The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 40 | Petrograd GN review

Leaving Proof 40 | Petrograd GN review
Published on Thursday, August 4, 2011 by
  • Oni Press, 2011; 264 pages
  • Written by: Philip Gelatt
  • Illustrated by: Tyler Crook
  • Cover Price: $29.95
  • Full Disclosure: This is a review of a press proof digital copy of the book provided by the publisher

Phil Gelatt and Tyler Crook’s Petrograd is an original graphic novel set in the eponymous Russian city during the months leading up to the February Revolution, centering on the alleged involvement of agents of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) in the assassination of the infamous mystic Grigori Rasputin. It is a book grounded in history and requires some basic familiarity with the class-based conflicts in early 20th century Russia to fully appreciate, but at its core, it is a well-executed spy thriller that can be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in cloak and dagger.

Gelatt offers up a meticulously researched tale showcasing all the principal (and quite colorful) actors thought to have been involved in killing Rasputin. The book is not intended to be a simple recounting of the current state of knowledge regarding the circumstances surrounding the “Mad Monk’s” death, however. It is a work of historical fiction, with Gelatt seamlessly and expertly weaving together established facts, partially substantiated details, and fictionalized reconstructions into a coherent and affecting whole, set against the backdrop of one of the most pivotal periods of the 20th century.

Readers familiar with the historical background for the story might take issue with Gelatt’s decision to replace SIS agent Oswald Rayner (the man recent evidence points to as the person likely to have actually shot Rasputin) with an original character of his own creation, but I find this an issue so minor it isn’t really one at all. Given that there is very little known about the actual Oswald Rayner, Gelatt’s depiction of him as a central character in the story would have relied more on fiction than fact, anyway, and the use of the fictional SIS agent Cleary as the protagonist opens up certain avenues towards expanding characterization without compromising the tale’s overall historicity the way that a fictionalized recreation of Rayner would. The decision to replace Rayner with Cleary does not detract from the book at all if one keeps firmly in mind that the work is intended to be historical fiction.

The use of a fictional protagonist also provides an added layer of suspense to the proceedings in a tale full of known quantities. We know that Rasputin was killed in December of 1916. We know that Prince Felix Yusupov and Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, two of the central characters involved in the plot to murder Rasputin, escaped prosecution and survived the collapse of the Russian Empire. We know that SIS agent Stephen Alley eventually became the agency’s Petrograd station chief. And we know that Rayner made it out of Russia alive; he, in fact, translated Yusupov’s (now largely discredited) account of the assassination of Rasputin. There is no such certainty surrounding the fate of Cleary, and it makes for compelling, page-turning stuff.

Tyler Crook’s work is somewhat reminiscent of the watercolor-washed art of Hawaiian Dick‘s Steven Griffin. His page layouts and panel arrangements are easy-to-follow, the characters are distinguishable and recognizable despite stylization, he has a great handle on facial expressions and silhouettes/posture, his backgrounds are infused with abundant detail, and his control of perspective and the storytelling “camera” is impressive. I find it almost hard to believe that this is actually Crook’s first published comics work (he is a 3D modeler by trade from what I’ve gathered on the Internet).

All in all, I found Petrograd to be quite the engrossing read. Fans of historical fiction, noir, pulp fiction, spy thrillers, and plain old good comics will find something to like here. Highly recommended.

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