Saturday, 22 June 2013

Petrograd, Rocketeer: Hollywood Horror, and Genius reviews

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.



The Rocketeer is a character I’ve never been fully convinced is a particularly great hero - he’s just a guy with a jetpack and a weird robot helmet, isn’t he? He’s not a particularly skilled fighter or even a genius like Tony Stark - after all, someone else made the rocket pack for him, he’s just the pilot! That said, Roger Langridge and J Bone have made a pretty entertaining comic book in Rocketeer: Hollywood Horror. 

Its 1930s Hollywood and a no-good hypnotist called Otto Rune is out to rob tinseltown’s wealthiest with his nefarious plans. Meanwhile Cliff Secord aka the Rocketeer is being pursued by goons working for a shady employer who wants the jetpack for himself. But when Cliff’s girl, the pinup model Betty, gets caught up in Rune’s plan, he’ll have to make do with a sub-par rocket pack to take on - the Hollywood Horror! 

I’ve read some reviews that say this is the Rocketeer crossed with HP Lovecraft and let me say, it’s not. There is some cult-like stuff here, dark arts, etc. and a tentacled “horror” does emerge in the final issue, but it’s not at all a Lovecraftian comic. It’s more light-hearted, even comedic in places, and kind of charming in its way. It’s going for the kind of 30s Hollywood movie tone and it accomplishes this - except I’m just not a fan of those kinds of movies. If you like old-style movies, you’ll get more out of this but I felt the story was at times a bit too light as to be forgettable. It’s also a bit anachronistic in that while its aiming for the 1930s tone, Langridge gives Betty a 21st century progressive personality.

J Bone’s art is fantastic, kind of like late 90s Darwyn Cooke, and beautifully coloured, so the book looks really, really good. The one reservation I had was the exploitative ways Betty was depicted, constantly in her underwear or in very revealing dresses, and in one scene wearing the kind of outfit Carrie Fisher would immortalise in Return of the Jedi - it just made me feel a bit pervy reading this. If not for that I’d have recommended this book to kids. Also the Walt Simonson covers are super-awesome! 

I’ve never read a Rocketeer book before but I was quite entertained with this one, enough to want to read another one sometime in the future. And for a character whom I had written off as too one-dimensional, Langridge does a decent job of making Cliff and his alter ego seem relevant and interesting in this book. The ending is a little Scooby-Doo-ish but overall this is a pretty fun comic that doesn’t take itself too seriously and is enjoyable enough to read.

Rocketeer: Hollywood Horror


Ted Halker is a physicist with a genius level intellect. As a child he was skipped ahead several grades because of his above-average intelligence. As a teenager, he imagined wild theories about the universe and went on to get his physics degree at a prestigious school. Cut ahead a couple decades and Ted is now middle-aged, married with a teenage son and a pre-teen daughter, with his elderly and sick father-in-law living with them too. 

Ted’s working at a scientific journal and the promise he showed as an early 20-something starting out on his physics career, following in the footsteps of his hero, Albert Einstein, has all but gone. But he’s been treading water too long - he needs to come up with a big idea to keep his job. And he really needs to keep his job for the health insurance now that his wife’s been diagnosed with a brain disorder. Then he finds out his father-in-law knew Einstein back in the 1930s and Albert told him - and only him - an earth-shattering idea... 

I found this book a bit contrived to fully enjoy - Ted idolises Einstein and then finds out that his father-in-law knew Einstein and that he told him something he told no-one else. Not that we find out what that idea is, because we don’t, just take it as read that this senile old man has remembered it clearly and repeats it to his son-in-law at just the right moment that he needs a big discovery to keep his job. It’s all so very convenient! 

The book makes a point of differentiating between brain knowledge and heart knowledge, and that Ted has plenty of brain knowledge but not enough of the other. Knowledge as opposed to knowing. Guess what he learns more about at the end of the book? That and his wife having a brain disease all felt like very heavy-handed storytelling.

I will say that Ted did seem like a real person though - Steven Seagle wrote him as a believable, convincing character. Not the most likeable guy, but we don’t read fiction to make friends now do we? If the character seems believable, the writer has done his job. Or at least part of it as I wasn’t that engrossed in Ted’s story. 

Teddy Kristiansen’s artwork looks very arty, all thin lines and scribbles and flashes of formless paint and watercolours - imagine Eddie Campbell’s stuff and you’ve got it. You either like that style or you don’t. I wasn’t blown away by it and Kristiansen can’t believably make the characters appear to talk but it didn’t make me dislike the book any bit. 

Genius is a bit clunky in places where the themes and metaphors really get laid onto the reader in a slightly artless way despite its overtly arty visuals. Is the story of Ted coming to terms with his own limitations despite being labelled a genius at an early age, a story you need to read? Not really. It’s ok, but not a particularly exceptional comic book.


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