Comics Are Trying to Break Your Heart #31 by Drew Barth
In comics, Brian K. Vaughn is a great character writer. Between Y: The Last Man, Runaways, or the perennial favorite, Saga, Vaughn has proven himself a master of character—whether it be character creation, character arcs, or specific character defining moments. He has a way of hitting a reader with a completely fleshed out character in a handful of panels that is admirable and elusive.
Vaughn and Cliff Chiang—whose character design choices and style breathe life into Vaughn’s scripts—collaborate the series Paper Girls, a masterclass in character studies. Just this past week the series ended at thirty issues. I’ve mentioned Paper Girls in a previous article highlighting the character work, but with the series over and the arcs completed, it’s as good a time to revisit how the characters shine.
Erin is the first of the four main characters we see. On November 1st, 1988, she is the newest member of the American Newspaper Delivery Guild, essentially making her the perfect cppint of entry for the story. But Erin isn’t a blank-slate stand-in for the reader. She is continually curious about time ripping apart around her, and that curiosity leads her to be more adaptable when the four girls are flung into the future and meet Erin’s own future self. But that curiosity came with uncertainty about who she was going to become. As the story progresses, that uncertainty sheds itself from her as time itself becomes more immaterial. Not everything seen in the future is fated to happen, so Erin knows that things can and will change.
On the other hand, Tiffany is a character who had already embraced the future. She had the newest technology with her Nintendo Entertainment System, her CB walkie-talkies, and her general outlook that the future will solve the problems of the present. But Tiffany is another character who meets her future self and that sense of confidence in the future is shattered. While Erin moved toward changing fate, Tiffany actively looked for ways to escape it. And that desire to escape—that fear of what the future could bring—ended up imbuing her with a skepticism that hadn’t existed before, but would help her through the final arc and decision of having her memory wiped.
From the outset, KJ was elusive, cool, calm, distant, collected in everything, and carried a field hockey stick that she inevitably used to smack a few people with. Her aloofness was the result of being insulated at a private school and only seeing the others while on the paper route. Much of that changes when she has an encounter with an alien entity who shows her glimpses of the near and distant future, including a moment in which she and Mac share a kiss and KJ realizes that she is a lesbian. It’s here that the distance she had maintained is erased. There is now a comfort in being with the group—not because it is something foretold by an alien thing, but because that’s what KJ chooses as a character.
Mac is an almost stereotypical tomboy. She smokes, she cusses, she doesn’t give a solitary shit about anything. Coming from an unstable household, she has a honed nihilism that comes out as threats and violence. Mac is also one of the only characters to not meet her future self, because she doesn’t have a future self. As a result of the time travel, she contracts an incurable disease. And that becomes her turn. Mac still maintains that teenage nihilism, but underneath that everything has changed. She goes on a hunt in the future to find a cure for herself, talks a dying woman through her last moments, and actually cares about keeping herself alive.
The story has been building up this war across time between two eras that have been vying for control of the timestream, and Erin, KJ, Tiffany, and Mac end up being both a sort of catalyst for the war itself as well as its resolution. All of their messing with time has inevitably caused both sides to come to a stalemate and it is the sacrifice of the four’s memories that allows this time war to end. And so the final issue of the series acts as a kind of redux of the first, which, on its own, is a really clever method for physically showing how much their characters have changed by comparing and contrasting panels.
On the other hand, we can see where each individual character arc has lead each character. Erin is still the curious new girl, but has a new sense of confidence. Tiffany wakes up from playing her NES all night and decides that maybe playing those games all night isn’t always the best. KJ is more receptive of the world around her and introspective when thinking about the future. Mac changes her language and doesn’t use a slur, opening up vulnerability, but still maintaining an essential coarseness when she punch-buggies KJ.
Their first night together done over culminates with them all riding into the sunrise where they were previously expected to ride home alone separately. That is how much change they’ve gone through. Even with their memories erased, their core has changed enough where they are fundamentally different people. Seeing those subtleties in their words and actions at the end of a thirty issue series is something wonderful.
Get excited. No punch backs.
Drew Barth (Episode 331) is a writer residing in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida. Right now, he’s worrying about his cat.