Keeara Ofren reviews graphic novel ‘New York Four’ by Bryan Wood and Ryan Kelly
New York City, once dubbed as the ‘belly of the beast’ is home to many a story of cynicism, grit and forging your own path, New York Four is one such novel, but like the heroes of the belly, you can either fail or fly. And I believe that though ambitious, New York Four falls flat of its goals to launch representation in the graphic novel platform.
New York Four follows four classmates who become flatmates over the course of their first year at New York University. Telling the story of the Four is the shy Riley hoping to become more independent from her overbearing parents and learn the truth about her estranged older sister. Riley is welcomed into the group of the grades-focussed former private school Lona, the naïve and edgy Ren from the West Coast and the histrionic Merissa from a working-class family. Acting as role of the Greek Chorus, the 3rd person observer and outsider with a heart of gold is Olive, a homeless girl who is a regular on the street the Four live in.
My scepticism of the novel was initially eroded with the stunning art style that’s definitely evocative of a fast paced city life. The strength of New York Four is in the visual style, setting and look. It’s detailed and filled with moments like coffee meetups, tense conversations over dumplings, the subway rush—very film like and unapologetically busy, capturing the feeling of being in the city as a young woman trying to make their way. Every character has a different style, body and look than merely being clones of the same magazine or anime prototype. There’s even commentary and factoids as an internal voice but as a cute way to break the fourth wall, evoking the feeling of a journal or when you pretend you’re narrating the story of your life or a sad person in a music video. The emotional quality of the art style makes this novel stand out.
But what the art style has, the rest of the novel greatly lacks. Cracks in the frosting reveal a bland filling. The seemingly breakthrough and rich quality of New York Four’s storytelling is betrayed by the first crack, the anachronisms. New York Four is set on the early 2010s. Ah, the New Tens, a time of a new hope, Obama as president, EDM dominating the charts, a new time where women rocked the entertainment scene. It was also a time with new conversations in the post-racial lie of America, the power and danger of social media, the Occupy movement, the recession, awareness of mental illnesses and a growing wave of feminism on the rise. This is a time ripe for the picking for a background force that really informs the characters. And yet characters are illustrated with…brick phones? What kind of period piece is this with no reference to any external event or pop culture? It’s like the women are just floating in some city vacuum. I may be nitpicky, but to quote the guy on the Ab Circle Pro infomercials…but wait…there’s more…
For a novel in the coming of age genre, let alone focussing on young women, it’s surprising that there’s no witty dialogue or rich conversation. There’s no indications of the hallmarks of being a woman in the big city. No talk on reality of the waxing and waning of relationships, friendships, no talk on safety, sexism, politics or how your learning at university impacts you. The Sex And The City/Girls/Friends framework isn’t enough to save the novel, in fact, it only scrapes past at a Bechdel test, as in, conversations and things that happen to characters are all about men. This leaves one dimensional and shallow development of characters dependent on external events, even for the most introspective characters. As such, the twists and turns of New York Four are akin to cheap telenovela shocks that don’t do so much for a well-rounded story.
Moreso, the characters seem to fall into a caricature. It’s frustrating when characters aren’t given the chance to develop when they have a range of traits that they can adapt as they face their numerous difficulties. Merissa and Lona are the women of colour in the New York Four, Merissa is Latina whereas Lona is implied to be Asian. As their arcs progress, they seem to become a racial stereotype of sorts, Merissa acts on emotion and has a hedonistic attitude towards life whereas Lona is serious, meek, academically focussed. This seems a lazy and rushed way to characterise and co-opts a woman’s voice into a hasty and hardly progressive story as it makes out to be. Women of colour and women of the world regardless of ethnicity won’t identify with a character based on stereotype, but rather shared experiences and meaningful, witty moments in media.
Following the wave of highly stylised action comics, New York Four seeks the same grip but has faltered on some key areas of consistency and originality. If I didn’t scare you off, it’s still worth a look for the storytelling through the art to see the belly of the beast in action.