Philip Gelatt: Epic Historical Spy Fiction

A comics interview article by: Jason Sacks

One of the most interesting graphic novels I picked up at Comic-con this year was Petrograd by the team of Philip Gelatt and Tyler Crook. This fascinating graphic novel told the story of the notorious Rasputin and his effect on the Russian revolution. So I was delighted to be able to take time at Comic-con to talk to Phil about this book and explore the complexities of creating a historically accurate graphic novel about a man about whom a whole lot of mythology has been created.



Jason Sacks: I'm here with Philip Gelatt, the writer of Petrograd from Oni Press. Phil, tell us what the book is about.

Philip Gelatt: Petrograd is the story of the assassination of Rasputin. It takes place in Russia in 1916, and unlike other stories about Rasputin, we don't treat him as a magician. Basically we just treat him as a man. So he never shoots lasers out of his eyes. He never raises the dead or anything crazy like that.

Instead, this is story is sort of a spy story and it’s about a young, reluctant British spy who's sort of tasked with being involved in this assassination. And then we end with the first revolution which happened in 1917. So it has a rather epic scope. I call it epic historical spy fiction. 

Sacks: Rasputin was a very controversial historical figure. He was close to the last Czar. He was very much part of the Russian revolution, which of course was a complex moment in history. Do you have a background in history?

Gelatt: I don't a history background. I have an amateur history background. I love history. I'm not Russian, but I Russian. I've never been there, but I'm absolutely fascinated by their history. I've never written historical fiction before. It was a lot of fun, but I have to say it was a little like the worst parts of a term paper crossed with the worst parts of fiction. All of the research plus all of the dialogue made this hard to write. I think it turned out really well.

It is a very complicated tapestry, ultimately, with politics and alliances and stuff like that. But it's good, I think.

Sacks: Was it hard to delve into all that history? There's a certain group of readers – maybe a very small group of readers – who will pick apart any little line that's not correct.

Gelatt: Yes, and I was very aware of that going into it, but at a certain point you have to sort of shrug and say no matter how accurate you are, there's going to be somebody – you know, nobody would have driven this car in 1916. That's kind of just the name of the game. We tried to be as accurate we could, and as we tried to catalog – I think I have it written down somewhere – every time I knew I was fudging history.

So at least when somebody came up and said to me you did this, I could be like, "here's my list." I knew that I was doing that.

One of the big things we changed was this idea that the British were involved in the death of Rasputin is something that has been around even around right after he was killed. The Czar was like; we have to bring the British in because they might have had something to do with this. So there is actual historical information about the many who probably was involved. I took his name out and created basically a fictitious spy – that's one of the bigger things I changed – because I had in mind something that I wanted to do with the main characters, so I fudged that.

Sacks: But that gives you a character that readers can follow. That's a big problem with historical fiction – oftentimes it's hard to get into the head of a main character.

Gelatt: Yeah, yeah, exactly. And creating a main character all my own allowed me to make a backstory that I thought had more to do with stuff I wanted to say. 

Sacks: Do you feel like you got into the head of Rasputin? Or was it more about treating him like this mysterious figure?

Gelatt: Ultimately, it was more about exploring that mysterious figure. We delved into his actual biography a bit, but it's ultimately about the world around him and the characters that are associated with him. He exists as a historically grounded boogey man. I think there is a way to understand him as a man. If you read the book, you sort of get that in there.

Sacks: What do you think this whole thing comes from about him having mystical powers? That's one of the first things I think of when I think of him.

Gelatt: He was kind of like a rock star of the era, of Russian. So I feel like rumors just sort of swirled around him. And his death was so epically violent that I think it’s easy to weave myth around it, because it's so – he was shot and stabbed and poisoned and thrown into a river. So it's sort of like here’s the kind of thing you would weave myth around.

Sacks: He was the man who would not die, right?

Gelatt: Exactly. And we devote a good 45 pages, I think, to the actual murder scene. So it's well explored.

Sacks: Looks like the book's about 400 pages altogether?

Gelatt: Around 300. 

Sacks: So that's a big part of it. Is this mythmaking, or bringing the character back to reality, do you think, or a little bit of both?

Gelatt: A little bit of both. I would say shifting the myth slightly is what we were after.

Sacks: How did you get inside his head? You talked about researching the time, but how did you research him?

Gelatt: It's hard to research him, because again a lot of it's conjecture and he was so mysterious even in his own time. So I read all the biographies of him I could find. But even those, you read them and they seem a little bit flimsy ultimately. So it's hard. You kind have to just – ultimately the hardest thing about him is what motivated him as a person. I don't really know. 

Sacks: He seems like one of those completely unknowable kinds of men.

Gelatt: And there's no – he must have been literate, but he certainly never wrote anything himself, so it's really hard to say if you've accurately captured what the character is all about. I feel was attracted to power; otherwise, he wouldn't have been doing what he was doing. But to what end, it's really, really hard to say. 

Sacks: Is this your first comic or have you written others in the past?

Gelatt: I've written others. A couple of years ago I did the Indiana Jones books for Dark Horse. I've done two other books for Oni. They were called Labor Days volume one and volume two. 

Sacks: Have you worked with Tyler [Crook] before?

Gelatt: I haven't. 

Sacks: His art is really striking in this book.

Gelatt: Yeah, he's fantastic.

Sacks: What was your approach to collaborating with him? So much of this book is grounded in history and setting.

Gelatt: Yeah, we talked about what our goals were as far as accuracy and then, it was really easy. I'd do a couple of graphics and scripts and he's give me notes on the scripts before he'd start doing artwork. Then I'd give him notes on his artwork as he was doing it. It was really a collaborative and integrated experience. 

Sacks: Sounds like a lot of fun! Are you happy with how it turned out?

Gelatt: I'm very happy with how it turned out. It's beautiful. It's a nice hardcover and it looks fantastic.

It's a good read. It's a ripping yarn.


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