Sunday, January 17, 2010

Review: Luna Park

It must be demoralizing to be a wannabe comics writer these days. Well, not if you just want to write comics for the sake of writing comics, because the Internet, print-on-demand publishing and other technical innovations have made doing that easier than ever before.

But if you want to make a living as a writer of comic books? Like, say, series or original graphic novels for major publishers, like DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint?

Then it’s gotta be demoralizing to know that even though the graphic novel is a “hot” format in the publishing industry at the moment, and there’s a bigger and wider market for comics work since God knows when, many of the new writers getting their work published are successful writers (or musicians or actors or whatever) who bring with them built-in name recognition.

I wonder, is it easier to go to the trouble of becoming a successful crime novelist just to get your foot in Vertigo’s door than it would be to just become a graphic novelist?

Kevin Baker is one of the many (many, many, many) successful prose writers to make the jump to graphic novels. Bakre is responsible for four books (none of which I’ve read), including 2006’s Dreamland, set in part in turn-of-the-century Coney Island.

His comics debut, Luna Park (Vertigo/DC) apparently made good use of the research Baker put in to that book, as it too is set mostly in Coney Island and its surrounding environs. It’s Coney Island as it is in 2009 though—with some flashbacks to its glory days—but that place is one of the book’s main characters, given the most attention and fullest development (The other main character is Russia, which the human characters who are nominally the protagonists of the story come from).

The title comes from one of the amusement parks on Coney Island, part of the turf Alik works for his two-bit gangster boss. Alik is a former Russian soldier who served in Chechnya, and left it and the war under tragic circumstances. Now he lives in New York, beating people up and collecting money for his boss while waiting for his boss’ more powerful rival to crush them and someone to buy up all of Coney Island.

His only pleasures are heroin, poetry and the company of his mysterious-even-to-him girlfriend. Baker’s narrative is quite sprawling, beginning in New York in 2009, where it seems a fairly typical Russian-flavored crime story, but it flashes back to Alik’s experiences in the war, his girlfriend’s experiences in Russia, and, as the story goes on, more and more times past, with greater frequency and greater distances backward.

We see Alik’s father’s experiences in the war and his grandfather’s and his great grandfather’s. We see Alik’s dreams…or are they past lives? We see his future life. We see stories and legends and poems that, because comics are a visual medium, are shown just as clearly and with just as much weight as any of the flashbacks or the current narrative that’s happening for “real.”

As that no doubt implies, for all the gritty realism and historical research that went into Luna Park, there are a few flights into the fantastic that attempt to transform the work into something bigger, deeper and more ambitious than the crime melodrama it starts as.

I’m not entirely sure how successful it is. Baker’s climax and conclusion are equivocal enough that the results are hard to discern, let alone appraise. I’m not sure I want to hold even that against the story though—it’s conclusion is certainly surprising and exciting, whether or not its good in the traditional sense.

Because this is Baker’s first comics work, it’s worth noting that it comes across as rather accomplished. It’s certainly novelistic in some key ways, particularly in the amount of story told by the third-person narrator, but enough storytelling is left to the artwork that it never seems entirely like a prose novel jammed into panels.

Plenty of credit for that no doubt goes to Baker’s collaborator, artist Danijel Zezelj, an experienced hand when it comes to comics creation. Zezelj has a fairly unique style that is both highly representational and highly evocative at the same time. His buildings and people look as real as the ones you might see walking down the street, but he’s able to capture that reality in a more organic way than a lot of his peers who over-rely on photos and filters in their digitally created art, and to carefully choose the moments of story he freezes in each panel so that the actors always seem authentic instead of awkward.

The coloring, by Dave Stewart, is dark, perhaps it’s not going too far to call it murky, and the palette is depressingly limited to grays, blacks and browns, the occasional flash of red for blood or white or green for sky used conservatively.

Given the dreary subject matter, I suppose it’s appropriate, but given Vertigo’s tendency toward a rainbow of browns in the bulk of their books (historically as well as currently), it’s not a terribly inviting book to pick up. It looks quite typical of modern crime comics and quite typical of the stereotype of Vertigo comics.

It’s not, not really.

And that must make it even more depressing to be a wannabe comics writer. Some of these guys seemingly trading on their names and success in other media in order to write some comics? Some of them turn out to be pretty good at it, and thus are probably going to be welcome to stick around and do as much work as they’d like.


Oh, and I couldn’t find a place to stick this in the review, but I thought I would note that I think the original graphic novel is the ideal format for a prose writer making their comics debut. There’s an art to properly, suspensefully, satisfyingly pacing a serial comic book, in which each 22-pages has its own beginning, middle and end—even if that end is simply a cliffhanger filling a reader with a sense of urgency about the next issue—and its an art that a lot of people who grew up reading and now make their living writing comic books have a great deal of trouble mastering (Not to pick on Brian Michael Bendis, but I think he’s successful enough that I won’t wound him—that guy’s written literally thousands of pages of serial comics, and is one of the direct market’s favorite writers, and he is terrible at pacing comics stories over the course of multiple issues).

So doing an original graphic novel like Luna Park instead of attempting a serial miniseries or, worse, jumping into an ongoing superhero title, seems like a nice, simplified way for a prose writer or other comics-outsider to ease into the medium.

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