The New York Five #1 (DC/Vertigo)

Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly revive their tale of four teens struggling to survive freshman year at NYU.

32 pgs., B&W; $2.99
(W: Brian Wood; A: Ryan Kelly)
As a New Yorker in exile, the first thing that attracted me to The New York Five was its setting: not just New York but hipster, downtown Manhattan. I’m a little old to be having the kind of adventures experienced by the four college freshmen (NYU, of course) who are the central characters of this comic, but I’m intimately familiar with the milieu in which the story takes place. Ryan Kelly’s art captures the spirit of contemporary Manhattan beautifully, from the rooftop water towers and brownstone walk-ups to the crowded streets and surprisingly spacious public spaces where much of life is lived. There’s nothing like living in close quarters (a 9X13 room in an SRO in my case, a 2-bedroom apartment occupied by 4 young women in the case of this comic) to give you an incentive to get out and do stuff. His opening splash page alone is almost enough to make me cry, although a reality check in the form of a quick glimpse at Manhattan real estate prices quickly reminds me why I moved to St. Louis in the first place.
The main characters in The New York Five carry over from The New York Four, also by Wood and Kelly, which was published under the now-defunct Minx imprint of DC Comics. The purpose of Minx was to reach the female comics market, a concept which I applaud in theory although I do have to wonder about the execution. Why start by naming the imprint after a derogatory term for a female and why not find some female writers and artists to produce the comics? We’ll never know and it’s all water under the bridge now, anyway: The New York Five is being published as a four-issue miniseries by DC Comics’ Vertigo line with the first issue hitting the stores on January 26, 2011.
While I love the art and also love the idea of a comic centered around young women at a formative period in their lives, the characters of The New York Five feel like they were designed by the kind of consultants who figure out what young people think is cool and then find a way to market it to them. The four central characters are Lona Lo, a fashionista from Vancouver; Merissa Vasquez, a Latina from Sunnyside, Queens, with years of bridge-and-tunnel crowd experience behind her already; Ren Saverin, a Bay Area skateboarder with faux-dreads; and Riley Wilder, a shy girl from Park Slope, Brooklyn whose parents did their best to shield her from variety of experience offered by city life. The first issue is mainly concerned with introducing the characters and setting up conflicts: Riley wants to regain contact with her older sister Angie, a bassist in a rock band, but one obstacle is that she and Angie both have feelings for the same guy; Lona has become obsessed with one of her professors and has let her grades slip; Merissa has a brother with (apparently) psychological problems; Ren has a well-honed talent for falling for the wrong guy.
Maybe I’m being too hard on the engineered aspects of The New York Five since 1) I’m quite a few years past the target market (teenagers/early 20s), 2) it’s a commercial venture, duh, and 3) the series is modeled in part on the conventions of shoujo manga in hopes of attracting the hordes of American girls who voraciously consume that variety of comic. So of course all the characters are babes of very specific types (might draw some male eyeballs as well), have lives that anyone with a grain of sense would envy (the annual cost of attending NYU is similar to the median household income in the U.S. and none of these girls seem to sweat it too much) and are overwhelmingly focused on their personal lives (they’re teenagers!). Sometimes it feels like one of those old 1950s romance comics than modern shoujo, except of course that these young ladies are not attending college primarily to get their MRS degree. An odd plot device is that they have jobs which require them to undergo weekly recorded therapy sessions (maybe that was explained better in The New York Four). However much this setup strains credibility, it does provide Wood and Kelly with essentially unlimited opportunity to have the characters reflect on their lives and dig into their hopes and fears.
I was surprised to learn that Ryan Kelly is not from New York but Minnesota and that he created his backgrounds working from photo references. Whatever works, and his approach certainly does, with the use of many large frames highlighting this aspect of the comic. He also does a great job differentiating among the characters and captures the feel of youth culture among a certain class of kids. Although all the characters are Western, as is the setting, there are a lot of manga elements in the art, from little pop-up boxes to fill us in on details about the characters to a large number of aspect-to-aspect transitions (showing us the different aspects of the same scene, like a series of snapshots, a style pioneered by Osamu Tezuka).
So you can see I have mixed feelings about this comic, although I’m definitely going to keep reading it (and I’m thinking about framing that splash page—seriously!). I’m looking forward to seeing some reviews from people closer in age to the target market, and particularly from young women, to see if they share my feeling that the female characters seem like they were written from the outside, representing a male view of women. And before you start throwing rocks at me, I don’t mean that men can’t write perceptively about women, just that I’m not sure Brian Wood did so successfully in this comic. Let the debates begin!
You can read an interview with Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly here and see a preview of some of the art here | Sarah Boslaugh

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