Funnybook Babylon

October 24, 2008

Minx Post Mortem: New York Four

Filed under: Blurbs,Reviews — Tags: , , , , , , — Jamaal Thomas @ 3:12 pm

You might be fooled if you come from out of town.
Snoop Dogg

9578_400x600Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly
New York Four
Minx

New Yorkers born in the outer boroughs live in a city unfamiliar to newcomers (in my mind, newcomers are people who’ve lived here for less than thirty years) and most native Manhattanites. To some, it’s a lost dystopia, a place where risk and uncertainty have been replaced by bland commercialism. To others, it’s not a unified city at all, but a loose collection of insular neighborhood tribes. You’ll hear a lot of different visions of New York from natives, but the one you’re least likely to hear from them is the one presented by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly in their contribution to the defunct Minx line, The New York Four.

New York Four has a pretty simple premise: a young woman enters college in the big city, filled with dreams and passion. She’s an introverted romantic who experiences the small joys and pitfalls of young adulthood in New York. She has three friends, all of whom are slightly less defined, and who primarily serve to enhance the reader’s understanding of the main character. As I read this book, I imagined that this would be an ideal pitch for a late ’90s WB dramedy, or a tamer version of Sex and the City. In fact, the entire book seems to be structured in a way that parallels those television shows, complete with curiously superficial sketches that pass for supporting characters, a lack of plot resolution, and the creeping feeling that you’re visiting a heightened, slightly implausible world. In spite of all this, it’s important to remember what made that genre of television (teen dramedies? urban dark comedies aimed at young adults?) so addictive. No matter how formulaic the plot lines got, the protagonist’s compelling qualities helped differentiate these dramas from daytime soap operas. New York Four shares many of these qualities, and is a highly entertaining read, in spite of its generic structure.

Wood is not overly concerned with plot, instead focusing on the growth of the protagonist Riley as she struggles to balance love, school, friendship and family. These are the roots of an interesting tale, but Wood leaves many of these conflicts unresolved in a really dissatisfying way. A subplot centered around Riley’s efforts to convince her overprotective parents to let her move away from home (in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a hop, skip and jump away from NYU) and into an apartment with her friends is only partially developed, skipping directly from crisis to denouement. One of Riley’s friends is semi-stalking her professor, but we never learn why. Riley’s budding quasi-relationship seemed to have been interfering with her education, but instead of showing us how this conflict is resolved, Wood provides some exposition. This pattern repeats itself throughout New York Four, and the neglected subplots start to get kind of annoying. This is magnified by the ‘cute’ “NY 101” captions that describe New York City locations in a pithy, reductive way.

But I can’t deny that Wood does an incredible job at developing Riley’s character, which more than makes up for all of the book’s narrative flaws. Riley is creating her social identity in a complex and contradictory world, and her interactions with her peers (many of whom seem to have settled into a recognizable social identity) are fascinating to view. At the end, you’re left to wonder whether Riley made any progress at all. Is she any less isolated, or is it just that her circumstances have changed? Wood leaves these questions unanswered, which either means that he is embracing the ambiguity of life, or that he is applying a status quo trope that is common to episodic fiction. I think it’s the former, but a more cynical person might argue that New York Four is explicitly designed to persuade the reader to buy New York Four Two (New York Five?).

I’ve gone far too long without discussing the art. I’ve always been a fan of Ryan Kelly’s loose but detailed style. I am far from qualified to seriously assess the quality of his work, but I will say this: Kelly effectively balanced the sheer beauty of each panel with the need to tell the story and convey emotion. I loved his art on Local, but I think the absence of color only highlights his skill. The backgrounds are intricately rendered, and convey the feel of New York with fresh eyes.

newyorkfoursketchbox

After reading New York Four for the first time, I had two responses. My immediate response was to analyze its potential reception by its target audience, which may be the worst way to assess the quality of any cultural artifact, unless you’re a marketer. My secondary response was to delegate it to the growing pile of middlebrow non-superhero comic books that are just ‘okay’. And I kind of forgot about it completely.

As everyone reading the blog is aware, DC recently announced that it was ending the Minx imprint. At the FBB podcast that followed, Chris and Pedro brought a huge pile of Minx books (thanks Strand!) for us to reference as we discussed the implications for the teen book market, etc. As we left, I borrowed some books for the ride home, one of which was New York Four.

I can’t pretend to be a “judge who views impartially all of the aspects of the case submitted to him”, so I will admit the following. I’ve completely forgotten what it is like to feel amazed by New York City, which had a significant impact on my initial reading of New York Four. It’s something that disappears over time, as one gets overwhelmed by responsibility, relationships, and ‘adult fun’. I was reminded of this during lunch with a younger cousin, who recently moved to New York from Arizona to attend college. Her enthusiasm for the city reminded me of the excitement I used to have for the cosmopolitan, unknowable New York. So, when I read New York Four the second time, Wood’s evocation of the New York that exists for newcomers truly resonated with me. For a little while, I saw Riley’s vision of New York.

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