A Haunting American Dream Set In 'Luna Park' Writer Kevin Baker says he never thought he'd be "hip enough" to venture into graphic novels. But with illustrator Danijel Zezelj, he has created Luna Park — a ghostly graphic novel set in the decaying amusement parks of Coney Island. It profiles a Russian immigrant plagued by nightmares of the Chechen War.
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A Haunting American Dream Set In 'Luna Park'

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A Haunting American Dream Set In 'Luna Park'

A Haunting American Dream Set In 'Luna Park'

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The rusting remnants of Americas first great amusement park provide the setting of a new graphic novel that has its start in Coney Island, but comes to range over continents and centuries. Luna Park tells the story of a deserter from the Russian army who washes ashore in Brooklyn and how his experiences in Chechnya find echoes in America. The writer is Kevin Baker, best known for Dreamland and other novels about New York City.

If youve read Luna Park or if youd like to talk with him about novels and graphic novels, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. You can also see some images from the novel on our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Kevin Baker joins us from our bureau in New York. Thanks very much for coming in today.

Mr. KEVIN BAKER (Author, Luna Park): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And this is your first graphic novel. Youve written several historical novels, as we have mentioned, before. Why switch to this form?

Mr. BAKER: I think its a way to tell an unusual sort of story, a kind of offbeat story, a story with a couple of twists and turns in a almost Twilight Zone-like way that I think works much better in a graphic novel than in a straight novel.

CONAN: Ive read that, in fact, you approached a Vertigo, the publishers, with an idea of your own and they said, well, Im not so sure, and then a steered you toward this.

Mr. BAKER: Well, actually, they had approached me about doing something, and I came up with an idea for sort of a 19th century superhero. And they thought, well as youve said, they kind of wanted something more about Coney Island, which I had written about before

CONAN: Mm-hmm. In Dreamland.

Mr. BAKER: in my novel, Dreamland.

CONAN: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. BAKER: So and, you know, theres a million stories out there. Its a very interesting old place, you know, kind of on the edge of America, where the difference between whats real and whats imagined keep sort of slipping away. So I worked something out and ran it by them, and they said, great. And here we are.

CONAN: Of course, in a graphic novel, the writer does not get to tell the story alone.

Mr. BAKER: Right. Exactly. And I think the person who really made this come to life was Danijel Zezelj, who is the artist on it. And I very much wanted him to kind of lead on this because he is, first of all, a terrific artist and a terrific, you know, comic book artist. And

CONAN: Those who read the monthly Northlanders have seen his work, with Brian Wood.

Mr. BAKER: Yeah. And several other things, as well. And hes, you know, hes just terrific, and also had much more experience in this than I did. And it is, basically, its a visual medium. So I really wanted him to kind of take it and lead on it. And I, you know

CONAN: When you say

Mr. BAKER: deferred to him whenever, kind of - yup.

CONAN: When you say he did the lead on it, did you have a synopsis and say, how are we going to structure this? How are we going to have these many panels per page. How are we going to do it?

Mr. BAKER: No. In the sense that - I wrote the script first. That included all that.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

Mr. BAKER: But, of course, its one thing to write a script out and have it on the page, and then another thing to kind of give it to the artist and have him make that come true. And again and again, he improved on what I had written there and really made it work on the page.

CONAN: And brought the characters to life. Did they look

Mr. BAKER: Yeah.

CONAN: as he drew them, the way you had envisioned them?

Mr. BAKER: Yeah. Pretty much. You know, with a little bit of a difference. But interesting differences, too. I think he actually made them kind of more human and more three-dimensional just through the drawings.

CONAN: The place is a metaphor. It is also a real place. Luna Park was a part of Coney Island. And, of course its an interesting turn of phrase. At one point, I think you referred to it it was the place where they manufactured fun.

Mr. BAKER: Yes. That was the phrase that Frederick Thompson, the guy who designed it originally back at the start of the 20th century, had. It was a place where he felt Americans, in this big manufacturing economy, they needed to have a place of manufactured fun. And what he came up with was something absolutely incredible, the most beautiful, most interesting, most bizarre amusement park ever built.

