It’s no secret that DC’s Minx line was created to reach the female comic book market. All those girls reading Manga on the floor of Barnes and Noble haven’t been flocking into the comic shops, and the newest mega-event crossover probably won’t lure them in. So Minx is an attempt to produce bookshelf-worthy black and white books at a ten-dollar price point — books that would fit on the shelf next to Manga, even if the content is quite different. Although these books may be Manga-inspired, they are in the tradition of American comics and occupy a nebulous space between the alternative and the mainstream. That’s a good thing, by the way — we need more comics in that space, and since I have a daughter myself, I know how difficult it can be to find good comics for girls. I know how difficult it can be to find good comics, period.
And Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly’s “The New York Four” is definitely a good comic. I’ve read a few of the other Minx books, and this is the best one I’ve read, by far. The others were good, but felt a bit underdeveloped. “The New York Four” doesn’t fall into this trap because it keeps the plot relatively simple and works on establishing depth of character, particularly Riley, the sheltered and text-happy protagonist. Wood and Kelly also do a wonderful job creating a sense of place. This is the “NEW YORK Four,” and New York is essential to this story. Wood’s captions even provide nuggets of advice about city locales — making this more than just a story about New York, and turning it into a type of cool guidebook. That kind of stuff helps to establish the characters in their urban space, and I can also imagine it helping a young reader find the city less intimidating the next time they visit. It makes New York seem like an accessible place, if you have someone like Brian Wood around to tell you what to check out.
In “The New York Four,” Riley Wilder begins her first year at NYU, and even though she’s lived in New York her whole life, she doesn’t really know Manhattan. Her parents have kept her on a short leash, largely because of what happened to her older sister, Angie. The Angie situation looms over the entire story, and even after Riley reconnects with her long-lost sister, and becomes an increasingly important part of her life, we still don’t find out what happened to cause the rift in the family. When we do find out, it’s not the kind of horrible thing we might expect, but it’s the type of thing that might cause her parents — those particular, smothering parents — to act the way they did. This book is grounded in an emotional realism that works to the benefit of the story. The “little” things in life — getting a text message from a stranger, making friends at college, reuniting with a sibling — make up “The New York Four,” but those little things feel like life or death situations when they’re happening to you. And Wood and Kelly make you feel like these things matter — like these things are the anxiety-inducing, thrilling, terrifying moments that they actually are.
The most impressive aspect of this book is how accurately Wood captures youth culture. His portrait of an eighteen-year-old girl isn’t the least bit condescending or out-of-touch. It’s not Bob Haney, circa 1968, trying to sound like a “swinging teen.” It’s a writer sensitive to the eternal fears of any burgeoning adult but also someone who has been paying attention to how teenagers interact. When Riley obsesses over her text messages at the expense of her face-to-face friendships, we get a sense of what it means to live in that kind of social world today. As someone who works with adolescents in my day job, I know that Wood has captured the energy, the coolness, the uncertainty, and the reality as well as anyone telling stories today.
I haven’t described much about Ryan Kelly’s art, but his Paul Pope/Becky Cloonan style fits Wood’s script perfectly, and the way he visually differentiates between four young women of a similar age allows Wood’s story to work. Kelly gives each character a physical presence as defined as his New York landmarks. This book looks great.
This book isn’t really targeted at someone like me, and I suspect that it’s not targeted at the average CBR reader, either. But I liked it a lot, and if you’re interested in vivid characters, emotional struggles, and stylish artwork, then I think you’ll like “The New York Four” as well.