PAPER GIRLS by Brian K. Vaughan & Cliff Chiang

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.

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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).

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SPIDER-GWEN by Jason Latour, Robbi Rodriguez, and Rico Renzi

I can’t pretend to be comic-book-fluent. In fact, part of what has kept me away from comics is my fear of being irrevocably behind in the years-spanning series, the multiple universes and iterations, the story arcs that have spawned and re-spawned. But even though I haven’t delved much into the comic books themselves, I’ve always had a soft spot for Spider-Man. My younger brother and I watched Spider-Man television shows, played Spider-Man video games, and bought Spider-Man action figures. The 2002 movie starring Tobey Maguire was a staple of our childhood (I know, I know, I’m young–if it helps, I don’t feel it). I watched many versions of Peter Parker’s origin story and became acquainted with the cast of heroes and villains around him, from Norman Osborn to Black Cat to Venom. I was thrilled when I was able to adventure with Spider-Man in a simulator attraction at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure. At the risk of attracting the ire of Internet gate-keepers, I consider myself a Spider-Man fan.

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So, when I heard the buzz about the Spider-Gwen comic books, I was completely intrigued. Gwen Stacy is a beloved Spider-Man character who, to put it lightly, gets a pretty bad break in the original story. The Spider-Gwen arc follows an alternate Spider-Man universe in which Gwen Stacy, rather than Peter Parker, is bitten by the radioactive spider and gets the spider powers. In this universe, Peter Parker becomes the Lizard (a villain of the original Spider-Man universe). The chemicals that Peter uses to transform himself end up killing him in a battle with Gwen, and the public blames her for his death. The Spider-Gwen comics pick up from there: Gwen is trying to restore her reputation and use her powers for good, but is struggling with guilt over Peter’s death. Both villains and the police are after the Spider-Woman, but Gwen is having enough trouble figuring out how to be herself again after everything she’s been through.

The most striking thing about this series is the art style. In a note at the end of the first issue, the editor Nick Lowe credits artist Robbi Rodriguez for the “Lion’s share” of Spider-Gwen’s popularity, noting in particular “the killer costume design that he did that resonated so incredibly with all of you.” This was certainly one of the things that drew me in. Pictures of Spider-Gwen’s unique costume flooded my Instagram page upon the release of these issues, and the striking minimalism, unexpected pops of color, and hoodie-style mask were hard to ignore. The whole comic feels infused with a sort of punk-girl pastiche. Gwen is a drummer in a band with Mary Jane Watson (Felicia Hardy also makes a fun appearance in the music scene, in a great interpretation of the Black Cat character). The art style matches Gwen’s attitude. She’s a bit of a reluctant hero, often snappy and sarcastic, often slouchy and exhausted. There are echoes of the original puns and quips that Spider-Man is known for, and seeing the Spider-Man character interpreted in this original way was such a joy.

Of course, despite my hopes, I did feel a bit lost throughout. The backstory of Gwen that I provided above came not from the issues themselves, but from Wikipedia, since Spider-Gwen first appears as a side-character in the The Edge of Spider-Verse #2, a story arc in which multiple versions of Spider-Man (from their respective multiple universes) appear together. Sometimes, my lack of grounding in this multiverse left me a little reeling in the plot points. (At one point, Gwen hallucinates the presence of the only version of Peter Parker that doesn’t leave her wracked with guilt–the anthropomorphic pig Spider-Ham from a parody version of the Spider-Man story. While I’m all for having fun with these characters, the appearance of Peter Porker [his real name] was perhaps a bit jarring.) In addition, the story, which ends at issue 5, isn’t as conclusive as I was expecting. Spider-Gwen’s saga continues in Secret Wars, another multiverse arc that brings together parallel-universe versions of a variety of Marvel characters, including the Spider-Man multiverse. If your head’s spinning a little from so much “-verse,” rest assured you’re not alone.

But at the end of the day, truth be completely told, I didn’t care. As I was reading these issues, I was reminded of the childhood I spent with the Spider-Man characters. Specifically, I remembered being a girl with a brother, the two of us equally enamored with the story of underdog Peter Parker, a young kid whose persona is as much about sacrifice and love as it is about heroics and humor. I remembered the both of us trying to enjoy Spider-Man together, and I remember the only action figure I’d ever found of a girl character was one of Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane from the 2002 Spider-Man movie. This action figure came with a balcony that collapsed underneath her: literally, the only girl action figure I had in the Spider-Man universe existed only to be rescued. And today I got to read about smart, savvy, punk-rock Gwen Stacy, navigating through the same themes I have always admired about the Spider-Man mythos–the sacrifice and heroism and love, and the discovery of self amidst it all.

