Reviewed by Olive Dausinas
The cash-in on 1980s nostalgia has been a recurring theme, primarily making its face known in the 2010s. From a resurgence of retro video games to the popularity of television shows like Stranger Things, it is hard not to constantly be told that the 1980s was the best decade of the past. Paper Girls, on the outside, seemingly follows the tired old trend of utilizing the 1980s as a source of nostalgia to sell their story; however, that would be further from the case than should be. For Paper Girls is anything but a generic science-fiction tale taking place nearly forty years ago.
Twelve-year-old Erin Tieng is the new girl in Stony Stream, Ohio, being told to take a job delivering the newspaper for the quiet Midwestern town. Upon meeting fellow paper girls Mac, KJ, and Tiffany, the three girls’ early morning paper routes are quickly thrown off schedule. The four girls are no more than acquaintances when the world begins to end around them, with prehistoric terror birds swooping from the skies above and the adults suddenly vanishing before their very eyes. In the face of what seems to be the end of the world, these Midwestern paper girls now face a war between two factions that could destroy reality itself.
The major themes presented in this first volume can be summed up as speaking about total nihilism at best. Toward the end of the volume, one of the characters speaks about an old inter-generational war between what they refer to as “juvenile delinquents” and what the former refers to the older ones as “old-timers.” While the story leads many of its plot points unanswered for future installments, nihilism takes the center stage in this volume. Characters are introduced, only to die moments later in the line of this war throughout time, even more so when you are led to believe these characters will recur throughout the rest of the story.
The intrigue left behind in this story is very much due to its author, Brian Vaughan. Having a very particular writing style, he is very much like the stylings of the famed comic author Alan Moore. The nihilistic stylings of Paper Girls harken back to stories like Watchmen or The Killing Joke, both of which are wonderful stories about finding meaning in a world deemed pointless in its creation.
Paper Girls is definitively one of the most well thought out stories I have read in a while, especially when it comes to graphic novels. As the beginning section of a story, it does everything it needs to and does it well: it sets up the characters, the world, and the story. The way it depicts the 1980s is very realistic and does not mince words in depicting the way teenagers would treat each other. MacKenzie (Mac), for example, is extremely rude and seemingly homophobic. She throws slurs around as well as showing a belief in conspiracy theories related to the AIDS epidemic, using the latter as an insult on top of that. While from the standpoint of someone living in the 2020s, this comes across as just gross, this is language popularly used during the time. Likewise, KJ often fires back at MacKenzie’s usage of stereotypes because she, herself, is Jewish and tries to teach that these stereotypes are harmful. Once more, this is brought up when one of the delinquents from the future makes note of his deceased boyfriend, which Mac immediately insults, only for the future teen to reply that the 1980s were an “effed-up time.” And I think that is important to note. While most stories that use the 1980s do so to talk about how wonderful the decade was, Paper Girls does the opposite. It goes out of its way to speak on why the 1980s were, socially, not as wonderful as everyone would make believe it was, from Ronald Reagan’s spreading of conspiracies on the AIDS epidemic to the simple explosion of homophobia in the times. Despite that, the overt internalized bigotry that Mac shows can be discomforting at times, though it plays directly into her character and home life.
If you are a fan of time-travel, science-fiction, or just stories about the seeming end of the world, I cannot recommend Paper Girls enough. The lead characters are fleshed out almost immediately within their introductions, with the mystery of a generational time war being enough to make one raise an eyebrow at what’s happening. Things aren’t simply spoon-fed to the reader, rather it makes you think about what is going to happen instead of dropping exposition whenever it can.
Paper Girls succeeds against its peers in the usage of the 1980s. Not by uplifting it as the greatest decade of a generation, but rather by using it as a baseline for where a story can begin. People in the 1980s know technology, but not how far we would come in nearly twenty years or the massive social upheavals that came over time as well. This story is not Stranger Things, but that is because Paper Girls is on a whole different level from the very start.