New York Story: Kevin Baker's Luna Park
“It’s a fun story, and it’s a funhouse story to a degree.”
Those are writer Kevin Baker’s words to describe his brilliant new book, Luna Park, an evocative story of a former Russian soldier still recovering from the emotional wounds of the battle in Chechnya. The soldier has since settled in New York, where he works as part of the Brooklyn mob. There in the shadow of Coney Island, he faces the ghosts of his past and the mysteries of his future through the eyes of his new girlfriend, a prostitute and fortuneteller. “There’s a noir story there, with time travel and all those good things,” Baker says. “I hope people are surprised by it, although there are little hints to the ending throughout if they can find them.”
Here’s what else Baker had to say about his first foray into the world of graphic novels.
What made you decide to do a graphic novel now?
I was approached by DC Comics two years ago to do it, by Peter Tomasi over at Vertigo and by Karen Berger. It took me a while to get back to them because I was in the middle of writing another novel. Then I had a proposal, but they didn’t go with it. They had a counterproposal, and we kind of worked it out and it became Luna Park. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that I could get into comics in the first place, but in the end, it’s great fun, and I’m hoping I can do more in the field.
Were you a fan of comics?
Not a big one. Growing up, I was in that backwash of the Frederic Wertham era, where comics were evil and all that. My parents were not eager at all to have me exposed to them. You know, there was the occasional Classics Illustrated, that sort of thing, and a few others. They interested me, but they weren’t something that was readily available. I got more interested in comics through the last straight novel I wrote, Strivers Row, which has a lot about the young Malcolm X as a street hustler in Harlem in the 1940s, when he was still Malcolm Little. He was—and this is a true story—an inveterate comics fan apparently, so I did a little research on the comics of the period. That was something I got kind of interested in. But this is really a departure for me, and it was a lot of fun to do.
Were you surprised by the comics of today and what you found in them?
They were quite different in many ways. Vertigo gave me a bunch to look over. Just the elaborateness of them and the different varieties of them were pretty interesting to see. I mean, I had some vague idea that this was going on. I pay a little bit of attention to the culture around me. But it was quite impressive to see the different things that could be done with it, and I’m hoping to explore that in the future, the different ways of doing this [format.]
On Luna Park, you work with an incredible artist, Danijel Zezelj. How did you two?
We were put together by Vertigo. I hadn’t met Danijel before that. They selected him, but I think it was a really fortunate thing. He really just made the book come alive, made it work. He’s terrific. I felt from the beginning—this being mainly a visual medium—that he should really have the lead in deciding the look of it. And again and again, he would take my script and improve on it and really make it better by what he was able to do. I was very conscious of trying to limit the number of words and how much I interfered with him. I think he really made the book.
How did you approach writing this book? Did you treat it like writing a play, offering stage directions, or something different?
I think very visually. When I’m writing a novel, I’m always picturing things, so in that way, it flowed fairly easily. And of course, the great thing about a graphic novel for a novelist is you get to hand off much of the hardest work to somebody else. You don’t actually have to write that amazing description of whatever, of a tree or a house or a city. You can hand it off to the artist and say, “Here! It looks like this,” and they will do the work for you. Every writer has all kinds of challenges. Just learning a new medium, learning the pacing of it and how to break up the narrative in a different way—I wouldn’t say it’s easy to learn, but it’s easier to put off a whole bunch of that work on somebody else, which I was able to do. And I thought the whole production was terrific. Not only Danijel’s work. It was Dave Stewart who did the colors. The whole thing was incredible all the way through on the part of Vertigo.
Did you grow up in New York City?
I was born in New Jersey and moved to Massachusetts when I was 9 and grew up there after that. But a lot of my family is from the area, and I’ve been back in the city since 1976.
Do you have a lot of memories of Coney Island?
I didn’t have any childhood memories of it. We would go out to Long Island some, to Long Beach, where we had some relatives. But Coney Island then, in the late ’60s, was considered this dump and kind of a dangerous place, which is sad. I would have been 6 when Steeplechase Park, the last of the great parks, was destroyed. I wish I had seen that, but I just missed it. I didn’t really get to see it until recent years, when it’s become this really interesting, marvelous honky-tonk that is one of these great urban spaces where people can find all kinds of different entertainment. And sadly, it’s now being systematically killed by the city and developers, which is a terrible thing. It’s been this iconic American place for 150 years where people could go out and refresh themselves by the sea and have these adventures. It’s the place where the amusement park was literally invented, and now it’s probably going to become a bunch of condos, which is just a sad, sad thing.
