Grant Morrison: Why I'm stepping away from superheroes

The comics author on gay Batman, fan entitlement - and why accepting an honour from the Queen doesn't mean he's sold out.

It's been a busy year for Grant Morrison, architect of the fall and rise of Batman, father of the new socialist Superman, chronicler of superhero history with Supergods, and recipient of an MBE for writing that most blasted of art forms, the humble comic book. The upcoming few months are set to be even more hectic, with Morrison bidding farewell to the grind of monthly titles with a highly anticipated Wonder Woman graphic novel and a mind-bending last magnum opus, several titles shrouded in secrecy, and his very own MorrisonCon drawing devoted fans to Las Vegas.

Sitting in a bar in Edinburgh, it's easy to forget that this guy from Glasgow, who loves to talk and cringes at being quoted, is regarded by many as the high priest of the medium. An appearance at the Book Festival last year resulted in a record-breaking queue over three hours long at the signing tent; a starring role in this year's Glasgow Comic Con drew fans from all across the country.

Some of those same fans were astonished that a writer with such an anti-establishment reputation – The Invisibles regularly makes any list of anarchist reading material – would accept a gong from old Elizabeth, without any apparent plans to blow up the palace. Suffice to say, the MBE news got a bit of a reaction.

“There always is, isn't there?” Morrison laughs. “There's been such a reaction over the last year to everything I've said or done!”

He's not joking. One particular interview, published in Playboy, not only made the newspapers around the world, but resulted in Morrison being denounced on Brazilian television. It was that now infamous soundbite, in which he said Batman -

“Is gay!” he finishes. “But the thing is, it was the opposite of what I said. But Playboy had it in as the most sensationalised version, they didn't take off the bit at the end... Because it was all from the book, it was from an interview I did last year for Supergods. And basically I said what I said in the book, that you can easily dial up the black-leather-fetishistic-night-dwelling aspects of Batman, and the masculinity of Batman, and get a pretty good gay Batman. But as I said, ultimately he's not gay because he has no sex life, really. All he is is an adventurer.. sometimes they show him with girls, sometimes he never seems to be going out with girls.

“But they just took off the cool sound-bite which is 'Batman is utterly, utterly gay, says Morrison'! That was it, I had to deal with that – people were really fucking mad at me for that one.”

Coming to the end of a five-year run on various titles starring the caped crusader, the Batman brand has cemented Morrison's reputation as one of the top writers in his field. That fame though has come with the price of becoming a figurehead for the industry, a responsibility that he is happy to escape when he steps away from superheroes next year. Morrison stresses again and again that he sees himself as a “freelance writer” rather than a cog in the corporate publishing machine, yet his words are pounced upon, dissected and recycled by fans and critics alike.

“They try to find some hidden darkness or something like that,” he sighs, “or 'this proves, this proves!' - naw, it just proves I said something that day, you know, which either I still agree with or don't. Why do I have to defend all of this? I think people just want to be mad and want to fight all the time, so I’m gonna join in now!”

Morrison perhaps felt this most keenly when in Supergods, his history of superhero comics infused with his own autobiographical adventures, he discussed the always controversial case of Siegel and Schuster, the two men who created Superman and sold the character to DC Comics for a small sum. Superman went on to become a national sensation, with the creators left out of pocket and seeking legal recompense. Their names are now frequently invoked when fingers are pointed at the publishing giant. Morrison's take was more pragmatic: that the men had been pitching a product to sell, that this was business as usual, and that as creators they no doubt thought they would have better and brighter characters to come.

The backlash was swift and merciless: clearly Morrison was no more than a DC stooge, an industry apologist. He couldn't possibly just be a writer with his own opinion, frustrated that his words were stripped of intent and context, twisted and gnarled into the readers cynical interpretation. One disgruntled reader took it a step further.

