SDCC '09 | Phil Gelatt talks <i>Petrograd</i>

At their panel at the San Diego Comic-Con today, Oni Press announced a new project today called Petrograd, by Labor Days writer Philip Gelatt and newcomer Tyler Crook. The book will explore the death of Grigori Rasputin, or the Mad Monk, from Russian history. I spoke with Phil about what his plans are for the graphic novel.

JK: So you're doing a book about the Mad Monk, Rasputin. Where did the idea come from, and what was the appeal of tackling his story?

Phil: The root of the idea came from some reading I was doing, a few years ago at this point, about the Russian revolution. And I encountered this strange rumor that has been floating around since Rasputin's death that there were British spies involved in the assassination and that the British government had a stake in this man's death for various reasons. It's a rumor that's been around since 1917 but more recently some forensic evidence has made it seem that this might actually be what happened. So the potential in that idea really grabbed me and stuck with me. What the hell were the British doing assassinating a Russian holy man? Who was this British agent charged with this monumental task? How the hell would any of that actually work?

So my initial idea was to take this notion, this rumor with some fact to it and do it like a proto-James Bond story or a WWI era Le Carre novel: lone British assassin takes on the secret ruler of Tsarist Russia, with the Russian Revolution as backdrop.

As for the appeal in tackling this story, as long as I can remember, Rasputin has been a historical figure that I found fascinating. Not just because of the salacious stories or the bizarre mysticism but because the details of his murder are so outlandish, so over the top, so much like something out of a gothic horror story. Poisoned, beaten, stabbed, shot and finally drown, it's really incredible. So when I stumbled on this new angle to that murder, and it suddenly clicked into the espionage genre, I knew it was a story that I would love to take a crack at.

It's really an historical spy epic with a particularly brutal assassination as its center piece.

JK: Oni described the book as "historical fiction." Are you going for a more historical, factual approach, or do you plan to delve into the mystical side of the Rasputin legend?

Phil: I am definitely going for a more factual approach. For a few reasons, the biggest one is that when I think "comics and Rasputin" the first thing that comes to mind is Hellboy. In fact, it's the only thing that's come to my mind. That book did such a fantastic job of grabbing the mystical and mythological side of this strange, powerful man that I didn't want to invite the comparison.

So I've tried to approach him from another angle, tried to make him a very enigmatic, very powerful figure but also a human one. I wanted to portray him as a man with incredible power, but just like many other men, he's caught up in the midst of events beyond his comprehension or control. That being said, there are still some aspects of his particular brand of mysticism in there, it's not completely washed away. He just won't be casting any spells or dancing a midnight jig with topless succubi.

JK: How much research have you put into the book? And did you have an interest or background in Russian history before you started?

Phil: I have no idea why, but I have always been fascinated by Russian history and the Russian people. I have no Russian blood, I don't think I've met more than three Russians in my entire life but there is something about that country's past that really grips me.

So my background before starting the book was "obsessively interested amateur." In the course of writing the book, I did quite a bit of research, not just into Rasputin and his death but also into the roots and causes of the 1917 revolutions, into what Russia was like during the first world war (incredibly unpleasant for most people as it turns out), into the methods of the tsarist secret police, the creation of the British SIS, all kinds of things. I was dying to go to St. Petersburg and actually see the locations for the book but budget and schedule simply wouldn't allow it, so all of the research was secondary, sadly.

I don't think I quite realized when I pitched the book just how difficult historical fiction really is to write. It's the hardest parts of writing a term paper blended with the hardest parts of writing fiction into one big tangle of difficulty. As I was writing it, I swore I'd never do another historical fiction book. But then as soon as I'd finished the last draft, I found myself thinking "god damn, that was actually really satisfying." So we'll see.

JK: What's the title mean?

Phil: The title is the name of the city where the story takes place. Petrograd was what the Russian's called St. Petersburg during the first world war since "Petersburg" sounded too German.

Honestly, I am terrible with titles. So the title I gave the book initially was really quite bad. I refuse to say what it was beyond the fact that it was awful. So there was a lot of discussion about what to call it between Tyler (the artist), Randy (our editor at Oni) and me. I can't remember who's idea this title was, I just know it wasn't mine but that once someone suggested I knew it was the title I liked because the city itself is really important to the story and really key to how things play out.

JK: Is this Tyler Crook's first comics work? How did you guys come together?

Phil: This is Tyler's first comic book work but he was born for it, I swear. He's crazy talented. I was introduced to him through Oni, met him in person for the first time a year ago. I think it's been a great collaboration so far. His notes on the early drafts of the script were insightful and his pages so far are everything I could hope them to be.

He has a blog that showcases a lot of his material, everyone should go check it out. I demand it! The stuff he does in his moleskin notebooks makes my mind melt a little bit:

Then when he goes on to be massively famous, you can all say you saw it way back.

JK: How far along is the book? When will it be out?

Phil: The book is progressing nicely. Tyler's working hard on the artwork. I have my finger's crossed for an early 2010 release but that's obviously not definite. It's going to be quite a long book, scripted it's 210 or so pages, plus we're going to try to fill the back with supplemental materials: bibliography, pages notes and whatever else we can think of. It promises to be your one stop shop for mad monk assassination conspiracy awesomeness.

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