Writing young characters must be a difficult thing to pull off. Take the world of television for example. Pretty much any series based around the lives of teenagers feature actors in their thirties, are written by men in their fifties, and are aimed almost exclusively at pre-teen children. Worst of all, they always feel so out of touch and lack any kind of relevancy aside from misplaced references to outdated music that its characters wouldn’t listen to in their worst nightmares. As for characters in their twenties, or more? They may as well not even exist.
Even with what would appear to be an embittered and cynical perspective, I glanced over the synopsis for Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly’s The New York Five with nothing but hope that somebody could pull this off properly. The cover looked cool enough, the characters too, looked cool enough, and thankfully it fulfilled my wishes at every page turn, and stands as one of the best comics I’ve read all year.
Following on from 2008‘s New York Four, the story follows the lives of four college students heading in to their second semester at NYU, taking part in a video-therapy project and enjoying every second of their new lives as they settle in to their first apartment in one of the coolest areas of New York City. Of course, nothing stays perfect for long, and the group soon start to realise that life can throw some unexpected obstacles in the way of the even the most ideal situations.
It’s hard to articulate just how vibrant and real the book feels. Wood and Kelly create a mesmerising and consuming vision of New York that features a wealth of real life locations and landmarks. Side notes are littered throughout describing each hangout with deep personal affection from the writer, and while a touch clichéd, it remains truthful for anyone who has lived in or even visited the area. It’s a hard place to get out of your system, and Wood makes sure that the characters know and feel it at every step, just like the reader. It lives and breathes, and changes everybody.
In terms of art, Kelly’s black and white pages are gorgeously rendered, with a sense of vitality and expression that is rarely seen. Characters show pitch perfect reactions, and emote with subtlety. Special praise must be given for the visual aspects of the character design - the girls look beautiful, but aren't grotesque fantasy dolls. I particularly appreciated the attention to detail in the outfit designs, each one a perfect example of real world looks and styles, without becoming self-conscious or trying too hard. They feel effortlessly cool, which is really the only kind.
It’s all very low key, but tightly constructed within its own small boundaries. Personal truths and identities become more important than epic overarching plots, and it makes for a fast paced and intriguing read from start to finish. Despite being a direct follow-up, The New York Five needs no prior introduction with its cast thanks to a succinct recap page and its strength of commitment to telling a well paced and balanced story with an ensemble of identifiable characters.
While “slice-of-life” storytelling can often become a recipe for a downbeat and soullessly dreary experience, The New York Five manages to remain engaging despite the realistic nature of each of the girl’s individual problems. While they vary in scale, each characters issues are played out in a moving and realistic way, and it’s hard not to root for them even when their moves may not be the smartest. It’s refreshing to see a group of young women written so well, and so believably. Of course, it's easy for us as adults to look at the book and suggest certain characters “Just get over it”, but its family issues and boy trouble plot points are written with such a deft touch, that it's impossible to resist.
If only the rest of the entertainment world could do young adult fiction as perfectly as this.
The New York Five is available now from Titan Books