Petrograd | Philip Gelatt and Tyler Crook

Here’s the cold, hard truth about comic books and the comic industry: unless you’re steadily providing fodder for the Hollywood Blockbuster Machine, or you’re making press-grabbing headlines about your re-launches (DC and Marvel) or re-numberings (DC and Marvel) or bringing people back (DC and Marvel) or killing them again (DC and Marvel – notice a trend?)…let’s face it: unless you’re DC or Marvel, the public at large doesn’t give much of a damn about you, and doesn’t much care to know anything about you.

Which is a damn shame, because for all the talk about whether it’s a good time to get out of comics, or get into comics due to the hullabaloo over at the Big 2 publishers, little attention is paid to the uniformly excellent work being done at the smaller, independent publishers.  Even ignoring the great work at Image and Dark Horse, two larger (but still independent) publishers who are putting out great regular titles like The Walking Dead, ChewB.P.R.D. and FEAR Agent, there are fantastic series and OGNs (original graphic novels) by scores of publishers you may not even know are out there.

Case in point: the excellent Petrograd, written by Philip Gelatt and illustrated by Tyler Crook (who as we speak is gearing up to take over the drawing reins for B.P.R.D.) and published by Oni Press, who has one of the best monthly titles out there right now with The Sixth GunPetrograd is a historical spy thriller that uses as its launching point the political turmoil of 1916 Russia and the conspiratorial murder of the Mad Monk himself, Gregorii Rasputin.  Told through the eyes and actions of Agent Cleary, a small-time operative working as a double agent for British Intelligence, Petrograd weaves multiple  story lines that vividly captures the atmosphere of Russia and its denizens’ attitudes towards the madness permeating from behind the walls of the Czar’s palace, but also the inner workings of the other side, as the “good guys” often end up being just as nasty, perverse, and chaotic as the Monk they wish to topple.

Great ideas for any book, but since we’re talking comics none of this would work worth a damn if the pictures didn’t sell (and tell) the story, and it’s hear the Petrograd really works its magic.  Crook is simply stunning, using a less realistic, cartoony style with a minimum of color (the book is almost entirely bathed in pinkish, orange hues) to accentuate the action, and it serves to highlight the humanity of the situations in a way that using a more realistic approach could never achieve.  The layouts are equally dynamic, often skewed and slanted to accentuate tiny slivers of importance.  Eyes are prominently featured: whether behind a newspaper or enraged with symbolic skulls, Crook draws your attention exactly to where he wants it to be, while simultaneously letting you in on all the tiny details that make every panel a piece of art.

Beautifully packaged, superbly plotted, and exquisitely drawn, Petrograd is just one piece of evidence that comics are more than capes, cowls, and merchandising.  Whenever I feel myself getting let down or tired by the monthly grind of the mainstream publishers, it’s titles like Petrograd and publishers like Oni (and Image, and Boom, and Drawn & Quarterly, etc.) that remind me of the allure of and magic of comics, and why I continue to be held in thrall of the word balloon.