Graphic Novel Review: Paper Girls: The Complete Story

The Eisner-award-winning, fan-lauded comic series finally came to its definitive conclusion and a complete, full-colour collection, clocking in a 800 or so pages, became available in October of last year. This year, Amazon will present the first season of its TV adaptation. We offer it as a special New Year’s review.

In 1988, a group of 12-year-old bike-riding paper carriers in a small-town-seeming suburb of Cleveland encounter an SF mystery that will send them careening through time and space.

Note: Paper Girls started publication a year before anyone heard of Stranger Things.

Title: Paper Girls: The Complete Story

Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Cliff Chiang
Colorist: Matt Wilson
Letterer: Jared K. Fletcher

Originally published between October 2015 and 2019 by Image Comics.

Complete collection published: October 2021

ISBN-10: ‎1534319999
ISBN-13: ‎978-1534319998

Premise

On Halloween, 1988, four paper carriers find themselves embroiled in a butt-kicking, mind-bending SF adventure involving time travel and warring factions from earth’s future. Expect kids on bikes, War Quetzalcoatluses, uncertain enemies and allies, “rapey cavemen,” and some creatures that would baffle the local Dungeonmaster. Our 12-year-old protagonists manage to negotiate the inherent hazards while they come of age and confront the big questions of life– and their own future selves.

High Points

This plot could have easily meandered as out of control as Doctor Who’s chronology. Brian K. Vaughan instead gives us a bat-guano-crazy tale that reveals itself as tightly plotted and perfectly coherent. He has affection for childhood and past eras, but he eschews wide-eyed nostalgia. Paper Girls remains appealing, action-filled, and often awkwardly funny while understanding that reality is often unpleasant, and that unpleasantness can be distinctively different for girls and boys.

Vaughan has clearly thought a good deal about the tropes of time travel and he addresses them. The story even remembers that, if you traveled a short way through time only, you’d find yourself floating in the space where the planet had been.

Low Point

Twelve-year-olds can be far brighter and more resourceful than adults might credit, but the clever, pop-culture-hip dialogue sometimes seems a bit much even for this group of talented tweens.

The Scores

Originality: 4/6 Many of the tropes and developments will be familiar to readers of SF, but Paper Girls gets points both for its bizarre inventiveness and for beating Stranger Things to the kids-on-bikes 80s retro riff, while thoroughly turning the expectations of an 80s coming-of-age adventure inside out.

Nostalgia for the past and utopian expectations for the future can, like the past and future themselves, be dangerous things.

Artwork: 6/6 Cliff Chiang’s artwork is innovative but completely accessible, with a slightly rough stylization that suits the story.

Story: 6/6 Compelling reading: this is 800 of the fastest moving storytelling I’ve encountered in the graphic novel form. It’s confusing at times (actually, most of the time), but everything fits together in a way that traditional comics often cannot manage.

Characterization: 5/6 The characters are memorable, though perhaps not differentiated as consistently as they could be.

Emotional response: 5/6

Flow 5/6

Overall: 5/6 The series has won a few Eisner Awards and in 2017 and was shortlisted for the Best Story Hugo (2017). It has received some negative reviews, but most of those that I have seen dropped early on, typically by people who were left cold by the story’s befuddling nature or who assumed the plot couldn’t possibly make any overall sense. It does. You want an interesting and inventive graphic story with heart and SF adventuring? Read Paper Girls. If the TV series proves as engaging, Erin Tieng, “Mac” Coyle, Tiffany Quilkin, and KJ Brandman will become the next SF pop-culture heroines.

In total, Paper Girls receives 36/42