By Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Chiang, Matt Wilson, and Jared K. Fletcher
The more Brian K. Vaughan writes the more two truths tend to emerge: he’s easily one of the best writers of 2015, but Saga will probably end up his only legitimately great work. Previously he graced us with the good but still pretty flawed We Stand On Guard, the story of a future Canada that’s been invaded and occupied by American forces, and now there’s Paper Girls, a late year installment, but one that’s already gaining a lot of critical acclaim. Similarly to Jason Aaron it’s still a little unclear what exactly drives Vaughan’s artistic output, but some of the central themes have started to emerge. Across his three latest major works of Saga, We Stand On Guard, and Paper Girls, the central yoking theme of his stories is about grounding quasi-classical (read: ‘80s) genre set-ups in something closer to genuine humanity and a ground-level realism. Saga was all about telling the story of a galactic space fantasy war from the stand point of a couple just trying to avoid it, We Stand On Guard is a blend of the Star Wars style war fantasies with Red Dawn’s emphasis on gritty insurgency and struggle, and now Paper Girls wants to tell the kind of high-flying adventure story like Monster Squad or The Goonies, but with a harsher and more honest look at the people who live them and the kind of threats that can emerge from this kind of high stakes situation.
That particular blend is certainly enjoyable, though it’s still unclear if this particular blend of ephemera and execution will render a more meaningful result than a lot of Vaughan’s other work. Something that’s not really discussed is that for as good as Saga and We Stand On Guard are, they’re also more than a little meaningless. They’re enjoyable and engaging experiments in genre/focus blending, but there’s not much of a deeper meaning behind the stories than just the fun of telling the story in a different way. That’s fine for those comics, but it does tend to leave Vaughan’s work a little under-nourishing. That’s why Saga’s Dengo story arc in Volume 4 arguably remains Vaughan’s best work; it’s the only time all the grounding and humanizing actually adds up to a genuine point with real emotion behind it. It might be too early to judge if Paper Girls is heading that way, but given We Stand On Guard hasn’t manifested that yet and the same problem very much impacted his incredibly popular Y, The Last Man comic, it’s a little disconcerting that Paper Girls isn’t there yet.
None of this is to say that Paper Girls, or indeed We Stand On Guard or Y, The Last Man, are bad comics, they’re very enjoyable and well written, they’re just not as nourishing reads as something with a bit more subtextual ambition and a bit less formalism. The story of four paper girls getting caught up in some kind of science/fantasy adventure on the dawn after Halloween is a solid premise and Vaughan’ characters are all well fleshed out and compelling young women. The most engaging part of the comic is definitely the characterization as Vaughan does a great job digging into some unexplored background of what might form the four girls into the ‘80s movie team members they are. They’re broken up into the standard four person breakdown of most ‘80s kid flicks with a rebellious tom girl, a brainy smart one, a prim and proper perfect one, and a tough as nails team heart; the difference is that here there’s more examination of the girl’s fractured and realistic personal lives beyond the token personality types.
Where things break down most is the actual plot, which has yet to become as clear as it really should be. It’s still completely unclear what is going on other than that it involves a big cosmic storm and a bunch of dino-riders and freaky plague dudes in robes. It just feels like we should already be aware of the situation in fullness by now instead of still fumbling for meaning. The obfuscation goes hand-in-hand with the story’s grounding in that if this was really happening we wouldn’t know what was going on, but it does nothing for engagement and is getting a bit taxing and hard to follow. The ending does seem to imply a greater explanation and maybe some genuine depth is coming soon but it’d be nice if it was here already.
What really sells Paper Girls though is the colors by Matt Wilson. Vaughan’s style is thoroughly grounded in formalism and that’s always extended to the artwork regardless of who he’s working with, but Wilson gets to bust out a beautifully blended surrealist color palette this episode that defies convention but evokes a mood and aura that’s a masterwork unto itself. Every page of this comic is a testament to the strength of colors, especially when colorists get the chance to really cut loose. The entire town is bathed in the pink neon light of some kind of vortex but it creates a beautiful palette of pinks, violets, indigos, and blues that evokes the early morning twilight tones of dawn while still seeming somehow otherworldly and strange. Even basic lighting effects are cranked up between the faded colors of the sepia tone bulbs and the soft warm blue of the shadows. Cliff Chang also does a fine job with art duties, especially in how he breaks up the events and designs the panel flow. Letterer Jared Fletcher does some great work this issue as well. It’s easy for lettering to slip into the background of an issue, but Fletcher does a superb job adding so much meaning and character to the dialogue through great use of bolds and smaller sizes.
Paper Girls #3 may not feel like the shock to the system, new best-of-the-year contender, that Paper Girls #1 did when it came out, but it’s still a great read that’s very much worth your time. The characterizations are all incredibly well realized and challenging and there are some great plot developments that do a lot to set this apart from the much lesser version of the story that it could’ve been. Additionally, the artwork, lettering, and incredible colors make this an incredible artistic achievement, one of the best looking comics in a long time.