Review: The New York Four And The New York Five by Brian Wood
by Jon Barrios on May 29, 2011

Writer: Brian Wood

Artist: Ryan Kelly

Inker: Jim Rugg (NY5 #4)

I have to say I really enjoyed looking through this comic. I love the artistic honesty, the development the artist goes through throughout the book, and the monotone color that all (for the most part) successfully keeps the story going and the reader engaged. I’m going to highlight the four main points within the book that I really enjoyed while trying to illustrate where the differences and breaks happen that I think are worth pointing out, but not necessarily all deal breakers.

Covers

First off, the covers (aside from the first cover above) are really great and work to communicate the grittiness of the story within and the sense of individuality and friendship using a hip sense of color, edgy lines, and brushed shadows–much of which can be found in the artwork throughout the book.

 

Overall

1) The Expression: I think one of the first things that hit me besides the landscape was the amount of time put into the clothing, hair, and facial expressions. It’s funny, I’ve lived here in New York since undergrad so I have a feel for the various nuances and stereotypes associated with fashion, gait, hair, technology, and locations and seeing those depicted in a comic book with such honesty and flow is a really successful way of connecting with readers. Not that this book couldn’t connect with non-New Yorkers, it’s whole premise is the undergrad lifestyle where a group of friends are searching for who they are, redefining relationships past and present.

The individualism is obvious from the outset with regards to fashion and hair, that in-and-of itself (of course along with composition and representation) gives you a clear read on their attitudes not only in each frame but throughout all their interactions. This is probably one of the main ways of creating reader connection without having to go the extra mile. At times some of the faces can get a little cartoon-like with the big eyes and pouty lips, but it’s passable.

Throughout the most of NY4 and NY5 there is this sense of motion and urgency and you feel it without referencing the motion lines or trying to pick out the obvious scenes. I assume this may have been intentional or perhaps the artists style, or both, but it adds that urgency that most high school-to-college teens feel during this period of transition. It’s treated like a  foreshadowing device, though I might have to sit on this idea and return to it later.

Otherwise, I feel like this style of representation is ubiquitous throughout undergraduate illustration because it is the sort of default mode of representing people simply with clear lines, generic forms, and sort of brushed shadow work whether it be the faces, situations, or expressions. Also the inclusion of the pointillism is a little overbearing at times but as the book progresses you begin to see a change in the treatment of materials and depictions that gives rise to the artist’s own style.

 

2) The Urban Fabric: I feel like it isn’t too often when you come across a book that invests as much time and effort into the backgrounds that their characters inhabit as this one, but then this is New York City and there is a lot going on. Kelly really shows an adept skill and interest in New York’s urban fabric leaving little to interpretation as to how dense the surroundings and living situations are, how visually busy it can be when telling a story, and how to pick-and-choose what gets rendered in detail and what gets left behind so the characters don’t get lost. I’m not saying that in NY4 this is always successful but as that book concludes and NY5 begins it’s been worked through and solved. It’s almost the one consistent thread throughout the two books; in NY4 it leaks out selectively onto the characters and people and it’s what may have caused the progression towards the final look in NY5.

3) The Grey Scale: Combining the landscape and the expressions, an already difficult task at hand, the fact that this book is in black-and-white is amazing. It proves you don’t need color to create the sensation of depth and space and Kelly has a good handle on this in most of NY4 that gets even better towards the end and into NY5. It takes lots of practice and skill to represent space in one tone that would otherwise be colorful while successfully rendering perspective, depth, lighting, and motion without muddying up every frame. In NY4 there are moments of success and failure encapsulating the struggle between all of these varying factors leading to a cramped sensation (and some muddying) that is better handled and more of what I think Kelly is after in NY5: crisp line work, more nuanced grey scale, less pointillism, and a better balance of all the factors listed so far that leads out of a kind of Teenagers from Mars (by Rob G and Rick Spears) representation and into a better definition of his own style that works with the context, story, and detail of being in New York as a college student.

4) The Cultural: I guess this section could be combined with the first point, but I really think pulling out the obsessive cellular phone use in this book is pretty important, concisely defines the somewhat disconnected world we live in, and how annoying it is when people constantly use their cellular phones all the time. I cannot tell you how many times I have sat through conversations and/or dinners with people who live by their phones and how rude it can be. I understand that our society is now being redefined by technology, interconnectivity, and globalization but if your life is so busy in that world to ignore those around you, go lead that life. Aside from this slightly bitter rant, another obvious call out in this book is the use of location, emotion, and other graphic tags that give the therapy sessions and general daily noises their just prominence in daily life. I think everyone knows that in cities the level of street noise can go anywhere from birds chirping to deafening when you go from one area to another. But it’s really fun seeing the locations I’ve gone to or passed by being represented to a broader audience, though this could create a clichéd subculture amongst the upcoming college students in the near future (ha!). The therapy sessions are the next point as a new cultural norm, though I think it’s a little suspect that they all see the same therapist, and the last point being the experiential quality of living in the city is successfully depicted in every page of both books: you get the feeling of the neighborhoods, the quirky characters, the suspicious relationships, the hidden secrets, the trendy spots, the various fashions, the stereotypical representations of youth in their many forms; expressions, mannerisms, and gaits, and the various ways that people deal with their issues.

 

And then in NY5, instantly by comparison you get the sense that the problems present in NY4 have been worked through and refined in NY5, cleaned up and polished and looking lovely. I sometimes feel there is a Chris Bachalo via Generation X appeal when I get to NY5, with few if at all any moments where cartoonish representation occurs and you really get to see the artist comfortable with every aspect of the book. Throughout, Kelly knows how to compose and engaging page, leaving spaces void and cluttering them up when necessary. I’m not sure what happened in NY4 that caused a kind of visual confusion between the line work and the inking, but it get ironed out later and possibly due to the inclusion of Jim Rugg (though for the last two books it seemed to be on it’s way without him).

 



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