We all see what we want to see. Coffey looks and he sees Russians. He sees hate and fear. You have to look with better eyes than that.
Lindsey Brigman, The Abyss (1989)
Patrick: When The Abyss came out in 1989, the Cold War was still very much a part of the American Zeitgeist. So much so, that a James Cameron movie about underwater aliens necessarily had to address political tensions between the US and the Soviets and the fear of nuclear annihilation. Those themes are more clearly expressed in the lumpier director’s cut of the film, but even the theatrical release is colored with assumptions and anxieties specific to that period in time. I love The Abyss, but I probably didn’t see it until I was 11 or 12 (1994 sounds right), which means I was able to take it in from the other side of the Berlin Wall, and none of those relics of Cold War paranoia rang true to my personal experience. But rather than being alienating, those details tap into an existing international psychology, and create a world that is instantly recognizable as real, honest, and not so far outside the world we know. Paper Girls pulls a similar trick, filling the pages with 1988 details that don’t so much tell a story as set the scene for a story.
Which isn’t to say that the copious amounts of set-up in this issue is in any way a drag. I was ready to settle into the lives of teenage girls fighting for respect in suburban America toward the end of the Cold War. Writer Brian K. Vaughan wields the era with such breathless confidence that he and artist Cliff Chiang can pull-off a full-page hero-introduction splash wherein said hero uses the word “faggot.”
That’s a big word, and Vaughan knows it. The girls will talk about it on the following pages, but Mac’s only throwing out such hurtful language because she has to speak a language the neighborhood bullies understand. It’s hateful language, but it’s born out of a very specific environment and a very specific time. Vaughan and Chiang boldly commit to this time, even if it means using words and tapping into ideas that are down-right foreign to modern readers.
Most of the rest of that color comes in the form of historical context. Much like The Abyss, the backdrop to Paper Girls is the end latter end of the Cold War. I think what’s important here is that the story itself is not about the Cold War, but the simmering conflict plays into the expectations and fears of our characters. The issue starts in a dream sequence — which is always kind of a dicey proposition when you’re trying to establish what reality is — and the images that leak into Erin’s subconscious paint a beautiful portrait of both the kid and the time. Erin is greeted in Heaven — which looks like the surface of the moon — by Christa McAuliffe, the teacher that died in the Challenger explosion in 1985. Then she’s sent down to Hell, where she’s confronted by a demon that looks like the bad guy from Legend, and a pop-quiz that looks like it’s printed off on purple ditto-machine paper.
As someone who lived through Challenger and Legend (harrowing ordeals, both), I feel like I’m immediately on-board with who Erin is and the culture that produced her. There’s also a the fact that Erin dreams of herself in Heaven and Hell and the whole dream starts on the image of an apple — obviously recalling imagery from Genesis. Add to that Chiang’s masterful drawing of Erin kneeling on the surface of the moon, and it’s like the storytellers are peering into my soul and projecting my own experience back at me.
I’m certain that this cocktail of images is going to be more effective on me than most readers. But Vaughan and Chiang’s commitment to this perspective is what makes Erin a fully-realized character rather than simply an avatar for the reader to experience the adventure she’s about to go on.
And judging by how much I’ve already written here, I’m going to leave the particulars of the adventure to you, Spencer. It feels an awful lot like The Woods, wherein a high school is transported to a strange new land, or like LOST, where the survivors of a plane crash are stranded on a mysterious island that doesn’t seem to exist in time or space as we know it. The difference is that both The Woods and LOST did the work of making their characters complete retroactively, jumping into their pasts to inform their actions in the present. Paper Girls 1 is a masterclass in exploring its characters in real time before putting them in a strange new world. It’s an economy of symbolism and characterization, and I couldn’t be much more excited for a second issue. My only worry is that we’re might lose some of that grounded connection to that specific moment in time if, y’know, the girls really are in a different space.
Oh! I’m also in love with the title. “Paper Girls” refers to their occupation, and its a wonderful subversion of the idiom “paper boy,” so it pulls in those gender dynamics. But there’s another idiom that the title evokes: “paper tiger.” A paper tiger is something that appears threatening but is actually benign or ineffectual. That could be referring to Erin’s dream, or Mac’s tough-as-nails exterior, or the Cold War, or even those dudes in black cloaks. It could also just be referring to the fact that these girls aren’t exactly what they appear to be.
