April 12, 2012

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The New York Five

Written by Brian Wood
Illustrated by Ryan Kelly (w. Jim Rugg)
Vertigo

It's semester number two for Riley and her friends Lona, Ren, and Merissa as they try to adjust to life in New York City and a major university.  They've all dealt with problems, but are moving on, slightly older and wiser.  But the thing is, problems don't just go away simply because we'd like them to, and soon these young women find that they can't escape their troubles as easily as they think.  The life lessons aren't over for the stars of this former Minx title, and an additional cast member might just teach them that decisions can have very powerful consequences.  Grow up a bit all over again with the New York Five.

I want to start off by saying that, not unlike their bungling of the Minx line, the people in charge of DC comics still have no idea how to handle a book like this one.  The back cover copy is clearly written for a male audience, emphasizing the sex and danger factor at every opportunity, and whoever came up with the last sentence ("It's part long, heartfelt e-mail to your best friends, part awkward text from last-night's hookup...") should really never write cover copy again.  This is a book that deals realistically with the kinds of things people do when they are out on their own for the first time, and does so in a sensitive, non-sensational way that treats the characters with respect, unlike that jocular, borderline offensive text that will end up leaving the fanboy hoping for lots of the patented "Vertigo boobs" disappointed.

I can't imagine why a female reader would want to pick this up based on the descriptions of the back, but maybe they're used to being misrepresented or were fans of the first book, like me.  Either way, I was really excited to discover that Wood had returned to the characters, which I actually didn't know until I stumbled upon this at the library.  It's a bit strange seeing a book go from Minx to Vertigo, but hey, at least it was published.

So, that long digression taken care of, what did I think of this Eisner-nominated story?  The truth is, I'm actually very conflicted.  On the one hand, it was great seeing the characters again, and the events that happen for each of them make sense, based on what we know of them.  At the same time, the insertion of the fifth character, a homeless girl named Olive, did not work for me at all, especially since by the end she feels more like a prop than a character.  I also felt like this time around, because Wood knows he's not going to get a third shot at these young women, he has to show them riding off into the sunset.  As a result, they grow apart quickly--too quickly, in my opinion--and it feels more like Tales of the New York Four instead of a true sequel.  That left me disappointed, because I felt like after the events of the first semester, I thought they would spend more time together.  Here, after an opening scene that places them together, the quartet end up staying distant from each other, with that fact actually becoming a major plot point.  The problem, for me at least, is that it means the impact of their eventual, inevitable separation is lessened, because it's not like they were shown as being close friends anymore, anyway.

Looking at the above paragraph carefully, I guess my problems with this story stem mostly from it not being the story I expected.  That's probably true and it's unfair of me to want Wood to write the story I wanted instead of the one he fest was best for his own creations.  Taking my own feelings on the path of the narrative out of the equation, Wood's ability to write characters who feel like people we know is amazing.  All of the people in this book, save Olive-the-reminder-of-privilege, act and talk as though you could meet them on the street tomorrow.  I went to college with people like these, and I'm sure you did, too.  In this way, Wood's writing reminds me quite a bit of Ai Yazawa's Nana, whose cast is of a similar age to New York Four/Five and even shares the link of music and bands.

In terms of the story itself, Wood breaks things down so that we see each young woman struggling with her place in life.  Riley, the focal character once again, thinks she has her life in order, but is trapped right back into the same problems that plagued her in the first book.  Her struggle to break free from the influence of the dastardly Frank, who's using both her and her sister Angie, is the spine around which this story revolves. Her hurt and confusion are real, and the moments with Frank are both heartbreaking and impactful.

While Riley tries to sort out her life, Merissa's is slowly falling apart.  In the weakest plot point in the book, she returns home to deal with family issues, which, while probably the most realistic thing that could happen, isn't really supported by what we see because her page time is limited.  I would have liked to see more to better establish why she'd give up New York for a troubled home life.  Ren, too, has little to do here, but what we see cements her problems.  Ren gets involved with an older man, and the usual consequences result.  Her question--when is it time to grow up?--is like a knife to the chest for anyone who never quite sees the need to fully "mature."  Unlike the others, Ren feels like she's the most trapped, and I left this book wondering just what will happen to her, now that she has entanglements that aren't so easily ended.

Aside from Riley, Lona's struggles take up the largest part of the book.  Those who read the first book know that Lona always had it easy, and when she hits a snag in her perfect academic record, she doesn't take it well.  By this point, Lona has gone off the deep end, trying desperately to find a flaw in a teacher who she regards as inferior to her.  As she gets crazier and crazier, it's obvious that Lona's feelings and actions are going to land her in prison, and here's where I have a problem:  None of the other girls try to stop her.  I get that they are wrapped up in their own lives, but I feel like this could have been the string that tied the teens together.  Instead, Wood opts to go outside the group for a fresh perspective, one that might just save Lona before it's too late.  The whole thing feels just a bit too Deus ex Machina for me, but I guess Wood didn't want to have every one of his character's lives take a bad turn by the end.

Speaking of bad turns, I can't leave this review without talking about the use of Olive, a homeless girl who hangs out near where the other girls live.  She is considered part of the Five, and even gets some backstory. However, her main purpose is to show how relatively lucky the other girls have it--they have families, a roof over their head, and ultimately, their lives.  Olive's story is there to lend perspective, but by the end, she's used as a way to bring the rest of the cast to a full stop, and I didn't like that.  Creating a character just so you don't have to seriously hurt your main cast really lessens the drama of a narrative for me, and I feel like that's what happened with Olive.  There is some meaning in the story of Olive, but I felt like her insertion didn't make her a part of the cast.  Like the other young women, the narrative creates too much separation to do that.

Ryan Kelly's art is just as good here, if not better, than in the first book.  He really sets the book firmly in New York, with backgrounds and interiors that are incredibly detailed and make the city itself a character, as the girls weave their way in and around New York.  (Wood also provides narrative intrusions about the locations, to further place the reader in case they don't understand the importance of a certain train or locale.)  His young women all look varied, in body shape, dress, and mannerisms.  You can tell a lot about how Riley, Ren, and the rest are feeling, just by looking at how Kelly has posed them or placed an expression on their face.  He's perfect for a book like this, and his art style is a big reason why I liked both books.

Sequels are often hard to pull off, and I think this one suffers a bit by having to follow up a strong earlier story and the knowledge that it needed to end here, just as these young women are truly growing up.  Despite these problems, however, New York Five is a strong book featuring women who act like women, not fantasized toys.  This is the type of book that could draw more female readers into comics, especially younger ones.  It's a bridge between the shojo that young women read in large numbers and the type of Western comic you can find if you look hard enough.  I wish there were more, but I will take what I can get, and you should, too.