“[The] guy that ate Supergods!” Morrison laughs. “Cooked it and ate it on the basis that it was my fault that people couldn't find alternative comics in their local comics stores. And I was standing in the way, pretending to be the face of alternative comics, and how I actually stood for corporate this or corporate ... you know, I’m the man – again as I say, I’m a freelance writer, I'm not on staff at any company. But this guy ate the book!”

That's quite impressive.

“It certainly is! His shit must have looked like a William Burroughs cut-up!”

His move away from superheroes is not entirely unexpected, then, but it has surprised many that the biggest champion of superhero comics is stepping back. Has Morrison simply done what he set out to do when he first hit the Batman big time with Arkham Asylum back in 1989?

“Yeah, it just felt like I’d said a lot, you know,” he says. “I knew I was coming to the end of Action comics in [issue] 16, I knew I was coming to the end of Batman in issue 12, of Batman Incorporated, and it just seemed like I had all this other stuff building up that was completely different from that, and it seemed like a really good time to stop doing the monthly superhero books. And also having to work with so many artists on Action Comics, it's not that the artists are bad but I’m sometimes working for three or four guys at a time, which means you’re writing issue 14 before you've written issue 12 and then you're sending in six pages of issue 13 to someone else. So it was just too hectic. I just didn't want to do it any more. And since things were reaching that natural end... It wasn't like an announcement but it was treated like an announcement, because I think I’d already said I was leaving these comics at that time.

“But yeah, it fits into this general kind of script that's going now where we're all leaving and moving on to do creator-owned work, like we've never done it before. [laughs] So I’m just going along with that.”

There has been a recent exodus of writers and artists from the DC stable, some slipping out quietly, others angrily, and a couple leaving in protest at various ethical concerns. Morrison is keen to point out that he is leaving on good terms with DC, and still has work in the pipeline with them for the next year.

“We have disagreements,” he acknowledges, “but to me disagreements are things that you deal with, problems are things you solve, and everyone stays friends, and negotiations are done. So I kinda felt that.. it just began to feel too unpleasant to work within a comic book fan culture where everyone was mad at you all the time and giving you responsibility for legal cases and things that Ihaveve got honestly nothing to do with in my life and will shortly have zero connection with.

“But I felt that. There was a sense of, a definite sense of the temple was being burned down and it was time to run away.”

There's a perception that this move towards creator owned titles is something modern and funky, but comic writers have long kept a foot on both sides of the fence, playing in a superhero sandbox to fund their own paper universes.

“I hate the words 'creator-owned,'” Morrison interjects, “it sounds so crap. [But] in the language of comic books, that's what they're called.”

Morrison has been writing his own comics for as long as he's been writing for any of the larger publishers - not as an ethical stance, but as good business, and artistic, sense.

“I own my stuff from Near Myths and all through the 80s, and St Swithin's Day,” he says, the latter title featuring the attempted assassination of Margaret Thatcher which caused it to be raised in parliament at the time. “That's what you did. If you want to own something you go and own it. So I don't understand how you could get yourself into the position where you don't own it and you're angry about it. And again, it's not a position I would endorse, other than saying, 'I really feel sorry for you, for genuinely getting this wrong and being regretful,' but honestly am I gonna leave my job and protest on your behalf? Of course not.”

Is it a slightly classist thing, I wonder, the idea that you can just drop your job at work as a protest?

“Yeah, it's the idea that you don't have to work and that everything will be okay,” he agrees, “and what you just phone your dad and he'll come down and dump a bunch of money on you? So no, it's like, yes, I blame the middle classes for everything.”

I can almost hear the finger-wagging storm that is approaching, but Morrison grew up working class in Glasgow, an origin that instils a high work ethic that extends long past your own financial security. He may now have a home in Los Angeles too, and he probably didn't have to scramble for loose change down the back of his sofa for a bus ride to the interview, but he's still a world apart from those born into financial comfort. At the Glasgow Comic Con this year, he apologised for having a bit of a raspy voice due to having just delivered messages (groceries to the non-Scots) to his mum and sister, who both smoke.

