Review: Paper Girls (2015-’19) by Brian K. Vaughan

7/10

1988. Halloween. Four newspaper delivery girls are quite annoyed with all those stupid jerks from school with their stupid halloween masks. They team up to stay safe, and they have a job to do: delivering their newspapers around the neighbourhood. Then, a much greater problem arises in this Cleveland suburb: some alien space pod appears in a basement, some Frankenstein time-travellers from the future are sneaking around, and pterodactyls appear in the sky. It’s an eventful halloween this year.

The time and setting of this comic evokes that Spielberg feeling of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial or the Stranger Things tv show. Four girls, around the age of 12 and riding around the suburbs in the 1980s, being confronted with supernatural creeps. Not to mention that all the teenagers are running around with their Halloween masks on. Writer Brian K. Vaughan stuffed this series full of references too, to 80s movies and products. No wonder that this series will get its own TV adaptation in late 2022. It is riding that wave of nostalgia that is strong in this decade. 

Turns out, there is more than one group of time travelling creeps running around and the girls are stuck in a conflict between the two. So, the setup is a bit like David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, and like in that book, Vaughan invents a lot of cultural peculiarities for these time travellers, like a new dialect and strange weapons and ranks. One group seems more ok morally than the other. Turns out, the frankensteins are not that bad, and the ones with all the cool costumes are the assholes. Just typical. Lots more happens, but it is best to go into this without knowing too much.

It’s an easy breezy read, although not everyone agrees with me because of time travel plot convolutions. The plot has a high pace, the writing doesn’t weigh down the story with lots of exposition and the teenagers aren’t annoying. I flew through it. The artwork isn’t doing anything too exciting or unusual. The artist and colonist are using clear lines and bold colours that make it all pleasant and exciting to look at, and also ties into that nostalgia feeling. Makes me want to put up some synthwave music. 

At first, much about this series made it feel like it is very much a product. Tailor-made to appeal to that specific Stranger Things audience and very calculated in its overall effect. But from volume 2 onward it gets better; it starts to find its own story. The girls get timelined and end up in all sorts of time travel shenanigans. All the low ratings online are from people who complain that they don’t know what is going on, but that’s a positive sign. It means that it isn’t boring, but inventive and drags you on a crazy ride that isn’t that hard to figure out. 

The story ultimately didn’t do much for me. A parade of monsters, robots and crazy costumes marches by, but is all cheap superficial excitement with a sauce of pop references poured over it. Behind all the running and screaming there are some subtler themes. One is about making the most of the time that you have. And you don’t have to be a teenager to appreciate that message. Actually, such messages are often wasted on the young. Another is about the girls exploring their identity as they are confronted by their older selves. These connecting themes were a welcome addition and basically the only thing that kept me engaged. 

Finally, there is some modern politics woven into it, with a very American-centric focus. The antagonists are called the “oldtimers” and want to protect and preserve the timeline, the past actually, which makes them conservatives in essence. Their hierarchy and ships carry religious titles. The young women make clear that they are fighting for a better world and that they, in contrast to the oldtimers, “still have dreams”, which is a bit condescending. The writers also play around with implicit messaging through the sequence of panels. For example, add in some same-sex love and then have the next panel show an oldtimer getting angry (“can’t you people leave well enough alone!?”). Add direct references to presidents Trump and Obama and this series takes a very clear stance. It can be enjoyed on its own if you want to tune out that signalling, but it gets hard when a woman with a shaved head exclaims that the Bible was just written by a bunch of men. I am not even religious but those panels just make me roll my eyes.

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2 Responses to Review: Paper Girls (2015-’19) by Brian K. Vaughan

  1. Bookstooge says:

    And if I were to say of even a fiction book, “Well, it was just written by a woman” and thus dismiss it, man what a firestorm.
    To just casually dismiss anything that has the weight of 1000’s of years behind it, eh, it really rubs me wrong. Serious apologeticists (not sure of the spelling on that) will gladly dismember an opposing theology, but they never are that shallow.

    Liked by 1 person

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