By Dan Kois
Wednesday, January 13, 2010; C04
By Kevin Baker and Danijel Zezelj
Vertigo. 158 pp. $24.99
"Luna Park" is the first graphic novel by Kevin Baker, author of the best-selling City of Fire trilogy, but its craftsmanship suggests that he's thought long and hard about the storytelling strengths of comics. Spare and thoughtful, "Luna Park" is a reverie on the horrors of Russian history masquerading as a gritty New York crime story. It tells a noir tale through muscular language, vivid scenes and arresting images drawn by Croatian-born Danijel Zezelj. If "Luna Park" doesn't quite hold together, losing its emotional thread in an extended, dreamlike finale, it's still a ghostly and interesting book.
Alik Strelnikov, once a Russian soldier stuck in the brutal Chechen war, is now an enforcer for a penny-ante gangster in Brooklyn. As he wanders the wintry wasteland of Coney Island, he feels his world "getting smaller all the time," Baker writes, offering a downbeat snapshot of "the boardwalk over to the aquarium, where feral cats stalk the penguins in their cage." A local crime boss is razing the old amusement parks and squeezing out the criminal competition, including Alik's gang. The only things that get Alik through the nights are heroin, old Russian records and visits from Marina, whose tarot cards introduce an element of the supernatural into the hard-boiled narrative.
Soon, readers are dropping into flashbacks not just of Chechnya but also of 1910 tenement New York, the battlefields of World War I and even 10th-century Kiev. By the end of "Luna Park," as Baker ties the incessant cruelty of Russian history to one of America's greatest tragedies, it's clear that he has veered wildly from his tale of lowlifes in love. Maybe too wildly.
But the one constant in this at-times uneven graphic novel is Zezelj's lyrical and brutal artwork, full of stark shadows cast over images of terrible beauty. (The colors -- mostly the red of blood and the greens and blues of a fresh bruise -- are by Dave Stewart.) In addition to his own influential graphic novels, Zezelj has illustrated the Viking adventure series "Northlanders," set in a kind of snowy hell on Earth, and he demonstrates with "Luna Park" that he's equally adept at illustrating the internal hell of a tortured man who can't escape his own history, or his nation's.
Kois is a freelance critic and the author of "Facing Future," about the Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo'ole.