By Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Chiang, and Matt Wilson
Paper Girls is a frustrating comic. From the outside, it’s a fun series. It’s a chance for 2010s MVP Brian K. Vaughan to stretch his writing chops into a unique aesthetic and genre, while also giving said aesthetic a much needed diversity boost. Vaughan’s made a massive splash lately by reframing glossy 80s pop genres in terms of a grittier and more grounded focus, complemented by a unique aesthetic palette that sets the exercises apart from the genre films that inspired them. Saga is basically Star Wars told from the smallest possible perspective and starring bug people, Cyclops, and goatmen. We Stand On Guard is Red Dawn but with all the American patriotism flipped completely around, and a visual design drawn from drone warfare and futuristic Call of Duty games. Paper Girls is an 80s “kids on an adventure” story, with a much more honest look at the main characters and fantastical elements that include weird spacemen riding dinosaurs in lightning storms. That should be awesome but here at the end of the first story arc the degree of obfuscation impacting the actual story has surpassed tolerable levels. Basically, the comic is too confusing to be suitably engaging.
A lot of this comes down to the overarching adventure narrative more than the individual lives of the various girls on hand. It doesn’t help that we’ve had to be introduced to the girls through 4 issues of scrambling through the very confusing central plot and there’s no recap to be found. As a result, even though the characters have names and fairly unique personalities it becomes much easier and almost necessary to identify them by their role/attribute rather than anything else. The problem is that we’re only introduced to the girls once before the comic sweeps us up in the much more convoluted adventure involving weird, indecipherable alien dialogues, unresolved mysteries, and a pretty bad misuse of time travel but more on that in a bit. In the midst of all this weirdness it’s hard to get a firm handle on our characters, even beyond the obvious token roles they’re being slotted into as part of the ‘80s kid adventure film set-up. The girls all DO have a greater inner life and identity beyond leader, cool kid, nerd, and black kid but the elements of genuine humanity than inform that greater life are far too short, crammed into all the big plot stuff that’s getting in the way.
Speaking of, let’s discuss plot because even here at the end of the first story arc it remains shockingly indecipherable. Apparently there’s some group of time traveling teens looking to rob the past to fund the future, but the teens are also hideous chemical mutants and are being pursued by a lightning storm full of spacemen riding dinosaurs for an evil record executive. The evil spacemen are also kidnapping townsfolk and sending evil dreams for reasons that are never made clear. Seriously, describing the overall fantasy plot makes you sound like you’ve lost all grasp on sanity and are just babbling incoherently, which is a pretty bad sign. All of these weird elements could work if they were more concisely laid out. If the girls encountered them one after another as an expanding universe explored through the narrative set-up of an adventure story, but that’s not the case. This is all thrown at us at high speed in a non-linear fashion, made even less coherent by the weird future dialect of English being used. It’s possible the plot is meant to be so needlessly convoluted as some kind of joke or deconstruction, but it only serves to undermine the story’s flow and engagement. There is a scene near the end of this issue that plays like it is meant to be a major reveal or stakes raiser that lacks any weight because it’s not at all clear who any of the villains involved are or why they matter.
The artwork remains incredible as always. Cliff Chiang’s blend of sketchy pencil styles and heavily detailed foregrounds gives the entire book a lived-in sense of reality that adds to the realism of the characters that Vaughan seems to have been going for. Matt Wilson’s coloring remains the standout of the entire project, a beautiful blend of pastel colors filtered through the bright blend of 80s neons that’s both instantly recognizable without falling into too great a similarity to coloring jobs such as Hotline Miami or Drive. There’s a major emphasis on hot pink colors that is particularly welcome and works well as a balance against the steely blue of night that tends to bath a lot of panels. The design on the girls is all top notch as well, they legitimately feel like different characters and are properly detailed to allow the reader to simply glance at each one of them and know instantly who you are dealing with. There’s also a really great visualization of time travel that features some of the most interesting panel work for the concept since the Silver Age.
There is still very much the flicker of a greater idea emerging around the edges of Paper Girls, but it’s trapped under the byzantine plot and the far too heavy emphasis on the artifice of genre rather than depth of story. Putting aside the overburdened plot, the book spends a bit too much time showing off the skill of crafting a kids on an adventure narrative, and not enough time exploring the implicit themes and ideas of this world and this narrative that show up around the margins. This same problem has infected a lot of Vaughan’s recent work, the nuts and bolts of crafting a very specific story take precedent over any greater depth or meaning. That wouldd be alright if there wasn’t meant to be a deeper meaning. In Paper Girls, the scenes that do strive for some deeper meaning about the clash between youthful scrappy individualism and overbearing homogenization masquerading as experience are the most compelling parts of the book. Here’s hoping for better in the next story arc.