Paper Girls Is the Perfect Comic for Your ’80s Nostalgia Trip
As someone who grew up grumbling about the self-celebrating tendencies of the boomers—nice enough people, sure, but the grating-ist generation when it comes to mythologizing their past—I feel a bit guilty about indulging in a bit of Gen-x-specific nostalgia. But I gotta say: I really, really miss those bikes.
If you’re of a certain age, you probably miss them, too—the mid-sized rust-rockets that, in the ’70s and ’80s, powered young kids across suburban developments and down city streets, turning cul-de-sacs into race-tracks, and alleyways into escape routes. The freedom these bikes provided was illusory, of course, and so were the powers we conferred upon them (it seemed as though they’d stop working as soon as you put on a helmet or told a parent where you were going). But that didn’t stop us from believing they’d safely deliver us down the pencil-thin shoulder of a 40-mile-an-hour highway during rush hour. Somehow, they always did. They were really rad bikes.
It’s hard not to think of those two-wheeled liberators, and the latchkey lifestyle they enabled, while reading Paper Girls, writer Brian K. Vaughan’s time-futzing comic book about a bunch of ’80s-era suburban kids getting sucked into a cosmic inter-generational battle. This is partly thanks to the series’ titular heroines—a quartet of pre-teen newspaper-couriers living just outside of Cleveland—whose wheels serve as both escape pods and as their tools of the trade. But those vehicles, and the decade they’ve come to represent, also loom large because of the way they allow Vaughan to set a perfect storytelling trap: Paper Girls begins by promising the cozy, easy, flotation-tank-like high of nostalgia—and then promptly pulls you back to the effed-up future. It’s a literally timeless adventure-drama about the dangers of lingering for too long in the past.
It’s also a total blast, a mass-cultural mash-it-up that evokes everything from B-movie creature-feature thrills to vintage YA angst to the pop-plundering album covers of Hipgnosis. I’ve re-read the series three times now—sometimes to get re-unstuck in Vaughan’s time-bending story; sometimes to study Cliff Chiang’s vibrant, spacious illustrations; sometimes to take in Matt Wilson’s neon, period-perfect coloring (Paper Girls No. 10 is out today, though newcomers will probably want to start with a trade edition that compiles issues 1 through 5).
Chances are you’ll get sucked into it, too—especially if Stranger Things, to which the comic has been occasionally been compared, has whet your appetite for more Reagan-era intrigue. The set-up of Paper Girls is simple, until it isn’t: On the morning after Halloween, 1988, a quartet of Cleveland Preserver delivery girls band together during their pre-dawn route in an effort to ward off the pranksters and creepos still hanging around from the night before. The ad hoc team includes Erin, the good-egg outsider plagued by Christa McAuliffe nightmares; Mac, the cigarette-dangling, take-charge tough from a beyond-broken home; KJ, the upper-class smart-kid who wields a field hockey stick; and Tiffany, the adopted straight-shooter who worries about the fate of their hard-earned, much-loved walkie-talkies.
The late-’80s period details are spot-on, from the Monster Squad and Depeche Mode posters to the Far Side one-a-day calendars to the casual, regrettable homophobia. Yet Vaughan doesn’t dwell on them too long, instead moving the girls’ story forward with Schwinn-like speed: In the middle of their post-holiday deliveries, they encounter a trio of strangely garbed prowlers—later revealed to be disfigured alien teens—and witness some sort of sky-blazing event that makes most of the adults disappear, causes some of the costume-clad kids to freeze in their tracks, and heralds the arrival of gigantic, dinosaur-like winged creatures. Amid all of this, the girls also discover a strange bit of technology: A decidedly futuristic-looking super-microcomputer emblazoned with a familiar Apple logo.
That anachronistic curio is the first clue that Vaughan is aiming for something bigger than just a breezy rewrite of the ’80s, even though many readers of a certain generation, myself included, would have happily huffed the nostalgia-fumes from the era of Gary Larson and Dave Gahan for months on end. Instead, just a few issues into Paper Girls—spoiler warnings, everyone—he wisely sends his heroines to 2016, where they slowly begin to realize the scope of the long-running, timeline-boggling battle into which they’ve been drawn. (I won’t say much more about that because, as with all of Vaughan’s work, surprises abound; and also, to be perfectly honest, I’m sometimes not entirely sure quite what’s going on.)
It’s in our current year that Mac learns of her post-’80s fate, and where Erin confronts herself, albeit as a Xanax-popping, underachieving middle-ager. For those of who’ve always pined for the chance to console and/or confront their younger and/or older selves, the two Erins’ exchanges are a sobering reminder that this would be a terrible idea: Older Erin can barely remember her childhood friends—or, it seems, any of her childhood happiness—while Young Erin apologizes to her pals for “[growing] up to be mentally insane.”
Eventually, the two reconcile their fractured visions of each other the way we all do: While looking for a dimension-warping portal hidden deep inside in a dead mall. There are lots of giddily out-there elements like this in Paper Girls, including a kaiju-like battle between giant Tardigrades; wound-repairing insects; and a cosmic, time-hopping “grandfather” who looks like Rick Rubin after Bikram Yoga class. But they’d be little more than noisy fun if it weren’t for the brief, quieter moments in which Erin, KJ, Mac, and Tiffany realize that the future they’ve imagined—or the past they may have once romanticized—will always look better from the distance. This may be the biggest lesson Paper Girls provides to its characters, and to its readers: Namely, that getting too nostalgic about what came before, or fretting too deeply about what’s to come, is really no way to spend the present. I mean, I’d love to take another trip on that squeaky, chain-chewing bike I had when I was 12. But it’s only going to take me to the places I’ve already been.