Today, Patrick and Ryan M are discussing Paper Girls 15, originally released June 8, 2017. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Patrick: I’ve always loved the idiom “snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.” It implies such a rough and determined win against nearly insurmountable odds. Like, think about how much courage it takes to snatch anything out of a pair of motherfucking jaws, never mind that the jaws evidently belong to the personification of “defeat.” It’s dramatic, heroic, hopeful. But it’s seldom something we see in the work of Brian K. Vaughan. Closing out the third story arc, Paper Girls 15 gives us a prime example of the exact opposite — defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. Every act of bravery is punished with increasingly perplexing consequences, until the very nature of the Girls’ time travel is thrown into question.
Of course, we don’t start by jumping to a Y2K-riddled January 1, 2000. We’ve gotta work up to that bad boy. Vaughan and artist Cliff Chiang start with simple, low stakes heroism being met with a negative reaction. Here are the first two panels in the issue.
KJ comes bounding in — jet boots still emitting their Jetsons-esque hover rays — celebrating the fact that she’s still alive. Chiang does everything he can to elevate this panel: notice how it’s a little bit wider than the panels that follow, and how it bleeds all the way to the top of the page, violating the gutters that the rest of the panels dutifully honor. There’s also a slightly askew camera angle, which stands in contradiction to the perfectly square framing on the rest of the page. KJ comes back as a goddamn hero, but is stopped cold by Mac’s folded-arms and sarcastic congratulations.
That’s the test run for a similar inversion of heroics a few pages later. Wari, Dr. Braunstein and the Girls hatch a plan to rescue little Jahpo from the trio of portal-worshiping homicidal cavemen. It’s got all the hallmarks of a good heroic plan, leveraging the treasure, expertise and bravery of all six characters equal measure. As the plan’s taking shape, all of the little question marks from earlier in the arc — like the circuitry around Wari’s neck, or Tiffany’s nightmare iPod — start to pay off in meaningful ways. Of course, when it actually comes to applying this plan against three roided-out monster-men, there’s going to be some violence involved.
I love that the Girls are so frequently put into positions that they can wriggle out of without resorting to violence. In just the last issue, KJ helped rescue Dr. Braunstein without having to throw a punch — why should this time be any different? I think Vaughan and Chiang want us to want their non-violence to work too, otherwise it wouldn’t look so fucking dope when Braunstein tosses out the Nightmare Generator.
That’s the kind of stylish cool action that would normally be reserved for the hero hurling a weapon at their foe (and usually ending in some kind of impaling or beheading). Again, check out how Chiang is giving the first of these two panels the whole width of the page, while the second stays restrained by the gutter. Dr. Braunstein is getting the hero-shot treatment here, just like Kaje did on page one. And what’s that get her? An ax to the back and a shallow grave in 11000 BCE.
But Dr. Braunstein may not be the biggest loser in this one. KJ is. Kaje loses her shit, and totally wails on the one caveman who is is impervious to the nightmare-maker. Chaing almost doesn’t know what to do with this information, kicking it off with splash page that violates all the gutters and dragging it wordlessly into a page that negates them (turning the space between the panels from white to black).
Is this heroism? Villainy? It’s intense, whatever it is. And again, then we’re left with the Girls’ reward: missing their timebus back to 2066. They seemingly make all the right moves, all of the noblest sacrifices and still suffer defeat.
And what a weird defeat it is! We only see Tiffany in the new era they been wisked away to, but she appears to be stranded in an alternate version of the year 2000. It’s a hilariously dystopian landscape peppered with all the best corporate branding the turn of the century had to offer: Applebee’s! Blockbuster! CompUSA! — a literal ABC of 2000. Ryan, I can’t wait to see how the Girls heroically fail their way through Y2K, but I’m so worried about poor Kaje. She had zero time to cope with what she had done, and now she’s going to have to put up with ubiquity of Three Doors Down’s “Kryptonite” and the Baha Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out?” It’s tough of there – even for a hero.
Ryan M: I’d like to think in a world where the Y2K bug came to pass, the mindless pop of the early aughts would just dissipate, leaving Carson Daly standing in the dark performing TRL to no one. That said, I can only imagine what horrors of culture await the Girls.
There hasn’t been much room for romantic entanglements in this series and Vaughan portrays the tension between KJ and Mac in a really honest way. KJ’s knowledge of their kiss in the future as well as last issue’s airborne realization that she may not be as straight as she thought, leads to a charged interaction.
It’s a loaded moment, but Vaughan and Chiang keep it simple. KJ’s assertion that she was doing “what felt right” lands so much harder because it is followed by a panel in which neither has moved but the shot it tighter on their faces. KJ and the reader know what she means, but her language is still fairly opaque to Mac. It’s one of the quieter moments in the issue, but creates a backdrop to KJ’s behavior later. Her instincts are good-hearted, but it seems like her guardrails are off.
Her beating of the man in the helmet is upsetting, even though we know that he would likely have murdered a baby in some sort of sacrificial rite. These men have witnessed things beyond their understanding and have built a system of ceremonies and rites that give them a sense of control. It functions as a statement on the role of religion in these kinds of societies. By using Jahpo as the sacrifice, it only strengthens the idea that there is something unnatural and wrong about the way the interference of the time folds have affected the world.
Vaughan and Chiang offer a worldless page. We start with a sleeping cherubic Jahpo. Safe and quiet, while the threat to his safety is revealed in the background in the second panel. The focus shifts to the men casting a tribute in the third panel. All of this tracks with what we could expect. A senseless offering. Savagery overcoming humanity. A child catching consequences for adult madness. This is where, Chiang and Vaughan play with expectations. The final panel of the page is lit unlike any other in the issue thus far. The lead caveman is bathed in a pink light, his strange offering rite having worked. The panel bleeds off the page, gives the moment urgency as it leads to a splash page showing that the sky has opened above them.
There is a beauty here, even within the acts of savagery.
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