Throughout our chat, Morrison is laughing and grinning, invested in conversation rather than just talking to a tape recorder. Much of this is often stripped out in print, the jokes and dry humour edited to arseyness and the enthusiasm poisoned to conceit. Quizzed on his upcoming Wonder Woman story last year, Morrison stated that he wanted her to be able to have both her sexuality and her personality, the former often being glaringly omitted. This was summarily regurgitated as “Morrison says Wonder Woman needs sex!”

Wonder Woman has long been a character I've wanted to like, yet it's only her earliest very daft adventures that entertain me, I tell him.

“I feel the same,” Morrison says, “There's something fantastic here but it's never quite been focused on. And the earliest stuff comes closest to it but you want to see it done in a more contemporary way.

“The trouble is the men were a bit weak and that's what I’m trying to also resolve in Wonder Woman – why is that Steve Trevor guy so dull, you know? You just think he's not fit to be Wonder Woman's boyfriend, he's terrible. So I’ve done a lot of work on him and it really became about, in a lot of ways how men see women and how women see each other. So it's been a lot of research this one, talking to people. But it's going good. The opening image is quite shocking.”

With Batman and Superman already under his belt, Wonder Woman will complete Morrison's DC trifecta. With the recent focus on women in comics, and debates on the inherent sexism within the comics themselves, is he prepared for a feminist backlash?

“No, no, I'm hoping, I’ve really done my research.” He pauses before continuing. “And again I find that a lot of that stuff, and I know it gets me into more trouble, it's just all artificial to me. I don't give a fuck what gender you are, or whether you're a worm or a zebra. Honestly as long as you're friendly and can communicate, that's all I care about. And I can understand why you might take certain separatist positions but I just don't feel that way.

“Honestly I’m really trying to make it work and again, the sexuality – it's there, but it's really weird, because I thought it had to be quite weird. These are women who've allegedly been cut off from all male contact for three thousand years or something, since the days of Hercules. And none of them have died. And none of them have given birth.

“So it seems like it's actually quite stifling and weird the more you think about it. So I wanted to deal with that, what happens to eroticism and sex when it's [three] thousand years after men, you know when even the women who've been doing it to one another are bored shitless after twenty five [hundred] years. So I think there's something a lot weirder than what people anticipate coming up with this!”

Also due next year is Multiversity, a series of interlocking titles that span the DC multiverse, a construct that allows multiple Earths to exist without destabilising the core continuity of the DC universe (for many comic fans, continuity is as necessary as oxygen). One of the titles most talked about is Pax Americana, partly because it reunites Morrison with fellow Glaswegian artist Frank Quitely, and partly because it focuses on the world harbouring the Charlton characters, the same characters that in turn inspired the cast of Alan Moore's Watchmen.

Originally scheduled for 2012, it appears we must now ride out the Mayan Apocalypse first.

“Yeah, we waited till the end of the universe to publish this one – that's how long it takes for Frank Quitely to finish a book!”

The gentle ribbing is nothing compared to the bizarre vitriol some fans hold for artists who work more slowly, but having seen some of the pages myself, it is definitely worth the wait.

“It's my Citizen Kane, this comic, I’m so proud of it.” Morrison smiles. “We've really worked hard to make it worthy of not only its source but to do all that in 38 pages and in a new way. So yeah it's a big deal, but there's other great ones. The Captain Marvel one's great, the Ultra comic, which is the Earth Prime comic is the one that's gonna really freak people out because I’ve come up with a way... it's a haunted comic. The comic will do things to people that they will never forget. And it's like technology, I’ve discovered a kind of technology that I don't wanna tell because someone else will nick it and they'll ruin it! But that one'll freak people, it's things comics have never ever done before.”

Comparisons to Watchmen will be hard to escape, particularly in light of the current Before Watchmen comics that DC are publishing, much to the distaste of Alan Moore.

