World Comic Book Review

11th April 2024

The New York Five (revisited) —”Here but a while”

Writer: Brian Wood       

Artist: Ryan Kelly

Vertigo Comics, 2011

REAL LIFE IN BLACK AND WHITE feels dreary when the ink droops down the page, making everything look a little tired, worn, emptied by degrees, so only the stain remains.

This was the feeling in the slice-of-life drama LOCAL (2006), by writer Brian Wood and artist Ryan Kelly, covering twelve cities in twelve issues, starting in my hometown, Portland. Grown weary of hyperactive adventures, I pulled out a nice hardbound version of Local collected by Oni Press, a local company, to reconnect with its jagged brand of intimacy. While there, perhaps because I was alert to the black-and-white format, I found by chance a newer title by the same team in THE NEW YORK FIVE (2011), with a less dreary prospect. Let’s go to New York instead.

Again, the artwork in The New York Five is splendidly detailed and absorbing: beautiful panoramas, street scenes, corners, dimensional interiors, and variously clothed characters. New York City means public life, and public life means fashion. So much of it is dumpy, old and worn, trash on the streets. Yet everywhere looks classier in Ryan Kelly’s stylish shades. The lines are sharp, the feeling lighter, fluffier. Combined with the one, or ones you want to be with, it kind of glows.

Most important in the grain of the drama is the cement, or lack of cement between the characters meeting in the frames. Four college freshman girls room together in a tiny apartment and hang together in pairs and groups, sometimes with a family member or a boyfriend, or a friend who might or might not be a boyfriend, or sometimes a creepo of one sort or another. In some instances, you have to wonder if maybe one of the five is a creepo.

The fifth of the five is a homeless girl, a young woman about the same age, who often hangs on the stoop where the fresh New York City girls pass. They talk. Some of the most interesting conversations pass on the stoop.

What about her? Or her? Barely holding it together. Maybe me, too. Oh, stop the crazy. Deal. Spend time in the library. Go to class. Club a little.

The New York Five is a sequel to The New York Four, when the students arrive and start school. Taken together with Local, the common theme stands out, focusing on the first year of emancipation. Who were you then? someone like this? a little scattered? fumbling relationships? deciding eventually who gets and deserves your attention? making yourself someone who deserves attention?

All these little plots and dilemmas reverberate off one’s own experiences embedded deep in the past and the psyche when the world spun faster. Every little bit comes of age, but none of the stories are long enough to tell if any of the characters make it that far. We swirl in that defining moment when restraints are loosed and the little bird of our selves flutters to find the direction toward freedom.

One perspective on this moment arises on the stoop, when the young woman living outside gives advice to one of the roommates by referring to her own situation, how she got here.

“It wasn’t so much the screwup itself—which was sordid and stupid and very much a teenager thing to do—as how I handled it.”

The pair go upstairs together for a cup of tea.

Left alone on the stoop, gazing up at the brick tenement building on a shadowed street, rising on the page, I pondered how few things actually cause one to be one person or another. How one handles it matters. Thanks author Brian Wood and artist Ryan Kelly for putting those words into someone’s mouth in a place I can pause a while and reflect. I also reflect, as experienced here, how in the frothing world of youth, as you too might recall, handling anything is a joyous perplexity.