And sure, you can say I was always permitted to see myself in Spider-Man, to pick up any of the male character action figures and jump in–and believe me, I did both. But to be able to dismiss the value of seeing this re-invented character is to be lucky enough to have never experienced a Mary-Jane-action-figure disaster for yourself, to have always seen, on the screen and the page, myriad possibilities for yourself as the main character of the story, the hero. The lack of female childhood action heroes had a genuine impact on me. It’s the same reason I smiled so broadly and uncontrollably while watching the slow-motion fight sequences of the new Ghostbusters movie (which I completely adored, by the way): the experience was new for me, and so, so wonderful. It may seem superficial, and it’s hard to really articulate the tear-jerking, gut-wrenching reality of it, but trust me: representation matters. Spider-Gwen matters. And I’m so glad it’s here.

LUMBERJANES VOLUME 1 by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Brooke Allen, and Shannon Watters

Between reading Lumberjanes and watching the premiere of the newly re-vamped Powerpuff Girls, my week was filled with monster-fighting girl power, which is exactly how a week should be. In fact, as a subgenre, monster-fighting girl power is one of the main components of my wheelhouse, and I’ve been excited to get my hands on this volume for a long time. I’ve been a fan of Noelle Stevenson’s work ever since I read her graphic novel Nimona last year, and Lumberjanes completely met my expectations.

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Lumberjanes is a young adult graphic novel about five teenage girls at an unusual summer camp (called Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady-Types, which tells you pretty much everything you need to know). While the girls try to participate in normal camp activities like canoeing and plant identification, the appearance of some gigantic monster or mysterious tunnel always seems to lead them off course. As the girls work to outsmart and defeat every monster that comes their way, they begin to piece together clues about something mysterious and supernatural happening in their camp; something that, it seems, needs to be solved by a kick-butt group of friends.

Lumberjanes is delightful mostly because of its wholly imaginative and entertaining storytelling. Every element works together so nicely–I mean, what doesn’t sound perfect about a group of teenage girls solving mysteries in a camp filled with monsters? It’s just impossible not to have fun. The dialogue is also fast and funny, and the art style accents that sense of humor perfectly. It’s hard to describe, but the pacing of the story and art style together makes each page feel almost animated. The humor and storylines are fast and entertaining, but it’s also worth it to slow down and really look at the pictures. The book is beautifully illustrated. The monster designs are scary, but also zany and fun, and the outdoor environment is so colorful and alive. The environment of the story is so encompassing as you read, which is so enjoyable.

Another thing that I really like about this book is its approach to presenting gender. You can get an idea from the fact that the camp advertises itself as one for “hardcore lady-types.” The five girls represent a broad spectrum of gender representation, not just along the tomboy/girly-girl divide, but outside of that binary altogether. There are even two characters that seem to be developing feelings for one another, opening up the inclusion of LGBT-themes. Each character is just themselves, full of contradictions and difficult to categorize, but completely unique and identifiable, just like real people are. And they are all so strong, and not just in a generic way involving superhuman abilities and tight spandex clothing. They solve puzzles, use math and science, and figure out how to best work together. They’re sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t negate their ability to rise to the occasion, often relying on each other. It’s a great portrait of female community and strength that’s so wonderful to see, especially in a work aimed towards younger readers.

So, if feminist, LGBT-inclusive, monster-fighting, outdoorsy graphic novels sound like something you’d be into, go find a copy of this book. If it doesn’t, I’m not sure how much you’re getting out of this blog. (Also, a fun note for those in Columbus: Grace Ellis is giving a talk at Ohio State on Wednesday, April 13 at 5:30 p.m. Details here).

SYLLABUS: NOTES FROM AN ACCIDENTAL PROFESSOR by Lynda Barry

I have always had trouble keeping a journal. It’s a practice that comes highly recommended by my favorite writers, from Joan Didion to David Sedaris, but I have never been able to stick with it. My attempts always devolve into a space of anxiety and over-worry; what should be a method of achieving presence and clarity turns into a Petri dish for every negative thought I have. The only time I’ve ever completed a journal cover-to-cover was when I was in elementary school. I was inspired by the Amelia’s Notebook series by Marissa Moss, a series of books written in the form of the fictional diary of the protagonist, Amelia. The notebooks were a combination of writing and drawings, and often they didn’t just depict the events of a day. The Amelia character would use cartoons and charts to explore her interests, tease out ideas she had, and elaborate on her relationships with her friends and family. I modeled a composition book after this idea, and it’s the only time I’ve been able to keep a journal. The book itself is also the most complete record I have of myself from this time; while it’s a tad embarrassing, I’m glad I have it.

I bring up Amelia’s Notebook because I was so reminded of it while reading this book. Syllabus is an account of Lynda Barry’s experience teaching an interdisciplinary college course about the psychology of art-making. The book is also structured as the author’s composition book, though it is actually a combination of Barry’s actual syllabus, notes from the course, and her recollection of teaching the course. Barry is a writer and artist, and she uses a variety of mediums, from drawing to handwriting to collage, to pursue the themes and ideas of the course. It’s been a long time since a book inspired me to create so immediately, but I plan to go out and get a composition book as quickly as possible.

