, and the same could be said of Alexei, though for different reasons. Rasputin is obscured by the darkness of the hallway outside the room, having not totally entered yet. Alexei is hidden by his bed, so much larger than he is, and obviously sturdier, too, so that it visually overpowers his small, fragile frame. Alexandra is the most visible person in the room, because at this point, she is still the most prominent figure in Rasputin’s mind. He has yet to fully take in the vision of Alexei, so Alexandra, as his hostess and Alexei’s mother, temporarily remains the focus.
The second panel, the huge center square, shows us Alexei from a bird’s-eye view, so that we can really see and deal with the reality of his situation. His sheets are stained with blood in all directions, some smatterings of it in corners of the bed that the boy’s body can’t even reach. He is sprawled out like someone who has been knocked onto their backs, his legs splayed and his arms cast out to his sides. This is the moment where Rasputin soaks it all in and comes to see just how bad things are for the young man. So does the reader, as more than half of the page is devoted to showing us Alexei’s current situation, the isolation, misery, and incessant bleeding that are his everyday life.
Finally, in the third panel, we return to Rasputin, a close-up of his awestruck face as he’s hit by the intensity of what he sees. Behind him, Alexandra looks on with great sadness and apprehension, clearly concerned for her son’s wellbeing but not at all hopeful. Further back, with a stoic look on his face that matches his emotional detachment and skepticism, is Alexei’s current physician. And behind him is the ghost of Rasputin’s father, a constant companion for Rasputin but not really an active player in this scene, present but not a part of it. In some respects, this is merely a beat of transition, the final pause before Rasputin moves in and uses his powers to help Alexei. But this panel also serves to underline just how dire Alexei’s circumstances have grown, because up to now, Rasputin has never really been so dumbfounded or scared in this series. He’s comes across some crazy stuff in earlier issues, but always approached it with a certain cool-headedness that seems to fly out the window here, even if only momentarily.
The artist on Rasputin is Riley Rossmo, and the temptation is to give him the bulk of the credit for this page. He is, after all, responsible for the layout with its enormous central image, and it is his work that captures Rasputin’s frightened wonderment. It’s Rossmo who makes Alexei look as pathetic, weak, and tragic as he does, from the positioning of his body to the seemingly massive size of the room around him to the fallen toy soldier in the bed beside him. It’s also Rossmo who so perfectly renders Alexandra’s maternal worry and love. His aesthetic energy is a big part of what makes Rasputin click as a comic, a major factor in its unique personality and tone, so any scene as strong and effective as this one must be attributed to him at least to some degree. Rossmo gives this scene (and this whole series) its skeleton and soul, but the details contributed by the rest of the creative team really flesh it out, making it into the devastating and creepily enchanting page it is.
Colorist Ivan Plascencia does solid work on the whole page, the muted tones and dim lighting adding to the atmosphere of quiet despair. The pale red bloodstains on Alexei’s bed, and the slightly deeper, thicker red of the fresh blood coming from his body, are done well enough so as to be genuinely difficult to look at, especially in contrast to the soft, sickly blue-white of his clothing and skin. Plascencia’s palette is the right blend of grounded and surreal, matching the story with its combination of historical and fantastical content. That’s as true on this page as anywhere, though the colors do lean a little more toward the realistic here, since the scene is focused on tugging at the reader’s empathy and displaying Rasputin’s.
The page is largely silent, which is also part of its impact, the lack of words making the imagery stand out even more. Alex Grecian is the writer, and uses only six total words in these three panels, five of which come right at the end. The panel in the center is, appropriately, wordless, which also make it somewhat timeless, in that it could represent a single split second or several full minutes worth of Rasputin coming to terms with Alexei’s condition. It also gives the reader as much time as needed to get comfortable with that picture before moving on, because it’s a lot to take in, and it deserves considered study.
The first panel has a single word, spoken by Alexei. He says, weakly, “Mama?” a fairly classic or even cliché way to signify that he is a child in need. And in that opening panel, a generic child in need is all he is, so the set-up increases the forcefulness of the panel that comes next, when we learn how uniquely awful Alexei’s experience truly is. The closing panel has Rasputin saying, “Oh, god,” to no one in particular, while Alexandra says, half to Rasputin and half to herself, “My little soldier…” In both cases, these words feel arguably superfluous, since the emotions they express are so clear on the faces of the speakers. Yet something about breaking the silence of the central image seems like a smart choice on Grecian’s part. It separates that second panel from the other two even further, making its significance that much clearer.
I mentioned above that Alexei delivers his one line weakly, and the reason I know this is because of a simple but perfectly executed flourish from letterer Thomas Mauer. He gives the boy’s dialogue balloon a curvy tail, so that it appears as though the words had to travel a difficult journey to even leave Alexei’s mouth. The word is drifting out, not being spoken so much as released. At the bottom of the page, Rasputin’s balloon gets gut off at the top, connecting with and fading into the bottom border of the central panel. Considering Rasputin’s line is a direct reaction to the image of that central panel, it’s fitting that they would be tied together like this, even if it’s only a subtle bond.
Every detail on this page is thoughtfully and deliberately placed, including a few I’ve yet to mention, like Alexei’s depressed-looking teddy bear or the papers scattered across his bedroom floor. In only three panels—two of which are essentially a prologue and epilogue for the one in the middle—the Rasputin team evokes a great sadness and an equal respect for life, creates sympathy for Alexei, and deepens our understanding and appreciation of Rasputin. This is largely accomplished in ways that take specific advantage of the fact that this is a comicbook, all of the creators using the medium purposefully and intelligently. Let it seep in, examine it repeatedly, spend as much time with it as you like, but it never quite loses its initial power, an evergreen piece of exceptional comics.