“It's so not like Watchmen,” Morrison states. “In the places where it is like Watchmen people will laugh because it's really quite... it's really faithful and respectful but at the same time satiric. I don't think people will be upset by it, in the way that they've been upset by Before Watchmen which even though it's good does ultimately seem redundant. You know, it's actually good – I mean, Amanda Conner's stuff is brilliant, I’m really enjoying it, and Darwyn Cooke's Minutemen is great, the rest of them [I'm] not so hot on but they're really nicely written comics, really quite adult but kind of redundant.

“This one is its own thing but it deliberately quotes the kind of narrative techniques used in Watchmen and does something new with them.”

Morrison's other upcoming projects are mostly shrouded in mystery and will be published through Vertigo, DC's adult imprint, and Image Comics, the favourite of many an independent creator. The long-awaited third instalment of Seaguy is the only announced title thus far, along of course with the series that starts this month, Happy. The latter looks like dark fare, borne from Morrison's observation that those who create things, the actors and singers of the world, are constantly put down no matter how hard they try.

“It was the notion of all these people dancing for us and everyone just going 'neh,'” he explains. “You know, everyone being judged on their stupid little dances and their croaky little voices. And I thought, well let's just kinda concretise that in this story, where it's like the worst possible world that I can imagine, this super crime noir, everybody's a bastard, everything's shit, where everything that can go wrong will go wrong, everyone will be hurt.”

And then Happy the horse wanders into this existence, a super sweet little cartoon character of eternal optimism. His appearance is a closely guarded secret, with Morrison describing his design as “like a special effect”. I get the sense that the writer has put a lot of anger into this book, a purging of sorts. Even with a Christmas theme, the amount of swearing makes Bad Santa look like a Disney film.

“It's the most offensively sweary book I think I’ve ever written,” Morrison grins. “It gets to like, you're just thinking, I cannot read the word fuck again. Please do not put the fucking word fuck back in this comic, and you're only on page 3 and there's twenty four pages. It's actually exhausting!”

Morrison fans are descending on Las Vegas at the end of this month for MorrisonCon, a festival of sorts for which Morrison is the figurehead rather than the organiser. The writer himself will be doing a reading, set to music by Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance, about “Howard Hughes versus Liberace for the soul of Vegas.”

If that sounds pretentious, then bear in mind what he's hoping to see from Frank Quitely at the event.

“Well they wanted, they had this big idea, they said we want Frank Quitely to come on and design an entire universe.” he laughs. “I went, what the fuck?! You've gotta be joking! And then I told them about this thing... he draws these grotesques, these anatomical creatures who've got like heads hanging between their legs, but they all work. And he's got like years of work on this stuff – he calls them the Bumheids. It's them sitting smoking and having tea and everything, but everything’s wrong, it's all in the wrong place, and legs coming out the top. So I kind of want to divert it... he won't have time to create a future world, but he has created this alternate reality where people have arses for faces!”

And that's the Glasgow boy again, swirling his drink and smiling at the enthusiastic leaflet ninjas who keep hovering on the sidelines of our table. He's written the greatest comic characters in the world, created his own highly acclaimed works, and won a clutch of Eisners, Eagles and Harvey awards. Factor in his other work as an award-winning playwright, and his various screenplays (including the upcoming Dinosaurs vs Aliens), it's perhaps no surprise that he was nominated for an honour from the Queen.

“I just felt it's really nice to be acknowledged at all!” he laughs. “I was so shocked... I don't even know who put me up for it. Is it some weird Lib Dem guy who's been reading The Invisibles all these years?”

It seemed to me like many of the detractors were coming from a distinctly middle class perspective.

“I couldn’t help notice that myself,” Morrison says. “There’s a particular miasma of totems and taboos surrounding contact with the trappings of high privilege that appears to arise from specifically middle class prejudices. In Glasgow, there’s also an element of working class sectarian bias in the condemnation, so it’s not all about the middle. I noticed also that previous histrionic public refusals of medals and honours had achieved exactly nothing.”

