By Mike Perry
If you’re a regular listener to the podcast, you know that every week, I like to try and step outside of the usual Marvel and DC superhero realms and experiment with something new. Whether it’s old standards like Archie, ancient issues of Tales from the Crypt, or the new DC Flintstones run, I’m always surprised at the little treasures that I find along the way. From one-off series like Marvel Infinite’s Deadpool: Too Soon to the aforementioned random finds, there’s never a dull moment. This week, however, I didn’t just find something cool. I didn’t just find something worth reading. I fell in love.
Decorated writer Brian K. Vaughan released Paper Girls in 2015 to universal critical acclaim. Somehow, I completely missed it. It wasn’t until I was doing my weekly random browsing that I stumbled upon what would instantly become my favorite comic.
Set in 1980s Cleveland suburb of Stony Stream, the Image series follows the adventures of four teenage newspaper delivery girls who band together in order to fend off mischievous youth on All Saint’s night. The unassuming Erin, after being accosted by a couple of kids in typical 80’s Halloween costumes (think Freddy Kreuger), is saved by tough-talking, cigarette smoking Mackenzie and her friends, techno geek Tiffany and KJ, who carries a field hockey stick for self-defense.
The series is rife with nostalgic, but not intrusive pop culture references, touching on everything from horror and sci-fi to video games, fashion, and even the occasional throwback reference to some 1980s brand that you forgot even existed. It’s done tactfully and never overtakes the story, and really adds to the perfectly captured set pieces of suburban anywhere, USA during the time period which are beautifully done by artist Cliff Chiang. The pastel colors and use of pale pinks and subtle purples contrasted with heavy inking and lots of darkness further brings this world alive. I felt like I was reading a comic drawn on a Lisa Frank trapper keeper, but in the best way possible.
Before long, the girls encounter an even bigger looming threat than the trick or treating teens who
had harassed them. Strange looking men appear, some of them speaking an alien language (translated to English with the help of a handy device), while another faction speaks in a very broken, simplified English dialect reminiscent of the American Deep South. Watching the girls try to figure out who they can trust is brilliant; a true comic book moral dilemma juxtaposed with some truly over the top science fiction with just the right amount of period-relevant social commentary drizzled on top.
The dialogue perfectly captures the teen culture of the setting, as well. There’s plenty of use of the kind of coarse language that was widely accepted in Reagan’s America that would never fly in today’s politically correct climate. Mackenzie refers to the kids who assault Erin as “fags” and “AIDS patients” without a second thought. The erstwhile lone wolf, Erin takes offense to Mac’s choice of verbiage, but the other girls seem to just accept her for what she is. Of course, this attitude foreshadows a lot of what’s to come, but this is a spoiler-free review.
Eventually, the girls stumble upon some kind of strange, futuristic, almost organic device in a basement which spooks them, leading immediately to a run-in with some deformed human-like creatures, followed by the discovery of a device with a strange logo on it (modern readers will instantly recognize it, however), leading them to wonder just who or what could be causing such havoc. KJ wonders if it might be time travellers or perhaps nuclear mutant Russian spies from Chernobyl. Erin, always the sensible one, recognizes the logo from the new computer that her school recently bought.
Before the discussion gets anywhere, the girls find the sky filled with gigantic dinosaur-like creatures, but for some reason, the creatures do not attack them.
They run back to Mackenzie’s house, where her alcoholic stepmother informs them that the end of the world has come. They find themselves tangled in a strange and instantly-changed world as they struggle to determine who they can trust. All of the classic 80’s tropes are here; the girls learn after school special-ready lessons about playing with guns, talking to strangers, and more.
As the girls unravel the mystery piece by piece, they grow as friends and their resolve becomes stronger. The dynamics of the group do change, but in the end of each set piece, they’re still just middle school-aged girls. It works perfectly, as even the hard ass Mackenzie frequently shows her hand as just a scared kid.
Image describes Paper Girls as “Stand By Me” meets “War of the Worlds,” but I’d also throw The Twilight Zone, Back to the Future, and Star Trek into the list as major influences on this thrilling, amusing, and captivating series.
The books are easy to collect as both trade a paperback (featuring issues 1-5) and as individual books. If the first seven issues are any indication of where Paper Girls is going, you will forever regret it if you don’t get in on the ground floor before it’s too late. This is the best regular, non-superhero book going today, and I cannot recommend it enough.