Q&A: The comic book series ĎPaper Girlsí delivers a mix of genres

January 4, 2016 

Creators Brian K. Vaughan and artist Cliff Chiang have described their collaboration on the comic book series "Paper Girls" as "Stand by Me" meets "War of the Worlds." Yet the oddest part of this period piece mixed with alien sci-fi endeavor is that it actually works.

"Paper Girls" (No. 4 is out Jan. 6 through Image Comics) is set in 1988 and follows a gang of 12-year-old girls on their predawn paper route. But these arenít the kinds of girls with sparkly streamers dangling from their handlebars. Instead, they prefer a hockey stick for protection, walkie-talkies and the occasional smoke. Theyíre a formidable group, and thatís before the time travelers drop out of the sky to disrupt their route.

Known for his earlier work in comics such as "Y: The Last Man" and the epic fantasy space odyssey "Saga," Vaughan spoke with The Times about his unflinching yet nostalgic look at the í80s, and what it took to create his ferocious group of "Paper Girls."

Q: How did this start? Were you riding a bike and all of a sudden you have an idea?

A: No, itís almost never me doing something physical at any stage. Iím extraordinarily dormant. I mean, Iím old. Iím older now. Iím on the cusp of being 40, and Iím a father. (The year) 1988, which is when I was 12 years old, suddenly feels like a whole lifetime ago. I wanted to write about my memories of being 12 while I could still remember them.

Q: How do you translate that sort of feel, that sort of nostalgia, in writing?

A: I went to school with Adam Goldberg, who is the creator of "The Goldbergs," a (1980s-set) sitcom, which I love. But Adam will be the first to admit itís a somewhat sanitized view of the 1980s. When we look back at that period, we either look back with rose-colored glasses or we think about the kitschy, fun elements of it. Thereís a lot of dark sadness of the late í80s. I just wanted to be honest about that period. Really, I think itís like any story. You focus on the characters first and you just try and let that other stuff be the background that fills in their world.

Q: You definitely offer a non-sanitized view of that decade here.

A: One of the girls in the first issue uses a particularly hateful, homophobic slur. A lot of readers found that horrifying, rightfully so. It is something that I look back on, with my own childhood, with horror. The ubiquity of how casually kids used that word and unthinkingly. And how sort of rapidly it feels like itís changed for the better. Even though these kids are protagonists, theyíre who weíre following. I didnít want to sugarcoat them and make them all contemporary, 21st century kids, because theyíre definitely not.

Q: These are all female characters. Was it important for you to make it "Paper Girls" not "Paper Boys"? When you hear paper girls, you donít know what it means, but if you heard the term paper boys, you would know exactly what it meant.

A: I like writing female characters. I remember when I was doing "Runaways" at Marvel, that was a teen book that had more females than males in it. At the time, it was the subject of great controversy as we were doing it. Usually, thereís a token female or two, but to have a team be predominantly of women, the fact that it was a bit of a conversation to have even that. Now being at Image, where we could do anything we want. Hereís a great opportunity to do what I always wanted to do, just a group of females and not have to defend it or explain it, and just get to write them.

Q: And theyíre all quite rough, and they all have weapons. Why do they all have weapons from the get-go?

A: Well, itís funny. I was reading a lot of "Berenstain Bear" books with my kids, "The Spooky Old Tree." I always loved the one bear had a rope, one had a stick, and one had a light. I remember telling Cliff (Chiang) that they should each have their own totemic thing that they get to carry with them out into the night. Erin has a pocketknife, which is mainly what she uses to bundle papers. The things that they carry arenít primarily weapons, theyíre things that serve multiple purposes. But they have to, itís such a strange time to think that we would send out 12-year-old children at 4 in the morning to deliver bad news to creepy grown ups. Itís very strange. I couldnít picture letting my children do it, but if I did, they would go out armed as well.

Q: What sort of cliches did you find yourself having to push back on?

A: The female protagonist (always seems) defined by the boy theyíre chasing or the relationship theyíve just gotten out of. I wanted to write a story about four kids who did not give a Ö about the opposite sex. Theyíre aware of them, but it doesnít define their lives. Theyíre these sort of hard-core gangsters that are much more interested in going around, shaking down the adults who owe them money so they can get their cassettes or buy their own Nintendo systems. It was avoiding the relationship traps that come up in those 1980 films and giving them boys to be crushed out Ö and just letting them and their friendship be the story. That was more important to me than "Oh, we canít show leg warmers because itís too cliched."

Q: Was "Paper Girls" always supposed to be a comic? Is that how you pitched it?

A: Yeah. Iím lucky enough having worked in film, television and comics that when I come up with an idea, I just decide from the beginning, "This feels more like a TV show," or "This feels like a comic." Itís never like, "Oh, this would be a great movie, so letís do it as a comic first and then try and auction it." That seems like a terrible way to go about things. This is meant to be a comic.

Q: Why?

A: There are some things that comics do really well that other mediums canít. Weíre serialized like television, which is cool. You get to fall in love with characters over a long period of time and watch them grow and change. Yet we have this unlimited budget that television doesnít have. If I want to have a double-paged spread, as itís called when you have two pages together, of giant dinosaurs over the city, I could do it. I donít have to worry about "Thereís no way we could do that on a TV budget." Itís a lot like "Saga," thematically it was more a TV show. Spectacle-wise, it was more of a movie. Whenever it started to feel like that, thatís when I realized it was time for the greatest medium of them all, comics. Itís really superior to television in a lot of ways.

Q: Do you know how long this run is? Do you have a finale that youíve planned?

A: Yeah. I never like to go into a story unless I know how itís going to end. Thereís always the fear that maybe people wonít respond to this book, but it seems like our sales are already strong enough. Iím pretty confident that weíll get there. I donít want to give out an issue number, but Iíll say that it will be shorter than something like "Saga," which is meant to be a huge, vast epic. But much longer than a miniseries. Ö It will be a few years that we get to follow these girls.

Q: What is so oddly cinematic about riding a bike in the middle of the street? It pulls on the heartstrings. What is it about putting a character on a bike?

A: America is such a car culture, and I think that we have always associated automobiles with freedom. Bicycles are the training wheels, no pun intended, version of that. Itís your first taste of a vehicle that will take you out far and wide, beyond your parents. Particularly comics, bikes are so horizontal. They look great on the page.

One thing I will reveal, though. When I started pitching this idea to Cliff ó he will hate that I am revealing this ó he did admit, "Hey, Brian, I actually donít know how to ride a bicycle. I never learned how to ride a bike." I said, "Cliff, this is all youíre going to be drawing forever." Heís an incredible specimen, Cliff Chiang, that he has never gotten up on a bicycle before, but his panels of girls just riding along on, as you say, just so cinematic and exciting.

Q: Why donít you take him out and record it? Hold the back of his banana seat and push him down the hill.

A: That is hilarious. The DVD extras of our collections will have us going around, me riding his handlebars Ö .




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