Paper Girls (1-3)

Paper Girls #1 - 3
Written by Brian K. Vaughan
Illustrated by Cliff Chiang
Colors by Matt Wilson
Letters and Design by Jared K. Fletcher
Image Comics

Where were you on November 1, 1988? Me, I was 12 years old, in 8th grade, growing up in the Boston suburbs, and not particularly enjoying middle school (we called it junior high school back then). A few weeks earlier (October 7), I had been to my first rock concert (AC/DC with opening band Cinderella, it was a hell of a show) at the old Boston Garden. I was probably tired from the night before when I went trick or treating for the last time (I believe I was a zombie). One week later (on November 8) I attended the concession speech Mike Dukakis (The Duke!) gave on losing the 1988 presidential election.

I mention all of this to put Paper Girls #1-3 into context for me as a reader. This is a comic series that feels literally designed for me to enjoy it. I wasn't a girl, and I never delivered papers - but the world that these characters come from, that was my world. And it's wonderful to see it captured in a comic. So, before I dive more deeply into this book, let me just get out of the way the fact that I love it. I think issue 1 of Paper Girls is the strongest debut issue I've read on a comic in a long time (and happily that excellence continues and deepens), and I think it's Brian K. Vaughan doing what he does best, which is to use the trappings of genre (in his case, 80's period setting, science fiction and fantasy) to tell a profoundly human, character-based story. Also, be assured that the appeal of Paper Girls does not just rest on the nostalgic feeling that it conveys. Nostalgia can only get you in the door, it's not enough to keep the reader engaged. Thankfully, this is strong world-building and storytelling from the ground up, in the best tradition of Saga and Y: The Last Man.

Paper Girls begins with a vivid, dramatic and violent dream sequence that introduces the main character of Erin and tells us a lot about what we need to know about her. This is masterful storytelling (Cliff Chiang and Matt Wilson are in top form) from the entire creative team (including wonderfully evocative and emotional lettering and design from Jared Fletcher), as this seemingly disjointed dream sequence introduces the point-of-view character, sets the time period, and establishes Erin’s personality and her priorities. It's exposition that doesn't feel like exposition (in addition to being a sequence that feels completely different from the color palate and scenery of the rest of the story). As Erin awakens we see that it's November 1, 1988 ("Hell Morning") and she needs to get up early to deliver papers. Some of the older trick-or-treaters are still out and about and it's generally a bad morning to have to be up early (4:40 am).

Erin heads out to deliver papers and then meets three other paper girls, KJ, Tiffany and Mac (short for Mackenzie, the legendary first paper girl). From there, things start to get weird, and then over the course of the first three issues of the comic they get even weirder, more intense, and raise a lot of questions that aren't yet answered. I don't want to say too much about the specifics of it, except to say that the story gets big and strange and packs in a lot of interesting ideas and possibilities, sooner than you might expect.

Much like Vaughan and Staples on Saga, this book feels from start to finish like there's real synchronization between all aspects of storytelling. I really can't say enough about the precise, deliberate, thoughtful visual storytelling and scene setting from Chiang and Wilson. As you can gather from my introduction, this era is important to me, memory-wise and emotionally. I was thrilled with all the small touches and ways that they got this era right. From the Far Side calendar on Erin's desk (a staple of late 80's life), to the posters to the fashion choices for each of the girls, this feels like 1988. That's one of my gripes about comics or other media set in the 1980s, is that most people choose to go with incredibly facile, obvious choices, or they think that everything is the same throughout the entire 80's. 1988 was not 1984 or 1985.

So I'm relieved that thus far nobody is walking around looking like someone out of Miami Vice or wearing legwarmers, a Thriller-era Michael Jackson jacket with zippers, or something similar. By 1988 the fashion had changed and gotten slightly more subtle and muted, and looked almost like what people were wearing in the early 1990s. I thought the book We Can Never Go Home (published by Black Mask) similarly got this era right. The presentation and design (by Fletcher) of Paper Girls from the front cover really sets the scene and evokes the late 1980's as each cover is one bright, striking color that wouldn't have been out of place on a magazine or poster in the 1980's, with a little splash of some other color. The font choice also feels very era-appropriate. Each of the girls embodies a different fashion trend (in clothes, shoes and hair) which says a great deal about their distinct personalities; they're all complex, interesting characters, but the deliberate, specific choices made by Chiang help give the girls a basic outline.

All of the visuals in this book, beyond just choices made for verisimilitude, are effective in regards to the storytelling. The colors, in particular, are quite striking. In the first issue, Wilson's colors set the pre-dawn scene, and that sense of the hint of light before sunrise, is really quite beautiful and really sets the atmosphere. It's a weird time of day, and there's usually a reason why someone's up at that hour. As things get stranger throughout the series, Wilson's color choices capture the increasing weirdness and continue to be entirely on point in capturing the strangeness of the goings-on. Even if all you saw in the series was Wilson's colors for the sky, you'd understand at least some of what's going on in the story. That is effective visual storytelling at the highest level.

Paper Girls is a great homage to a world gone by. It's also a great homage to movies from that era (70's and 80's) like E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Goonies and Stand By Me, and other more recent movies about that era such as Super 8 and Donnie Darko (which involved time travel, weird phenomena and was set in 1988). Through the first issue, my (as it turned out, ill-founded) concern was that this was somehow simply going to be a nostalgia trip. It does absolutely evoke that for me, including by making me sad as I miss things from my childhood. Nostalgia is meant to make you sad and wistful for a place and time gone by, and that mission is accomplished (particularly in the first issue of the story). Nostalgia is also meant to evoke other entertainment (such as the movies I mention above), but thankfully Paper Girls is not just a pastiche or homage. If this was just some sort of trip down memory lane that would be nice, but it wouldn't sustain a book. I'm happy to say that after 3 issues this book gets intense pretty quickly, and while the late 1980's is the setting, this story isn't about the late 1980's. It's about 4 girls getting in way over their heads and dealing with what comes their way, with as much smarts and resourcefulness as they can muster as everything around them goes to hell.
In addition to being like Saga in that it has gorgeous, evocative art, this book shares another similarity with Saga in that the reader can connect immediately with these characters on an emotional level. They feel like real, recognizable people, as opposed to We Stand on Guard (also written by Vaughan and illustrated by Steve Skroce) which is a really engaging story, and a lot of fun, but feels less focused on the characters emotionally (at least for the most part). Paper Girls doesn't start as an action-packed story but it absolutely gets there. The first issue takes its time by introducing the characters through dialogue and interaction; we see who they are such that by the time the action heats up, we've got a real sense of who these girls are.   
Some people dislike that sort of decompressed storytelling, but I think it's quite useful as the main function of the initial issues (particularly the first issue) is to set the scene and establish the world and the characters that inhabit it. I think here it's effective as it lets the story breathe. Much of the first few pages are wordless; we see Erin going through her paper girl prep work. The other character introductions are handled in a way that doesn't feel rushed; by the time we meet the other paper girls we already feel like we know Erin a little and we're in her corner. Each of the girls are subsequently given a chance to show who they are, through their actions, their words, and their terrifically detailed appearance as designed by Chiang. The girls' interactions also feel naturalistic and authentic. They're not necessarily close friends but they have a shared bond, and tense situations has a way of pulling people together quickly, but also bringing out their distinct approaches to problem-solving.

If you enjoy intriguing science fiction mysteries with great, naturalistic dialogue and characters you'll quickly grow to like, told with striking, gorgeous art, then Paper Girls is the book for you. If you don't like those things, well, I'm sorry.