It’s a Vertigo book! How couldn’t it be good?????
Not too long ago, I read Kevin Baker’s Dreamland, which is an excellent novel set in early 20th-century New York, with a large focus on Coney Island. In Luna Park, he returns to Coney Island in a comic set 100 years later, but he can’t leave the past behind completely! Luna Park isn’t as good as Dreamland, but it’s quite a good work.
There’s a lot to like about Luna Park, but it’s not perfect. For one (odd, I’ll admit) thing, it’s not the correct length. It should be either shorter or longer, depending on where you think Baker should end the story. As it stands, he doesn’t do enough with the big twist that occurs about almost exactly two-thirds of the way through the comic. I’ll explain. The story starts fairly simply: Alik Strelnikov is a Russian living in Brooklyn after he left his native country in the wake of the Chechan conflict a decade before. He works as an enforcer for a petty gangster who is slowly being squeezed out of his territory by Feliks Zhelezo, a much more successful bad guy. He’s in love with Marina, a fortune teller with a secret. As their story unfolds, we learn more about Alik’s tour of duty in Chechnya and what horrors he experienced. He fell in love with a local, Mariam, and desperately wanted to flee with her. We know early on that Mariam met an untimely end, but we don’t know the circumstances until much later in the book. Now, a decade later, he wants to flee with Marina, but just like in Chechnya, circumstances conspire against him. Marina is closely associated with Zhelezo (I won’t reveal how) and Alik needs to figure out a way to break that association.
As in Grozny (Chechnya’s capital), the plan goes wrong. This is where Baker pulls a fast one on us. Alik is plunged, phantasmagorically, into another world, and he lives through different lifetimes full of blood and war. He ends up in Novgorod during the Russian Civil War fighting for the United States expedition that was sent to help the Whites. (Alik is in the trenches on the Western Front and is plucked from there to go to Russia because he knows the language, which makes some sense. But the actual forces sent to Russia were made up of many immigrants already, so why Alik is so important, especially as he’s not promoted to officer where he can interact more easily with the locals, isn’t explained. I know that Baker simply needs to get him to Novgorod, but I also enjoy nitpicking occasionally.)
There he meets a girl he once knew, falls in love with her, and for the third time, tries to figure out how to get out with her. Alik himself notes the similarities between each event, but the reason behind it is fairly interesting. Throughout the book, Baker makes references to Russian history and how deeply ingrained this history is in the inhabitants of the country. Finally, we end up in a different time and place, where Baker pulls it all together, rather chillingly. But there’s the problem. Once Alik enters history and starts looping back on himself, we lose the slow development that Baker was going with earlier in the book. The book becomes a quickening spiral toward its tragic conclusion, and while that’s more than likely what Baker was going for, it doesn’t quite work. The speed with which Alik winds through history robs the ending of its power, because by the time we reach it, we’ve lost a bit of Alik himself. I don’t want to compare this to Dreamland, but it’s interesting that Baker takes his time in the novel, introducing several characters and expanding their stories quite deftly. Obviously, the market for books allows a 500-page novel (Dreamland is 502 pages) and not a stand-alone graphic novel of comparable length (serials, yes, but not single novels), so Baker doesn’t have as much room (and Zezelj takes care of some of the words, of course, as Baker doesn’t need to describe things) as he would in a prose book, but it feels like he gets to the end too quickly. On the one hand, it could be shorter and focus less on Alik’s journey through time and space and more on Alik’s sojourn in Brooklyn with flashbacks to Chechnya, or it could be longer and get more into the fantastical elements of the book. It’s neither, unfortunately.
“But Greg,” the more trenchant among you might ask, “the book isn’t really about the plot, is it? It’s about the experience of an immigrant, so why does the plot matter?” Well, trenchant ones, you’re right.
Baker is examining the sense of loss Alik feels when he leaves Mother Russia, and how he’s desperate to regain that feeling, which is why he’s so keen on leaving with Marina. He feels like he needs to live up to the example set by his father and grandfather, who defended Russia in the great wars of the twentieth century. When Alik grows up, he has no grand wars to fight, and the battle in Chechnya quickly reveals itself as quite messy. Alik feels adrift, and when he meets Mariam, he sees a way out. When this scenario presents itself again in Coney Island, it takes on an added melancholy, because now he has no home, and Marina is the only thing to which he can cling. As we move back into history, we see that the immigrant experience affects people in different ways, leading to all sorts of alienation. Even this, however, loses some impact when Baker starts speeding up the story. Alik’s original problems as an immigrant don’t change all that much when viewed through a different prism, like that of an immigrant a century ago. The point he makes at the end, when the book takes an even more disturbing turn, is that the immigrant experience can become something much darker, but it doesn’t feel like he really earns the ending. I often wonder about “twists” in stories and whether the writer comes up with the twist first and develops a story from it. It feels that way with this ending, that Baker had two stories, one about Alik in the present and one that ends where this book does, and he tries very hard to link them. He doesn’t quite succeed.
It’s still a very interesting comic, far more thought-provoking than it appears when we first begin it. And Zezelj continues to get better and better. I did not like his art on the one issue of Desolation Jones he did (did an eighth issue ever come out?), but recently, he’s done fine work on Northlanders and on this book.
He’s called upon to do seedy Brooklyn landscapes, early century Coney Island, World War I scenes, and brief scenes from Russian history, and he does them all well. When Alik enters “the past,” we get some absolutely stunning pages (beautifully colored by Stewart) as he transitions from the present to the past, with Russian icons like Stalin and Lenin blending with mythological creatures and double-headed eagles. He brings the stark Novgorod winter to bleak life and does a wonderful job showing Alik’s desperate need for a home as he stalks Coney Island dreaming of a better world. This is an absolutely gorgeous comic, with each world that Zezelj needs to draw perfectly realized. Stewart does a nice job, too, keeping the colors mostly muted, which makes the red of Grozny and the greens of Alik’s dreams stand out even more.
Despite the fact that I don’t love Luna Park, it’s still a very worthwhile comic to check out. Baker creates a vivid world and fascinating characters, and the ambition of the book is almost fulfilled. The art is almost worth the price, too. Luna Park makes you consider what it is that makes us a citizen of our country and what it would mean to leave our past and try to make a new start. Can we really escape history? Baker brings up that question, and doesn’t offer us an easy answer. And there’s nothing wrong with that.