Saturday, November 17, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #321: The New York Four by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly

Hey, remember Minx? (Don't worry, a lot of people don't.)

DC Comics launched that imprint in 2007 to great fanfare, with a raft of interesting creators (many from outside the comic-shop) world and a focus on fiction for teen girls that was unusual for comics of the modern era. It flopped in barely a year, though: that's why you might not remember it.

Other companies, before and since, have published plenty of very successful books for this audience -- I need only mention the name Raina Telgemeier. But DC didn't manage to do it: maybe because they were too locked into their usual distribution channels, maybe because "DC Comics" turned off those girls, maybe because the stars just weren't right. But it did flop.

I've covered most of the Minx books randomly here -- Re-Gifters and ClubbingThe Plain Janes and Good as Lily, Janes sequel Janes in Love, Kimmie66, Water Baby, Confessions of a Blabbermouth, and Emiko Superstar in a quick way during my Eisner-judging frenzy. But one of the Minx books I didn't manage to read at the time was The New York Four, a graphic novel about four young women, all first-year students at New York University, by writer Brian Wood and artist Ryan Kelly.

But somehow, without realizing the connection, I had a publicity copy (in electronic form) of the Dark Horse book The New York Four, from 2014, which also included the aborted sequel The New York Five, which was done for Minx but never published by them. (And I mean literally not realizing; I figured it out while starting to type this.)

But now I've knocked off one more Minx: I think the only ones I haven't seen now are Burnout and Token.

The New York Four (the original graphic novel) was also, in a way, a follow-up to Local, a Brian Wood/Ryan Kelly comic about an aimless young woman from a year or so before. But this one is more obviously made for the teen set: every one of these four women has A Problem, presumably one that some segment of the target audience would relate to. (I don't think it was that mercenary, but we do have The Catfished Girl, and The Stalker, and The Sugar-Daddy Chaser, and The Outer-Borough Slut, if you want to be reductive.) The first story focuses almost exclusively on The Catfished Girl, Riley, who is also said to be a bookworm (we don't see this) from a demanding family whose older sister ran away for mysterious reasons seven years before. The other three are supporting characters in the Riley story in Four, though the slightly shorter Five is more balanced. A different structure, one that let each woman have an independent story that the others supported, might have been better, but even this structure didn't make it out into public unscathed, so I'm not really complaining.

The characterization is thoughtful but tends to be one-note -- each of the Four is mostly her issue, which is underlined by one of the organizing principles of both Four and Five: they're all taking part in an unlikely get-college-kids-to-take-high-school-exams-regularly program, which is also inexplicably well-paid, and they have to meet regularly with a psychiatrist as part of this program. It's entirely possible that Wood is basing this fictional program on something similar or identical in the real world, but it seemed incredibly bizarre and unlikely to me, a convoluted way to get his characters into reality-TV style "tell your story into the camera" moments.

Kelly's art is lush and detailed, with all of the people distinctive and real. He gives this book a lot of depth, down to body language -- look at main character Riley on the cover! can't you tell a lot about her just from that? -- and facial expressions.

But it feels like there's just too much here, and Wood ends up giving short shrift to the fact that these women are in college -- we barely see them in class, and they don't interact with other students at all. I suspect that he had a novel's worth of ideas for a novella-length story. And I can't help but compare it to the John Allison-written Giant Days, which started slightly later and was in pamphlet-format comics originally, which let it give each of its (only three) young women the spotlight in turn.

There's a lot of good in The New York Four, and it could have been better if it and Minx had been a success: I expect Wood and Kelly would have done further stories, and maybe even followed these women all the way to graduation. Oh, well. Failure is the way of the world...and that's a lesson you can also get by reading The New York Four.

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