Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang’s “Paper Girls” #1 has been billed as “Stand By Me” meets “The War of The Worlds,” and that’s a pretty accurate description. It has the coming-of-age elements of “Stand By Me,” but — instead of a dead body — the four main characters come across a mysterious machine in a basement and what appears to be cyborg ninjas who speak an alien tongue.
Vaughan and Chiang open the comic with a beautiful, surprising dream sequence. The dream logic feels both universal and specific, and Erin’s characterization gets a jumpstart because the dream reveals one of her heroes and shows her concern for her little sister. The sequence also concisely hints at the scope of what is to come. In the first four pages, Vaughan touches upon themes of power and transgression, frontiers, right and wrong, guilt and innocence. Colorist Matt Wilson’ palette for this opening sequence is vivid and startling. On the second page, Chiang’s angelic astronaut and Wilson’s colors combine for a scene reminiscent of Fiona Staples’ work on “Saga.”
The rest of “Paper Girls” #1 is less fantastical. Chiang and Wilson do an amazing job with creating a sense of place. Vaughan dispenses with captions in the silent morning scene as Erin prepares for work. Appropriately, a close-up of a newspaper names the time and place, but Chiang’s period details and Wilson’s palette give the setting of 1980s suburban Cleveland verisimilitude without making the action feel faded or dusty. Wilson’s color work is at its most unusual and gorgeous in Erin’s dining room, where bluish-purple shadows contrast with cocoa walls and peach floor tiles. After this, the rest of the comic is colored more conventionally, in slate grays, blues and greenish browns to emphasize the dim night lighting. It works fine, especially on the shiny, heavy paper of the comic, but it’s less imaginative than the stunning juxtapositions when Erin gets her pile of papers.
Like in his run on “Wonder Woman,” Chiang’s linework is thick, minimalist and very clean but also very expressive. On the page where Mac, Tiffany and KJ make their entrance, Chiang’s page composition and body language give these three girls on bicycles the menacing and forceful presence of a biker gang. His facial expressions are particularly strong for Erin and Mac, who are foils for each other. Tiffany and KJ get their share of strong lines of dialogue, but they don’t get as much attention as Erin and Mac.
Vaughan pairs them together, the earnest new kid and the cynical trailblazer, the “good” girl and the “bad” girl, and their one-on-one conversation fleshes them out. Vaughan’s skill and confidence shows in how he writes natural-feeling, easily flowing rhythms of speech. He builds up his exposition in an unrushed, seemingly effortless way. The reader just breathes the world in and isn’t overtly told anything.
The action takes a different direction halfway through “Paper Girls” #1. When the science fiction elements come to the fore, it’s almost disappointing. Chiang draws a great hand-to-hand combat scene near the end, but Mac’s interaction with a hostile police offer has more dramatic juice and succinctly addresses issues of class prejudice and negative expectations. The relationships and the city are already so vivid I would have been content just to read about the girls’ ordinary lives and adventures. The intruders/visitors and the machine in the basement aren’t as compelling by comparison.
The cliffhanger is both surprising and funny, but mostly I look forward to seeing more of these characters. Vaughan and Chiang are a dream team combination, and “Paper Girls” looks like it’s going to be another winner for both of them.