Luna Park, the latest release in Vertigo’s superb line of original graphic novels, is a tale not all that unfamiliar, but presented with harrowing visuals and a narrative that lures the reader in with the promise of redemption for the main character, but soon descends into an avant garde fit of madness.
Kevin Baker, author of the New York Times bestsellers Dreamland, Paradise Alley, and Strivers Row, sets forth the story of Alik, a Russian immigrant who came to America with hope in his heart, leaving behind a history of violence and war. Unfortunately, the land of opportunity only brings Alik the chance to be an enforcer for a local mob goon based out of Brooklyn, New York. Set predominately in the fantastic Coney Island of Brooklyn, Alik soon realizes that his hopes of saving the woman he loves and their mutual life in the slums are somehow connected to the life in Russia that he left behind.
Luna Park seemed to be divided in half for me. The first half sets up Alik’s situation and his relationship with his girlfriend, Marina, as well as the seediness of the Coney Island that the reader is able to experience through the character’s eyes. While these scenes are well written and perfectly adequate, much of the content here feels like a well traversed tale of the dystopic life of a struggling immigrant. Which is why, when the reader falls upon the second half of Luna Park, they are in for one hell of a surprise.
When I first read the solicitations for Luna Park, I was intrigued by Vertigo’s claim that the tale would visit different time periods. What I didn’t expect was the way in which it would be presented. The second half of the book evolves into a very surreal and very horrifying look at how the history of Russia as a civilization has brought Alik to the point he is at. It’s an oppressively heavy look at a depressing situation, done in a way that only a comic book could handle. Baker makes his characters transcend their own timeline, exploring the Russian heritage that is so essential to the story he is telling. Along the way, Baker somehow manages brief forays into fortune telling, crime fiction, and drug addiciton, keeping the book well paced but adding numerous dimensions to the already multifaceted story he is telling.
As powerful as Baker’s script may be, the real bulk of the book comes from the art of Danijel Zezelj, whose work Vertigo readers might recognize from the ill-fated Loveless. His work is fitting for the surrealist nature of the book, using wild line work and and incredibly heavy inks. The beautiful thing about Zezelj’s work is that while it really depicts the chaotic and seedy nature of Luna Park‘s story, there is some semblance of sincerity and tenderness in the way that he is able to portray the characters. With a story that pivots so greatly on the expressive nature and determination of the lead character, this contrast provides an emotional centerpiece for the entire book, allowing it to be both unapologetic and endearing.
I’m not over exaggerating when I say that this was one of the hardest reads in a long while. With so much other comic book shlock to sift through, it can be jarring when something of such profound substance hits your review pile. And I’ll be honest – after my first time through, I was completely baffled. This is a book that you’re going to have provide your full attention to. Not because it’s overly complicated, just because it’s so chock full of ideas and information that it’ll take you time to form an opinion and connect the dots. But, when you are paying $25 for a book, you should get some replay value.
And, don’t forget to check out our interview with Luna Park’s Kevin Baker.