Advance Review: Papergirls #1 is Tense, Personal, and Absolutely Absorbing

The most anticipated announcement at Image Expo this January was a pre-determined conclusion. Two of the most acclaimed creators, Brian K. Vaughan (Saga, Y: The Last Man) and Cliff Chiang (Wonder Woman, “Architecture and Morality”), combining to launch a new series with a 40-page, ad-free number one for only $2.99 from the hottest publisher in comics. Now the first issue is here and it lives up to the hype. Paper Girls is personal, tense, emotionally evocative, and absolutely absorbing. It’s the one comic you have to buy this week.

Paper Girls #1 introduces the cast of paper girls, Erin, Mac, Tiffany, and KJ, roaming suburban America in 1988. As mundane as these characters may seem on paper, the story is anything but. It doesn’t take long for their deliveries on the morning after Halloween to take a turn for the weird, introducing elements of science fiction and horror that readers aren’t likely to anticipate.

There’s an obvious comparison to Saga that is bound to be made considering the shared talent and similar circumstances surrounding both launches, but it’s a comparison that diminishes what makes Paper Girls special. The closest connection these two series share is a dream-figure at the beginning of Paper Girls with a faceplate that evokes images of Prince Robot IV. Where Saga is all about an expanding world and mood, Paper Girls is constantly tightening throughout its first issue.

While both issues use their 40 pages to set up a great number of plot threads, foreshadow future developments, and provide a killer hook, that is all just fundamentally good storytelling coming from some of the best in the medium. Paper Girls is a mysterious thrillers with strong science fiction elements, not an epic romance and adventure. The mood of this issue is increasingly tense throughout the entire reading experience like a barb wire being pulled taut between two fence poles threatening to snap as it aches and squeezes tighter.

There’s plenty happening throughout the issue, but the broader story can only be seen by readers picking up on cues (some obvious, some less so) to begin assembling the border of a jigsaw puzzle. Chiang does a masterful job of calling attention to the small details that become important after a few pages or that will assuredly become noteworthy in a few issues. Cracks of thunders, specific close ups, and long pauses all work to create an atmosphere where details are important, both for characters and plot. All of those details serve to highlight the danger present in the story too. There’s nothing reassuring about highlighting the knife Erin uses to loose her papers or seeing an officer with a cheesecake tattoo loom over young women.

These threats always feel personal too. Despite the over-arching plot slowly being unveiled and its potentially global consequence, Paper Girls #1 always reads like a story about four young women who met through happenstance and a mediocre, labor law skirting job. The only thing that occasionally distracts from these private stakes is the setting. Vaughan and Chiang infuse both dialogue and backgrounds with plenty of reminders that this story is set in 1988. They become just dense enough that rather than feeling natural, they begin to call attention to themselves in the final third of the comic.

This is only a minor qualm though, one that is easily ignored in the face of the strong character work occupying these scenes and from which the dialogue flows. Paper Girls #1 is the definition of a character-driven story, as opposed to one that is plot-driven. The four protagonists receive varying levels of attention in this still limited space, but all leave a distinct impression. Their personalities and wants are what drive the action, responding to strange and mundane events in an emotionally consistent manner. By the end of issue, readers are left with a clear feeling of who each of these women are.

Some do stand out more than others though, Mac being an obvious leader and brash personality. From her arrival on the scene, everything about Mac is big from her speech to her actions. It would have been very easy for her to fall into stereotypes about tomboys or the angry kid from the wrong side of the tracks. Those elements are certainly there, but Vaughan and Chiang are already revealing nuance to her character. She’s not just angry and ready for a fight; she is capable of quickly assessing scenes and is driven by a need to protect. The fact that she isn’t the first one of the girls to throw a punch in one fight reveals a great deal about both who she is and the thought put into these characters.

It’s Erin that provides readers a point-of-view character though. She is considerably more open and approachable, so much so that the story begins inside of her unconscious mind and a dream about the afterlife. This dream and her role amongst the titular paper girls reveal her to be a seemingly more cautious personality, but one with every bit as much passion as Mac lying just beneath her skin.

The dreamscape in the opening also reveals Chiang’s capacity to absolutely blow up a page of comics with the wild, insane, and imaginative. His depictions of heaven and hell in Paper Girls #1 feels like something that could really have been plucked directly from the deepest recesses of a young person’s mind. His astronaut-angel and classroom-styled hell both hit a sweet spot between recognizability and something more ethereal. It’s the same great design sensibility that made his work on Wonder Woman leap out as an instantly emblematic take on classical concepts.

As good as Chiang’s imaginative design elements may be, it’s in the small moments of Paper Girls #1 that he truly elevates the issue. As soon as the dream ends, the issue shifts to its most seemingly minor scene as Erin rolls over the side of the bunk bed to look down and check on her younger sister. Given that it’s the middle of the night, the sequence quiet and the facial expressions are minute. Yet the acting on display in Chiang’s pencils is immense. Small quirks of the lips and squints of the eye are enough to reveal not only both characters reactions to one another, but the underlying relationship. A great deal is happening in this tiny moment, and that level of character work is consistent throughout all 40 pages.

Chiang has a keen eye for detail, one that doesn’t allow the fireworks of dreamscapes and science fiction to smother the characters that form the heart of this book or the world they occupy. Beyond the carefully posed facial and body language on display, the details of each scene are constructed purposefully. Scenes are always full, leaving counters scattered with debris and construction sites the same (but on a great scale). Yet Chiang focuses his attention and the reader’s eye on the most significant elements, whether they are objects or minor actions. An elbow bumping a light switch or a small blade are drawn out with slightly more precision and framed to draw the eye. Chiang is a skilled storyteller and understands both what is important and how to convey that significance to readers all through Paper Girls #1.

Matt Wilson's colors pair perfectly with Chiang's art, an artistic partnership developed throughout their acclaimed run on Wonder Woman together. Setting the entire first issue of Paper Girls on a fall night encourages Wilson to play with light and cool colors. Streetlamps and police flashers illuminate his wide palette of blues that both emulate the feeling of a very early morning and bring the chills of early November. He distinguishes between interior and exterior shots, varying shades to make an unlit basement less menacing than the streets outside. His coloring of the nightsky in one large panel will certainly cause a few jaws to drop as he brings various cosmic forms to life.

This intense level of attention, from the script to Chiang’s pencils to the cool colors that envelop this night time adventure, is what ensures Paper Girls #1 is a personal experience. No matter how big the concept behind this series may be, it is always and on every level the story of four young women. They are heart that pumps life into the humor, mystery, and strangeness of this issue. Even when the final page comes, and Vaughan once again proves his skill at cliff hangers, they are the reason you will return. And based on Paper Girls #1, many of us will be returning to this comic for years and years and years.

Grade: A-