The four plucky, twelve-year-old heroines of Paper Girls have all taken what is traditionally thought of as a boys’ job of delivering newspapers by bicycle in 1988 suburban Ohio. On the morning after Halloween, they band together to protect themselves against a pretty serious threat: predatory teenage boys. When Erin, the new girl, encounters one group of teens still dressed in their costumes from the night before, they threaten her with menacingly suggestive language before the other girls come to her rescue. Those are the last grounded dangers they face in Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang’s breathless sci-fi ode to ‘80s adventures.
The girls end up in an apocalyptic time travel adventure when their walkie-talkie is stolen by two creepy-looking guys in robes speaking an alien language. Their attempt to retrieve it leads them to the basement of a vacant house that contains what looks like a spaceship. The guys in robes disappear, leaving behind a futuristic object marked – in the comic’s first big WTF moment – with an Apple logo. It begins to become apparent that almost everyone else in town has disappeared and these robed strangers, or maybe another group of invaders dressed like futuristic knights and riding flying dinosaurs, are probably responsible.
Fans of Brian K. Vaughan’s comics, such as Saga or Runaways, will know that he is a purveyor of the last-page cliffhanger and this comic has lots of them. It’s a non-stop series of alarming encounters with clones, giant worm creatures and strange, scary men. But, truthfully, by the end of this volume, we don’t understand a lot of what is going on yet. There are definitely clues, like the numerous references to apples and the Rapture, that tease a biblically epic climax an unspecified number of volumes away. Vaughan very much writes with the serialization of small installments in mind, which makes his monthly comics addicting and makes collections like this a real page-turner even though it does not build to its own natural climax due to the structure.
Instead, we’re introduced to a diverse cast of smart, brave girls who mostly act in supporting roles so far to Erin, the Asian-American “new girl”. Tidbits of their home lives and personalities are doled out: punky, tomboyish Mac (“The first paperboy around here who wasn’t a…you know”) talks tough to hide a troubled home life; African-American Tiffany is a gamer (during one near-death experience, her whole life flashes in front of her eyes and, amusingly, it’s just her playing the same video game over and over in a scene that lasts four straight pages); KJ spends half of this volume missing but we know so far that she’s Jewish and plays field hockey (an obvious wink towards some future character development). We learn more about Erin thanks to a couple of dream sequences, but especially when she meets her adult self in the year 2016 in one of the book’s best sequences and the first that takes it beyond its initial ‘80s trappings.
Vaughan is no stranger to writing feminist, progressive comics. He made his name in the early 2000s with his Vertigo series Y: The Last Man, which tackled feminist stereotypes by depicting a world in which all the men on Earth but one are suddenly wiped out. After leaving comics for a bit to hone his craft in the TV business as a writer on the pop culture touchstone Lost, he returned in 2012 to create one of the biggest comics hits of the past decade – Saga – which, although about aliens, features characters that would require a diverse cast of actors and actresses to portray them in any live-action adaptation. In the way that Saga mostly avoids white male characters, Paper Girls does the same with boys. Just a few male characters appear at all, only to get unceremoniously dispatched within a page or two, treated as ineffective distractions. As far as Bechdel tests go, there aren’t even enough men in this book for any of the two girls to talk much about. Vaughan does a good job of writing these girls as not simply gender-swapped boys on an adventure. The aggressive and immature trash talk of twelve-year-old boys in a similar story is replaced with somewhat more pointed ribbing (“Wait, you used to be a girl scout?” Tiffany asks Mac. “I still am. Why, you want to be a bitch about it?”).
Vaughan’s oeuvre is impressive enough that it is hard to tell yet how this one will rank, but it is definitely Cliff Chiang’s masterpiece. For over 15 years he’s been a stalwart company man at DC Comics who always seemed to rise above the material he was given to work with – the most recent example being his interesting character design on the ultimately disjointed and odd “New 52” Wonder Woman series. His drawing style is comparable in aesthetic to Cameron Stewart, another longtime DC artist who eventually moved from drawing Bat-books to spearheading his own projects. Seeing Chiang stepping out to make comics that could have more lasting resonance for both readers and for himself is exciting, especially with the involvement of a hit maker like Vaughan.
Chiang has a great handle on these girls: from the feathered bangs and turtlenecks to the distinctly drawn, recognizable faces. The age-appropriate body types and mannerisms he gives them make us forget that he comes from the world of superhero comics where every teenager, no matter their age, is fully developed and about to turn twenty.
Matt Wilson, a frequent collaborator with Chiang, is responsible for the vibrant, candy-like coloring that makes Jamie McKelvie’s drawings pop off the page in The Wicked + The Divine. To color Chiang, who uses brushier, more varied and expressive lines than McKelvie, Wilson uses flatter and more subdued colors with less gradation to let the line work add all the visual interest. Most of this book takes place before sunrise (even when a time jump puts the story decades into the future, the time of day is still early morning) and Wilson conveys the atmospherics of that hour by flattening the lighting, avoiding any heavy shading and simplifying the color palette. The result is a graphic simplicity that makes certain panels look like beautiful screen prints, ready to be made into t-shirts.
Series letterer and book designer Jared K. Fletcher had Chiang and Wilson’s alchemy in mind when producing this new hardcover collection. Designed with a new Chiang drawing screened onto a solid, hot pink background, it’s like a giant wad of Bubblicious in your hands. The large size makes the original, 2-color series covers, used here as chapter breaks, look like trendy street posters.
With young adult fiction dominating the bookstore market, it’s tempting to label this as YA but it actually doesn’t fit cleanly into that category. Although the protagonists are pre-teens, the tone of the story and some of its subject matter is written with violence and language that, while not unlike what you might hear in an ‘80s film, may not fly with parents who supervise what their pre-teens are reading. Also, a general rule of thumb is that kids prefer to read about older kids, so the age of these characters might be disqualifying for consideration by some teenagers. In fact Paper Girls reads like what it actually is – a trade paperback collection of an ongoing Image Comic – more than it does, say, a Scholastic or First Second YA graphic novel. It’s written for adults who grew up in the ‘80s, grok Dr. Who-level complexities in time travel paradoxes and are in for the long-haul on a multi-year read.
Those of us who stuck through six seasons of Lost –which Vaughan had his hands in– would like to know how long we’ll need to stick with Paper Girls before we start getting some questions resolved. All of the apple references imply he may be prepping us for a long ride that reaches as far back as Eve’s Original Sin and an epic exploration of a woman’s place in this world. As long as Chiang is on board and Vaughan keeps the surprises coming, that may be ok, but this book is only going to be great if it can focus on the smaller things: friendship, coming-of-age drama and our changing expectations of young girls and what they can do.