Another contender for the 2016 Eisner Award for Best New Series is Paper Girls by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang, from Image Comics. By now we’ve come to expect great things from the creator of Y: The Last Man and Saga (to name only two of his successful books), and Vaughn doesn’t disappoint in this insightful, relatively small-scale story centred around four girls with paper routes in the suburbs who face challenges way beyond just getting the papers delivered on time. Vaughan’s sense of the girls’ friendship and their interactions, as well as setting up the larger theme of “teenagers vs adults” in this slightly sci-fi world (that aspect becomes apparent later) feels actually closer to the sensibility of Jeff Lemire.
Deliberately nostalgic for people of a certain age, the main story is set in the late 1980s — they even give it a specific date when one character mentions that it’s the 50th anniversary of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast, so therefore 1988. No cell phones (although sometimes they carry a walkie-talkie), no portable devices (except the cassette walkman) and old-fashioned BMX bikes with none of the armour today’s kids are forced to wear. No, these were the days when you ran out of the house, picked your bike up off the lawn (with its one gear) and took off into the big world. Far from seeming frightening, the world back then was wide open and exciting, even inviting.
The girls see themselves as a gang, performing a very serious civic duty, protecting people from bullies and keeping an eye out for crime. (Issue #2 starts with a panel showing the then-familiar “Neighbourhood Watch” sign, hammering home the point.) Very quickly, they notice strange things happening in their neighbourhood, mostly courtesy of strangely disfigured and robed people lurking around, stealing things, and then even more shocking sights that seem to come from some alien fantasy. When one of the gang picks up an item left behind by one of the otherworldly figures, a small square that one of them mistakes for a makeup “compact”, they are surprised to see the symbol of a fruit embossed stylishly on it.
Vaughan effectively re-creates the dialogue and posing of late 1980s young teenagers, very much like Lemire’s style in Plutona, but the story he’s telling here casts a wider net. Nevertheless, it’s this grounding in character and their bold, unapologetic desire to be mistresses of their own neighbourhood that give this book its heart.
Spoilers from here, because at this point the story takes a hard turn into science fiction, but never really loses sight of the camaraderie and interaction between our four main characters. Time travel becomes an important story element, as the girls face scavenging teenagers and warrior adults from the future (who, by the way, ride some sort of winged dinosaur). The horribly mutated teenagers are in the past in order to steal and sell as many historical items as possible, and the adults, despite their THX1138-style white uniforms and punishment sticks reminiscent of the guards in Tron, seem to just want the kids to go home and get off the streets. The adult “leader” is a bearded ex-hippie, who seems to live in a world full of ancient mementos, tossed together with little regard for congruity, such as a Public Enemy T-shirt mixed with his long, white beard. The adult future characters have so much physical power and speak from a comically exaggerated sense of authority that it rings absolutely true with the teenagers’ view of the world. The science fiction metaphor is rather overt, but no less enjoyable for it.
The art is equal to the challenge of rendering out this story, with excellent character and design work from Cliff Chiang and strikingly effective use of colour, courtesy of Matt Wilson. Since much of this book takes place at night, Wilson washes the frames in blues and purples, deliberately staying away from earth tones to give the whole book a sense of mystery, wonder and danger. Certainly, some scenes take place in well-lit spaces, and these are coloured realistically (a shock after all the blue and purple light), but Chiang and Wilson really get to cut loose on the time travel sequences, conjuring images that evoke what a disorienting and strange experience that would be. Vaughan, for example, adds the point that travel through time also requires travel through space, as the earth, and frankly everything in the universe, is constantly in motion. Therefore, if you were to simply travel five years while standing still, you would wind up in a different location, due to the rotation of the earth. Time travel requires still and precise calculations, and the terrible scars and bio-mechanical reconstructions that the “future teenagers” have had to endure testify to the cost of getting it even slightly wrong.
Paper Girls has had five issues so far (issue #6 is due in June), but its playful sensibility, appealing characters and evocative art have already been enough to earn it an Eisner nomination. It’s certainly not much of a challenge to sell a Brian K. Vaughan book to comics fans, but this one will appeal to the Jeff Lemire fans as well, and frankly any kid from the 1980s who took their bikes out at night and courageously acted in defiance of parental consent or discretion. This one’s for the rebels.