By Alison Lanier
Paper Girls has always been something special. As the series wrapped at the end of July with its thirtieth issue, the emotional stakes were high for longtime fans (like myself) of the Image series, which focused on four time-traveling paper girls — Mac, Erin, KJ, and Tiffany — who stumble into an inter-generational war raging across the far future. The “old-timers” — adults arranged in a pseudo-church-meets-sci-fi-military organization — want to preserve the sanctity of the timeline; the younger generation thinks humanity deserves the best possible version of the future and work throughout the timeline to make that happen.
The themes are classic: the way things are vs. the way things could be. The price paid by individuals in pursuit of a larger vision. How do we know utopia when we see it? How far can we push the world to change before we push too far?
If I were, say, a nerd who read a lot of sf academic theories around utopia, I might be tempted to wax on about Frederic Jameson’s concept of a radical break and how well Paper Girls deals with portraying the unfamiliar. But I’ll spare you. It’s enough to say that Paper Girls is a stunningly executed high-concept voyage with top-tier thinking where it counts.
It’s ironic that this story of powerful young female voices is the product of a creative team primarily composed of adult men. That isn’t to diminish it; the creators even make a few self-conscious cracks at their own expense. Brian K. Vaughan’s writing is expertly controlled, as is the time-jumping plot that could easily have gotten out of hand with a less thorough creator. Cliff Chiang and Matt Wilson’s art — bold, warm, and exuberant — has been a dream team combination. The world-building among the team manages the balance of awe and urgency that makes the various windows onto the past and future really tangible to its readers.
But the centerpiece of the series are its four distinct female protagonists. The cussing-and-smoking devil-may-care Mac; the conscientious and caring Erin; the bold and instinctual KJ; and the balanced, methodical Tiffany. The girls look and read as children — distinctly children plucked out of 1988. Over the course of the series, they crash into versions of their future selves: editions of themselves who have disappointed all their expectations, who have let friendships fizzle and dreams fade.
The conclusion of Paper Girls is about the fate of the known universe. But it’s also about the girls understanding what they mean to one another and what makes their time together precious. That’s not just a good story — it’s genuinely beautiful.
Vaughan gives Paper Girls the right kind of happy ending for this series. All is not entirely well. The girls are back in 1988, precariously balanced on the edge of the rest of the lives and the verge of an epic friendship. They don’t remember the trauma of their violent and terrifying adventures — but they also don’t remember the experiences that made them close. As Vaughan closes the time-hopping loop, dropping the girls back on their paper route the morning the story began, the true question answered in the final pages isn’t Did humanity achieve utopia? It’s if, through all the girls’ efforts and hope, they hold onto the friendship that’s come to define them. If they preserve in a deeper part of themselves a sense of the new kinds of love they’ve discovered.
Ultimately alongside the fate of the world/universe/space-time continuum, there is the equally important question of what the girls mean to each other. The story puts female friendship and affection on a scale equal to the world’s life or death. While we’re used as readers to seeing epic (hetero) romances pitched to this larger-than-life scale, it’s novel and frankly delightful to watch female friendship get the blockbuster treatment. Not to mention that the sense of my-friends-are-the-world feels very true to the perspective of its tween protagonists.
Paper Girls is what happens when an incredible creative team takes follows through with a meticulous and heartfelt story. It’s the kind of series that leaves you with the impulse to frame the final issue on your wall to try to preserve the feeling of turning that last page.
Alison Lanier is a writer and editor based in Boston. Her reviews, fiction, essays, and poetry have appeared in a number of publications including Ms. Magazine, Bust, and Critical Flame. She’s one of the founders of Mortar Magazine; learn more about her work at her website or follow along on Twitter.