Thursday, June 29, 2017

Review - Paper Girls, Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang

Short review: Four paper delivery girls find themselves beset with time-travelers, flying reptiles, and murderous zealots. Also, they make bad decisions with handguns.

Erin has strange dreams
And then on October first
She has a strange life

Full review: 2016 seems to have been the year for us to get a mini-wave of nostalgia for 1980s-era young adult horror pieces, with the release of both Stranger Things (set in 1983) and Paper Girls (set in 1988). Both properties feature casts of preteens and seem to draw upon 1980s movies like E.T., Stand by Me, and The Goonies for inspiration, with stories that are intended to be frightening, but are intended to be frightening in a manner that is familiar and almost comfortable. Unlike Stranger Things, the story in Paper Girls focuses, naturally enough on four newspaper delivery girls and follows them through what has to be the most eventful November first of their lives.

Set in Cleveland, in the early morning hours of the day that are (or at least were) populated almost exclusively by kids on their paper route and other kids looking for trouble, Paper Girls focuses on a quartet of girls going about their daily business of throwing newspapers onto people's front porches. The main character, to the extent that any one of the four girls is the main character, is Erin, a paper girl prone to strange dreams involving death and the afterlife. She is accosted by some older teenage boys who are returning from a night of trick-or-treating while on her delivery route, and is only rescued when the other three girls, led by MacKenzie come riding to the rescue. MacKenzie is essentially the "bad girl" who smokes and swears, while KJ is pretty much defined by the fact that she carries a field hockey stick. Tiffany is mostly defined by the fact that she owns a set of walkie-talkies.

One of the few weaknesses of the book is that these four girls are, in large part, seemingly interchangeable. The only one who really stands out as her own character is Mackenzie, and that is because she is kind of a stereotype of a tough girl from the wrong side of the tracks. As noted before, she smokes. She was the first paper girl in Cleveland. She talks tough to bullying older boys. Her stepmother may have a drinking problem. She is the only one of the girls who doesn't attend a private school. And so on. The only thing that runs against the "tough bad girl" stereotype is that MacKenzie is a Girl Scout, but that's a throwaway line that isn't really built upon. The other three girls are mostly indistinguishable from one another. Erin and Tiffany are even drawn so similarly that in some frames it is difficult to determine which one is which. I am hoping that this is because this is the first volume in a series, and future installments will give each of these girls their own distinct personality and character arcs, but in this volume, they mostly seem to be "MacKenzie and her sidekicks".

In any event, things go sideways pretty quickly for the girls even after MacKenzie runs off the boys harassing Erin and Erin more or less returns the favor by providing MacKenzie with cover during a brief run-in with the police, as Tiffany and KJ are accosted by some cloaked figures who make off with Tiffany's walkie-talkie. From there, the plot accelerates into overdrive as people start disappearing, strange armored people riding winged dragon-like beasts show up in the sky, and the four girls make a series of rushed and somewhat poor decisions concerning a handgun. This sequence of events results in the girls making the acquaintance of some teenagers from the future, who deliver a little bit of explanation for the strange events that have been taking place thus far.

This sequence of events also results in Erin taking an impromptu jaunt through time - or at least what she is told is a jaunt through time. That uncertainty pervades this volume, as it is never made clear exactly what is happening or why, and it is unclear if any of the characters delivering exposition are actually telling the truth. This creates a very confusing atmosphere throughout the book, as the plot isn't so much a plot as it is a sequence of events that the reader is carried through without understanding who is doing what or why they are doing it. On the one hand, this confusion on the part of the reader mirrors the confusion of the four heroines, as they don't really know what is going or who to trust, but on the other hand, it makes this part of the book feel less like a story and more like a series of disjointed vignettes. This sort of storytelling methodology can be effective if done well, and Vaughn seems to pull it off for the most part, providing the story with the heightened tension that comes from not really knowing which side of the conflict to choose, although there are times when what is on the page is opaque enough that readers may have a hard time following along with the plot.

The other minor weakness of the book is an almost necessary result of it being the first in a series: There are a lot of plot threads left hanging, the reader has only a tiny bit more information about what is going on at the end of the book than they did at the beginning, and the volume itself ends on a cliffhanger. The end result is a story that seems like it might be going somewhere interesting, but there is really no way to tell from reading this book. To be clear, this isn't akin to the first volume in a series of connected stories where one can expect a resolution of the plot in this volume with threads left hanging to set up the next story. Rather, this is the first volume in a single serialized story that simply ends when it runs out of pages. This is a perfectly valid way to structure a graphic series, but it does mean that this volume, taken on its own is little more than a prologue and ultimately fairly unsatisfying.

As this is a graphic story, one of the key elements of the book is the artwork, which is a distinctive feature of Paper Girls. While the penciling is pretty much standard graphic story artwork, albeit well-executed graphic story artwork, the coloring is what really sets this book apart. The book is colored in what can only be described as the classic CYMK (Cyan, Yellow, Magenta, Key) color palette used by color monitors and printers in the 1980s, which helps give the entire volume a very "retro" feel - a feel that is enhanced a bit more when one the time travelers leaves behind what appears to be an Apple iPod or iPhone. These are the sort of touches that can only be accomplished via the graphic story medium, and it is always interesting to see creators using the very medium in which they are working to enhance the stories they are telling.

Despite a handful of weaknesses, Paper Girls is a fascinating opening act. The four girls at the core of the story, taken as a whole, are an interesting bunch. The apparent generational war between two very different sets of time travelers that intrudes on their lives looks like an interesting conflict. There is enough in this volume to think that it is a promising start to a good story, but it is only a start. Anyone looking for any kind of resolution in this volume is going to come away disappointed. Anyone looking for the first installment in an ongoing story containing teenage newspaper delivery girls, time travelers, reptile-riding religious zealots, and a pile of 1980s nostalgia is likely to find this book to be pretty much exactly to their taste.

Subsequent book in the series: Paper Girls, Volume 2

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