Graphic Novel Review: Paper Girls, Vols. 1-2

The public’s current fascination with the 1980’s, specifically its pop culture, could be interpreted by many as kitsch, vulgar or sentimental art for mainstream tastes, yet that interpretation reduces the psychology of the masses into reductive nostalgia. Television shows like “Stranger Things” explore suburban dread through the prism of the two reigning Stevens of the 1980’s, King and Spielberg, while franchise reboots like “Transformers” or “G.I. Joe” are schizophrenic attempts to exploit the sincerity and innocence of those past shows while simultaneously making them “appropriate” for a 30-something audience.

Cut to Brian K. Vaughan’s new triumph, Paper Girls (2015-present), a melding of all those peculiar sensibilities we love about ‘80s pop culture with our current apprehensions about our future. Centered on a group of teenage paper girls from 1988 who get entangled in a steampunk phantasmagoria involving time travel, pterodactyls, slug monsters, and seemingly innocuous Apple products. Our audience surrogate, Erin, is a hardworking, responsible, but lonely character. Typical of ‘80s teenage archetypes, she is a social outcast and, taking a page from classics like “The Goonies” or “Monster Squad”, it doesn’t take Erin long to find a clan of likewise outcasts to belong to. Like all good ensembles, each supporting character fulfills a specific role. Mac is the alpha female of the group, tough-as-nails but a bit hotheaded. Tiffany is the smart levelheaded one, always playing second fiddle to Mac’s achievements, and KJ is the group’s protector.

In the first volume of the comic, we are plopped into the story with very little warning, as Erin and her newfound friends get accosted by a group of ninja-garbed mutant teenage boys, temporal tourists who’ve got an odd habit of filching old-school communication devices. Adding to that is a cadre of pterodactyl-mounted space knights that are in hot pursuit of Erin, her friends, and two of the mutant space boys, Heck and Naldo. By the close of the first trade paperback, our titular heroes end up taking a tumble down a temporal rabbit hole and get spit out on the other side of 2016.  The story continues in the second volume as a quest to find a lost friend in the detritus of our dystopian present, all while trying to not get killed or captured by the resident bad guys of the story, the “old-timers.”

With all the twists and quantum turns of the narrative, first-time readers might be put off by Paper Girls, viewing the graphic novel as a labyrinthine hodgepodge of ideas and visual spectacle, but it is really a simple coming of age tale. The girls act very mature for their ages: cursing, smoking, and even occasionally expressing themselves in an erudite manner. Yet like all teenagers, Erin and her friends are wrestling with a fear of the future, afraid that their lives won’t progress any further than a few steps out of their familial homes and scared that disappointment will be the only recurring feeling in adulthood. Vaughan depicts this theme in various ways, be it through Erin’s Dali-esque dream sequences, the trope of having a character meet his or her older self, and visual exposition.  For example, when a character’s life flashes before her eyes, it is presented as a four-page, nine-panel sequence wherein her life is juxtaposed with a game of Brick Breaker she is playing as seasons change and the world around her passes her by.

Cliff Chiang’s artwork coupled with Matt Wilson’s coloring perfectly evokes a 1980’s aesthetic. Wilson, in particular, with his choice of neon purples, hot pinks, scorching yellows, and methylene blue color palette reference ‘80s staples like “E.T.” and early MTV music videos, and the neon-noir genre that came to fruition during the “Me” Decade. The blocks of solid colors, applied on the page like graffiti, nicely contrasts with Chiang’s line work, which exhibit the characteristics of a calligrapher’s assured pen strokes.

For many comics aficionados, the name Brian K. Vaughan is a moniker of quality, and unsurprisingly Paper Girls is another masterpiece in his canon. It is a work of unparalleled beauty that plumbs the depths of teenage ennui to present us with a story of four girls trying their hardest to make sense of a confusing set of circumstances, then realizing that friendship with each other is their best weapon for survival.

Paper Girls Vols. 1 and 2 are available on  The third volume will be released in August.