Since its debut last fall much has been written about Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang’s sci-fi, retro, coming-of-age comic Paper Girls—the charming nostalgia of its 1980s setting and steady doses of pop culture, Chiang’s seductively bold graphics with coloring reminiscent of both Le Clic cameras and jelly bracelets, and the originality of Vaughan’s time-traveling narrative. To clarify: Paper Girls is a comic about girls on bikes who deliver “the paper”—girls with paper routes. Admittedly, I am one of the many who love this comic. And yet I’m distracted by something that I haven’t been able to reconcile since I noticed it. The covers of both issue #1 and the first collected book—which came out in April and compiles issues 1 through 5—feature striking illustrations of the title characters: Erin, Mac, KJ, and Tiffany. Four twelve-year-old girls. In stark contrast, the inside covers lists the creators of the comic: Vaughan, Chiang, Matt Wilson, and Jared K. Fletcher. Four adult men. Even though in every last review I’ve read Paper Girls is repeatedly described as “War of the Worlds meets Stand By Me,” no one is writing about how four adult men came to create a successful comic book about four young girls. I mean, really. Vaughan and his team have exactly zero experience of having ever been pre-teen girls—an age that is the most hormonally volatile, the most developmentally vulnerable, the most socially precarious, and often just downright cruel. Given this, how could they possibly create characters that read as believable 12-year-old girls? Why wouldn’t they just write a story about paper boys?
These are provocative questions, I’m aware. And they are not designed to accuse the creators of any wrongdoing. But the design of the comic has directed my attention in such an obvious way that it feels like I’m supposed to notice this and to contemplate the relationship: four female characters; four male creators. Of course, what I’m talking about here is not exactly a new phenomenon. Men have been narrating on behalf of women’s experiences for a very long time—but I’m not interested in proving this or standing in judgement of it. Identity and representation in comics is increasingly a relevant and crucial topic as more diverse characters and creators enter the field. But it can also be an incredibly sensitive issue, which makes it hard to discuss openly sometimes. There is a lot of finger-wagging and defensive quipping that gets in the way of discussing it in creative and critical ways. This is a complicated topic, but I’d like to create some space around it—give it a little breathing room, in other words—by simply considering how these female characters function, knowing that they were wholly imagined and created by men. After all, the value of a creative work isn’t just the thing itself. It’s also the cultural discourse around the thing. Identity and representation in comics is important, and so the fact that a team of adult men have created a captivating comic about young girls is also important. It drives our discourse, and helps us talk about comics and about ourselves in meaningful ways. The value of Paper Girls can extend far beyond the comic books.
Now, Paper Girls is relatively new. That is to say, it’s too soon to know who these characters will become by the end of this adventure. For now, we have the opportunity to ask the above questions based on what we can know so far. If you haven’t read Paper Girls yet, I’m sorry because I won’t be doing much in the way of describing the story arc. For my purposes here, I can offer an overview of the four main characters—Erin, Mac, KJ, and Tiffany.
Erin is the new kid in Stony Stream, Ohio—a suburb of Cleveland—who recently secured a job as a paper girl for the Cleveland Observer. She is of Asian descent, carries a pocket knife, and even more than being scared that the Russians will drop the bomb, she is scared that harm will come to her younger sister, Missy. Erin is a good Catholic school student with maternal instincts. Her confidence is still developing, but she’s an independent little kid and is already admonishing people when they use homophobic language—a unique quality for Ohio of the 1980s. Mackenzie Coyle, or “Mac,” has got attitude oozing out of her bomber jacket/combat boots ensemble. She smokes, she swears, she is the admonished homophobe. She is poor, Irish-American, and has shortly-cropped red hair. The police know her by name. She says things like, “Our route, our rules,” when she flatly decides who to deliver papers to despite orders from her employer. KJ is Jewish and is the mature “smart one” of the gang. She points out that she’s the only one of the crew who actually reads the paper they deliver, and says things your grandpa might say, like, “Wait a goddamn second.” She inexplicably carries a field hockey stick at all times, yet when she tries to defend herself with it she is easily knocked to the ground by her attacker. Tiffany is Black, and is adopted. Her expensive walkie-talkies are her prize possessions, she is an obsessed gamer, and she is first to want to leave when anything creepy goes down. She says, “Nuh-uh,” and “That’s some Texas Chainsaw bullshit.” After KJ fails to weaponize her hockey stick, Tiffany is the one who picks it up and expertly beats a dude down with it. So far she is the only paper girl to cry.
