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 December 2, 2015
Paper Girls #3 opens with genre-subverting humor but then pours on the suspense and action. Brian K. Vaughan adds a race against the clock to the other odd time-oriented elements, prompting hand-wringing anxiety while also building in absurd, often hilarious, references to 1988 in weird and apt juxtapositions. Cliff Chiang and Matt Wilson continue to provide brilliantly nuanced and multi-layered visuals for Vaughan’s unique mix of the strange and the mundane.
The last episode ended with gunfire and the cliff-hanging question of who might have been shot. Of course, that’s not where the new issue picks up. Vaughan wisely pulls us slowly back into the world. After all, it’s been a month, and the emotional effect of the injured party’s reveal has to be rebuilt. So instead we get establishing shots to reorient us with the scene. The pterodactyls circle in the sky like vultures. Then we see close-ups of a teen taking off his cyborg mask (a tongue-in-cheek connection to our mummy men who turn out to be cybernetically modified teenagers), awestruck by the massive portal in the sky. He amusingly thinks he must be tripping until a classmate calls out to him and confirms that she sees it too. Vaughan takes these two high school teenagers and flips their trope–when he attempts to act on his crush on her in the face of certain annihilation (and the elimination of his rival), she rebukes him as the scuzzy dirtbag that he is. Then they hear the creepy “huhh huhh huhh” the girls have been hearing over the walkie-talkie and a man in heavy cybernetic armor lands his pteranodon on the field before them. He calls them “Scruddy teenagers” and shoots them with his staff, turning them into pink dust.
“Scruddy” is slang for “dirty” (perhaps a portmanteau for “scuzzy” and “cruddy”?), and it introduces two interesting aspects to this dinosaur-riding Robocop. First, he is all concerned with cleanliness in a moral sense. His job here, he later tells the girls, is part of the Ablution–a sacred cleansing. So the teenagers’ destruction seems precisely connected to their sinfulness. Both have been using drugs, and Terry’s not-so-suave advances towards Gabs displays his sexual lust. Or maybe they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The second fascinating aspect of our most obvious antagonist is the language he uses. It’s as if Chaucer (or the slightly more contemporary Shakespeare, as Tiffany connects) was crossed with texting shorthand and street slang. The words are phonetically recognizable, but the spelling is off. I suspect the sort of middle English of “ye” and “thine” is meant to give a chronological distance. The expanse of time from Chaucer to 1988 is about 400 years. The recognizable texting aspects place the language in the future, and if the same distance, then it dates at approximately 2388.
However, when the staff-wielding dino-rider realizes Tiffany and co. are locals, he adjusts the communicator disc on his armor and changes his dialect to match theirs. The language he originally used might be his own, or it might have been chosen to communicate with the mummy-wrapped interlopers, the time-traveling teenagers.
Vaughan and Chiang are having oodles of fun with visual gags and wordplay. Note the transition of a mummy man pulling out a raygun to Erin’s death dream of Reagan after the page turn. Her dream also mashes Reagan’s Star Wars space program with Star Wars: Return of the Jedi–the space shuttle fires a laser the color of Luke’s self-made lightsaber. She and Reagan skate past Charlie Brown’s pathetic Christmas tree, and when she pathetically mentions her friend Wendy who is merely a penpal, Chiang draws her face with Charlie Brown’s worry features. The license plate on the car the girls drive to the hospital has plates “212 BKV,” the initials for our illustrious author. On the darker side of the humor spectrum, Erin’s shot to the gut is gut-wrenching to the reader.
Speaking of the unspeakable, Chiang’s unveiling of the consequences of the accidental gunshot is masterful. Due to proximity, Mac and her stepmom were the most likely victims, but the first panel after the smoking gun shows both of them shocked but physically sound. The back of Erin’s head is shown, making it a cinematic over-the-shoulder shot. The next panel should be the reverse shot, showing Erin as she answers with the back of Mac’s head in frame. Instead, the panel is a side-view to hide her injury and initially give relief at Erin’s answer that it must have gone right past them. That momentary relief is ripped away in the ironic pairing of Erin’s statement that “it’s a miracle” with the visual impact of blood spreading on her white shirt. And this was me when I got there:
With Erin’s time running out and Alice running out on them, the girls attempt to deal with the emergency at hand. Their immediate and recognizable concerns balance the increasing craziness surrounding them. Erin, in her delirium, names the phenomenon: entropy. All things moving toward disorder. Add in time travel, and the chaos likely increases exponentially. When their car nearly collides with the armored antagonist, Tiffany begs him to let them pass. He claims he can fix Erin’s wound and wipe their memories of the alarming events of the morning, but the previous scene of him pixie-dusting Terry and Gabs shows his magnanimity to be disingenuous. Again, Chiang and Vaughan employ masterful misdirection. KJ pulls the gun on Robocop, but when he’s shot in the head, it is by the mutated mummy guys, not her. One of them picks up the translator device and explains “help is the last thing these old-timers would have given you” (emphasis mine). The still hooded one unmasks himself before the girls, explaining that like them, they’re teenagers.
This issue was simply fantastic. Vaughan and team have bested themselves with each expansion of the narrative, making me anxiously anticipate the next one.
If you’d like to check out the expanded decoder for the chrononaut’s language (we got “B,” “J,” and “?”), click on through to The Dinglehopper.
Three new tracks added to my Paper Girls inspired Spotify playlist. “Walk the Dinosaur” by Was (Not Was) (1988), “Skating” and “Great Pumpkin Waltz” from A Charlie Brown Christmas.