“To me, the Queen can't help who she is any more than anybody else can. I’m more of a nihilist to be honest, none of it means anything to me. This is an object that will in fifty years be lying on a table in a flea market. I don't have kids, it's going nowhere. So to me, I don't attach all those values to it, and again maybe that's a class thing you know, I’m starting to see more things in terms of class all the time.

“I still feel the same way I do about the monarchy, the class system, about everything I’ve ever written, about everything I will write. So the idea that it doesn't change anything, that people can be so wound up by something that has no effective meaning in the world kinda says it all to me.

“It's okay because it's no biggie, honestly you're not buying into anything - because you can't. By your intrinsic nature, who you are and where you were born, you can't buy into that system. They don't get it, you know, we'll never buy into it. We're the common people, as Jarvis Cocker said, and they'll never understand that.”

Laura Sneddon is a freelance journalist. Read more of her work at comicbookgrrrl.comThe original version of the image used to illustrate this article can be found here

Grant Morrison. Photo: Roisin_Dubh/flickr, used under a Creative Commons licence

Laura Sneddon is a freelance journalist. Find more of her work at comicbookgrrrl.com

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Mind-reader, lover and crazed zealot – why the enigmatic power of Rasputin endures

As Douglas Smith wisely surmises in his new book, trying to separate the mythology of Rasputin from the man himself is nearly impossible.

The first would-be murderer to land a blow on Grigory Rasputin was a peasant woman named Khioniya Guseva, whose nose had been eaten away by a disease (not syphilis, she told her interrogators emphatically) and who had been a devotee of Rasputin’s rival Iliodor, the self-styled “Mad Monk”. In June 1914 Guseva pursued Rasputin through Pokrovskoye, the Siberian village that was his home, and stabbed him with a 15-inch dagger.

Rasputin recovered. From thenceforward, though, death dogged him. As confidant and adviser to the tsar and tsarina of Russia, he was detested by monarchists and revolutionaries alike. By the time he was killed, two and a half years later, myriad plots had been hatched against his life. The minister of the interior had tried sending him on a pilgrimage accompanied by a priest: the priest had instructions to throw Rasputin from a moving train. A colonel in the secret services planned to lure him into a car with promises to introduce him to a woman, then drive to an isolated spot and strangle him. His madeira (Raputin’s fav­ourite drink) was to be poisoned. Peasants were bribed to lead him into ambushes. A strange lady turned up at his flat (as strange ladies often did) and showed him a revolver: she had brought it to kill him with, she told him, but had changed her mind after gazing into his eyes. No wonder that by the time Prince Felix Yusupov invited him to come by night to the cellar beneath the Yusupov Palace Rasputin was suspicious and fearful, and had all but given up the noisy, night-long parties he used to enjoy.

His legend has been recounted many times. The peasant who became an all-­powerful figure at the Romanov court. His priapic sexuality and his rumoured affair with Tsarina Alexandra. His “burning” eyes. His ability to hypnotise and beguile. His gift for healing, which miraculously preserved the life of the haemophiliac heir, Tsarevich Alexei. His devilish influence over the imperial couple that led them into repeated mistakes, eventually precipitating the 1917 revolution. His debauchery. His supernatural power, which obliged his murderers to kill him not once, but thrice – with poisoned pink cakes, with gunshots at point-blank range and eventually by drowning him. All of this, everybody who knows anything about Russian history, and many who do not, have heard. Douglas Smith retells the story, pruning it of absurdities, greatly expanding it, and demonstrating how very much more complicated it is than the legend would have us believe.

Rasputin’s public career began in his thirties, when he arrived in St Petersburg in 1905. Smith’s account of his life before his debut in the city is the most fascinating part of this book. It describes a world of isolated peasant communities with few books (in 1900 only about 4 per cent of Siberia’s inhabitants could read) but many holy men. This is the world of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov: violent, physically harsh, but spiritually ecstatic.