Mac, Tiffany, and KJ originally met and banded together one year prior to the story as a measure of self-protection against the “many crazies”—in other words, boys or men—that harassed them while delivering newspapers. They meet Erin in issue #1 when they rescue her from an attack by three costumed teenage boys in the early morning hours after Halloween. One boy grossly says as he advances on Erin, “Yum, Catholic schoolgirl,” and then to justify his interest in her, a much younger girl, “Grass on the field…” To which Mac interjects, “Cool costume, faggot.”
Vaughan has said that Paper Girls grew out of a desire to write about his memories of being twelve years old while he could still clearly remember them. Like the girls in the comic, Vaughan was twelve in 1988, lived in a small town outside of Cleveland, Ohio, and had a paper route. Interestingly, Vaughan wrote Paper Girls with the intention that the four girls wouldn’t be defined by their relationships to boys. In doing this, he moves away from the usual clichés of writing female characters. But when asked why he wrote this story about girls and not boys, he seemed to avoid answering the question by saying that he simply likes writing female characters. He added that because Paper Girls is published by Image Comics—where the work is creator-owned and controlled and therefore they could “do anything [they] want”—he could write female characters without having to defend or explain it.
In strict terms, Paper Girls passes the Bechdel Test: there is more than one female character, and they talk to each other about something other than boys. So in this way Vaughan has stepped off the beaten path of female characterization. But overall, the girls are stereotypical and unimaginative representations of race and class. The usual tropes are represented—the Irish girl is poor and is the bad seed who overcompensates for the instability of her upbringing with confidence; the Asian girl is obedient, proper, and somewhat timid; the Jewish girl is smart, but not quite physically adept; the Black girl is physically adept, and is adopted. Even though Vaughan makes the unique effort to remove boys as the central desire that defines the girls, a tiresome gender trope remains—that female characters only become empowered, or “fight back” as it were, as the result of being victimized by men.
Having been a 12-year-old girl myself, I understand a bit about the vulnerability and intensity of that age, and so I might be a good judge of whether or not Vaughan’s characters read as believable. I know what it was like to balance the desire to be independent with the fear that I didn’t belong anywhere. I know about the estrangement from the self that happens when your body shape-shifts, and the self-consciousness that emerges when you realize everyone else notices it, too. To boot, I was twelve in 1988 and grew up in the Midwest just like the girls in the comic. If I had to approximate, I was probably somewhere between a “Mac” and a “KJ”—I had Mac’s working class aggressiveness with KJ’s understated and snarky intellect. So I asked myself—do I feel like these four adult men were able to craft characters that resembled me and my peers at this age? Are these believable girl characters?
Honestly, no. I mean, at face value the Huffy bikes, flipped collars, and slouch socks are right on the money. I even had the same Depeche Mode poster on my bedroom wall as Erin does. But these characters don’t talk or act like my friends and I at that age. For one, we used far more sentence fragments and dangling participles. We thought and communicated like one mind because we were so eager to relate to each other and to be validated through the group. In effect, we rarely completed individual thoughts or sentences. Second, we said “like” all the time and when we did manage to complete a sentence on our own we always ended with “you know what I mean?” (You know what I mean?) We were very judgmental, and always weighed the value of things relative to our feelings. “That is soooo lame!” or “I love that!” I sometimes eavesdrop on preteens riding the subway, or on my friends’ daughters who are that age, and I’ve noticed that this hasn’t changed much in the last thirty years. The chatter of 12-year-old girls is like a tangled mess of giggling and shrieking, fidgeting and pseudo-confident posturing. From the outside, you can hardly understand a thing—it’s just a mess.
Unlike my experience of girlhood, the paper girls are all action, no feelings. Their dialogue serves mostly to exchange information or to drive the narrative. “I know a shortcut through Spruce! Come on!” says Erin. “We got jumped by three guys in bad ghost costumes,” says Tiffany. By comparison, the boys of Stand By Me had more emotional conversations. Though the dialogue is rife with excellent ’80s rhetoric—calling someone a “dickweed,” or comparing something to the size of a Klondike bar—it doesn’t include believable rhetoric spoken by young girls.
