Thursday, December 14, 2017

Review - Paper Girls, Volume 2 by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang

Short review: Three of the four paper girls find themselves in 2016 where Erin Teng meets two versions of herself. They have to figure out when to go to in order to find the missing fourth paper girl.

An old Erin Teng
Also a cloned Erin Teng
Erin must choose one

Full review: Paper Girls 2 starts literally seconds after Paper Girls 1 ended carrying our adolescent heroines deeper into a confusing time travel story that has them meet alternate versions of themselves, learn things about their own future, try to puzzle out how time travel works on the fly, and figure out which side in what appears to be an intergenerational war they should align with. In this volume, Erin, MacKenzie, and Tiffany spend most of their time trying to figure out what happened to fellow paper girl KJ, and along the way find themselves forced to decide between two different versions of Erin from the future while running from giant-sized microbial monsters and the religious zealots from a future timeline who seem dead set on capturing the three girls for some unknown purpose. The story is inventive, beautifully drawn and colored, and full of characters that seem both approachable and heroic, and yet the whole remains just as baffling at the end of this volume as it did at the end of the first. Paper Girls is a story full of motion and action that, thus far, seems to be intentionally mystifying.

When writers try to tell stories involving central characters facing unknown foes who have unknown goals, they face the difficult task of keeping the reader engaged while also keeping the forces arrayed against the heroes mysterious and enigmatic. In Paper Girls, the four titular heroines are confronted with not one, but two time traveling factions, both of which thus far seem either unwilling or unable to explain who they are and what they are up to, and the end result is that there is really no way for the reader to get a handle on what either side wants, or even have any real idea of what is at stake in the conflict. This sort of hiding the ball storytelling can work, but at this point Vaughan is two volumes into the story and the reader pretty much has as little information about the two warring factions now as they had when they were first introduced in part one. To a certain extent, the reader can be pulled into the story due to the fact that the four youthful paper girls at the heart of the story are trying to survive amidst the chaos that swirls about them and navigate their way home, but that can only carry the narrative for so long. Without some information about who the large scale antagonists are and what they want, the story risks devolving into just a series of chase scenes punctuated by unexpected and unexplained things happening in the interstitial spaces between them.

Despite the annoyingly vague nature of the threats looming around them, the three paper girls at the core of this story are interesting enough as characters and are place in interesting enough situations to carry the book. There are two different alternate versions of Erin Teng in this volume - one from 2016 where Erin, MacKenzie, and Tiffany time-traveled to, and another from some presumably fat-future time sent back ostensibly to try to help the trio get to where they need to go. The 2016 Erin Teng is a grown woman, but one who is underemployed, single, and generally unhappy with her life. The interaction between the preteen Teng and the adult Teng fuels much of the story, as the adult Teng simultaneously wallows in regret and tries to put on a brave face for her younger iteration - with a lot of the tension arising as the older Teng tries to actually be an adult authority figure to the three younger girls. The far-future Teng is enigmatic through her entire appearance in the book even though she expresses herself in pretty much the most straightforward and direct manner one could every time she interacts with anyone else. As she is apparently from one of the two warring factions, she is fairly circumspect at actually passing on useful information, although it is revealed that she is a clone and that time travel somehow can be miscalibrated in such a way as to cause microscopic creatures to grow to Godzilla-like size. Much of the tension in the story revolves around a cryptic message that is presumably from the missing K.J., as the three papergirls trapped in 2016 must figure out who to trust and what course of action to take.

One of the more interesting subplots in the book involves MacKenzie, who separates from Erin Teng and older Erin Teng with Tiffany and sets out to find her own older self. When she arrives at her familiar childhood home, she is informed by the current residents that the previous occupants's daughter died from leukemia as a teenager. This, somewhat naturally, sets MacKenzie back a bit, as she assumes that this means she only has a few years to live. She cites back to the time-travelling teenagers of the first volume who said that no matter what twists and turns time-travel takes you on, when you reach your end, that's your end. The interesting thing about this subplot is that there are several assumptions in MacKenzie's line of thought that are not necessarily true: The time-travelers may not have been giving accurate information, either intentionally or inadvertently, there may have been another set of occupants in the house between 1988 and 2016, so the "daughter" referenced may not be MacKenzie, and so on. In the face of these various ambiguities, MacKenzie's certainty seems out of place, and for better or for worse the story telegraphs that MacKenzie's conclusions are almost certainly going to be shown to be incorrect.

As with the first volume, Paper Girls, Volume 2 is a visually stunning book. The artwork is quite good, but what really sets it apart from the pack is the coloring by Matt Wilson. While the color scheme is a bit more diverse than the CYMK palette used in the first volume, perhaps to reflect the fact that most of the action takes place in 2016 rather than 1988, the range of colors used is still fairly restricted, and this paradoxically makes the entire volume feel vibrant and lush.

At this point, Paper Girls is a flawed but still intriguing and ultimately promising series. The characters at the center of the story are all engaging, and their direct adventures are all exciting and interesting, but the seemingly intentional lack of explanation of the larger context in which their story is taking place is starting to become a drag on the ability of the story to hold a reader's interest. I remain hopeful that future volumes will rectify this situation, but unless Vaughan becomes a little less stingy with the background details and starts to fill in the larger canvas, this series runs the risk of devolving into nothing more than a series of disjointed-feeling chase scenes. The good parts of Paper Girls are very good, often borderline brilliant, and make the book worth reading, with the only caveat being that there seem to still be some missing colors in the painting.

Previous book in the series: Paper Girls, Volume 1

Brian K. Vaughan     Cliff Chiang     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

No comments:

Post a Comment