Spencer: You know Patrick, I hadn’t even considered the idea that our protagonists (and apparently their town as well) could have been transported to an entirely new location, but it would certainly explain why all the street lights suddenly shut off and why there’s suddenly a bunch of new constellations in the sky. If true, it seems like a shame to lose a setting that’s already such a compelling element of the story, but I think that may be the point; the entire “alien” threat revolves around introducing frightening new elements to this established setting, and transporting the setting itself would be the ultimate form of this.
But let’s take a look at some smaller examples too. The most obvious seems to be the Apple device the girls find on the final page. While Apple as a company existed in 1988, it wasn’t a household name, and the technology Apple would eventually make commonplace would’ve seemed as alien in 1988 as the actual alien device the girls find in the basement. I’m not sure what the Apple device literally means to the story — are the “aliens” interested in Apple? Are they responsible for Apple?! Is there some kind of time travel involved? — but on a metaphorical level, it seems like an ominous herald of change.
Throughout Paper Girls 1, “change” as a concept is often indicated by a shift in color. Matthew Wilson’s colors in general are an essential component of the series’ storytelling, and his techniques are most evident in this stand-out spread:
I’d reckon that most of the issue’s action takes place between 4:40-6AM, and thus every single scene is bathed in the dim hues of nighttime — as clearly seen in the above image. Wilson therefore uses light to draw the readers’ eye to important details/characters/actions. In this spread, it’s the light from Erin’s garage showing us which home is hers, but elsewhere in the issue we have the headlights of the newspaper truck kicking off the plot by dropping off Erin’s papers, light from flashlights introducing us to the rest of the Paper Girls or locating the abandoned house the aliens are hiding out in, and the headlights of police cars heralding the arrival of the police (and eventually putting Mac and Erin in a literal spotlight as objects of suspicion).
Then there’s the purple streak in the sky, which I’d almost guarantee is related to whatever extraterrestrial threat has surfaced in Cleveland. A hue that bright is never found naturally in the world of Paper Girls — instead, it only pops up when a foreign element intrudes into the girls’ lives. There’s the boys who harass Erin, whose first close-up is illuminated by a bright orange background; the “KRAKOOM” of the alien invaders stands out against a yellow background; Tiffany’s scraped knee, Mac’s threatening the aliens, and even Tiffany’s mere suggestion that aliens might be involved all receive similar treatment.
This is perhaps my favorite use of the technique. The same pink background is used a few pages earlier, when Erin marvels about how Mac was the first female paper boy; her actions changed the status quo and encouraged girls like Erin to follow in her footsteps. Mac’s attitude here sets a similar example for Erin; even the way Chiang lets the panel extend into the gutter represents Mac literally expanding Erin’s perspective.
In the end, though, these are all rather mild changes. These girls’ world doesn’t drastically change until they find that alien device in the basement, and again, that change is aptly depicted by Wilson and Chiang; there’s the blinding flash of light that overtakes all four girls (showing their skeletons like they’re Looney Toons), the radically new skies, and perhaps most significantly, the actual violence the aliens bring with them. It’s a different kind of danger than even the boys or the cops presented earlier; the alien takes out two girls in one swing, and it sends Mac into a frenzy unlike anything we’d seen up to that point.
Not only is the background bathed in a bright color, but even Mac herself is colored turquoise instead of a natural shade; that’s how drastically she’s snapped, how foreign the life-and-death violence these aliens have brought with them is to these girls’ lives. That violence only intensifies as the sequence continues.
On the next page Erin starts vomiting and chanting in a kind of font and format that hints at this attack literally changing her mind and/or body in some way. Even if it hasn’t, though, this actual chokehold is the most violent moment of the issue, and that’s thoroughly represented by the drastic shift in colors.
By this point the girls’ lives have taken a sharp turn, and the kind of change they’re dealing with is so effective exactly because Vaughan and Chiang do such a fantastic job of establishing the lives of these girls and the world they live in before introducing the more fantastic elements. I was only a year old in 1988, so I don’t have the first-hand experience with this time-period that Patrick does, but the setting still rings true for me in a totally different way: it feels like an 80s movie.
Specifically, I’m thinking of films like The Goonies. These kids are tough, street-smart, and seem to have infinite freedom; there’s no parents to be seen, and the few adult authority figures we do see are obviously corrupt; the kids face legitimate physical danger even before the aliens show their face. Those are all trademarks of 80s teen movies, and just like the more historical details Patrick highlighted, these are all ways to make Paper Girls‘ Cleveland feel real and familiar. It’s extraordinarily effective: the familiar, inviting nature of this world draws the reader in, and once they’re hooked, proceeds to blindside them with aliens and violence and all the drastic changes to a world they’ve come to feel invested in. How could I not come back to see what happens next?!
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?