CONAN: And shiny and bright and glorious on the outside, yet almost from the beginning, had a rather seamier inside. And, of course, now in its last days -in fact, it's being torn down now.

Mr. BAKER: Yeah.

CONAN: It's rather bleak.

Mr. BAKER: Yeah. And it's what's kind of really going on in Coney Island. Luna Park itself was actually burned down in 1946. But there - you know, it's replaced, as the all the great parks out there were, by kind of a fun, honky-tonk park, Astroland. And now, unfortunately, that's been removed and, you know, Coney Island is kind of being destroyed by developers and by the city of New York, and that's reflected in the novel. Only here, I fill in, as well, a couple of Russian mobs who are fighting over the carcass.

CONAN: And you're protagonist - I'm not going to call him hero - but the protagonist of the story is - finds himself working for the lesser of the two mobs.

Mr. BAKER: Yes. He's a shtarker(ph) for the lesser of the mobs. And, you know, that mob clearly seems to be on the way out. They're facing a very formidable opponent, the other mob. And hes not very good in this job, anyway. He - you know, he hates intimidating people who are paying gambling debts and that sort of thing. So it's looking pretty bad for him.

CONAN: And at the same time, he is in recovery, if that's, I guess, the word

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAKER: Yes.

CONAN: from some of his disastrous experiences during the Chechen War and finds himself - putting himself almost in the same situation.

Mr. BAKER: Exactly. In a way, this is sort of an homage to Chinatown or maybe Malamud's novel of "The Natural," you know, where people learn nothing from experience. He's fallen in love with this rather mysterious fortuneteller named Marina who works for the other mob. And the two of them think they're going to pull off something that will help them escape from Coney Island and from their situation. And, in fact, he ends up right back in the middle of another disaster, only this one with a twist.

CONAN: And a disaster that - well, his efforts to escape the situation in Chechnya didn't work out so well, either.

Mr. BAKER: Right.

CONAN: And indeed, this all ties to not only Russian history, but Russia's history with America.

Mr. BAKER: Yeah. And he goes right back into this through - literally, through a funhouse that takes him back in time. And this is - yeah, this is - what struck me as interesting about this was kind of the collision of these cultures. You know, American history is sort of a history where everything works out, or at least that's what we tell ourselves, even if we have to white out the parts that

CONAN: Like in the movie, The Natural, as opposed to the novel.

Mr. BAKER: Exactly. That's so typically American, where you can get the - you know, you get the cash and the girl. You get to hit the homerun and be the, you know - and, of course, Russian history is sort of the absolute polar opposite: Nothing works out, and the same mistakes keep getting made again and again and again. So, you know, here's my take kind of on the collision of the two of these and what happens from that.

CONAN: Well, let's get some callers in our conversation. We're talking with Kevin Baker about his new graphic novel, "Luna Park." Of course, he's the writer. The artist is Danijel Zezelj. Is that how you pronounce it?

Mr. BAKER: Yes, I believe so.

CONAN: Okay. And 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email us: talk@npr.org. And Jennifers on the line, calling from Minneapolis.

JENNIFER (Caller): Hi, there.

Mr. BAKER: Hi.

JENNIFER: I'm really intrigued how you decided to go ahead and create the story and have someone else illustrate it. Most of the graphic novels I'm familiar with - I grew up with Craig Thompson, and I love his works. And it just seems to me - how did you come to the medium of the graphic novel if you are from a writing side, rather than the art creation side?

Mr. BAKER: Well, that's a good question. I mean, I generally think in pretty visual terms when I'm writing, you know? I'm picturing stuff a lot, you know? And so, this was - felt kind of natural in that way, and, of course, easier for me because I can, instead of really struggling over those descriptions, I can just say, here, you do this, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAKER: So it was - you know, so it did seem like something fairly natural, in that sense.

JENNIFER: Okay. So the collaboration was you gave him the things you had in your head

Mr. BAKER: Right.

JENNIFER: and he was able to draw them out, and you work back and forth?

Mr. BAKER: Exactly. You know, it worked - I had it in my head. I wrote out the script, you know, got it off to him. And, you know, there were occasionally things where I'd say, no, this needs to be something else. But for the most part, I really was, you know, blown away by the work he was doing. And he would improve on stuff. You know, at one point, I have the hero referring to going up Ocean Parkway - which is this beautiful boulevard that comes off Coney Island -and watching these kind of orthodox families at the end of the Sabbath strolling along there, which is a very beautiful thing you do see along there.

