Comics Vixen: Fight Like a Paper Girl
Paper Girls was written to be a hit, tapping into that same sci-fi-fueled ‘80s nostalgia that carved out rapid success for Netflix’s Stranger Things. But Paper Girls digs far deeper than nostalgia, crafting one of those epically complex tales with plenty of time to unfold that only a skillful writer like Brian K. Vaughan can pull off.
(I try to avoid this as much as possible, but I’ll say it this time: minor spoilers ahead. If you want absolutely every plot point to be a surprise, stop right here and go read the entire series to date.)
There’s a hint of older classic sci-fi here too, namely War of the Worlds—in fact, more than a hint, with WOTW mentioned by name in the first trade paperback. An underground faction of deformed teenagers runs through the sewers to avoid their futuristic, healthy “elders” who travel aboveground (literally) by flying on the backs of tamed dinosaurs. Some sort of cosmic war across time (not so much across space) is being waged. Things from Apple products to 80s hip-hop to Mound Builders get referenced, for reasons that are murky now but will doubtless be made clear in later issues.
When I finished the first volume (I’ve now read the second one as well), my immediate reaction was to tell a friend, “I’ve found my second-favorite comic!” Nothing can replace Rat Queens as first-favorite in my heart, but I really like what Paper Girls has got going on. There are some things I don’t like, too. The idea that the past might be somehow better than the future; that being a kid is superior to being a grownup: these ideas don’t resonate with me because they don’t fit with my lived experience. But I think, in time, this series will explore these themes in enough depth to give them the complexity they deserve.
There’s so much good here that it cancels out my criticisms, though. Beautiful, resonant artwork and colors. World-building that’s just detailed enough to not feel preposterous. And most importantly: a badass preteen girl squad that could give us some lessons as we head into our own apocalyptic-feeling times.
Last year’s election is directly referenced in Paper Girls. When our young heroines of 1988 are transported to the year 2016, Tiffany expresses joy at the sight of a Hillary Clinton yard sign (“We get a girl president!”) followed immediately by realism from Mac (“No, some lady is running. Doesn’t mean she’s gonna win.”). It’s eerily similar to the trajectory of elation and defeat experienced by Democrats and anyone anti-Trump during the actual election. Later, the mysterious future-dwelling Elders reference the time directly following 2016’s election as when “The Problems” began. This book manages to capture the ominous feeling of our times well, without feeling opportunistic.
In this imaginary past’s future, the Paper Girls are perhaps not the heroes everyone wants, but they’re the heroes the world needs. It’s clear that they are integral to the outcome of this time war, although it’s not clear how. And, being the kind of girls they are, it’s clear they will fall on the side of good—if they can just figure out what side that is.
But they’re far from a homogeneous gang, both demographically and ideologically. Tiffany is adopted, level-headed and bold. Erin, our main character, is of Asian descent, anxious and shy, but braver than she first appears. KJ is a Jewish field hockey player who’s fearless and independent. Mac is a lower-class white girl with a filthy, offensive mouth—and not in a cute way (she slings not one, but two, homophobic insults in her first appearance alone).
The girls are mismatched: they meet by accident while delivering papers, hence the book’s title. They aren’t old friends from school. They might not get along at all, had circumstances not thrown them together. And they don’t share much in terms of outlook, or agree on the best way to handle most situations. The only thing they have in common is a desire to do well by each other and the world. And to kick ass, if that’s what’s necessary.
By the end of the second trade paperback, that approach has gotten them pretty far.
To really gain ground in our current political battles—yes, I’m talking about the real world here—it’s going to take tactics not unlike theirs. The only way the Trump administration gained power is because many, many Republicans were willing to set aside their personal ideas of what the Republican party should look like in order to make a play for power. It’s not a great tactic, even in the best of times. But if everyone else wants to fight back, we’re going to have to do the same thing as they did. We have to set aside our ideological differences, temporarily, in order to work together well enough to gain ground.
There’s been a trend of infighting among the left and progressives recently, which most of the time I’m on board with. Just because Hillary was the “lesser of two evils” doesn’t mean her transgressions shouldn’t be noted. Calling out the pro-white, trans-exclusionary attitudes at the Women’s Rights March is good. White feminism is not real feminism. Neither is trans-exclusionary feminism. Pushing for better than just “okay” in our activism is wildly important. But right now? We need everyone.
We need the Republicans who also don’t like Trump but supported him for too long. We need the centrists whose indecision helped get us here in the first place. We need the white women from the Women’s March whose pussy-centric signs forgot to take into account that the woman standing next to them might be trans. We need the poorly educated whites who, like Mac, might spout horribly offensive insults when they’re trying to act tough. We need the spoiled white trust-fund hippies who dread their hair because they don’t have to worry that a potential employer will turn them away for it. And we need the radical activists, the anarcho-communists, the artists, the rioters, the vandals. If they’re against Trump and the radical alt-right backtracking-to-the-past that he stands for, we need them all.
It is very difficult to write this, and I imagine it will be difficult to read. I’ve spent so much time thinking, and writing, about all the problems with Democrats, the so-called “left”, white feminism, and all of the ideologies that prevent real progress from happening (think: why we got Hillary instead of Bernie). But now, I think, is not the time for this fracturing. Now is a good time to fight against a truly authoritarian system that wants to make dangerously lasting changes to the way America works. And in-fighting is not the real fight.
America has never been great (yet). America was not great under Obama either. There were still many, many issues to be worked on, many fights to be fought. But right now, what wouldn’t we give to go back to that? That’s where we’re at right now. We need to get back to our “normal,” so that we can work on things from there. Until we get there, that work can’t really begin.
And in that, we’re not unlike the Paper Girls. They’re just trying to get back to their own time, in 1988, when life wasn’t great but at least it seemed manageably fixable. Once they get there, Erin thinks, then maybe they can fix the messed-up future, too. Our current battle in America may not be one of time travel, but we also need to get back to our status quo before we can build toward the future. Right now, we’re regressing toward a past we don’t want to go back to.
The Paper Girls, although they might argue over the benefits of bringing a gun to the apocalypse or what insults are and are not appropriate, manage to set aside their differences in the clutch so they can fight, back to back. It seems this is a logical time for us in this country to do the same.
So, America, will we?