Written by Brian K. Vaughan
Art and Cover by Cliff Chiang
Colors by Matt Wilson
Letters and Design by Jared K. Fletcher
Published by Image Comics on November 4, 2015
Paper Girls #2 picks up immediately after the close of issue #1. One of our mummy-ninja mystery men is making a mad dash with his bag of stolen devices. The issue then goes on to offer deepening characters and relationships, developing themes, and more than a few surprises. Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang maintain the excitement, intrigue, and childhood nostalgia established in the opening issue while giving their readers much more to munch on.
The issue’s opening page gives text in the mystery men’s language. Decoded it reads: NOSTALGIA IS DEATH. The language is a simple substitution cipher. For a decoder key, click here. This appears to be the title of the issue and certainly captures both plot and theme of the narrative.
But whose nostalgia? The title language belonging to the cyborgs suggests that this is their story, though we remain rooted sympathetically with Erin and co. Perhaps nostalgia is what brought our cyborg trio to ’88. Certainly, death comes to the bag-toting mutant man. But the character that voices honest-to-goodness nostalgia is Mac’s stepmom, who mentions how she hated being 12, back in 1965, but that life only got worse from there, so that by the time adulthood struck, the whole thing just fell apart. Or perhaps it’s much more universally abstract. Like in The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Thus the death could be literal, as it is for Jay Gatsby, or metaphorical in how we cease living in the present as the past becomes ever-more gold-tinged through nostalgia.
But let’s get back to the particular storytelling of Vaughan and leave Fitzgerald for the moment. Our cyborg chrononaut’s death is fantastic–an “off camera” event, shown in shadow silhouette of his head being crunched by a pterodactyl maw and the ensuing blood splatter. He drops his bag, and cell phones of various makes and eras fall out, including Tiff’s walkie-talkie and a disc-shaped device which I suspect to be a concept future phone like the Runcible, a “post-smartphone” prototype produced this year. This dude and his crew have been to many different years in their travels. But his death also shows they’re being hunted down other humanoids, riding pterosaurs and wearing recognizable white spacesuit gloves. What the what?
And at this point I think it appropriate to point out that Erin’s wacko dream opening from issue #1 is no weirder than the reality presented. In fact, her dream ends up being a template for all of the themes introduced in the face of these strange goings-on. The spacesuit’s appearance calls back to the dream’s NASA casualty Christa McAuliffe.
Turns out, people are disappearing. Not kidnapped-disappearing, but vanishing-into-thin-air-disappearing. The girls see the before and after of an 8th grader’s vanishing. Beforehand he’s stuck in time, frozen. Afterward, he’s simply gone. Perhaps only the whiff of his Drakkar Noir lingering where he once was. Erin’s family is gone. So is Mac’s dad. Her stepmother considers it the Rapture, when the godly are ascended into heaven and the sinful remain on Earth in a hellscape to burn off their sins. Her theory, though Erin (a Catholic school student) doesn’t believe for a moment that the Second Coming is upon them, again resonates with Erin’s dream. In it, Erin faces a demon to save her sister from Hell and is admonished by McAuliffe for cursing (see #3 of the Ten Commandments). But this is “Hell morning,” remember. Erin marked it on her calendar. Now it has multiple meanings: the hell of dealing with post-Halloween troublemakers, but now also the post-Rapture Hell-on-Earth. And it’s no longer Halloween–now it’s All Saints Day. The Day of the Dead.
That’s just one way the characters view the strange events though. Mac still thinks of the cyborg chrononauts as monsters, and with the appearance of a boy costumed as the Wolfman, her nonchalant labelling of them as Frankensteins gives us 2 of our 3 baddies from Monster Squad (whose poster is on Erin’s bedroom wall.) KJ thinks perhaps they’re mutated Russians from Chernobyl, giving a nod to the nuclear paranoia of the 80’s. Erin is on the sci-fi angle and seemingly closest to the truth. She compares the mystery men to Eric Stoltz’s character in Mask, saying they look more diseased than monstrous. Then, having matched the apple logo from the Nano with the one on the computer her school just bought, she develops a time travel theory. Like in Star Trek IV, she says.
This pop culture name-drop opens up a new theory for me about those various cell phones. Previously I thought the mystery men were harvesting tech to repair or modify their time travel capsule. But in Trek IV, the crew travels back in time to get the proper receiver (extinct humpback whales) for an alien contact probe. What if the cyborg chrononauts are collecting all of these devices trying to find the proper receiver for a message that, like in Trek IV, is a matter of grave importance?
Amidst the conjecture, the girls are attempting to figure out what is happening and reach safety. First they go to Erin’s house, but no one’s there and the phones are dead. The stop reveals that Erin’s family is working hard to assimilate to the white, Midwestern culture and gain the favor of their neighbors. With no answers to be gained there and only more alarms being raised, Mac decides they’ll go to her house. There they’ll be safe–her dad has a gun.
Throughout the issue, Chiang is doing a marvelous job of giving the characters affecting and believable emotional expressions. Erin’s worry, Tiff’s disgust, KJ’s disbelief, and Mac’s pleading all bring home the personal, relatable side of these amazing, other-worldly events.
Whatever answers come in future issues, clearly more questions will be raised. Vaughan and Chiang have moved the story forward a mere hour but have deepened the meanings by miles. Paper Girls is both emotionally and intellectually engaging, and its second issue maintains momentum while continuing to surprise.