And he - I'm not sure if he misunderstood it or what, but he put them actually at the ocean - you know, this kind of orthodox family sort of looking at the ocean along Coney Island in the sand. And it was great. It worked perfectly. So I - you know, so I went with it, and there was a lot of that.


JENNIFER: Interesting. So I'm curious. How long did it - the whole process take?

Mr. BAKER: Surprisingly fast. You know, I think all in all, something like four months.



Mr. BAKER: So it really went pretty quickly. I might - you know, I might be making that seem it probably felt shorter than it was. Maybe it was six months. But it was not a long time, you know? It was something that really flowed.

CONAN: And this is - how many pages - I'm just - 160 pages. I mean, this is not one of your skimpy, little graphic novels.

Mr. BAKER: Oh, well, you should see the regular novels I write.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAKER: The ones where no one's helping me. They're, you know, they're quite long.

CONAN: I know that. I know that.

Mr. BAKER: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Jennifer, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

Mr. BAKER: Thank you.

JENNIFER: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And what's happening with your 19th century superhero? Are we going to still see, what, Industrial Revolution Man?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAKER: Yeah. It's, you know, it's quite a convoluted story. I mean, I pitched that to them. Maybe someday we'll do that. I have another story Ive pitched now to Vertigo, which is more something in, you know, kind of 1950s in the Bronx. So we'll see if that gets made. I would love to keep working in this medium. It's been terrific fun.

CONAN: And I read an interview with you. You were not a reader of, you know, one of those guys who squirreled back issues of "Blackhawk" under their mattress as a kid.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAKER: No. I grew in kind of the - was it Frederick Wertheim? Was that the name of the

CONAN: Oh, yes.

Mr. BAKER: the big scourge of comics who felt they were terrible for kids? And I think my parents bought into that. So I would read like the occasional, you know, the "Classics Illustrated" or occasionally some other kids comic if I could get it. And it interested me, but it was not a big obsession, you know?

And then when I was doing some research on "Strivers Row," which is the last, you know, kind of non-picture-driven novel I wrote

CONAN: Yeah, the third one in your trilogy.

Mr. BAKER: The third one on the "City of Fire" trilogy. And it had a lot about a young Malcolm X being up in Harlem in the 1940s, you know, as a young street hustler. And true story, he was an inveterate comics reader. So I researched some of the comics of at that time for that book and kind of - that kind of got me into it a little bit. But I really didn't have a great background on it.

CONAN: What kind of comics did Malcolm X like?

Mr. BAKER: Oh, kind of your basic adventure comics of the time, different superheroes of the period. And, you know, it's interesting the conjunction kind of like how these heroes played into sorts of the, you know, the villains that the nation of Islam had, you know? And it's not that Malcolm came up with them, but, you know, it really struck me. For instance, there's, you know, Dr. Yakub, the big-head scientist

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BAKER: is the chief villain of the nation of Islam. He is the guy who invented the white race and helped it prosper through technology. And he - you know, in the 1930s and 40s, comics were full of big, bald-headed villains. Everybody from, you know, Lex Luthor on, you know, who were, you know, who were committing all kinds of - doing all kinds of terrible things in their secret laboratories.

CONAN: We're talking with Kevin Baker. His new graphic novel, "Luna Park." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get another caller in: Melissa, Melissa with us from East Freetown in Massachusetts.

MELISSA (Caller): Hi, Neal. And hi, Kevin. It's really great

Mr. BAKER: Hi.

MELISSA: to hear TALK OF THE NATION covering graphic novels, because it's a medium that hasn't really reached, like, wide acclaim yet. People still kind of look down on graphic novels and comics as a whole. So it's really nice to have a segment on it.

CONAN: Well, we had R. Crumb a little while ago, and perhaps that's the reason why.

