Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project
Author Kevin Baker and artist Daniel Zezelj’s Luna Park is a graphic novel that starts off interesting but winds up, in my opinion, a disappointment. Set initially in Coney Island – which once included an amusement part called Luna Park – in 2009, it tells a story about immigrant mafia enforcer Alik Strelnikov. This section, which takes up a bit more than half the volume, reads like a bleak and hard-boiled crime tale that connects with issues of identity, memory, trauma, and cultural decline. This bit is, overall, pretty good. Then, it gets weird.
When Alik is pursued after a failed attempt to strike it rich, he runs into a Coney Island ride that was once located in the Coney amusement park named Dreamland that burned down in 1911. From there, the story spirals into a postmodern identity tale that really reaches to make a connection to Coney, a connection that it seems was only made because Baker had earlier written about it and Vertigo wanted to capitalize on that.* After a layering of stories within stories, the graphic novel comes to its third act, which takes up only a few dense pages. The big “reveal” here, which hinges in large part on one detail that is not nearly well-known or prominently hinted enough in the story to make much sense for the general reader, comes seemingly out of nowhere and is neither convincing nor satisfying.
As a story, Luna Park pulls at too many threads and doesn’t weave them together well enough to give the impression of a comprehensive whole. It reads like three stories crammed into on. And the writing, when it touches on Russian history and culture, is a bit off-putting, and almost seems Russophobic at times.** Similarly, and this is particularly the case in the final bit where the fiction of Luna Park connects with historical interpretation, the representation of women is a bit jarring. The one saving grace, in my opinion, is instead Zezelj’s art. It is dark and grainy, and it adapts well to the many surrealistic twists and turns it is forced to take. His renditions of dilapidated Coney amusement parks are beautiful.
But that’s just not enough. What starts off as a story that promises an interesting psychological crime drama and a meditation on the decline of Coney Island – which was once a place so deeply symbolic in American popular culture and consumption and a reminder of its seeming superiority and egalitarianism – ends up falling flat.
* See the NPR interview of Baker performed by Neal Conan around Luna Park‘s release:
CONAN: Ive read that, in fact, you approached a Vertigo, the publishers, with an idea of your own and they said, well, Im not so sure, and then a steered you toward this.
Mr. BAKER: Well, actually, they had approached me about doing something, and I came up with an idea for sort of a 19th century superhero. And they thought, well as youve said, they kind of wanted something more about Coney Island, which I had written about before
** Again, it is helpful to refer to the NPR interview, in which Baker makes his views on Russia clear:
Mr. BAKER: Yeah. And he goes right back into this through – literally, through a funhouse that takes him back in time. And this is – yeah, this is – what struck me as interesting about this was kind of the collision of these cultures. You know, American history is sort of a history where everything works out, or at least that’s what we tell ourselves […] That’s so typically American, where you can get the – you know, you get the cash and the girl. You get to hit the homerun and be the, you know – and, of course, Russian history is sort of the absolute polar opposite: Nothing works out, and the same mistakes keep getting made again and again and again. So, you know, here’s my take kind of on the collision of the two of these and what happens from that.