Two Graphic Novels About Coming of Age in New York City

EMPIRE STATE by Jason Shiga

DRINKING AT THE MOVIES by Julia Wertz

“EMPIRE STATE,” by Jason Shiga, and “DRINKING AT THE MOVIES,” by Julia Wertz, are two graphic novels currently on the bookstore shelves about coming of age in the Big Apple. Shiga and Wertz approach their subject in very distinctive ways. Shiga’s book has more of a layer of fantasy and innocence behind it. Wertz’s book has more of a gritty reality but also shares with Shiga a love for whimsical humor.

At this point, the story of the wide-eyed youth set on conquering New York City is so hardwired into our psyches that a reader runs through a tale like this at a fast pace, sifting through what makes the latest incarnation of Holden Caulfield stand out. I have my own experience that makes me particularly sensitive to this subject. I did my take on the NYC graphic novel, entitled, “Alice in New York.” I think it is one of those rites of passage, as quaint as it sounds, that is too hard to resist for a cartoonist if he or she has a NYC tale to tell. For one thing, comics and New York go hand in hand. It’s just too good a thing to pass up if the opportunity is there.

The top ten things you will find in a Coming of Age in New York City story:

  1. The main character is misunderstood.
  2. Circumstances are set in motion that set the protagonist off on a quest.
  3. The protagonist respects, even worships, New York City.
  4. The protagonist romanticizes NYC.
  5. The protagonist does not really know NYC.
  6. The protagonist is young and naïve.
  7. The protagonist is likable and we want him or him to succeed.
  8. NYC is an important character in its own right.
  9. The protagonist luckily gets a little help from friends along the way.
  10. The protagonist evolves. He or she now has a grasp of the real NYC.

Any serious artist or writer will have to confront the whole NYC thing. No matter how much is said about how NYC is no longer the Mecca it used to be, it still needs to be acknowledged. One way or another, the passionate creative person is going to have to address the issue, even if the answer is no, they will remain home or go somewhere else. For Julia Wertz, the answer was yes, she would reluctantly follow in the footsteps of so many others, and try to avoid being a cliché in the process. That could be the overriding theme in “Drinking at the Movies,” the desire of Wertz to not only “make it” in New York but to do it with flair and distinction. Because, if you’re not flourishing in New York but only surviving, then what’s the point, right?

In order to blossom, Wertz had to find her feet first. The story here is all about the messy journey. Wertz jumps right in and provides us a play by play in an episodic format, more like a collected comic strip with each vignette lasting one page, maybe two. The narrative moves right along and you lose yourself in the bigger story, much like you would with Gabrielle Bell’s autobiographical comics, usually told in one page intervals. We get a variety of funny and bittersweet observations. And, often, there’s booze not too far behind. Wertz’s best work includes a number of well-timed facial expressions on the comics version of herself and some hilarious self-deprecating humor. In one of her best pieces, entitled, “First/Last Internet Date,” Wertz does all the talking on a dinner date and talks herself right out the door where, down the block, she promptly falls asleep on a park bench. This ends up being yet another drunk joke, although a darn good one.

Ultimately, Wertz decides to say goodbye to the bottle. It seemed to serve her so well, even providing the title for her book, but, seriously, it was definitely getting in the way. Wertz does a masterful job of mixing tragedy with comedy. She is not afraid to bring up uncomfortable facts. Her struggle in dealing with her drug addicted brother back in San Francisco is a recurring element in the story. She learns to set a good example, even if it’s only for her own benefit. And she learns that, if she sticks it out, and doesn’t take herself too seriously, that she too can really make it in New York.

As for Jason Shiga, his main character could be an alter ego of sorts. In “Empire State,” the quest and the goal are not quite as clear and the resolution is more roundabout. The protagonist, Jimmy, comes across as a very simple and easily contented person. His best friend, Sara, moves away from Oakland to pursue a career in publishing in New York. There is no visible tension between the two. They appear to be as platonic as can be.  Jimmy is not particularly assertive. Part of the fun, and bittersweet quality of the book, is to see how much Jimmy is more cartoon than man. At twenty-five, he does not have bank account but signs his paychecks over to his mom who provides him with an allowance. If it weren’t for Sara, he would never have discovered lattes. And yet he is a competent enough person, just sheltered to the extreme. Given that, it is interesting to see his reaction to New York, which is severely blunted due to his lack of reference.

For all that has been said in the name of New York City, it comes down to just a bunch of fancy hipsters in Jimmy’s mind. It is a nice piece of subversive commentary, much like the story of the sheltered man played by Peter Sellers in “Being There.” No matter what the urgency or hype, there’s not much that will impress Chance. Goofy humor abounds but, like most great comics art, the pathos can be just as tender as in a serious work, and even more moving. It turns out that Jimmy did not go to visit New York in order to break into web design. His only real goal was to see Sara. And, even though he lacked any emotions to give him away, he is sort of in love with Sara. For her part, Sara has problems connecting as well. She doesn’t have much difficulty finding a boyfriend but she does in staying interested in a relationship. For a work that looks so simple, “Empire State” provides a complex picture of alienation.

“Drinking at the Movies” is a trade paperback, 192 pages, $15 US, published by Three Rivers Press.

“Empire State,” is a hardcover, 144 pages, $17.95 US, published by Abrams Comicarts.

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Filed under Comics, graphic novels, Jason Shiga, Julia Wertz, New York City

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