Brian K. Vaughan has said that he tries to work out all of his issues with the world through his comics. So if “Y: The Last Man” represents his thoughts on gender politics, “Ex Machina” is general politics, “Pride of Baghdad” is the Second Iraq War, and “Saga” is parenthood, then what is he dealing with in “Paper Girls?” Even after reading this volume, the answer isn’t clear yet. I do have an opinion about that (or else I wouldn’t be writing this review). With its ensemble cast and puzzle-box nature, “Paper Girls” is Vaughan’s attempt to put his own spin on two such TV shows he worked on — “Lost” and “Under the Dome.”
Vaughan came onboard the writing staff of “Lost” in its fourth season and left after season five. I assume the experience went well enough for him because he went on to develop “Under the Dome” for TV and served as its showrunner for its first season. While the split appears to have been on amicable terms, I did hear Vaughan say at his Comic-Con panel two years ago that one of the reasons he left was because he liked how he had complete control over the characters in his comics. Hearing something like that, you get the impression that his experience on the show didn’t turn out the way he expected. So what better way to deal with the experience than by creating a new comic featuring its own sci-fi mystery.
To prepare the reader for the strangeness of what’s to come, “Paper Girls” starts out with an incredibly bizarre dream sequence involving deceased Challenger astronaut Christa McAuliffe and the Devil. The dream is being had by Erin, a young paper girl getting ready to head out for deliveries early morning on November 1st. She meets up with three other paper girls, hardass MacKenzie, know-it-all Tiffany, and level-headed KJ, after being threatened by some lingering trick-or-treaters and that turns out to be the beginning of their early morning trouble.
After splitting up, Tiffany and KJ are jumped by some guys in strange costumes who steal their walkie-talkie. All four girls track the attackers to a house that has a strange human-sized capsule in its basement. Then there’s a flash of light, the sky turns pink and reveals lots of new stars, and the attackers turn out to be misshapen humans with circuitry in their heads. Later, adults riding pterodactyls in shiny armor turn up. The girls try their best to cope with all of this, but it’s clear that the universe has other plans for them.
As for what these plans are, I’m really not sure. It’s not that the story isn’t coherent or fails to set up a conflict that will drive the series, but the point of it all is still elusive at the end of the first volume. I got the feeling while reading this that the introduction of so many disparate elements into this story — anachronistic technology, the warped teenagers, time travel, pterodactyls — were meant to capture my attention more than they did. The expected response being, “How are all these things meant to fit together? Please tell me more!” My response can be summed up as, “Okay Mr. Vaughan just where are you going with all this?”
It’s a question of trust and after the likes of “Y”, “Ex Machina,” and “Saga,” Vaughan has built up a lot with me. I wasn’t blown away by what I read here, but I trust that the writer has a plan for all of it that will be revealed in due time. This also helped carry me over the fact that unlike the first issues of his previous creator-owned series, the first issue wasn’t all that compelling. Vaughan has a well-deserved rep for writing really good first issues that set out the main ideas of his series in a compelling fashion. That wasn’t the case here, likely because the nature of the story he’s telling demands that he hold key information about it back from the reader. Based on his previous series, I have faith that Vaughan will eventually deliver on the setup here. If you can’t manage that then this first volume is likely to leave you cold.
There are still things to take note about this series when you’re not grappling with how the main story is going to play out. The four protagonists are appealing characters that know how to come together and solve the many problems before them. They could do with some more distinctive personality traits to distinguish them from each other, but that will likely come in time. Being a child of the 80’s myself, I was also amused by how Vaughan captured the feel of the era with his penchant for factoid-dropping. Some might find it to be a bit too on the nose, however. Most importantly he also manages to keep the narrative humming along at a brisk pace so that you’re never bored by what’s going on. It’s also fun to see what new bit of strangeness pops up on each page. Whether it’s pterodactyls (yes, I do like them), a dream sequence featuring Ronald Reagan, or an orb full of extending eyes that induces flashbacks in someone to wasting their life playing Arkanoid, something new always comes along to pique your interest.
This is all illustrated expertly by artist Cliff Chiang. He showed that he could do top-flight superhero action and drama with Brian Azzarello on “Wonder Woman” and Chiang wonderfully realizes Vaughan’s strange vision of the 80’s here. While the artist nails the look and feel of the era, he also has no problem bringing all the weirdness he can into it and still making it all look like it belongs in the story. Also great is how Chiang manages the constantly exasperated/incredulous looks of the cast as they react just as you’d expect to all of this craziness.
Vol. 1 of “Paper Girls” does have the strength of its creators to recommend it, yet I’m not fully onboard with where the story is right now. There’s a lot we don’t know about the generational and time-traveling conflict at the heart of it and it’ll depend on how future volumes play out before the real value of this one becomes apparent. As I said above, I’ve got faith that Vaughn will deliver something worthwhile in the end. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait until the end for it to become worthwhile. Chiang, if no one else, deserves better than that.