At the age of 28, Rasputin – married with children, still living with his father and helping to farm the family’s smallholding – left home to become a pilgrim. This was not an egregious decision. According to Smith, there were “about a million” pilgrims criss-crossing Russia at the time, walking barefoot, begging for food and lodging, trudging towards the holiest monasteries or seeking out revered starets, or church “elders”.

Rasputin would be away from home for years at a time. He would walk 30 miles a day. For three years he wore fetters, as many pilgrims did. After he laid them aside he went for six months without changing his clothes. He was often hungry, either because he could get no food, or because he was fasting. He was repeatedly robbed by bandits. But, for all his tribulations, on his return he would tell his children that he had seen marvels – cathedrals with golden cupolas and wild forests. He became part of a network of priests and visionaries which spanned the vast empire. He talked with everyone he met on the road, acquiring a knowledge of the narod, the Russian people, that its rulers never had. Smith’s account of his wandering years conjures up a richness of experience that makes the way the nobility later sneered at the “illiterate peasant”, the “nobody” who had got hold of their tsarina, seem indicative not of Rasputin’s shortcomings, but of their own.

In 1905 Rasputin was in the Tatar city of Kazan, drinking tea with a famed healer called Father Gavril. He told Gavril that he intended to walk on to St Petersburg, still hundreds of miles to the west. Gavril said nothing, but thought: “You’ll lose your way in Petersburg.” Rasputin, who already had a reputation as a mind-reader, responded as though he had heard, saying that God would protect him.

He was not the first holy man to be feted in the capital. Four years before he arrived in St Petersburg a French “sage” called Monsieur Philippe was holding séances in the city, and had soon “enraptured” the royal family. Nicholas and Alexandra prayed with Philippe and sat up until the small hours listening to him talk. They called him by the sobriquet they would soon give Rasputin, “Our Friend”, and they counted on him to guide the tsar in crucial talks with Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. Eventually Nicholas was prevailed upon to send him away, but other starets or “holy fools” succeeded Philippe at court (including Mitya “the Nasal Voice”, whose speech impediment made his words incomprehensible but who was nonetheless credited as a prophet). Rasputin may have been exceptionally charismatic – someone who met him soon after his arrival in the city described him as “a burning torch” – but, as one of his sponsors in high society said, “our Holy Russia abounds in saints” and the ruling class was just as enthralled by them as were the peasantry.

So, what was it about Rasputin? The eyes certainly – there are numerous references in contemporary descriptions to his “compelling”, “mesmeric”, “brilliant” eyes, their “strange phosphorescent light” and the way they stared, as though penetrating another’s mind. There were also his skills as a performer. He would talk eloquently and for hours. Smith quotes some striking accounts of Rasputin at prayer. For him, prayer was not a matter of closed eyes and folded hands and silent communion with God. It was a performance. He vibrated like a taut bow-string. He turned his face towards heaven and then, “with great speed, he would begin to cross himself and bow”.

He was all dynamic energy. He was unpredictable and frightening. His conversation could be bantering and light but then he would turn on someone standing on the fringe of a party and, as though he had read her mind, begin to scold her for having sinful thoughts. Then there was the erotic charge. In this compendious and exhaustively researched book, Smith debunks dozens of untrue stories about his subject, yet there is no denying Rasputin’s propensity for stroking and kissing women he barely knew and (once he was sufficiently celebrated for this to become easy for him) leading them into his bedroom and making love to them while people in the next room continued to drink their tea, pretending not to hear the thumps and moans. He was “so full of love”, he said, that he could not help caressing all those around him. Alternatively, he claimed (and many of his devotees accepted) that his sexual activity was designed to help his female followers overcome their carnal passions: he used sex to free them from sex. Smith treats this belief as being probably sincerely held – if almost comically self-justifying.

