Luna Park

Luna Park by Kevin Baker, Danijel Zezelj, Dave Stewart, Jared Fletcher.
by Kevin Baker, Danijel Zezelj, Dave Stewart, Jared Fletcher.

Kevin Baker is the latest in a line of established writers from other fields who have used their reputations to break into comics. The resulting work, Luna Park, reflects his novelistic backgrounds in several ways: The subject matter is similar to the Coney Island setting of his book Dreamland (Thank you Wikipedia). The story is told with words in the third person by an omniscient narrator. The book's self contained narrative is complex and ambitious. The timeline shifts constantly back and forth between the present, several historical periods, and the dreamtime of myth and legend. Roughly two thirds in, the story suddenly mutates to expand on its central themes. It's an arresting section that upends the entire book. But the "gotcha" ending falls flat and doesn't quite succeed in holding everything together.

Alik Strelnikov is a Russian ex-soldier and veteran of the Chechen war who now works as an enforcer for a petty criminal organization based in Coney Island. But he knows it's only a matter of time before his boss is overrun by a more powerful rival. In the meantime he's haunted not just by the memory of the tragic events that led to him leaving the army and emigrating to America; but also by old Russian tales. The story in Aleksandr Pushkin's poem The Bronze Horseman in particular is almost as significant to him as the events in his life. The only thing Alik has to look forward to is the company of Marina - a fortuneteller/prostitute who works for another mobster. Whether in his dingy apartment or wondering the desolate Coney Island landscape; together they try to recapture the innocence of childhood through heroin and alcohol induced reveries.

Luna Park by Kevin Baker, Danijel Zezelj, Dave Stewart, Jared Fletcher.

If the reader is expecting a tragic crime noir where the participants best laid plans come to naught;  the cycle of violence remains unbroken; and men are ultimately betrayed by women despite the best intentions; that's what happens for the first two thirds of the story. Alik is a broken idealist still yearning for the quiet life denied to him even as experience has taught him to be skeptical of human nature. Baker is a seasoned storyteller ably partnered with artist Danijel Zezelj. His expressionistic style holds its own next to Baker's robust text. Under his capable hands Coney Island is portrayed with a certain gloomy state of decay and disrepair. It looks photo referenced, but never stiff. I'm less impressed with colorist Dave Stewart's typically muddy Vertigo palette.

Just as Alik and Marina's story is about to reach its inevitable conclusion, the book takes an unexpected turn towards metafiction. Reality fades away and story becomes the new reality. The tale of two lowlifes morphs into the sordid history of Russia with Alik and Marina revealed as recurring archetypes of hope, love, and betrayal. Alik's story becomes his father's; then his grandfather's; and then the story of the bronze horseman trampling on his hapless peasant victims. The history of violence extends back to Mongol invaders and Russia's mythical rulers and forward to the heart of Washington DC. Baker is reaching  for something epochal. But in doing so he renders his main characters insignificant in the last third of the book. That is arguably the point of Luna Park. Less convincing though is the theme that many of the events in Russian history are all part of some grand recurring pattern. It's easy enough when Baker is writing about Alik's family. But he's on shakier ground when he tries to find a connecting thread between historical events. Yes history is full of violence and bloodshed; but is that all there is? Are all Russians doomed to be crushed by the weight of their own history? It's such a generic insight. And the final example which ends the book feels too forced to be a convincing example.

Luna Park by Kevin Baker, Danijel Zezelj, Dave Stewart, Jared Fletcher.

I feel that Luna Park fails because the ending overreaches. The marriage of crime fiction and sweeping historical drama never quite gels. And for all the talents of its creators, It is ultimately a dreary book to read that fritters away any investment the readers might have on its characters.