April 21, 2010

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The New York Four

Written by Brian Wood
Illustrated by Ryan Kelly
Minx

Riley is a very good student who lives with overprotective parents and deals with life via her cell phone. She's a freshman at NYU, and soon learns that not only does New York open opportunities for her, it also gives her access to an estranged sister.

Hesitantly, Riley tries to make friends and get out there, but she's still tied to the electronic communications that make her feel safe. As she tries to get her own place and her own life, one internet friend may change everything--but not necessarily for the better.

Can Riley learn to interact with the real world? The answer inside this book might surprise you.

This is another of the Minx titles, and I'll just briefly mention here that this was a good idea that wasn't executed correctly. Once again, we have two male creators, and while that's not bad in and of itself, I can't help but wonder why DC did not get more female creators to work on their Minx titles. I just can't get a feel for what they were trying to do.

In the case of New York Four, it seems like they were looking to out-relationship Oni Press. This book would have a happy home at the independent publisher, being about a young woman who struggles in her personal life and ends up doing things that are nearly disastrous. Riley is very similar to any number of protagonists who are trying to make the transition from teenager to young adult, and the mistakes and hesitations in her story as written here by Wood should ring familiar for anyone who reads a lot of these types of plots.

What makes this book so incredibly puzzling to me is that it's not appropriate for a teenager at all in my opinion, no matter how good the story is. My understanding is that was the Minx target demographic, but the book clearly shows underage drinking and to a certain degree glorifies running away from home. Riley's sister, who rebelled from parents who are definitely overprotective, seems to be doing fine in her new life. Merissa, one of Riley's friends, is shown using her sexual attractiveness to get what she wants, with no repercussions.

As an adult reader, I can see these things and make judgments on them, having a wealth of experience watching others struggle as a result of poor life choices. At 15? Not so much. I would have been rather upset if I were a parent getting this for my just entering high school daughter. (It's also a good time to remind any parent they should be pre-reading what their child is reading.)

At the same time, New York Four is not hard core enough for Vertigo, the only other place DC might have opted to use such a story. No one dies, no one has magical things happening to them, and there's no sexual situations beyond kissing. It's just a solid story about growing up, and I don't think that's what a typical Vertigo reader is looking for from Vertigo.

Because of this, New York Four is a book out of place. It's not good for a young woman to read, without a lot of discussion before and after, so it's wrong for Minx (as I understand the imprint). That's a shame, because I really liked the story itself.

I grew up in a rural area with few friends I could see regularly. I soon turned to the internet for help, and it made my life bearable, especially when I struggled in college to make friends. I can completely understand Riley's desire to hide behind her phone. I also know how dangerous this can be to a person's ability to relate to others. I think Wood nails how this affects Riley. Her lack of knowledge of personal interaction leads her down some bad paths, and probably ruins at least one of the relationships she does manage in New York.

I also liked the dynamic of the strained family situation. Riley's parents and her sister seem to fight by proxy for control of Riley's life as an adult, pushing her in different directions. Wood also does a nice job of developing the friends as unique personalities that seem to be friends despite acting completely different from one another. They also all seem to have their own issues, but inside only one graphic novel, there's no time to explore their problems further than a few hinting pages here and there.

Re-reading this for the review, I'm pretty sure Wood intended the series to go further. I don't know if maybe this was a failed pitch that DC picked up for Minx (that would explain why it's out of place) or if Wood envisioned it as an ongoing set of books, but there are all sorts of little things that aren't resolved by the end. It's the major drawback to the book, actually. The patient interviews, the unfinished nature of Riley's relationship to her sister, her friends, and a persistent suitor are just a few of the things left hanging. It's hard to believe that a writer of Wood's quality would leave so many things out there if the plan wasn't to complete them at a later date.

Ryan Kelly's art here reminded me a lot of Paul Pope. Everything has a gritty feel to it, and yet the characters themselves are smooth as silk. His faces are expressive and look the way that real people do, as opposed to something from a drawing manual. Kelly's tone matches up with Wood's script perfectly and make the book work a lot better than it might have otherwise.

The New York Four seems hampered by its publisher and the vague way in which things are resolved or left unfinished. It's not teen appropriate without guidance, but is not marketed with books of a similar nature. However, if you like relationship comics or Brian Wood's other works, this is definitely worth checking out. I just wish the creators would have been able to finish what they started here.