Paper Girls 17: Discussion

by Drew Baumgartner & Patrick Ehlers

Paper Girls 17

This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!

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Drew: Brian K. Vaughan series are hard to pin down, generically. I mean, they obviously fall into big capital-G genres like “sci-fi” or “space opera,” but the list of specific influences — which Vaughan often name-checks — can shift from issue to issue. Case in point, Paper Girls has sprinted through dozens of generic touchstones in its 17 issues. And yet, I’ve been holding onto its starting point in the Spielberg/Columbus-style suburbia of the late ’80s as some kind of essential component of its DNA, even as the series hasn’t been in that setting since its very first arc. While some of the girls may still be in that head-space (Mac sure seems to be), they’re traversing worlds that have entirely different points of reference (both for the people who live in those worlds, and the stories we tell about them), which seems to be leaving an impression on them.

Let’s start with Tiffany, who wakes up in the back of a burning cop car. She doesn’t hesitate to pull the cop to safety, an act that she acknowledges is pretty badass.

Schwarzenegger

Calling herself Arnold freaking Schwarzenegger is an appropriately 80s reference, to be sure (and one that becomes only more justified after the car blows up in true action-movie-esque fashion), but is also pretty far outside the more kid-friendly adventure films I associated with the first arc of this series. This is clearly closer to something out of The Terminator than it is The Goonies. It’s a different bibliography, but one that still plays by the rules of her era.

But Vaughan stretches that a bit elsewhere. The most obvious explicit example comes when Charlotte makes a too-hip-for-the-room reference to Quantum Leap.

Quantum Leap

I love the use of that silent panel to emphasize just how hard that joke died. It’s not too far off from where the girls are coming from — wikipedia says Quantum Leap started airing only a few months after that fateful morning they stepped out of their own time — but that only works to highlight the specificity of these girls’ frame of reference. Vaughan and artist Cliff Chiang can drop all the post-1988 references they want to us (and you can bet there are a ton), but they’re going to sail right over the heads of our intrepid paper girls.

It’s where these two worlds collide that excites me most, though. The girls might have come from 1988, but their adventures have taken them far afield of that starting point, and their worldviews might just be shifting with their newfound times. Or, put another way, what happens when their adventures get so weird, no movie from 1988 (even an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie) could serve as a meaningful reference? I think that might be exactly what KJ is going through, coming out to Mac when “coming out” might not be a concept either of them are familiar with — at least, not in any of those adventure movies we’ve used as a shorthand for their starting place. Indeed, the revelation is met with a silent confusion that evokes that reference to Quantum Leap.

I think maybe I'm a lesbian already

The flavor is a little different here — Mac and KJ know what a lesbian is (though KJ’s uncertainty as to whether or not she’s “already” a lesbian belies some naïveté on the subject) — but I can’t help but feel that this is all part of drawing the girls out of the genres that defined their early adolescence. It’s a coming of age story that might also examine the coming of age of coming of age stories.

Okay, Patrick, lest I disappear up my own butt, I’m gonna need you to step in and say something about Chiang’s art (or Matt Wilson’s colors), which I’ve woefully neglected. Those silent beats would be nothing without the timing and expressions Chiang wields so effectively, but I haven’t really left myself enough space to properly examine any of that. Chiang makes a lot of clever choices that I meant to talk about, but didn’t, so I’m hoping you have some favorites of your own that you can draw our attention to.

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Patrick: I will totally take that request in a second, but I just wanted to point out one more delicious ingredient in that reference-soup, first. Before they disappear into the basement, Charlotte lets her own Schwarzenegger movie reference fly. “Come with me if you want to live.” She cites it as a quote from a wise man, but it’s just one of many action movie catch phrases spouted by the heroes in Terminator. In the first Terminator movie, it’s Kyle Reese trying to win over Sarah Connor’s trust, and in T2: Judgement Day, it’s the reprogrammed Terminator — Schwarzenegger himself — offering to help. The original Terminator came out in 1984, well within the Girls’ frame of reference, but T-2 came out in 1991, so this reference straddles the line between familiar and alien, at least as far as the Girls are concerned. Chiang borrows the posture and camera angle from T-2 specifically.

This is a reference that the Girls can pick up on, but incompletely. The non diegetic nature of Chiang’s execution of the joke makes it just for us anyway, and the fact that Mac, KJ and Erin aren’t around for Tiffany’s Schwarzenegger reference highlights the difference between their perspective and ours. Like, how weird is it that Tiffany describes herself as “Schwarzenegger. I am Arnold freaking… [Schwarzenegger]” without ever seeing the T-1000’s hero turn in T-2?