Even though I don’t think these characters sound believable, Brianna and Koemi—two current 12-year-old girls who live in Brooklyn—think they sound fine. I asked their teacher—a friend of mine—to have the girls read issue #1 and tell me what they thought. Erin was their favorite character because she was the new girl, and the awkwardness of doing new things, of knowing that you don’t quite fit in yet, was painfully relatable. They thought Mac was by far the coolest, and even reminded them of a specific person in their class at school. They loved the girls’ clothing and—thanks to the popularity of ‘80s retro fashion—said they would totally wear the outfits the paper girls don. In terms of the dialogue, they didn’t think it sounded off-base at all. To them, the characters sounded familiar—just a regular group of 12-year-old girls.
Though the above input is anecdotal, it brings up a good question: who determines whether characters are real enough? There are no strict metrics for this, so we’re left with a complicated negotiation between the intention of the creators and feedback from readers. I don’t think they’re believable, but Brianna and Koemi do. Beyond this, what might teachers or parents of 12-year-old girls think? And how do professional comic book writers or critics factor in? Since that could take a while to sort through, perhaps a better question than whether they are believable is whether they even need to be?
You could argue that the goal or function of fiction is not to create authentic characters, but instead to create visionary ones. Maybe some fictional characters are not supposed to read as realistic, and so theoretically it doesn’t matter who created them. This is one of the draws of fiction—both as creator and reader you can enter a universe unlike your own. Fictional worlds and the characters in them can inspire new types of behavior, or new levels of courage and bravery. More simply, they allow us the ability to step out of our own experience and imagine what it would be like to think and act like someone else. Particularly for the writer of fiction, this can be an exercise in empathy development. For example, in order to create Paper Girls Brian K. Vaughan had to ask himself, “How would a 12-year-old girl feel delivering newspapers alone in the dark in an unfamiliar neighborhood?” Even though he can never really know, empathy is what helped him imagine that Erin would want to carry a knife, or that KJ would carry a hockey stick.
On the other hand, because Vaughan can’t really know this experience for himself, the paper girls are just his interpretations of girlhood. You could say there is a “drag” quality that comes with any female character written by men for this reason. It reminds me of Michelangelo’s sculptures of women—clearly created with the male body as model, but with a couple of boobs slapped on to signify femaleness. If we look closer, do we see a similar version of this with female comic book characters? Namely, that girls functionally talk and behave like the men who create them, even if they visual signify that they are female?
Aside from the issue of believability or the function of fictional characters, there is also the question of whether or not characters are relatable. And this opens a much broader function of the characters in Paper Girls and of characters in general. Brianna and Koemi said they related to Erin’s awkwardness as a result of being “the new kid,” but this isn’t an experience exclusive to girlhood. Arguably, anyone—including boys or adult men—who has tried to do something new could relate to this. By contrast, the boy who attacked Erin might read as a believable character without being relatable to the reader. That is, unless the reader is a big jerk.
Perhaps this is what is most interesting about a team of four adult men creating characterizations of girlhood. They could potentially be creating young girl characters that other adult men relate to and identify with. Picture that: dudes in a comic book shop talking about how awesome a so-called “girl comic” is. When men identify with female characters, they also empathize with them and that’s a powerful thing.
Of course, it is very different to experience the world as a young girl than as an adult man. When men are tasked with writing girl characters then insight into that authentic experience might be lost, and male readers could potentially be relating to a totally misconstrued idea of a young girl. In general, this scenario makes invisible important ways that people are actually very different, and have very specific and diverse experiences of the world. As a result, the power of empathizing with diverse characters is lost if those differences are not truly articulated.
More broadly, it is very different to experience the world as a Black woman, a trans man, or a Muslim person. Perhaps I am overstating the issue here, but it seems so relevant to consider with the emergence of comics narratives like Black Panther, Lumberjanes, and Kamala Khan in Ms. Marvel. Like the 12-year-old I remember being, readers want to relate to and gain better understanding of each other, so it makes sense that there is interest in creating “diverse” characters that are relatable. But what good is it if we create characters that only look divergent, but fundamentally act and think the same? This is diversity in name only—all surface, little substance.
There are so many things to look forward to in the coming issues Paper Girls—more teenagers of the future that look like mutated ninja-mummy-monsters, pterodactyl-riding Stormtroopers, 1988-Erin confronting the Erin of 1999—and maybe we’ll find out who the God/1960s cult leader/tech-guru character is, and what Apple computers have to do with all of this. Awareness of how these things relate to the bigger conversation about identity and representation only makes the comic better in my opinion.
Returning to my main question—how can a team of adult men create young girl characters that are believable?—Well, can they? Have they? And if they have, what is the value of that accomplishment? If they have failed to do this, then do we have other methods to appreciate or critique these characters? This conversation will hopefully stay in process as the series continues.