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Syllabus pursues some rather large ideas about what it means to make art. The psychological angle of the work explores the effect that art-making has on our brains and psyche, and its importance in our development and happiness. Why are humans driven to create? And why does this drive dissipate as we age? How can we enhance our lives by rekindling our once-simple pleasure in creating a line, a picture, a story? Barry brings a variety of scholarship and disciplines to these questions, but she also observes as her students tease out their own answers.

While some of the themes of this book can seem a bit grand and abstract, Barry grounds these ideas with practical, step-by-step exercises to get her students (and her readers) started. She includes the assignments she gave to her students; the reader can almost follow along with the course work if they choose. This was the part of the book that I found the most enjoyable. In one example, Barry provides a template for keeping a daily diary of observations, one that includes writing and drawing. She encourages her students to use this format as a way of being more present in the world, of observing more acutely, hoping that this act of observing will feed into the students’ artwork. I am so excited to start keeping a diary in this way.

This book seems determined to help the reader create, no matter their artistic skill level. In fact, Barry is clear to encourage a simplicity of style, of simply using lines and colors to convey an idea quickly, without worrying about how “good” it is. Barry interrogates our understanding of what makes a drawing “good,” encouraging anyone to create simply for the pleasure of it. By breaking down the barriers of accessibility, Barry is able to get across the message that art-making is beneficial to the human experience itself. Not only is creativity accessible to everyone, it is essential. Amidst the current trend of adult coloring books and wine-and-painting events, I think we’re at the perfect place for these themes. If I could, I would hand everyone I know a copy of Syllabus, a blank composition book, and some colored pencils. Go make stuff, dear reader, and find joy in it.

SAGA by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

I waited much too long to delve into the world of graphic novels, and I’m still a novice to the genre, but one of my earliest introductions was the first volume of Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. It had been recommended to me by so many friends, podcasters, and reviewers as a graphic novel that demonstrated the best of what the genre can do, one that blended art and narrative to breathe life into a world completely original. What really drew me in, though, was the promise of a range of well-realized, diverse characters dealing with themes that are not only real-world, but pressing and important. On both fronts, Saga completely delivered, and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Volume 2.

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Saga is a practically impossible to categorize blend of science fiction and fantasy, telling the story of two lovers from opposite sides of a galaxy-spanning war who have deserted their positions to be together and raise their new daughter. The story is told from the perspective of their child, Hazel, as she recollects her own strange origins. Hazel’s parents, Marko and Alana, are fleeing from myriad pursuers, including parents, ex-lovers, mercenaries, and royal commanders. Their treason is danger enough, but it seems to be Hazel herself that has piqued the interest of so many; what exactly the child means to each side remains to be seen. Through every obstacle, Marko and Alana hold fast to the idea of peace, and to each other, striving for a better world to give their daughter.

I can’t talk about Saga without first extolling the world that Vaughan (the writer) and Staples (the artist) have created together. It is staggeringly original, like nothing I’ve ever seen. The futuristic elements of science fiction blend so cleverly with the more magical fantasy elements, helped in large part by Staples’ expert style. The colors and designs of every piece of this world bring the juxtapositions together so well, you can’t imagine them separated. Every page is a new surprise, and yet, somehow seamless. And to be as clear as possible, this world is WEIRD. Weird in the best way, but completely, unabashedly weird, as well as EXTREMELY adult. If you can roll with the weird, though, you’re so well rewarded.

The storytelling, of course, can’t be overlooked. The characterization in this work is particularly strong, with each new addition adding depth and complication to the story. Alana and Marko work so well together, and are so endearing that their plight is almost unbearably suspenseful. The side characters, though, deserve a lot of credit. I won’t spoil the surprise, but a character appeared in Volume 2 that was so different from my expectations that I was almost rooting for them over the protagonists. I was so delighted by them. That’s one of the most interesting parts of this story; while I certainly want Marko and Alana to succeed, I also don’t want to see their pursuers fail. As Hazel notes, “some monsters are worse than others.” There is no stock villain–there is no stock ANYONE–and that’s what is both so charming and so heartbreaking about this story.

One of the things that initially drew me in to this story was its reputation for being particularly clever in its treatment of gender. Volume 1 received, and still receives, a lot of buzz for being a comic book with a woman breastfeeding on the cover, and the story itself starts with Alana’s labor. So far, the rest of the story has not disappointed. The surprising, fully-realized, well-developed characters include the women in the story, who represent a wide spectrum of ages, races, and temperaments. I can’t wait to see what the rest of the series has in store.

So, to simplify it grossly, if a fantasy space opera with feminist tendencies about fugitive parents being hunted by a cast of complicated anti-heroes sounds appealing to you, go find a copy of Saga like, yesterday.