But back to Chiang and Wilson! So much of this issue is planting the idea that comics are capable of communicating hidden truths. That’s the whole point of Charlotte’s character, and the basis for why 75% of our Girls are in danger by the end of the issue. The creative team, including letterer Jared K. Fletcher, drive this home in the opening pages, which present four straight panels of un-readable future-speak.

Mind you, I say unreadable, but it can actually be read. There are notes on the wall in Charlotte’s house that decode the first couple letters in this language, and while it’s never totally clear in this issue, the previous issue gives us a glimpse of the primer for this alphabet.

Those are dense letters, so I’m not going to try to figure out what these year 70,000 guys are saying to each other on page two, but it’s fascinating to me that Chiang and Fletcher presumably give us the tools to crack one of their codes right in the series. Even if we don’t take the time to teach ourselves a new language, Charlotte’s notes help us identify who we’re looking at here — a hero named Jude from the year 70,000.

If nothing else, this kind of reliance on the art for even the very foundational elements of storytelling (the “who” in “who, what, where”) shows a trust in both the medium and the readers that very few other series ever demonstrate.

One last thing before we hand it over to the comments: I love Wilson’s coloring inside Charlotte’s house. Everywhere else in the issue, Wilson trades in dark, cool blues, greens and grays. Within Charlotte’s den of infinite information, the page is bathed in soft illuminating yellows. You can see that coloring in panels both Drew and I have posted above, and it’s amazing how much that feeds the idea that she’s offering meaning knowledge, simply by shining a light on it.

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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?

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5 comments on “Paper Girls 17: Discussion

  1. NEITHER OF US SAID ANYTHING ABOUT TIFFANY’S GOTH HUSBAND! The simplest explanation is that Tiffany got married in her early/mid twenties, and that maybe we’ll run into her the same way we ran into future Erin a few arcs back. But, like, is she goth now? Is he? Or maybe this is some kind of weird Y2K costume party? That he’s sitting alone in her parents’ house with the doors swinging open makes me a little suspicious — what if he’s lying? Heck, he might not even be from the year 2000. We don’t have enough to do much more than speculate, but I’d love to hear some wild speculation on that reveal. What do you guys think?

  2. Man, I really wanted to talk about Wilson’s coloring, too. Patrick, you’re 100% right about the lighting in that scene in Charlotte’s place — it actually reminded me a great deal of that scene with Mac’s mom way back in issue 2. One thing that occurred to me as I thought more about that lighting is that there’s symbolism in what the characters are looking at. Like, yeah, I definitely think there’s something to the knowledgable adults being bathed in light while the kids are left literally in the dark, but I’m struck at what that means for the characters. The kids are looking into the light, while the adults are looking away from it — Charlotte’s back is to the truths she’s espousing. I don’t know if that particular reading is going to pay off, but the notion that adults are complacent with their knowledge while the kids are struggling for even the scraps of truth hints at a kind of tortoise/hare thing that rings true to me.

  3. With static images, it can sometimes be hard to show that something is standing still, especially in comics, where those static images are constantly portraying movement. That’s why I love the segment where Tiffany is bracing from the explosion, only to realize that the debris has frozen in mid-air. Chiang uses three panels where he keeps the debris in the exact same spot in the panel, yet has Tiffany move around it, thus showing that the debris has frozen while Tiffany has not. I thought it was a really smart, simple way to show something that could potentially be very complicated to portray.

    • Yeah, Chiang is really clever in that way. I remember seeing this process post Matt Wilson made about Wonder Woman 4, and realizing how many storytelling choices Chiang was making that I wasn’t even aware of. A lot of it is really, subtle, too. Like, the two silent panels I talk about in the write-up are actually super different in terms of those little details. In the first one, he cuts in closer on the girls, cropping Charlotte out of the shot because the point of that shot is their reaction. In the latter one, he doesn’t move the camera at all, because the shot is both about Mac’s reaction and KJ’s anticipation of it — by keeping most of those panels identical, we’re drawn to what’s different about them: their faces. It’s brilliant stuff.

  4. Patrick! I noticed that translation key in the last issue, too, and half thought about trying to decipher the future-teen speak (both in this issue and previous ones), but I think it would take way more time than I really have patience for. We can only clearly see about a quarter of the alphabet, and I suspect the ciphered bits might be in that weird teen dialect BKV has used throughout the series, so I’m not sure I’d be able to accurately guess the rest, anyway. Still, it’s kind of tempting to know that there’s information there we might have access to if we’re willing to put in the legwork.

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