Mr. BAKER: I think that's

MELISSA: I'm sorry?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I was just making a little joke there, but that's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MELISSA: I just would like to know who your inspiration is. You kind of covered it just now, but who are your inspirations as authors and artists as far as comics and graphic novels were as a kid? And now as an adult, how have your tastes changed? I'm a big fan of Vertigo, so I was wondering if you'd followed them or DC as, you know, kind of a loyal fan to them or Marvel, or what have you.

Mr. BAKER: Yeah. It's interesting, Melissa, you say that, too. I think, actually, graphic novels are really hot now. You know, I mean, I'll be out some place and somebody will ask me what I do. And I say, well, I write novels. And I'd see their eyes kind of glaze over.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAKER: And then I say but I have this graphic novel coming out, and they just - boy, they pop open again. Yeah, I mean, when I went to do this, Vertigo gave me all kinds of things from their stuff to read. And I was blown away by all of it, everything from From Hell" to "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" to a recent release, "Incognegro." You know, it's just - I mean, I'm blanking right now on the particular authors where

CONAN: Alan Moore and Ed Brubaker, I believe.

Mr. BAKER: Yeah. Okay. Great.

MELISSA: I love Alan Moore.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAKER: Yeah. I mean - but they all impressed me great deal. And, you know, it's a terrific, fun medium to get into.

CONAN: Did they give you a template, this is how you write? I mean, you know, Alex enters room, or panel one shows Alex sitting in a chair? You know, something like that?

Mr. BAKER: No. They just basically - they gave me - and again, I'm blanking on which one it was, but they gave me the original script from one. And they gave me these, you know, copies of some of the best work they've done. And I took it from there. And I think there's probably no better way to learn.

MELISSA: Your industrial revolution hero, is that going to be a long one?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I made that up. I made that up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAKER: Oh, it's a kind of "Gangs of New York" hero, was more of the idea, you know, with the

MELISSA: Well, that's cool.

CONAN: Oh, Dead Rabbits live again.

Mr. BAKER: It's - yeah. It's a 19th century hero as might be imagined by Edgar Allan Poe. We'll put it that way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MELISSA: Interesting, because Im always looking for new steam punk titles to get my hands on.

Mr. BAKER: Yes. Yes. Steam punk is great fun.

CONAN: Melissa

MELISSA: Well, thank you so much.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

Mr. BAKER: Thank you.

CONAN: We appreciate it. Let me ask you another part - I think people will understand you wrote three historical novels about the city of New York.

Mr. BAKER: Yeah.

CONAN: You've done - live there a long time and done a lot of research. What about the Russian part? Where did that come from?

Mr. BAKER: That - just from general interest in Russian history. People are kind of wondering where that came from. It just happen that I, you know, Im no expert in Russian history. I just read a bunch about it over the years and, you know, got a primer and picked a few words out from it to help. But just my interest in that, and also my interest in Brighton Beach, which is one of the terrific ethnic neighborhoods still left in New York, one thats left.

CONAN: Very vibrant, yeah.

Mr. BAKER: Yeah, a very vibrant, wonderful place, distinctly ethnic, you know, terrific nightclubs, crazy places. I remember taking a friend to Rasputins for a bachelor party some years ago, and its like - the show you get there is sort of as if you took all culture in the history of the Western world

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAKER: and put it in a bag mix it up and throw - you know, you have like everything from contortionists to chorus girls to - then they play some disco and everybody dances. It's great, you know? And it's - it struck me as a really, you know, a great place to utilize.

CONAN: There's a place not dissimilar from that in "Luna Park." Is that the model?

Mr. BAKER: Yes, exactly. Exactly. That's where that came from. And, yeah, it's terrific. It's just a, you know, a beautiful culture and a beautiful part of the city.

CONAN: Well, Kevin Baker, we wish you the best of luck with your novels, with and without pictures.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BAKER: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Kevin Baker's new book is called "Luna Park." The artist is Danijel Zezelj. And it's - he's also the author of the "City of Fire" trilogy: "Dreamland," "Paradise Alley" and "Strivers Row." And he joined us today from our bureau in New York.

I'm going to be away in Fort Myers, visiting our member station there. I'll be talking to you there from Wednesday. In the meantime, Rebecca Roberts will be here tomorrow with Tony Hendra to talk about George Carlin's autobiography "Last Words."

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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