This week sees Image Comics celebrating their twenty-fifth anniversary. What once began as a haven for artists to make a fortune in the comic book industry with bland stories filled with gorgeous splash pages has turned into a place where top creators can tell any compelling story they want, on top of keeping a huge chunk of the profits. Without Image, the idea of following creators instead of characters might never have come to fruition.
All this year, Image is looking to hype up their silver anniversary with a slew of great books. This week just so happens to see the return of what is arguably one of the company’s craziest and most breathtaking books – Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang’s Paper Girls.
The series follows a group of paper girls in 1988 as reality changes around them, both physically and metaphorically. The morning after Halloween night, the four twelve year olds – Erin, Mac, K.J., and Tiffany – begin to realize the isn’t the way it should be. With dinosaurs and futuristic warriors after them, the girls have to work together to get back to some semblance of a reality that they know, even as that world shifts in the face of a new decade.
When push comes to shove, this book is Stranger Things meets Lost. You have the Nineteen-Eighties aesthetic in the design of the styles the girls wear and the references they make, mixed in with the huge mystery of what is going on around them. While that elevator pitch should be intriguing enough to get you on board, believe me when I say that the look of the book is what makes this series click so well.
Chiang, coming off his superb work on Wonder Woman for DC’s “New 52” Initiative, draws the book to reflect the turbulent times that existed not just because of the time-hopping adventures, but from the ever-shifting landscape of the late Eighties. This issue alone sees Chiang drawing pictographs of demon-like creatures carved into mountains, Sunday morning cartoons in a newspaper, a prehistoric wild woman (unable to speak English) protecting her child, a gigantic Sasquatch-like creature, and a time-traveller from the dreaded AppleX (yes, THAT Apple). Add in colorist Matt Wilson to tinge the book in an acid-washed color scheme and the panels practically pop out of their pages. Which is all to say that this is one of the most gorgeous books out on the stands today. The art alone is well worth the price of admission.
Each new answer the series gives you yields many more questions as the book goes on. But through all of the absurdity, the one constant is the way Vaughan portrays the girls. The opening of this issue sees K.J. trapped in a nightmare with field hockey bullies, monsters vomiting blood at her, and her grandmother, once a prisoner of a concentration camp, offers her a glimmer of advice in the face of darkness. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect from a dream sequence, but reveals more about this character than the previous issues have, setting up the cliffhanger finale that pokes at an old wound K.J. holds on to.
After the dream, Vaughan brings in the rest of the girls to remind readers of why this book can be so fun amid the baffling mysteries. It is the smaller moments, like Mac debating whether to smoke her last cigarette or save it for a later point and Erin realizing she likes Crankshaft better than Calvin & Hobbes (blasphemy), that really help to flesh out these characters beyond just being two-dimensional figures. Paper Girls may not get the same amount of love from critics as some of Vaughan’s other books, like Y: The Last Man or Saga, but is just as good at making you care for the characters you read about.
However, the structure of this book is what ultimately becomes its undoing. While issue eleven does serve as the beginning of a new arc, it isn’t the easiest book to just jump into. A new arc is usually the prime place for new readers to come aboard and go with the narrative without feeling like they’re missing something. Not here though.
Paper Girls stands as a dense read to get into with this issue. You get the sense of who these characters are, yes, but the larger mystery of where they are (way back in the past) and all the developments they went through (like Erin meeting her future self in the year 2016) are referenced in vague asides that new readers would not understand. Thankfully, there are only ten issues to go grab to get caught up on (now collected in two paperback collections for your ease, no less). Trust me, it’s worth it to get on board this book. Just look at that art.
The latest issue of Paper Girls is a great way to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Image Comics, offering up a throwback tale to an era just before the advent of the very publisher offering up this comic. While the issue may not be an ideal choice for brand new readers, the two trades are available to detail the backstory to help enjoy this book. Plus, it’ll give you something to help pass the cold and snowy months we’re currently caught in.