Friday 17 May 2024

Paper Girls by Brian K. Vaughan & Cliff Chiang

1 November 1988. Erin Tieng, a new resident of Stony Stream, on the outskirts of Cleveland, Ohio, is starting her new role delivering newspapers. Falling afoul of Halloween revellers, she joins forces with three other paper girls for mutual protection: Mac, KJ and Tiffany. The girls find their job complicated by the normal problems: creepy residents, overzealous cops, bullies and, obviously, a trans-temporal war between two different groups of time travellers from the far and even further futures. Sucked into a conflict spanning millions of years, the four girls have to work out how to survive, get home and prevent the annihilation of the universe. And get their papers delivered on time.

Paper Girls was an American comic book published between 2015 and 2019. Written by Brian K. Vaughan, better-known as the writer of the epic science fiction saga known as, er, Saga, the series has become a cult hit over the years. Amazon started adapting the show in 2022, creating a first season that was well-cast and excellently paced with some intriguing variances from the source material whilst also remaining faithful to the big picture. Obviously, being good, it could not be allowed to survive beyond a single season.

The original comic series was collected into a single volume a few years back, large enough to be used to stun a yak if wielded correctly. Read as a single piece, Paper Girls is relentless in its pacing. Every issue throws new ideas, new factions, new characters (or different versions of existing ones) and new creatures at the reader. Weird alien beings from another dimension? Sure. Dinosaurs? Obviously! Older versions of the main characters suffering from existential and mid-life crises? Go wild. This turns the book into a compelling page-turner, if an occasionally confusing one. Unlike the well-paced Saga, it's sometimes easy to lose the thread of what's going on in Paper Girls, what each faction is after, what resources they have access to and so forth.

In a way that increases the reader's empathy with the core quartet of girls, who sometimes get as lost in the morass of competing timelines, alternate selves and wars being fought for obscure reasons that haven't even happened yet. Our central quartet are grounded, interesting characters who grow and learn from their crazy experience. Sure, maybe they take the insane events a little too easily in their stride (the TV show works a bit better by slowing down the craziness, giving them more time to adjust to what's happening), but that also feels true to the 1980s SF movies the comic feels like it's homaging.

Ultimately the crazy SF antics are a backdrop to the simple notion of adolescent friendship. As Stephen King said, the friendships you form in later life are nothing like the ones you form at and before the age of 13 or so, and the whole book feels like it revolves around that idea. This gives the story universality, but can feel a bit like an overtrodden path, especially as contemporary projects like the superficially similar Stranger Things (which started after Paper Girls but obviously got a lot more attention) also went down the same route. But universal narratives which a lot of people can relate to remain powerful, especially if attached to the furniture of combat robots, weaponised lizards and religions emerging from modern corporate entities.

Paper Girls: The Complete Story (****) is a fun, breathless read, if sometimes a tad overwhelming or confusing. The well-drawn central characters pull the narrative back on course when it threatens to meander, and there's enough crazy SF antics to keep genre fans entertained. The book is available now. 

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