When Kevin Baker released his novel “Dreamland” ten years ago, critics applauded, saying the New York City-empowered opus was everything from ‘mesmerizing’ to ‘magical.’ Set in and around Coney Island, the historical novel told the epic saga of America at the turn-of-the-century through the eyes of gangsters, hucksters, politicians and more importantly, sideshow oddities.
Someone else who took notice back in 1999 was Vertigo Comics Executive Editor Karen Berger. So when Baker approached the DC Comics imprint years later with a pitch for a 19th century superhero, he already had a fan firmly ensconced at the publisher. That project didn’t work out (at least not yet), but Berger and Baker found something that did: “Luna Park.”
Baker’s first original graphic novel, featuring art by internationally acclaimed artist Danijel Zezelj, “Luna Park” explores the life of Alik Strelnikov, a wannabe hero – not a superhero, but a hero – who is constantly crushed by Coney Island.
A former soldier in the Russian army, Strelnikov comes to America in search of a dream but quickly falls into a nightmare working as an enforcer for the mob. Trying to rescue himself and his lover, a part-time prostitute and full-time fortune teller, Strelnikov puts a plan in motion that not only intersects the feudal territories of Brooklyn in the early 1900s but the far-reaching distances between space and time.
With the 160-page graphic novel in stores this week, CBR News spoke with the New York Times bestselling author about his first foray into comics, the teachings of “The Natural” author Bernard Malamud and how a gangster being thrown out a window was the inspiration for his next novel.
CBR News: Were you a fan of comic books when you were growing up?
Kevin Baker: I enjoyed some comics, although I was growing up in the period where parents were very paranoid about them, so I was not encouraged at all to read them. I was actually kind of discouraged to read them. But I did read the “Classics Illustrated” comics and those sorts of things. Those were acceptable, and I enjoyed those. But no, I wasn’t a big comic reader as a kid.
This is your first graphic novel. What did you think of the experience?
I’m coming to it a little fresh. It was a terrific process, very enjoyable. It was very different from novel writing in many ways but quite interesting.
Was this a story you had planned for a novel, or was it an original story you came up with for this project, created specifically for this medium?
It was really conceived specifically for the project. It was done in conjunction with Karen Berger. She had enjoyed “Dreamland,” the historical novel I had written about Coney Island. And while this was very different, she thought there was more stuff to plumb from Coney, so I was thinking about it, thinking about the different elements there, and came up with this.
So, Karen Berger and Vertigo reached out to you for this project? It wasn’t you looking to break into comics and graphic novels?
No, not originally. It was something we came up with. I had originally pitched DC on an idea for a 19th century superhero, but they felt this worked better and I think they were right. I think it came out very well. It’s an interesting difference from working in novel writing in the sense that one of the hard things about the novel is that you have to work on so many different dimensions at the same time. And you have to get in descriptions that kind of flow naturally to the story. For instance, the advantage to the writer for something like a graphic novel is that you can leave so much for the illustrator to do. So it was kind of pleasurable to hand that off to somebody, especially to someone as terrific as Danijel is.
Will we ever see this 19th century superhero?
I hope so. I pitched him again, so we’ll see. I won’t go into too many details just yet, but I have high hopes for that still.
Even if it’s not that project, do you hope to do more work in comics and graphic novels?
Oh, yes. I have ideas for a number of them now, and I hope to be working with Vertigo on them and producing more stuff.
Projects set in the same world as “Luna Park”?
Not so much. There are other stories from all over – from different places and different times. This is a terrific chance to explore some other stories that I may not be able to get to in novels.
Let’s talk about “Luna Park.” Set it up for us. What’s the story you’re telling with Danijel?
The story starts off involving Russian gangsters on Coney Island and Brighton Beach, in that area, particularly one guy in the Russian mob, who was an enforcer and somebody who has been through a terrible experience in Chechnya where he was with the army.
He tried to do something that he thought was going to help himself and help this woman he loved, and it all backfired terribly. Now he has come, completely disillusioned, to America. He kind of washed up on the shores of Coney Island and he’s taken up with this other woman – this somewhat mysterious figure who tells fortunes for a local mobster – and she has a plan to free them both from this existence. And it just kind off takes off from there, and we get into all sorts of different things, including time travel back to another, very interesting time period of Coney Island, and physical travel, travel back to Russia. So it’s kind of operating on all of these different paths. To a certain degree, it takes up Bernard Malamud’s premise in “The Natural” that “we learn nothing from experience,” but there are, what I hope, some interesting and unexpected twists and turns that I think people will enjoy.
I wouldn’t qualify it as a fantasy book, but there are certain fantastic elements to “Luna Park.” Why does Coney Island lend itself well to that setting?
Coney Island is the ultimate fantasy icon of American life and to a certain degree, Russian immigrant life. This is the place where the first amusement park began. This is the place where Americans have always gone for what one of the founders called, ‘manufactured fun.’ It combines all the mystique and aura of an old carnival idea with this kind of American flash. It’s always been a place seen as kind of mysterious, a little bit terrifying, and just… well, just where all sorts of fantasies come together.
Kevin Baker doesn’t sound Russian. Where does your fascination with a Russian’s immigration to America come from?
Ah, my original name was Ivan [Laughs]. No, Kevin Baker is not a Russian name, and the premise basically came from a certain interest in Russian history and my time spent down in the area, in Coney Island and Brighton Beach, which is a fascinating ethnic community.
It’s one of the few real ethnic communities still left in New York. You have various Chinatowns and all, but you still have this Russian area, and it’s very Russian – Little Odessa and all that. You go out to these night clubs – there’s this place called Rasputin’s that I went to a few years ago, it’s sort of a grab bag of all Western culture for the last 100 years. You go there and there are contortionists and chorus girls, and they put on some disco music, and everybody dances, and you have these great Russian appetizers, and you drink vodka. It’s a fantastic experience, but it’s such a mixture of all kinds of times and all kinds of cultures, and that served as somewhat of an inspiration for “Luna Park.”
Were you familiar with his Danjiel’s work prior to pairing with him on “Luna Park?” Were you blown away with what he came up with?
I thought he did fantastic work. I wasn’t that familiar with his work beforehand, in the sense that I wasn’t that familiar with anybody’s work in the graphic novel world, but when they showed me his stuff, I thought it was terrific, and the work he did on this I thought was absolutely great. Interestingly, I thought he really had the lead on a lot of things because this is such a graphic medium, and I think he took that lead and did very well. There were times where I would have written such and such a theme and he would, I think, often improve on it by doing it a different way. He obviously understands the visual medium better [than me], and I think that worked tremendously well.
Are you working on anything else right now? You teased that you had a few pitches into Vertigo.
I’m working on a history of New York City baseball right now for Pantheon, and after that I have a contract for another historical novel about New York, also set partly on Coney Island. It has to do with a real-life incident, in which a key mob witness ended up going out a hotel window where he was being held by 17 cops at the Henry Hudson Hotel in Coney Island back in the 1940s, and it’s something that eventually led to the mayor of New York resigning his post and moving to Mexico. It’s a real story, you know. So that will be the next one after I’m through with this history of baseball.