New York, New York is a bit difficult to fully quantify. Written between 1995 and 1998, the story, set in New York City with a jaunt to Newton, Massachusetts in this omnibus, is very much of its time. Marimo Ragawa (creator of Baby & Me and Those Snow White Notes) is not a gay man, and while New York, New York tries very hard to present a more realistic image of what it meant to be gay in the 1990s, it still falls prey to some of the misconceptions and pitfalls of what people imagined queer life to be while also adhering to tropes of BL manga. That doesn’t make it a bad book by any means, but it’s certainly one you want to go into with the context of when it was written in mind.
The story follows Kain Walker, a New York City police officer, and Mel Fredricks, a waiter, as they form a life together. When we first meet Kain, he’s very much in the closet, with only one of his coworkers aware of the fact that he’s gay because they crossed paths at a gay bar. (By unspoken agreement, they don’t say anything about it.) Kain’s not into long-term relationships, and as we get to know more about him, that seems to be because he’s under the impression that gay men can’t have them. All of that changes when he meets Mel. Mel’s not interested in a one-night stand, but Kain finds himself drawn to the slightly younger man in a way he’s never been before. After some fits and starts, the two embark on a committed relationship, which forces Kain to reckon with his own internalized homophobia. Why didn’t he think he was allowed to have a lasting, long-term relationship? Why hasn’t he come out to anybody? And what does it mean for him to truly love Mel?
Kain is the narrator of the book, an omnibus edition of the first two (of four) volumes. While we do get brief instances of Mel’s thoughts, along with a few other characters, this feels very much like Kain’s story specifically, and that can, at times, make for some uncomfortable reading. Mel is a much kinder, more accepting person, and Kain’s first impressions of people aren’t always positive – he’s downright rude to Mel’s boss J.B. when they initially meet, both because he’s jealous of Mel’s interactions with other men, and because J.B. presents in a more feminine way that Kain is uncomfortable with. While Mel absolutely has his own issues stemming from a past involving abandonment and sexual trauma, Kain is the one who really has to work through his issues in order to make his relationship work. We do see where some of those may come from; apart from the fact that growing up in the 1970s and 80s might not have taught Kain to be hugely accepting of different lifestyles, when he brings Mel home to meet his parents we can see that his mother is very homophobic herself.
The trip to Kain’s hometown of Newton, Massachusetts is probably the best arc in the book. That’s largely because it forces Kain to really think about how he wants to present himself to the world, and when he’s confronted with his mother’s rude and hurtful behavior (and compares it to his father, who, as a high school teacher, has had more of a chance to understand that there’s nothing wrong with being gay), he finds himself in the position of asking himself what kind of partner to Mel he wants to be. It’s a major turning point for him, and while he’s made some very questionable choices before the trip home, we can see that he’s unlikely to make them in the future. Watching his mother’s behavior is frustrating and infuriating (both for him and us), but it serves as a lesson, albeit a very soapy one from the reader’s perspective.
And New York, New York is, it must be said, very melodramatic in the soap opera style. Ragawa is clearly trying very hard to cover topics that really didn’t get much space in the BL of the 1990s, such as coming out and HIV/AIDS, and that’s admirable in and of itself. Also good is the fact that this isn’t strictly a coming-out story; that’s just one component of what’s going on here. But it plainly isn’t written by an Own Voices author, and that can be an issue at times. One striking scene involves a work friend of Mel’s dying of AIDS; while the storyline is effective, it also feels like it’s furthering the old-fashioned and harmful notion that only gay men got the disease, making this feel like it was written in the 1980s rather than the 1990s. Language is also very outdated, although Yen Press makes a note of that in the beginning of the book; “bisexual” is used where we would use “pansexual” now and there are a few other terms that stand to bring modern readers up short.
Alongside the homophobia expressed by some of the characters (both internal and external), there is also a bit of anti-Semitism in the text. One of the characters, Gersh Stoneman, is Jewish, and Kain repeatedly has mild issues with that. He’s never cruelly anti-Semitic (and believe me, I know the difference), but comments like “There were so many Jews there” at a Jewish funeral or Gersh’s pointed comment to Kain about how being Jewish is only part of his identity drive the point home. As with the other problematic story elements, it’s both admirable that Ragawa tried to incorporate them but upsetting that it isn’t done quite as well as it could have been, with the cross-over point between them being the most troubling. On the plus side, the funeral does have all the men wearing yarmulkes, so she clearly did some research.
New York, New York is, I think, at the end of the day worth reading. It doesn’t get everything right and it is very much of its time, but it’s also a solid (albeit soapy) story. Mel and Kain are a couple worth rooting for, and Ragawa’s art really is lovely, even if it isn’t as refined as in The Vampire and His Pleasant Companions. Go into this with a grain of salt or two, but do consider picking it up if the issues raised aren’t dealbreakers for you.