Paper Girls (Volume I) by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang
Image Comics, 2016, 144 pages
Paper Girls, written by Brian K. Vaughan with art by Cliff Chiang, got incredibly lucky — not only was the execution fantastic, but it emerged in a year in which Netflix’s Stranger Things took off, providing fans of the show with more fantastic science fiction Eighties nostalgia revolving around kids who display maturity that adults often forget they had as kids. When Erin joins a group in the early morning hours of November 1 to deliver newspapers, she finds empowerment in being part of the first group of girls to serve as paperboys. Although twelve years old, Erin already has a solid grip on the world around her — until everything is turned upside down with two different sets of invaders in her neighborhood who seem to be at war with each other. Are they aliens? Are they from the future? Are they here to harm the people of Erin’s town? Already, the adults have lost their minds and the paper girls are on their own.
Erin’s love of scientists, evidenced by a woman scientist (I’ll keep it a surprise as to who) appearing in her dream, draws the reader in right away. While the girls in Paper Girls are girls, you won’t find any stereotypes here. Each character lives in their own flaws, toughness, capability, and sensitivity, a luxury rarely afforded to female characters particularly in this specific genre (by which I mean a sort of action-adventure about kids in the Eighties, in which you generally either have one token girl amongst a group of boys who, still, is either “girly” or a tomboy with no spectrum between the two, and neither is ever truly viewed favorably).
Instead, though each are different in nuanced ways that make them individuals you might recognize from your own childhood, Mac, Erin, Tiffany, and KJ are not terribly influenced by their gender beyond the pride of being the first of the paper girls in a town of only paperboys. Vaughan’s ability to write real girls sets Paper Girls apart from so many other stories about girls and women. This is especially impressive given that, in reality, the graphic novel is in many ways about what it is to be a girl. Vaughan creates a fascinating and apparent paradox, writing girls who are seemingly genderless by society’s and fiction’s standards while maintaining characters that are more true to girlhood than characters of other narratives that specifically highlight facets of girlhood.
Meanwhile, Vaughan refuses to ignore other important conversations on privilege. Mac, for example, is the embodiment of privileged America. Her dialogue and beliefs can be highly offensive, even within the “historical” context of the Eighties, yet without being too obvious about it, Vaughan nods to the moral issues there. Though Mac’s first utterance of a gay slur was shocking, something beneath the surface of the narrative suggests Mac is in fact being set up for major character development, which is massively exciting — it has been so rare, in my experience, to see true and meaningful character development for adolescent girls in fiction that goes beyond the role of women in relation to men. How refreshing it is to see it unfolding in Paper Girls.
The concept in plot is equally riveting. It’s difficult to say much without giving it away, but I was impressed by the complexity that develops throughout the graphic novel and felt it brought up some great questions and dilemmas, causing the reader to look both inward and outward at themselves, society now, and society in the future. The premise is loaded with relevant allegories, but is supposed heavily by a great story that promises to get even better.
Finally, a word on the art — I often, as I’ve mentioned before, struggle with art in graphic novels. Though I recognize it’s an inherent and important part of graphic novels, I typically find it distracting and overwhelming. Chiang’s illustrations for Paper Girls, however, are mind-blowing. The simplicity of colors and outlines with a jaw-dropping and buzzing palette made me want to get large prints of several of the panes to decorate my walls with. I loved this art, from the style to the execution to the concept, and I can’t overstate how engaging it made the material as a whole.
Paper Girls does have moments of confusion. As a first volume, I expect some of that is intentional as we learn more about what is actually going on and about the world in which the story takes place. I’ll be watching my libraries for Volume II, to find out what happens next and get another eyeful of that spectacular art. If you’re a fan of Eighties nostalgia revival, complex girl characters, and science fiction (or even if you’re not a fan of any of those things but trust me just a little bit), I hope you’ll join me.
❤❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