I’m a simple man; if I get a gay manga review opportunity, I’m likely to take it. Add in my specific affinity for gay period pieces set in NYC and I was definitely going to read Marimo Ragawa’s New York, New York. Twenty-five years after its original publication the series has now made its English debut, so let’s dive in.
What’s it about?
Courtesy of Yen Press, here’s a plot synopsis for Vol. 1:
Police officer Kain Walker has gone to great lengths to prevent his coworkers, family, and friends from finding out he’s gay. But when Kain meets Mel Fredericks, he realizes at once that his whole world is about to change. For the first time, Kain wants more than a one-night stand, but a relationship carries risks, discovery not least among them. Battling with others’ expectations and biases—and his own—Kain struggles to balance his desire for secrecy with his feelings for Mel at a time when being out could cost him dearly…Set in New York in the 1990s, this heartbreaking love story makes its English debut in a beautiful, oversized omnibus edition.
Flawed characters and an uneven start
As the manga opens we are introduced to the heavily closeted Kain and the facts of his life: he seeks out gay sex but not love, has a doting mother he doesn’t allow in emotionally, and develops relationships at work that are friendly but superficial. Mel, meanwhile, is more outwardly delicate and works as a waiter. A chance meeting leads to an ongoing relationship as, through a mix of physical attraction and shared troubles, they find themselves repeatedly drawn back to one another.
The pair’s relationship is far from healthy, largely due to Kain’s behavior. Tensions build between the love the pair profess for one another and the pressures put on Kain by homophobia at work, with family, and in general society. Ragawa depicts an abundance of scenes in which he is extremely unlikable, but I don’t mention that as a con to the series. These moments play an important role in establishing who he is as a character, and development requires a base to grow from. There’s also a strong sense of how these characters interact with and are shaped by the setting and social circles in which they live, which only grows in importance as the story progresses.
With that said, while these opening chapters do a lot of work in building a strong foundation, they’re not always the most polished and enjoyable in their own right. Ragawa’s artistic fundamentals are there, but there isn’t enough unique flair, grounding in setting, or texture to push the art beyond just being serviceable. On the plus side there are a few exceptions (a panel of the couple pressed face-to-face surrounded by images of the city skyline and sunflowers being chief among them), and there’s a good amount of nuance and variety to the characters’ facial expressions.
More problematic are the choices made with regards to what to skip over. Mel and Kain’s first several meetings receive little in the way of actual page-time, shortened by cutaways and leaving the narration to inform the reader of how well their relationship is developing. It makes sense that they grow close quickly; these are two gay men searching for validation in a world built to give them anything but. With that said, just a little more depiction of their early relationship would go a long way.
These early chapters also contain far more romantic suspense elements than the book’s latter half, and it’s not to the manga’s benefit. Perhaps if the intense events were more strongly followed up on they would be more enjoyable, but as is they don’t actually contribute much in the way of character development that other aspects of the narrative don’t already. Currently they’re abrupt breaks from the series’ more successful aspects.
Hitting a stride with the expanded cast
This volume’s latter two thirds make for a much more enjoyable read than its first, largely because of the strength of the supporting characters. As Mel and Kain’s relationship develops more figures from their pasts appear and provide new information and context the protagonists wouldn’t unveil voluntarily.
Nowhere is this more evident than Kain and Mel’s visit to Kain’s parents’ house. Each possible pair of characters out of the four is allowed page-time to develop their own unique relationship. George and Ada aren’t simply a generic narrative unit as the parents but are distinct characters in their own right, and they each have very different ways of interacting with the younger couple. While Ada’s revulsion at homosexuality propels much of the drama and conflict, the most intriguing scene is of George’s endeavor to get to know Mel better over a chess game.
Other figures from Kain’s past also have a lot to contribute. Family friend Shirley offers an affecting story of an ostracized gay man from her past that adds more context to the social climate these characters grew up in. Kain’s childhood friend Davis, meanwhile, is crucial to very well-written coming out scenes that highlight the difficulties Kain continues to encounter as he tries to change for the better. Kain’s co-worker Gersh, meanwhile, is at the center of a plot line involving AIDS that features some of the best character writing in the whole volume.
Kain is at the center of the narrative and most of the tertiary characters get introduced via their connections him. Mel, meanwhile, is comparatively more of an object. He’s allowed a few brief scenes in the spotlight, but by and large he’s seen through Kain’s limited scope: a lovable but tragic figure who seldom speaks for himself. While what development he does receive is well-written, on the whole he’s a much flatter character than Kain thus far.
New York, New York Vol. 1 is uneven and unpolished, but its strengths more than make up for its weaknesses. Kain and Mel read very believably as two gay men dealing with the difficulties inherent to life in their physical and temporal context, and the strong supporting cast elevate the series considerably. While the art isn’t outstanding it does a good job selling the series’ emotional and thematic core, and the overall read is a satisfying one that builds excitement for volume two.
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