The wonderful artwork really solidifies the 4 star rating from me; the plotting is fine, but fairly predictable, in terms of showing the lives of four young ladies experiencing their first year at NYU. In fact, they live as roommates, so their lives intertwine more so than just friends sitting in lecture-hall together for a majority of classes with maybe a coffee now and then, afterwards. No--proximity bonds them, they soon become curious about, and involved in, each others lives, pain, and mistakes.
I say mistakes, because if the story shows one thing accurately, it's that young people going off to uni or college in the prime years of their lives usually can be counted on to screw up big. I actually got frustrated with the star character, Riley, because after her foolish choices, resulting in a betrayal of her older sister--only just back in Riley's life (fallout from a larger family problem never fixed)--plus a few other immature screw-ups (the usual; cutting class, sloth, easily distracted, attraction to jerks, etc.)--Riley seems to blame New York. "This city won't break me.". Riley won't take responsibility...and it looks writer Brian Wood is interested in having Riley successfully shuck blame for her mess of a life on a big bad city, without seeing her own culpability. There's also the fact that Riley's constant companion--sometimes her whole reason for being, it seems--is a smartphone...and I hate those damn things. So about halfway through this graphic novel, which is actually something called 'The New York Four', but also its sequel 'The New York Five' (the second semester), I really felt just a tad soured on a story of four screw-ups who either keep making the same mistakes, or, if they do stop short and hit the reset button, blame the world--well, the city.
But then I thought how natural it was, and how realistic it was, for Riley to have her attitude--even when trying to effect change--that it wasn't totally her fault. I also realized that it wasn't totally her fault; maybe New York wasn't tempting her to make bad choices, but Frank sure was. And maybe she was winning half the battle--sure, she ignores her own foolishness, but at least sees that things must change. And a sequel to that "this city won't break me" inner monologue does come with a sequel, in the sequel: Riley accepts New York City as a wonderful, if flawed and at times overwhelming, place to live the prime of life. So, with New York no longer being pumped as the villain of the piece, and the young ladies growing up a bit, I just took New York as a metaphor for the girls' own inner turmoil or messed-upedness, which later became New York-as-forgiven when in fact the young women have begun to accept themselves and what they are becoming. Blame irrelevant.
I have focused on Riley, at the expense of filling out what happens to Lona, Ren, Merissa...and Olive, the "fifth musketeer". Suffice it to say that there is much-appreciated variety in the ladies' tumultuous lives as fresh-uh-women at university, and of course many differences in their personalities. If four out of the five plotlines at first seem to end with a bit of frustrating unresolvedness--well, they are not really four plotlines that must get wrapped up with a bow, are they?, they are four slices of life, with the young ladies breaking apart and proceeding on to--presumably, in most cases--to another five or more decades of complex existence. Still, the thing ended with me a bit worried about Ren's whole deal. Well, okay.
Lastly, Riley took enough well-deserved guff from everyone for being smartphone-obsessive, and I really would have liked the plot to have shown someone finally grabbing the damn thing and throwing it away--forever, I might wish, with Riley having an epiphany and never holding one of the blighted thing in her hand again. And, in fact, such a scene did take place...except that a dog brought the phone back, and my heart broke as Riley reclaimed. I'll assume smartphone use at least decreased, later, as Riley got older. And my initial fears that somehow writer Brian Wood loved the beastly little devil's tool, and Riley was the cuter for the addiction, were put to rest thanks to the tossing-away/"get-off-that-thing! so rude!" scenes. (Darn dog...couldn't just leave that horrid thing where it was!).
Not a cutting-edge, groundbreaking graphic novel--but a terrific break from superheroes comics, and it's nice to see something not descend to melodrama of slightly absurd, over-the-top plot twists that destroy the realism, the "I can identify with that screw-up" feel. Predictable, familiar mistakes stemming from immaturity and just wanting things to work out while one goes out and has fun--but very involving; the biggest tragedy, which occurs near the end, did bring tears to my eyes, and I wasn't really expecting that.
I'll end by throwing more praise at the art, which I loved. This is one of those graphic novels where Bonus Materials slid in at the end include sketches and layouts buttressed by an artist continuously mentioning how much trouble was had getting things right--with this reader not noticing any sort of "trouble", or any dip in pure beauty and skill, while devouring the thing. Go figure.