"I remember a lot of aspects of that era fondly, but it also felt like, wow, there's a lot of fiction now about the 1980s that completely whitewashes a lot of the worst aspects of it."--Bryan K. Vaughan
The Graphic Novel, 2015-2019
The morning after Halloween, 1988, a group of 12-year-old bike-riding paper carriers encounter an SF mystery that will send them careening through time and space. Expect kids on bikes, uncertain allies, creatures that would baffle the local Dungeonmaster-- and even stranger things.
Despite the frequent comparisons to a certain hit Netflix show, Paper Girls started its saga a year before anyone heard of Stranger Things. The story also takes its own, more nuanced approach to its subjects. Wide-eyed nostalgia for the past and utopian expectations for the future prove, like the past and future themselves, to be suspect things. Adolescent girls, in particular, have reasons to be suspicious. Determined, plucky, and often hilariously awkward, our protagonists negotiate the inherent hazards. Along the way they confront the big questions of life– and their own future selves.
The Eisner-winning, Hugo-nominated comic series' bizarre, twisted tale easily could have meandered as out of control as Doctor Who's chronology. Vaughan's story proves, over time, to be tightly plotted and perfectly coherent. He also pays careful attention to details, offering explanations to the careful reader for some of the odder aspects of the story. It's also one of the few time-travel stories that expressly remembers, if you only moved forward or backward in time on earth, even a few hours, you would end up, not in the same location, but floating in space.
Cliff Chiang's artwork, meanwhile, is innovative but accessible, with a slightly rough stylization that suits the story. His depiction of the girls' reaction to our own time—and other versions of themselves—smartly captures their utter befuddlement. History and reality often dash expectations, and we often forget the worlds we inhabit aren't remotely the way things always were.
I like the characters, brave but flawed. They can be described as types: Erin Tieng, the new girl, traditional but plucky; KJ Brandman, athletic, intelligent, and more privileged than the others; Tiffany Quilkin, tech-savvy nerd; "Mac" Coyle, tough and streetwise cynic. They prove to be more than those descriptions. I did find them, at times, to be too precocious. Twelve-year-olds can be brighter than adults might credit, but the clever, pop-culture-hip dialogue and heroic resourcefulness at times seems a bit much even for this group of talented tweens.
Never mind. They need to be who they are for this story, and they remain likeable and credible, whether they're supporting each other emotionally or battling incredible dangers from other eras.
The graphic novel came to a definitive conclusion in 2019. Its success led to a TV series, which dropped its first season in the summer of 2022.
Paper Girls: The Complete Story, a graphic novel
Brian K. Vaughan, author
Cliff Chiang, artist
Matt Wilson, colourist
Jared K. Fletcher, letter
Image Comics, 2021
Originally published serially, 2015-2019
The TV Series (First Season, 2022)
The first season begins very like the first issue of the comic book. It quickly develops its own approach. Despite those differences, it always remains true to the spirit of the source.
The core cast-- Riley Lai Nelet (Erin), Fina Strazza (KJ), Camryn Jones (Tiffany), and Sofia Rosinsky (Mac)-- prove uniformly excellent. They have to be solid. A good deal of the show rests on the protagonists being interesting and believable. Yes, they're still precocious and always ready with a quip, but these girls credibly handle the shifts between SF adventures and adolescent realities. They've also changed a little. Most significantly, Tiffany goes from skilled nerd to burgeoning supergenius.
The girls look more like the 15-year-olds they are then the 12-year-olds they are playing. For now, it works. How well they will maintain credible age as the show progresses through future seasons (beyond our willingness to [suspension of disbelief|suspend disbelief) is another question.
The broader cast also turn in excellent performances, particularly Ali Wong as the adult Erin and Jason Mantzoukas as Grand Father. The first has been retooled slightly from the source for dramatic purposes; the second remains the menacing oddball who plays like Jerry Garcia's evil twin.
The emotional complexities of the characters remain central. Rest assured, however, that along with personal dynamics, intergenerational conflicts, and first periods, we also get the Mecha battle, the Cathedral ("Why does every stupid thing have some kind of stupid name?"– Mac) and the (belated) appearances of the Quetzalcoatluses.
Certain other, more bizarre cosmic flourishes from the comic do not appear, at least in Season One.
The changes to the story exist for various reasons. The show's budget clearly limited the number of effects they could do, and the creators may have wanted to dial back the comic-book craziness until people had bought into the premise and characters. We have some changes to character– most notably, future Erin and her sister, and Mac's brother– which explore dramatic potential missed in the original. Other changes reflect the nature of storytelling between the two media. Larry, for example, does not exist in the source material, but he serves important story purposes. The futuristic dialect spoken by some characters becomes standard English, allowing for greater clarity. Other aspects of the plotting, meanwhile, simply change.
The source material features a labyrinthine plot that ultimately proves perfectly coherent. In going off-book, I hope the series does not lose the tightness of the original. One major character has not appeared yet, and I am hoping the show retains that character and her unusual backstory. That will require, however, a little boost to the budget.
The series has been thoughtfully filmed and intelligently directed. The CGI is solid, if not as good as what we see in the various contemporaneous Star Wars and Star Trek TV series.
Paper Girls proves a solid adaptation that succeeds in being, like adolescence, entertaining, often thoughtful, unpredictable, and occasionally deranged.
Directors: Mairzee Almas, Georgi Banks-Davies, Destiny Ekaragha, Karen Gaviola
Writers: Cliff Chiang, Stephany Folsom, Fola Goke-Pariola, K. Perkins, Brian K. Vaughan, Christopher Cantwell, Christopher C. Rogers, Lisa Albert, K.C. Perry, Kai Wu.
Camryn Jones as Tiffany Quilkin
Riley Lai Nelet as Erin Tieng
Sofia Rosinsky as Mac Coyle
Fina Strazza as KJ Brandman
Adina Porter as Prioress
Nate Corddry as Larry Radakowski
Ali Wong as Erin Tieng (2019)
Sekai Abenì as Tiffany Quilkin (1999)
Celeste Arias as Juniper Plimpton
Jason Mantzoukas as Grand Father
Daniel Rashid as Heck
Meg Thalken as Meemaw Radakowski
Rebecca Spence as Alice
Jessika Van as Missy Tieng (2019)
Maren Lord as Lauren
Cliff Chamberlain as Dylan Coyle (2019)
Delia Cunningham as KJ Brandman (1999)
Kellee Stewart as Dr. Carol Quilkin
Christopher Shyer as Ozzie Brandman
Marika Engelhardt as Jennifer Coyle
Quetta Carpenter as Nora Brandman
Jacqueline Williams as Donna Metcalf
Abigail Lue as Missy Tieng (1980s)
Andrew Eakle as Russ
Marcus Truschinski as Ronald Reagan
Jane Hu as Mei Lien Tieng
Carter Shimp as Wally Becker
Charlie Babbo as Dylan Coyle (1988)
Portions of this write-up have been taken from reviews originally published in SideTrekked, May 2022 and posted at Bureau42.com. I wrote and retain the copyright to both.