As a girl, I buried my nose in sugar-sugary Archie comics, before switching to the more thrilling X-Men. Then teen angst led me down a dark and delicious path of indie darlings like Johnny The Homicidal Maniac. Then…I stopped. Somehow with college, I forgot about comics. Sure, occasionally I’d lazily pick up my boyfriend’s copy of the Spider-Man or Civil War’s emerging line. But nothing I was seeing grabbed me the way those books of my youth did. Turns out the problem wasn’t the books. It was how I was looking for them.
This summer a friend forced upon me a sensational and subversive short-run called The Spire, which I ripped through with such intensity, the fervor spun me to the library the next morning hungry for more. Over a weekend, I tore through Brian K. Vaughn’s Runaways Volume One. Then fell hard and unapologetically into Saga (oh so swoon!). Then I gave Comixology a go, where I had easy access to an astonishing array of titles, and could easily discover the dystopian drama of Y: The Last Man, the dirty-mouthed delights of Rat Queens, and the sneering heroines of Paper Girls.
Written by Vaughn and illustrated by Cliff Chiang, PaperGirls plays out like a kid-centered 80s’ adventure movie, but with girls unapologetically at the center of the story. Think Goonies, Stand By Me, or Monster Squad, and you’ll get the fierce but feisty banter that bounces between the comic’s central foursome.
Set in 1988, the story begins with 12-year-old Erin out on her early morning newspaper delivery route. There, she first runs into trouble with some bullying boys. But they’re quickly scared off by the arrival of a trio of paper girls who ride ferociously and carry a big field hockey stick. Erin makes fast friends as other worldly weirdness befalls her small town, sucking family and neighbors out of thin air, lacing the streets with deformed thieves, and sending winged dinosaurs through the air!
The mystery unfurling at the core of Paper Girls is compelling, looping in dizzying tech, dubious time travelers, and devastating reveals. But what’s got me hooked are the young heroines. Bound together by friendship and a drive to survive, Erin, Tiffany, KJ and MacKenzie fly into action whether that means tracking down a freaky machine, bounding onto the back of an oversized bug, or defying the authority of armored dino-riders. These girls are exactly the kind of role models I would have gone mad for growing up. Okay, I’m thirty-something and dazzled nonetheless.
“I like writing female characters,” Vaugh told the LA Times in a Paper Girls-focused interview. “I remember when I was doing Runaways at Marvel, that was a teen book that had more females than males in it. At the time, it was the subject of great controversy as we were doing it…Usually, there’s a token female or two, but to have a team be predominantly of women, the fact that it was a bit of a conversation to have even that. Now being at Image, where we could do anything we want. Here’s a great opportunity to do what I always wanted to do, just a group of females and not have to defend it or explain it, and just get to write them.”
He also spoke of the cliches of “strong female protagonist” he’d aimed to avoid, saying, “The female protagonist [always seems] defined by the boy they’re chasing or the relationship they’ve just gotten out of. I wanted to write a story about four kids who did not give a … about the opposite sex. They’re aware of them, but it doesn’t define their lives. They’re these sort of hard-core gangsters that are much more interested in going around, shaking down the adults who owe them money so they can get their cassettes or buy their own Nintendo systems. It was avoiding the relationship traps that come up in those 1980 films and giving them boys to be crushed out … and just letting them and their friendship be the story. That was more important to me than ‘Oh, we can’t show leg warmers because it’s too cliched.’”
If you have reveled in the character work Vaughn laid out in Saga or Y: The Last Man, you’ll fall hard for Paper Girls. His writing manages to be both tender and barbed, with a dash of bittersweet. And Chiang’s drawings make a perfect pairing for this ’80s-influenced adventure, alive with color and striking expressions.
Two volumes deep, Paper Girls has laid out plenty of satisfying road to catch up on before the single issues start back up on February 1st. And with its complex characters, winding tale, and captivating artwork, its an escapist thrill. That is until the panels sucker-punch you with a bit of too real too soon.
I know, spoilers. But trust me, it’s better you know this bit’s coming.