This book review contains spoilers
After reading Brian K. Vaughan‘s Paper Girls, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, I don’t think I would ever treat comics the same as cartoons anymore.
Unlike most programming we see on Nickelodeon these days, Paper Girls is anything but kid-friendly; Vaughan has created an unconventional comic with the sort of in your face humor that is unknown in ordinary cartoon characters. Which is exactly why this series is so damn incredible!
Vaughan’s groups of tween misfits—Kaje, Erin, Mackenzie, and Tiffany—are more than just neighborhood paper girls from fictive Stony Stream, Ohio, they’re unsuspecting superheroines with a bad ass tang about them. I love all of these girls, and a part of me wishes they were written to life in my youthhood. Although the comic does explore more PG13-related topics—profanity, gore, sexual identity, etc.—it doesn’t distract from the genius of the series itself.
In short, Paper Girls follows four girls who become inadvertent targets after getting caught in the crossfire of an extraterrestrial war with time-traveling villains and various other creatures. In order to make it out alive, the gang must join forces with time-traveling vigilantes and even future versions of themselves.
I’ve been feeling really nostalgic lately: getting latched onto Stranger Things to re-watching The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles for the umpteenth time. I’m really digging all the ’80s stuff going on in pop culture right now, so Paper Girls was the perfect addition to mollify my nostalgia for the era.
Although I am not a science fiction fan in the slightest I think the best part about Vaughan’s comic is that it doesn’t pander to sci-fi lovers exclusively. The context was all there, and I didn’t even feel so out of the loop that I couldn’t understand what the fuck was really happening. Anyone who has not read Paper Girls would probably never suspect an apocalyptic showdown to come streaming out of it, especially because it begins with four girls simply making their everyday paper route.
Another aspect I enjoyed about this series is the way Vaughan develops his characters. Despite having different personalities, there was not a single character I disliked more than another. Which is pretty good for someone as cynical as me—naturally looking for the worst qualities in a person—because I often enjoy unlikable characters. Nonetheless, though, my favorite would have to be Tiffany. She’s practical, doesn’t take anyone else’s shit and is funny as hell; I could totally relate to her Texas Chainsaw Massacre one-liner when they discovered that teleportation-spaceship thing in that basement scene. That is so me.
Not only that, Tiffany’s not afraid to fight or stand up for her friends, also like me. And if you noticed, she’s the only character who jumps into action whenever there’s an opposition. You never see her back down, until her life is in danger, of course, but she’s pretty brave for a kid her age; and that’s a quality I can totally respect about her.
As for the other girls, I’ll be honest in saying I could only relate to Erin and Mac—sorry, Kaje! Erin, because she seems so out of place in that she’s the outsider of the group (and haven’t we all been there?); and Mac because she masks everything with that tough exterior when she’s really just as frightened as her friends, if not more.
Erin is socially obsolete in her own way, just like I was at her age. I mean, the moment the girls since she’s in danger, they jump to her aid without question, which is a more heart-warming gesture than what we’d likely see happen today. If there’s anything Vaughan’s comic teaches us about the relationships girls shared in the ’80s compared to girls of today, it’s that morality has been on a perpetual decline in the present day.
As it pertains to social responsibility and respectability politics, these girls have it all figured out. Stepping to Erin’s defense really solidifies the sort of unspoken understanding and compassion these girls had for one another back then. They didn’t allow petty, superficial bullshit to get in the way of helping each other out, which is endearing to see. The sort of camaraderie between Kaje, Mac, Tiffany and Erin is how real friendships are able to stand the test of time.
Another thing that really interested me in the first comic was the inclusion of LGBT characters. Of course, being gay in the ’80s was hardly a phenomenon, but it’s believable that these narratives were rarely popularized in comics back then. (Then again, Marvel, right?)
Insert Heck. First off, I really appreciated the fact that Vaughan made Heck a gay character, but even more so that he made him a hero. Though short-lived, Heck’s time in the first volume was a refreshing portrayal because annoyingly enough, it seems the only way to distinguish modern-day LGBT characters is by oversexualizing them. Heck was nothing like that: he was strong-willed, protective, considerate. In hindsight, Heck’s purpose wasn’t really thwarted by his sacrificial death, since he and Naldo both succeeded in saving the girls’ lives, which proved that everybody has the capacity to be just as kind. (Also, side note: Did anyone else want more of Naldo, too? It’s sort of sad that he didn’t really get much of a part.)
As much as there is I still can’t figure about in Paper Girls, Vol. 1—what with all the space dinosaurs, alien language, old-timers, time-travelers and vigilantees—I think this strange concept and the unexpected arrival of monsters is what made the comic so engaging. One thing that still sort of left me confused was the scene between Terry and Gabrielle. Were they just unsuspecting bystanders or did they honestly serve a purpose other than getting obliterated? Only asking because I would think they would have only been given a split-scene if their appearances didn’t mean anything to the rest of the story itself. Who knows?
As for Paper Girls, Vol. 2, I liked that there’s a sense of culture shock that’s more or less understood as the girls’ stories progress. Having been transported to an entirely different time—one of flatscreen televisions, iPhones, and a timely yet subtle reference to the Black Lives Matter movement—I felt like Vaughan did an excellent job manifesting the new era. Albeit these were merely lowlights of the second installment, it added a nice touch to the atmosphere.
I have to say, I was a bit taken aback to learn “2016 Erin” remains in Stony Stream after all those years and becoming a journalist no less. She seems so depressed and stuck-up and has to look to medication to calm her stress. Whether that speaks to real-deal stress or the era of anxiety known as 2016… Honestly, I would have imagined Erin having a much brighter, more optimistic future ahead of herself than most of the other girls (which may be too early to tell, I suppose).
One thing’s for sure, Erin is much better off than Mac, whom we learn from the present day owner of her childhood home may have passed away due to Leukemia complications. I think, if anything, this was the moment that really rationalized Mac’s fear and anxiety as a troubled teen; her broken household doesn’t make her story any better.Then again, we don’t necessarily know if the last homeowner
Then again, we don’t necessarily know if the last homeowner was, in fact, Mac or her family… it’s just a horribly dark shadow to cast on a girl Mac’s age. And so soon, too. I really hope she doesn’t die this way in the later comics, or at least not in such a lonely and sad way.
Overall, I am thoroughly committed to Paper Girls. These girls are all very exciting and relatable to read on the page, and I love Vaughan’s approach to telling their stories individually. However, I relly hope we get more insight into Kaje’s story, who virtually goes missing and unmissed a great majority of this volume. And if I can be honest, Kaje rarely held my interest in the first comic, too. So I really hope she gets some page-play in the later volumes.
Either way, I’ll be biting my nails until Paper Girls, Vol. 3 releases August 8, 2017.