Welcome to “All In or Fold”, our weekly segment where we review the start of a manga or comic series of our choice as if we just picked it up off the shelves. Our goal is to offer potential readers a brief understanding of the content presented, and help them decide if it is a good idea to pick up the series for themselves moving forward. So let us jump in and decide, should we go All In on this one?
Often when someone thinks of American comic books, the mind immediately jumps to the grand stories published by Marvel and DC. How could they not? Not only have the heroes of their respective universes been around since the beginning of the comic book as we know it, but adaptations of their stories dominate every facet of modern media. However, there is much more to the medium than just superheroes, and a good example of this is a deceptively simple named title from Image Comics known as “Paper Girls”.
Even before opening the book to survey its contents, the first thing that catches your attention with this series is its unique sense of style. The color palette chosen by its artist is bright and vibrant, dominated by shades of blue and red. While the scenes depicted do not have any sections that are particularly mind-blowing, everything is clean and stylized to give a distinctive feel that also lends itself to the aesthetic of the era within which the story itself takes place (1980’s America).
Actually moving on to the story itself, everything begins relatively normal enough with the primary protagonist Erin waking up from a weird dream (we all have those) early the morning after Halloween and preparing for her paper route (remember when those existed?). She checks on her little sister, checks her desk calendar (which charmingly is annotated with “Hell Morning” November 1st), and gets to work. Erin pulls out a drawer containing her tools of the trade, cuts the rubber band off of her stack of newspapers, and rolls up each of them by hand before heading out on a delivery run she will never forget.
Almost immediately after beginning her route in her neighborhood of Stony Stream, Ohio, she is harassed by a group of teenage boys that are equal parts annoying and creepy (who even thinks about hitting on a 12-year-old girl?). Luckily, she is suddenly aided by the arrival of 3 other girls who are grouped together on their paper routes. Mac (Mackenzie), the de facto leader of the group, stands up to the older boys and gets them to back off. It is then revealed that Mac was the first paper girl, having taken her older brother’s route and “opened the way” for other girls to do the same. This small bit of female empowerment is actually an important overall theme throughout the rest of the story, but we will get to that in a moment.
After this initial confrontation, Erin is introduced to the rest of the 3 girls, AJ and Tiffany. The three had banded together due to the potential and understandable danger of being young girls alone outside the morning after Halloween, and invite Erin along. Dubbed the “new kid” to her visible chagrin, Erin pairs up with Mac as the group splits up to cover more ground. It is not long after this that the group finds themselves in trouble, as a group of mysterious masked thugs steals one of Tiffany’s hand-held radios (that she had saved up a month of tips for) and the girls go after the perpetrators. Suddenly and without warning, they are thrust into an adventure that involves, among other things: time travel, pterodactyls, mutated men speaking gibberish, and lasers.
This is where things get a little messy. The story itself is by no means bad, and in fact it is a very enjoyable ride. I would describe it as a science fiction Goonies with an all female main cast and more mature themes. Societal issues that were just becoming relevant in the 80’s, such as AIDs and homosexuality, are brought up with a surprisingly progressive tone while still seen through the lens of the time. Time travel is handled in a surprisingly scientifically accurate way (for something that is fictional), and many of the challenges the girls face are very fresh and interesting. However, when the main plot picks up, it could very easily feel a little confusing, as very little exposition is given and instead events are left up to the reader’s interpretation. The choice to write the story in such a way is obviously very much deliberate, as some sort of grand conspiracy is teased and much of the mystery is of course meant to be unveiled later on as the series progresses. Despite the purposeful choice to present Paper Girls this way though, it may mean that you will have to go back through and read it multiple times to fully grasp everything that is happening.
While the story may not be as neatly presented as some would like, something that really shines within Paper Girls is how well the characters react to the confusing chaos that they are thrust into. The dialogue is incredibly well written, as the characters panic realistically in the face of a scenario that any real person would understandably have a hard time handling. Furthermore, small situational touches are present throughout. One of the main cast may curse, and then another may reprimand that character for doing so because after all, they are in middle school. Period appropriate slang is used (slang that may not be socially correct in modern day), and time travelers speak an entirely different language from English. In fact, there are not just one, but two “future dialects” present in Paper Girls. This strength feeds directly into the incredibly strong world building that this work possesses. Everything is period appropriate in some way, not just the slang or how the characters view specific topics. The girls have a distinctly 80’s sense of fashion, the cars look like they are ripped straight out of Back To The Future, and the main character has a dream involving Ronald Reagan. Paper Girls couldn’t ooze more 80’s aesthetic if it tried.
Finally, a good story is nothing without a strong cast to carry it through, and Paper Girls has a cast that could not be more diverse if it tried (within the constraints of its story and setting anyway). Within the first volume, each of the four girls is distinctly characterized organically without the use of any sort of heavy handed exposition. They have nicknames, different interests and ethnic backgrounds, and most importantly are all very relatable. To give some context, I will give brief descriptions of each of the girls as follows:
- Erin/”New Girl”- A catholic Asian girl with no close friends besides her younger sister, is shown on a few occasions to be a massive movie buff (especially enjoys science fiction). Somewhat naive yet surprisingly grown in some ways.
- AJ- A Jewish girl who attends a non-Catholic private school. Also into movies somewhat, but prefers fantasy. Brave and very progressive in how she thinks, but not the best decision maker.
- Tiffany/”Tiff”- An adopted Black girl who attends a Catholic private school different from Erin’s. Very responsible and level headed, as well as probably the most intelligent of the four.
- Mackenzie/”Mac”- A red headed tomboy who smokes cigarettes, uses vulgarity often and comes from a troubled home. The default leader of the four due to her aggressive nature and the respect she gained by being the first paper girl. Particularly conservative views of social issues.
Being wildly diverse as I mentioned, the four play off of each other very well and it makes them feel all the more human. How each of them reacts to the obstacles they face genuinely feels like decisions that people would make given the situations (as mentioned before when discussing dialogue). They care for each other, argue with each other, and learn from each other. Lastly, as is plainly obvious from both reading the title of the story as well as the rest of this article, the entire cast is female, which is honestly a break from your typical science fiction adventure. This is because at its core, when you strip away the science fiction dressings and the pretty colors, Paper Girls is very much a coming of age story about preteen girls. A ragtag crew that is learning about the world and experiencing this adventure through a decisively female lens while also strengthening the bonds between them. Some people may find this aspect of the Paper Girls off-putting, but I find it beautiful. Plus, if you don’t like the idea of empowered women, I simply don’t see why you considered this title in the first place. I went All In on this one, but you may choose differently.
Read If You Like: Classic 80’s adventures (Back To The Future, Goonies), Fun Sci-Fi in general, Female Empowerment, Mystery and Intrigue