Written by Kevin Baker
Art by Danijel Zezelj
160 pages, color
Published by Vertigo/DC Comics
Often, when reading a book I find myself starting to compose a review in my head. How I’m feeling about the book, what I think of its progression, and so on. Every now and then, though, a book comes along that confounds those expectations. That is certainly the case with Kevin Baker and Danijel Zezelj’s Luna Park from Vertigo. I thought I’d sussed out the book by the halfway point, knew how I felt about it overall. And then, not once but twice, the book pulled the rug out from under me. And with each instance, my opinion of Luna Park rather radically changed.
For the first two-thirds of the book, Luna Park serves as a typical crime thriller. Its protagonist, Alik, works as an enforcer for just one of the crime families that have staked out portions of Coney Island. For that part alone, I was satisfied with Baker’s script. It doesn’t feel terribly original in terms of idea, but that ultimately isn’t an issue. Baker makes Alik a compelling character to read about, haunted by his time in the Second Chechen War, and staggering through the run down dregs of Coney Island in a state that could charitably only be called half-alive. As Alik’s past and present relationships begin to surface, you start to see how he’s managed to fall so far over the years, and feel a little empathy for him. Alik may not be a nice person, per se, but he’s someone who is damaged enough from the choices in life that led him here that it’s painful to see him hurting. It’s probably his love of Coney Island and understanding of what a magical place it once was that makes him the most human; in most things in life he no longer has hope or dreams, but there you can catch a glimpse of what’s left of Alik’s soul.
Around the two-thirds mark, though, the book takes a sudden swerve; what was once a recurring dream becomes reality, and what was reality quickly fades away. It’s a bold choice on Baker’s part, and while I was a little startled by it I actually found myself more enthralled by Luna Park as a result. Part of what I found interesting about the earlier segments of Luna Park was Baker using Russian and Ukranian history as a backdrop for his story, and seeing that no longer just infuse the background but take over the book is a successful decision. I’d cheerfully read an entire book from Baker centered just around the concepts in that last third of the graphic novel. He makes the different setting surprisingly accessible, and what could have felt overly melodramatic instead comes across as tense and serious. Up until this point in the book, I was enjoying Luna Park but had already filed it away in my head as a book whose script I’d forget about before too long. Once that shift occurred, I had to start re-writing my mental review, explaining how much of a punch the change gave to Luna Park and how it made me want to seek out Baker’s novels.
Unfortunately, though, Baker still has one more surprise up his sleeve. The last seven pages of Luna Park throw one last surprise out at the reader, but it was one that actually made me completely re-evaluate the book in a bad way. It’s an idea that comes so utterly out of left field that it felt like a cheat; an attempt for an extra bit of surprise and a "gotcha!" moment that is so out there it actually can result in anger on the reader’s part. Baker’s linking of Luna Park to one final real-world event feels crass and unneeded, here. There’s such a disassociation in terms of not only plot but actual tone and ideas that I was surprised that editorially it passed muster. It’s frustrating because Luna Park in my head managed to drop from a book I’d recommend to just about anyone to a book where I would only push on fans of Danijel Zezelj. Baker’s script sabotages Luna Park in the final moments, and that’s a game-losing fumble.
With all that in mind, though, if you’ve enjoyed Zezelj’s art in the past, this is easily the most beautiful book he’s drawn to date. Zezelj uses his trademark style of thick, heavy inks to create an amazing-looking graphic novel. What always immediately strikes me about Zezelj’s art is how he uses negative space so effortlessly; so often he’s not drawing objects and people on the page, but rather carving away pieces of the background and leaving the completed forms in its wake. Zezelj goes all-out in bringing the settings of Luna Park to life here; there are so many haunting images just waiting for you to see. From the hulk of an abandoned ride against a stark and empty landscape, to the cracked floor tiles that Alik lies upon, everything is carefully considered and then designed. The flashbacks to an earlier era are gorgeous too, with crowds of people on an open air market on Hester Street make you feel like you’ve actually gone back in time to an earlier Brooklyn. Colorist Dave Stewart gets some of the credit here as well; his colors look so perfectly integrated into Zezelj’s art that you’d otherwise assume that Zezelj had painted the entire page from start to finish. Stewart wisely uses a palette of muted colors over Zezelj’s inks, bringing that run down world to life. When brighter bursts of color do appear, they’re so rare and far-between that they leap out at the reader, demanding attention. I can’t imagine anyone doing a better job with Zezelj’s art than Stewart; having him always color his art should become part of Zezelj’s contract from now on.
If you cut off the ending from Luna Park, it’s a huge success. At the end of the day, though, you need to be warned going into it that there’s a massive misstep just seconds before midnight. I still want to see more of Baker’s works down the line (and would welcome another collaboration with Zezelj), but I’m hoping that he’s not normally fond of the last-second twist. Hopefully others will find it more palatable, or at least easier to ignore. No matter what, though, Zezelj’s art is outstanding, and at the end of the day well worth the price of buying Luna Park in hardcover. He’s an amazing talent and I’m always happy to see something new by him.