By the end of his life pretty well everyone in Russia believed that Rasputin was having an affair with the empress Alexandra. Everyone, that is, except for Alexandra and her husband. She wrote to Rasputin that it was only when she was leaning on his shoulder that she felt at peace; still, she could see nothing improper in their relationship. Tsar Nicholas, coming home late at night, as he frequently did, to find his wife closeted alone with Rasputin, reacted only with delight that “Our Friend” had blessed them with a visit. Rasputin was accused of “magnetism” – of using a form of hypnotism to dominate others. Whether or not he deliberately did so, he certainly had a magnetic personality.

Yet all these attributes are those of an individual. One of the important themes of Smith’s book is that, remarkable though Rasputin may have been, he could not on his own have brought down the tsarist autocracy, as his murderers thought he had, or saved it, as the tsarina believed he could. He was seen as the heretic who was shaking the foundations of the Orthodox Church, as the corrupter who had rendered the monarchy untenable, as the Satanic sower of discord who broke the ancient and sacred ties that bound the narod to the tsar. He was seen as a peace lover who, as one of his many biographers wrote in 1964, was the “only man in Russia capable of averting” the First World War. Rasputin himself said that it was only his continued existence that kept the tsar on the throne.

When Rasputin’s assassins dumped his body in the Neva, his mourning devotees took pailfuls of water from the icy river, as though his corpse had made it holy, while all over Russia his enemies rejoiced. His murderers – Prince Yusupov, Grand Duke Dmitry and the rest – were hailed as the heroes who had saved the Romanov regime and redeemed Holy Russia. But nothing changed. Two months after Rasputin’s mauled and frozen body was dragged from beneath the ice, the revolution began. The tsar abdicated, and the joke went around that now the royal flag was no longer flying over the imperial palace, but only a pair of Rasputin’s trousers.

Early on in the process of planning his book, Smith writes, he wisely decided that to confine himself to the facts would be absurdly self-limiting. “To separate Rasputin from his mythology, I came to realise, was to completely misunderstand him.” In 1916 an astute observer of Russian politics noted in his diary that: “What really matters is not what sort of influence Grishka [Rasputin] has on the emperor, but what sort of influence the people think he has” (my italics). It’s true, and Smith agrees. “The most important truth about Rasputin,” he writes, “was the one Russians carried around in their heads.”

Smith, accordingly, gives us a plethora of rumours and canards. Over and over again in this book he tells a sensational story, full of salacious or politically complex detail and drawn from an authoritative-sounding contemporary source, only to show in the next paragraph that the story cannot possibly be true. As a result, we get an admirably encyclopaedic account of the fantasy life of early-20th-century Russians, as well as a multifaceted image of the Rasputin of their imagination. We do sometimes, though, get bogged down in the mass of material – factual or fictional – being offered us. This book will be invaluable to all subsequent writers on the subject, but general readers may wish, as I did, that Smith had at times allowed himself a clarifying generalisation rather than piling case history upon unreliable memoir upon clutch of mutually contradictory reports. This is a richly illuminating book, but it is not a lucid one.

At its centre is Rasputin, and for all the multiplicity of contemporary descriptions, and for all Smith’s laudable scholarship, he remains an area of darkness. By the time he came to fame he was no longer illiterate, but his own writings are opaque and incoherent. It is hard to read the man between the lines. Photographs (there are some haunting examples in here) seem to tell us more, but they are enigmatic.

Just occasionally, in this great, rambling edifice of a book, we glimpse him, as though far off down an endless corridor: a young seeker, vibrating with energy and self-mortifying religious fervour; a charismatic celebrity, already talking as he strides into a salon in the shirt an empress has embroidered for him; a hunted man walking home, tailed by a posse of secret agents, and drinking himself into a stupor as he awaits the attack he knew was bound to come.

And yet, for the most part, despite Douglas Smith’s herculean efforts, the man remains inscrutable. “What is Rasputin?” asked the Russian journal the Astrakhan Leaflet in 1914. “Rasputin is a nothing. Rasputin is an empty place. A hole!”

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s books include “The Pike: Gabriele d’Annunzio – Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War” (Fourth Estate)

Rasputin by Douglas Smith is published by Macmillan (817pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage