Spencer: The best sci-fi creators find a way to distill their grand ideas and concepts down to situations and emotions their audience can connect with and relate to. Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang have been wizards at this throughout Paper Girls, using their story to explore themes as weighty as prejudice and generation gaps and as mundane as family and growing up. Issue 13 distills that idea even further, slowing their ongoing story to a crawl and instead using the journey to naturally draw out the cast’s view of themselves, their families, and growing up in general. The result is never anything less than completely engaging.
One of the most prominent threads weaving throughout Paper Girls 13 is the idea of family, specifically how the girls’ families have shaped their view of themselves and their futures. About halfway through the issue, Erin, Tiffany, and Wari (the native girl they’ve befriended) have a discussion about their views on having children, initiated by Erin’s skill at caring for Wari’s son, Jahpo.
I love the various responses here. Tiffany is still unsure about whether she wants children or not, but knows she’s not in a hurry, while Erin seems disinterested in the idea altogether. While Tiffany’s opinions are obviously influenced by her family and her environment, Erin — who probably has the most “traditional” family of the four girls, and displays an aptitude for child care — is simply disinterested, with apparently no larger force driving her decision. This is a wonderful exploration of the various factors that can influence our decisions and opinions, but it’s also a stark contrast to Wari’s life.
Even coming from the more regressive 80s, Erin and Tiffany are still lucky to have a choice about having children at all — that was never an option for Wari. The reveal that Jahpo’s father is one of the three men Wari despises so much creates some sinister undertones to his conception, but even if that doesn’t end up being the case, her statement here reveals that Wari views children as a necessity. They aren’t a choice or a luxury, but a replacement, a way to perpetuate your genetics. That speaks to mankind’s more base needs and instincts, drives that we may still feel to an extent today, but are no longer compelled to fulfill. It’s fascinating to see how the sacrifices of women like Wari allowed Erin and Tiffany to have the options they do, and how returning to the past created an environment where they could better explore and discover their preferences.
KJ and Mac’s adventures, meanwhile, not only encompass their family situations, but their changing bodies as well.
Mac is obsessed with KJ’s period throughout the issue, even as she suggests that talking about their bodies is unladylike. While we don’t hear much about KJ’s family this month, we can ascertain that they’ve made sure she has all the information she needs to handle puberty, which she’s done thus far with aplomb; Mac is far less prepared. Seeing and hearing what we have about Mac’s family, it’s no surprise that they’d feel this way; I guess what takes me by surprise is how fully Mac buys into it (“My brother is right about everything”). Mac’s character is an interesting contradiction — she’s hard-scrapping, anti-authority, and independent yet she’s also the most fiercely conservative and trusting of her family out of the four. Of all the paper girls, I think I may be most interested in seeing how she develops, because she has the most room to grow, but also seems the most resistant to it (even as her questions to KJ betray her, revealing that she really does want to learn more).
Of course, my interest in Mac is also piqued by the big reveal. While Vaughan and Chiang are content to simply use their sci-fi setting as a springboard to better explore their cast throughout most of this issue, the strange alien craft KJ and Mac discover at the issue’s end delivers some shocking images that, not only predict some dark turns for the story, but some surprising new directions for the characters. I mentioned in our discussion of issue 11 that KJ might have some sort of latent prophetic ability, an idea which only seems to be enforced by the visions KJ sees when she touches the alien craft.
KJ is horrified when she lets go of the ship, but I’m not sure if it’s by the actual idea of what she saw, or the fact that it’s forcing her to confront some feelings she’d rather not. This moment was a shock to me as a reader as well, but I’ll admit, it’s Mac’s inclusion here that surprised me more than KJ’s. Maybe it shouldn’t have, though? Mac mocked Nando and Heck’s homosexuality back in the first arc, but as this issue’s shown, Mac quite often mocks and dismisses ideas she’s actually quite interested in. More than anything, though, this vision predicts quite a bit of growth and evolution from these two characters, and that kind of development is always going to get me excited. This is Paper Girls at its best.
Patrick, I’ve always liked this series, but I think this third arc is by far my favorite; by backing off the constant stream of inexplicable events and simply giving the characters room to breathe and grow, the creative team’s given me a lot more to latch on to as a reader. How do you feel? And I didn’t get a chance to dig into the always impressive work of Chiang and Matthew Wilson — anything you want to point out there?
Patrick: Oh man, a prompt about Chiang and Wilson’s artwork? Okay, you asked for it.
I wanna start with Wilson, whose color work is often over shadowed by Chiang’s stylish designs and impeccable acting. Wilson adds a positively insane amount of detail to every page, a feat which is all the more meaningful considering how frequently Chiang insists on literal backgrounds for his panels. Flip back through the issue – there are really only a handful of examples of panels with abstract backgrounds – all the rest have highly detailed forest backdrops. And those single-color abstractions are reserved for moments where our storytellers are trying to communicate confusion, disorientation or fear, such as when Dr. Braunstein wakes up suspended in the air by her feet.
Normally, Chiang and Wilson take pains to draw and color an almost overwhelming amount of vegetation. Trees, grass, bushes, rivers, rocks, it’s all demonstrative of the post-historical setting. Wilson’s color choices — both for the trees and for these solid color backgrounds — have an earth-bound quality to them. Everything is green and brown and yellow, resting comfortably in the knowable palette of the forest. Weirdly, the girls are also rendered in that same set of cool colors: all except KJ, whose pink jacket and hair tie set her visually apart from her crew and the rest of this world. Until we encounter this:
Check out those colors! Wilson ditches the painterly effect that dapples the trees in natural-looking sunlight and adopts a surreal coloring technique that transitions peacefully from cyan to magenta to yellow. Those are the three printing colors, casting this thing as both “otherworldly” but also as an object from the world of comics. Y’know: whatever that means. The implication is that this upside-down pyramid thing is going to Fuck Shit Up and Make The Story Weird. Spencer’s right to note how chill this arc has been so far, but this triangle doo-dad will certainly interrupt said chill.
All of which is to say that Chiang and Wilson are essentially the perfect team to present Vaughan’s story in a way that auto-internalizes so many of the issue’s softer revelations. That brings me back, necessarily, to the first two pages of the issue, which I noticed my compatriot opted not to touch! Page one is a splash page – sorta. Arguably it’s not even a panel, just a blue background with a white colon right in the middle. So, what’s that mean? A colon usually indicates that a writer is ready to explain something that needs clarification, or (more exciting) that the writer is about to draw a grand conclusion. Whatever comes after that colon is bound to be more meaningful than what came before, right? In mathematics, the colon can be used to express odds, as in the odds of the Cubs winning the world series again this year are 7:2. So, what is this first page expressing? Struggling to express certainty in the face of an uncertain question or an explanation?
The second page doesn’t help us much. It’s a close-up of some kind of surface, imbued with an alien blue finish and etched with primitive figures.
It’s basically no information, but its placement immediately following the colon suggests that we’re actually getting more of an explanation that we can really understand. It’s a cool image, evocative without revealing anything. I can’t help but feel like Vaughan, Chiang and Wilson are giving us some of Kaje’s prophetic prowess here. We don’t get to understand it, but then, neither does KJ.
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?