You’ve watched Stranger Things, right? If you haven’t, brace yourself for an all-night marathon right now. It’s a lush, redolent trip through a Spielbergian, Stephen-King-esque, eighties-horror-movie uncanny wonderland. If you did watch it and love it, then I have fantastic news.
Past readers may recall my love of Brian K. Vaughan’s graphic novel Saga and can certainly imagine how excited I was to hear about Paper Girls. In this new graphic novel, Vaughan has taken his own shot at the Spielbergian/King/paranormal set-up: the unexplained begins to run amok in a small town where nothing ever runs amok, and the only people who seem equipped to handle it is a group of clever, tough, determined kids. What immediately separates Paper Girls from your Goonies, your Stand By Me, your Super 8 and Stranger Things? It’s right there in the title: the heroes of this story are preteen girls. As I would come to find, though, that’s far from the only place where this wildly creative book diverges from any other like it, something I should have expected from what I’ve already seen from Vaughan’s spectacular imagination.
Paper Girls opens with the main protagonist Erin in the midst of a recurring nightmare. Right away, the story introduces us to the surreal eighties pastiche that Paper Girls builds. In her nightmare, Erin appears in a version of Heaven that looks like the moon, speaking with a woman donning in a NASA jumpsuit, a space helmet, and angel wings; the woman introduces herself as Christa McAuliffe, one of the astronauts killed in the Challenger explosion. Erin awakens and prepares for her work day, taking a look at the calendar date she has marked as “Hell Day.” It’s November 1, and Erin is a paper delivery girl, meaning that on this particular morning she’s going to have to contend with drunken creeps and bullying teenagers leftover from the Halloween reveries. (Right away, the nods to classic horror movies are checked off with this date, and the costumes). In the middle of her first unpleasant encounter with a group of teenage boys, three girls come to Erin’s defense, introducing themselves as other local paper girls who have taken to doing the November 1 route as a team. The foursome sets out to get through the rest of the morning, but the vagaries they encounter seem even stranger and more sinister than in years past. When one of the girls is attacked and robbed by a group of strange looking men, the chase to retrieve her property leads the girls to a creepy basement containing a large pod–one that Erin notices bears a resemblance to an Apollo capsule. The search for answers becomes a run for their lives, with different villains and monsters appearing left and right and the rest of the town seemingly vanished as if in rapture. Why were these four girls left in the midst of the chaos, and how can they bring everyone back?
There is so much in this book to love. All four of the girls have strong personalities that immediately come through, and you feel instantly connected to them and their plight. The mystery itself is already so layered and complex. It’s difficult to distinguish “good guys” from “bad guys,” and hanging over each twist and turn is a nightmarish discordance with time itself. As is true in Saga, the biggest strength of this books comes from the thought put into each detail. The presence of symbols like the Apollo capsule, as well as others I don’t want to spoil, work to both situate the reader into a specific time but also completely unsettle it, creating an uncanny and almost self-aware version of this homage-genre we’re seeing popularized by things like Stranger Things and Super 8. It’s a take that only Vaughan could have, a completely weird, creepy, and wildly consumable adventure that earns the moniker “page-turner.”
Of course, being a graphic novel, much of this is accomplished through Cliff Chiang’s wonderful artwork. As strange and frightening as this world is, it is also lush and frankly gorgeous, even at its most grotesque. The hues are somehow both soft and vibrant, a pastel palette turned up to full volume, and it creates a version of our world both alien and inviting. The art is also able to nod to different images of popular culture without the text having to point it out, which makes the reading experience dynamic and fun.
As with Saga, I was completely engrossed by this story, and it’s going to be extremely challenging to wait for the next issue to come out. If you’re a fan of any sort of classic monster or science-fiction pop culture, you’ll get a lot out of this story, but even if you’re not clued in to the Easter eggs, the world of this comic is completely unique and enveloping in its own right. Definitely check it out. (And watch Stranger Things).