It’s terrible to see it go.
It’s an amazing place. The first three amusement parks were out there: Steeplechase, Luna Park, and Dreamland. They were to this day the most beautiful, bizarre, weird amusement parks ever built. It was before neon lights, and they had all these individual light bulbs, so it was incredibly beautiful. There’s a terrific Rick Burns documentary about it, which has amazing footage. These were incredibly hard, nasty places, too, to a certain degree. These were old parks where the benches were electrified and they’d give you a little jolt if you weren’t up and spending money. And you had Steeplechase with the mad dwarf when you got off the horses who would come and hit you with a cattle prod for the entertainment of your fellow customers watching. Very strange, spooky place. But a lot of factors that went into making these places changed when the parks burned down. Steeplechase was destroyed in part—well, it went out of business and was bought by Donald Trump’s father, who threw a big party to celebrate the destruction of it and gave everyone a brick they could throw through the famous glass trellis, which was really terrible. But in any case, things change. People went away to vacation more, so you wouldn’t have these huge crowds who were going out there in the summer. But then it evolved in a way that urban places can, into this kind of interesting mix of things. So you could take the family out to see a ballgame, the Mets minor-league team, or you could go to this much smaller honky-tonk amusement park. You could go on the boardwalk and people would be fishing out there. It really worked as one of these organic, Jane Jacobs kind of places that it just evolved into. But unfortunately that attracted the attention of Mr. Joe Sitt, this developer, and now we’re probably going to get these gigantic condos. It’s unfortunately suffered from its past in the sense that people have had for a long time these grandiose notions of what it could be. There’s always talk about it becoming the next Disneyland and hoping Disney will move in there, and that’s simply just never going to happen. It’s not a year-round warm-weather place. There’s not enough room for the Disneyland production. It just is what it is, and it worked quite well as what it is. But unfortunately now we’re going to get something entirely different that’ll probably kill it.
There are so many terrific Russian aspects to Luna Park, and of course that ties into the area around Coney Island. What inspired that for you?
The whole Coney Island part of it was suggested by Karen Berger. I seized that and ran and decided to write about the modern side of Coney Island, having written about it a hundred years ago in Dreamland. I decided to go with this story of modern Coney Island, which of course means Russians in the sense that you have Brighton Beach, which is this amazing Russian neighborhood right next to Coney, and one of the few ethnic neighborhoods left in New York. I liked the vibes and feeling I got from that and decided to go ahead and make it into this story. The thing with Russian history is it’s sort of the opposite of American history. In American history, the general take we have is that everything works out, or we make it work out even if that means literally whiting out various aspects of it. In Russian history, it’s sort of like nothing works out. The same mistakes and the same problems get done again and again and again. So I thought of Coney Island as this place where the immigrant heritage of the Russian past collides with this American idea of optimism, and what happens from that?
How much of a Russian student are you?
Not very much. I know a certain amount of Russian history just from general reading over the years. I went through a couple primers to find some words for certain things. But I wouldn’t call myself an expert on Russian history at all. I’ve always loved that Pushkin poem The Bronze Horseman, which part of this story is inspired by.
What has fueled your passion for New York’s history in your writing?
My passion for New York history is a long-held thing just from being in the city, which I got more and more involved in. It came to be a huge part of my writing career, and still is today. There are so many stories out there. New York is a very old city by American standards. Not by Russian standards, but by American ones. It’s of course the most cosmopolitan city in the history of the world, the most polyglot city. So there’s this constant overlapping of cultures, this constant attraction that’s just fascination. And of course, being an American city, too, things vanish entirely overnight. It’s great fun to dig that up and see what you can find. The whole Coney Island history is effectively buried. You would never know these immense parks were out there. I think it would startle a lot of people to know that they were there.
What’s appealing about working in comics right now?
I have a bunch of other ideas I’d like to do in the medium. I think the graphic novel/comics industry has it going on. They’re very hot right now, and there’s a reason for that. They almost seem like Hollywood must have seemed back in the ’20s and ’30s, when they were running around and grabbing playwrights and authors from everywhere. They’d hire Faulkner to go out and write screenplays. Not that I’m comparing myself to Faulkner, but it’s that kind of innovation that’s really the great thing about the industry right now.
What else would you like to do in comics?
I’ve proposed a bunch of different ideas to them. I have an idea for a 19th-century superhero of sorts and a whole bunch of other things. There’s one in particular they’re considering. It’s a New York story from just after World War II. We’ll see how Luna Park does and maybe I’ll get to work with them again, which would be great.