A Q&A with Kevin Baker
Question: As a bestselling historical fiction writer, how did writing your first graphic novel come about? How did the writing process differ?
Kevin Baker: I have to admit, I hadn’t even thought of trying my hand at graphic novels--I never dreamed I’d be hip enough. But then Peter Tomassi from DC approached me about the idea some years ago, and after some back and forth, hashing out a plot with Peter and Karen Berger, it was a go.
I have to say, I loved the experience. It’s very different from writing novels in that, among other things, you get to leave much of the hard work to the artist--the physical setting, facial expressions, etc. It’s not that it’s easier than novel writing, just very different. You really have to say a lot in just a few words. On the other hand, I’ve always thought very visually when writing novels, so this was a joy to do.
Question: Where did you find your inspiration for Luna Park?
Kevin Baker: Luna Park was inspired by both my longtime love of Coney Island, and history in general. It was Karen Berger, I think, who first suggested I do something based on Coney, and the rest just followed. There are so many stories out there--it’s a shame they’re tearing the place down.
I had written about Coney Island first in my historical novel, Dreamland, but that only scratched the surface. Another inspiration was James Gray’s wonderfully atmospheric, Russian gangster pic, Little Odessa, which makes the most of the modern Coney and Brighton Beach.
Basically, it’s a wonderful ruin, where so many times and stories seem to blend together. Luna Park is long gone--the last of it burned down in 1946--but it was far and away the most beautiful, almost surreal of the three, great, original amusement parks out there. It was designed by this alcoholic impresario and builder of vast follies, a man named Frederick Thompson, who felt there was a need for "manufactured fun" (what an American concept!).
As a result, he filled it with spires, minarets, half-moons, leering animal and clown heads--a whole jumbled of architectural styles that ended up looking like something out of Dr. Seuss. I would think it would be very easy to be disoriented in such a place, to not know what age or place you are in.
Question: Luna Park is full of authentic Russian vocabulary, culture and history. How much research did you do for the book?
Kevin Baker: Not all that much, though I’ve walked through the area many times. Brighton Beach, especially, is one of the last, great ethnic neighborhoods left in New York, and it’s a treat to go through the neighborhood and soak up the atmosphere.
Some years back, I did take a good friend out there for a bachelor party at a club called "Rasputin’s," which I believe is still open. What a place! It was as if someone had taken all of Russian and American culture for the past hundred years, shaken it up in a grab bag, then let loose. The floor show was everything from a chorus line, to contortionists, to giant, pantomine figures, to singers. Then, from time to time, they’d put on some disco and everybody would get up and dance.
At your table, they would bring you a big pitcher of Coca-Cola, and a big pitcher of orange soda, and you were expected to order a bottle of vodka, or three. Then they brought out platter after platter of various Russian appetizers, most of them delicious. Then, more disco. It was hysterical. Whole families were there together, in the lobby there was an actual messenger boy, dressed up in a cap and braided jacket like somebody from an American hotel fifty years ago...
Again, it was as if all of time had come together, that same, amazing mixture of cultures that has always defined Coney Island.
Beyond that, I did look up a few, basic, Russian vocabulary words. Most of the history and culture comes from my general knowledge garnered about Russia over the years. It’s funny, the country really is like the polar opposite of the United States. Instead of being isolated by two oceans, it has always been surrounded by enemies. And nothing ever works out.
Question: Danijel Zezelj’s incredible art throughout Luna Park depicts modern day New York, the magic of Coney Island in the 1910s and the devastation of the Second Chechen War. What was it like working with him and seeing your script translated into a graphic novel?
Kevin Baker: Yes, his art really is incredible. We worked very well together, I thought. While I wrote the script first, I thought it was very important--graphic novels being such a visual medium--that he take the lead. Also, of course, he has much more experience in the field. As much as possible, I let him reshape my ideas for each page, and I think he did a brilliant job. I also thought the coloring, by Dave Stewart, was terrific.
Starred Review. Taking a break (mostly) from his powerful and painstakingly constructed stories of historical New York in novels like Dreamland
and Paradise Alley
, Baker takes a welcome dive into the graphic novel field with this punchy and ghostly modern-day noir. The setting—today's rusted and listless landscape of Coney Island—fits the dead-end daydreaming of his protagonist. Alik Streinikov is a former Russian soldier fleeing nightmares of the cruelties he witnessed in Chechnya and now working as an enforcer for a sideshow mob fragment that's about to get pushed out by a more vicious gang. Alik's already iffy toehold on society's ladder is complicated by a serious drug habit and worse addiction to Marina, a hooker/fortune teller whose every card reads like bad news. Marina keeps reminding Alik of his nightmares, and before long he's spiraling through alternative pasts (from early 20th-century New York to the Russian civil war), which repeat the same inescapable tragedies. The artwork by Zezelj (Northlanders
) has a windswept, slashing quality to it that captures Coney Island's bitter, salty ocean air on the page. A tough-nosed crime story redolent with magic and sadness, Luna Park
serves as a fine showcase for two great artists working to the best of their abilities. (Nov.)
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