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It seems unbelievable, but in 1954, Murray Handwerker of Nathan’s Famous leased an embalmed whale and put it on display next to his Coney Island eatery to attract customers. The seventy-ton, seventy-five foot finback was on show for two months when a heat wave struck and “A Whale in Bad Odor” began driving away customers, according to news reports at the time. Neighboring business owners called the Health Department, which issued summonses for maintaining a nuisance.  It ended up with Handwerker having to pay people to cut up the whale and tow it out to sea.

This odd tidbit of Coney Island history was one of the inspirations for “The Wonder City,” an ambitious new graphic novel by Justin Rivers and Courtney Zell that re-imagines the history of New York City starting with Peter Minuit’s purchase of Manhattan. Subtitled “The Great Whale of Coney Island,” the first volume in a planned six-volume series is a captivating mix of history and mythology. “Where does myth end and history begin? What if there was no difference between the two?” asks Rivers, a playwright and educator whose literary influences include Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Set in New York City in 1942, the story begins with the delightfully named and drawn “gumshoe” Velma Graydon turning up at the Brooklyn home of the Tulip family. She is ready to spend a large sum to acquire the Parelzaad, a centuries-old charm that six-year-old Lizzie Tulip nonchalantly wears around her neck. Velma is told the heirloom was a gift from the girl’s Dutch grandmother and is not for sale.

But Velma is persistent and unable to let the sought-after charm out of her sight. The next day, she follows Lizzie and her brother Owen on an outing to Coney Island. The Wonder Wheel, which graces the cover of the book, and Grandma’s Predictions, the fortunetelling machine under the Wheel, play a part in the story, along with a dead whale on display as a sideshow attraction and a live whale whose appearance causes havoc in Coney Island.

Courtney Zell’s drawings have a quirky edge and convey emotion and intrigue. As the story unfolds and the mystery deepens, we learn that Velma belongs to a group called The Light Keepers who have long searched for the Parelzaad.  Velma’s research has uncovered documents that trace the charm’s origin to 17th century New Amsterdam. “My father said the charm brought prosperity to his crop,” wrote a resident of the Dutch colony in 1661. “It is our hope that you take it and bring prosperity back to our great city, the symbol of our worldly triumphs and a testament to our survival in the wilderness.”

ATZ first learned about “The Wonder City” last year via the website Kickstarter, where Rivers and Zell posted snippets of the novel-in-progress that piqued our curiosity. “The advice we’ve received from comic publishers is that the economy is bad for new comic book projects right now,” they wrote. “And the best way to get our book noticed is to self publish and get the book out there ourselves. And we’re determined to do it!” The project was successfully funded to the tune of $5518 by 62 backers, who received hand-pulled prints, signed copies of the book and the chance to be drawn into the comic as thank-yous.

The finished book was self-published this month and is on sale for $10 on the Wonder City website, etsy and Amazon.  A book release party and comic book creators meet-up is set for Wednesday, June 29, at 7 pm, at The Bell House, 149 7th Street in the Gowanus area of Park Slope, Brooklyn.

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Luna Park is the dazzling collaborative debut of novelist Kevin Baker (Dreamland, Strivers Row and artist Danijel Zezelj, the author of more than 20 graphic novels. Their graphic novel starts out as a noirish tale set in a Coney Island closed for the winter and being gobbled up by a Russian mobster from Brighton Beach. The year is 2009, but the narrative takes the reader hurtling through history to the war in Chechnya, as well as to Coney Island’s Luna Park, Dreamland and Steeplechase Park in the early 1900s, and the Russian Civil War (1917-1923). The trip is vertiginous, but Zezelj’s bold and emotive illustrations and colorist Dave Stewart‘s palette will sweep you away.

When we first meet the protagonist Alik, he is prowling the bleak landscape of Coney Island, murmuring his favorite line from Pushkin’s “Bronze Horseman”: “I’ll fix myself a humble, simple shelter. Where Parasha and I can live in quiet.. “

The Russian émigré is an enforcer for a loan shark who runs a shady kiddie park on the site of the original Luna Park. Of course this is a fictional alternate universe since Luna Park closed in the 1940s and the site has been occupied by a housing complex since 1959. In the novel, the Astroland Rocket and Burger Girl are still in place on the roof of Gregory & Paul’s Boardwalk food stand, but G & P’s has become a sideshow instead of Paul’s Daughter. As the saying goes, any resemblance to real characters or events is purely coincidental.

Luna Park’s lovers Alik and Marina and their doomed counterparts in the novel’s other times and places resemble a set of nesting Russian dolls. “Hey soldier c’mere and know your future,” Marina calls to Alik when they meet at the mobster Feliks’s nightclub and center of operations. Her tarot cards are inspired by the illustrious figures of Mother Russia’s past. Alik is haunted by nightmares of the war in Chechnya and guilt over the death of his lover Mariam. He tells Marina: “I don’t believe in the future.” Despite Alik’s addiction to heroin and Marina’s enslavement by the mobster who controls Coney Island, the new couple find refuge in each others arms.

Two thirds of the way though the book, Alik either falls though Baker’s equivalent of Alice’s Looking Glass or is blown to eternity in a shoot out with the mob. Perhaps Alik or one of his reincarnations is hallucinating. We’re not entirely sure. All of a sudden, Alik is no longer himself, but a little boy spending the day in Coney Island with his parents.

It is the early 1900s because the family traipses through Luna Park and Dreamland. They ride the Steeplechase horses before Alik finds himself back in Russia where he grows up to be a soldier in the Russian Civil War. The time travel speeds up and history repeats itself: love, war, betrayal, death. The shocker of an ending reveals a crime novel within a crime novel that will have you reconsidering history and re-reading Luna Park to find the clues carefully planted along the way

Luna Park. Writer: Kevin Baker. Artist: Danijel Zezelj. Colorist: Dave Stewart. Letterer: Jared K. Fletcher. Published by Vertigo Books/DC Comics, 2009. Hardcover, $24.99.

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