Madness Meets Mysticism in Grecian & Rossmo's "Rasputin"

The history of Grigori Rasputin is fascinating: a Russian peasant that made his way into the service of the Romanovs, influencing Czars and the government through alleged healing abilities and magic, only to be murdered once his power became a political threat. Shrouded in mystery and rumor, Rasputin has inspired writer Alex Grecian and artist Riley Rossmo to explore his origins in "Rasputin," their new Image Comics series named after the Mad Monk.

CBR News spoke with the team, who previously worked together on "Proof," about their take on the enigmatic figure, finding out more about which parts of his history inspired the comic and why Rasputin himself would've appreciated their approach on his story.

CBR News: What appealed to you about the lore of Rasputin in telling his story?

Alex Grecian: He was always so larger than life, everything about him was exaggerated. It's almost impossible at this point to separate the truth from the tall tales, which frees us up to tell any kind of story we want to. He fictionalized himself and his biographers and detractors fictionalized him after death, so I feel like you can sort of swirl everything around in a big pot and add your own spices and come up with just about anything.

It seems like this series is a creative revision of history -- how much did you do on the character or the period? Rasputin's history is peppered with urban legends, rumors and mystery -- did that inspire you to take more creative liberties with him?

Grecian: Riley and I have created our own version of Rasputin and I don't feel guilty about that at all, but we did use his life as a jumping-off point. We've both read lots of biographies of the man and have sprinkled fact in among our fiction. The most important thing for us is to tell a good story, and I think Rasputin would have appreciated that.

What parts of his history stood out to you as you were researching the story?

Riley Rossmo: Once Alex and I started working on the book I read a couple biographies about Grigori Rasputin and what strikes me most about him are the extremes he seemed to go to in everything, both positive and negative. He'd help the poor, buy food and shoes for the children in his village, then moments later brag about how rich he was and all the favor he had with the Aristocracy. I'm also interested in the mystical side of Rasputin's life. He sometimes seemed to have premonitions, plus there are the famous healing stories, and later in his life Rasputin dabbled in hypnotism.

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I immediately noticed in the first issue that your Rasputin seems more refined and understated that many fictionalized versions -- he seems sane, composed, a little elegant. What characteristics were important for you to convey?

Grecian: Oh, he's definitely gonna have his bestial moments, and his sexy times. But we wanted to show a more rounded personality than you usually see in movies about the "Mad Monk." If he had only ever been the creepy mystic, I don't believe he would have been able to curry as much power as he eventually did. England wouldn't have been worried about the influence he had over the czars. So, yeah, as he faces death he's stoic and elegant. At least at first.

In the first issue, we see flashbacks to Rasputin's childhood and a discovery of certain mystical gifts. Can you tell me more about his powers? Do they continue to reveal themselves as the series continues?

Grecian: We decided the stories about his supernatural abilities were true. Why not? He could heal people (in fact, that's how he ended up with so much political power) and he had premonitions. And maybe he could come back from the dead. We'll have to see how it all plays out as the series rolls along. I can say that he ends up with a little bit of everyone he heals. When he helps a person, that person affects him and changes him a little bit.

As the series begins, where is Rasputin at in his life? What is going on culturally and politically?

Grecian: The era of the czars is beginning to wrap up and we're jumping in right before World War One. We're taking our time getting to the point where most bios of him start. I'm not so interested in the later political and mystical stage of his life. That stuff is important, but we've seen it before. I want to explore how he got there and what made him who he eventually became. We'll eventually get to the stuff we all know about him, but by then we'll know him better and be able to tell different kinds of stories about him.

Besides Rasputin, who are some other characters we will meet?

Grecian: By the end of the second issue, he's got a loyal entourage. We made up a French character who inspires some of Rasputin's more refined characteristics. And we've got Brother Makary, who was a real-life friend to him and influenced his spiritual side. And then there's a bear in the very first issue that affects Rasputin, too, giving him a more bestial side that comes out when he needs it. We've also got a British assassin who's been assigned to kill him, and a sort of "Downton Abbey," upstairs-downstairs romance that's a lot of fun to write. (I don't know how much that's going to be for Riley to draw.)

The two of you have worked together before -- what brought you back for this project? Alex, was Riley always the artist you'd envisioned for it?

Grecian: I was originally going to write this as a novel. That's what I'm better known for now. But when I mentioned it to Riley, a hole had just opened up in his schedule and it suddenly seemed to make a lot more sense as a comic book. So, yeah, I never envisioned any artist, but when Riley expressed interest, suddenly I couldn't imagine it without him. And he's doing the best work of his career on this book, so I'm really proud and happy we're doing it this way.

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Riley, like much of your other work, you pay close attention to each character having a unique look, even if they're just in the background. What has your character design process been like?

Rossmo: Alex trusted me to handle the visuals and didn't have a lot of input besides saying that he wanted Rasputin to be young and beardless. But he did say, "Let's have Rasputin in a big black fur coat," which I thought was cool. He'd always be a big black mass of wild hair with his pale face staring out. So, really, I just needed to design his face. I did a couple versions where Rasputin looked a little wilder, with a more hawkish nose and crazier hair, but neither of us liked those. Most incarnations of Rasputin in pop culture are sinister, ghoulish, or at least ugly, but we wanted our Rasputin to be more approachable and charismatic. I've been thinking of him as a little bit of the character Luca Torelli from "Torpedo" (by Enrique Sanchez Abuli and Jordi Bernet), mixed with a young Johnny Depp. The rest of the cast are based loosely on historical figures, but I exaggerated their actual features and body shapes so they would contrast with one another. Brother Makary was a real person, but because of how we're using him in the story I decided to make him a giant. I think the most important thing when designing any cast of characters is making sure there's plenty of contrast, so I tried to make sure each of the major players had something unique about them. We have Rasputin who wears all black and is furry, Makary is a pale giant, Rayner is pointy with dark hair, Yuspov is square and blond, and Purishkivich is round and has red hair.

Like your previous collaboration, "Rasputin" features a somewhat mythical character from a very intimate point of view. What is appealing about telling stories from behind a legend?

Rossmo: For me, having some historical basis to launch from helps me design the world. It gives me a place to start to construct a world from. Alex and I both picked up a bunch of books of photos of Russia circa 1890-1920 and having a concrete visual starting place helps. I think I can build a richer, more immersive world for readers. If I get stuck with a setting or costume it's nice to have all those historical photos to reference in order to get a scene started.

"Rasputin" #1 goes on sale October 29.

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