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If you like Stranger Things, you should be reading Paper Girls

Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang’s own sci-fi tribute to growing up in the ’80s

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Mac, KJ, Tiffany, and Erin stand abreast in art from Paper Girls, Image Comics (2016). Mac is hunched over her bike handlebars, smoking a cigarette. Cliff Chiang/Image Comics
Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

Amazon Studios has released its first trailer for Paper Girls a new TV series based on Brian K. Vaughan and artist Cliff Chiang’s Paper Girls, executive produced by Halt and Catch Fire creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers — and now it’s out there for the world to see. Paper Girls kinda looks a lot like Stranger Things? But once you dive deeper, the two shows about four bike-riding teens from the 1980s are doing different things. And Paper Girls does it better.

It’s easy to sum up the appeal of Stranger Things: Teens having adventures, mysteries, weird science fiction, a strong visual aesthetic, and, of course, the 1980s. And if that winning combination of flavors got you hooked on the Duffer brothers’ Netflix hit, I have something to tide you over until Stranger Things 4.

You’ve got to read Paper Girls.

Paper Girls is a long-running Image Comics series about a group of four teenagers on the adventure of their lives. Writer Brian K. Vaughan (Y the Last Man, Saga) packs the plot with mysteries and plot twists, while artists Cliff Chiang and Matt Wilson fill it with science fiction imagery. And, of course, it’s set in the 1980s.

[Ed. note: This post will contain a few spoilers for Paper Girls.]

Mac promises the folks on the other side of a walkie-talkie that she and her three friends are coming to “get our shit back” in Paper Girls.
“Hey, whichever dumb fucks just robbed our friend, if you can hear this, get ready...”
Image: Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Chiang/Image Comics

Meet (left to right) Karina “KJ” J, Mackenzie “Mac” Coyle, Erin Tieng, and Tiffany Quilkin, the paper girls of Paper Girls. (It’s Tiffany’s second walkie-talkie that got stolen.) They deliver the Cleveland Preserver in their hometown of Stony Stream, Ohio, and our story begins on November 1, 1988.

It’s the 50th anniversary of Orson Welles’ the War of the Worlds, and it’s also the most dangerous day of the year to be a paperboy or girl: The morning after Halloween. But it doesn’t stay November 1 for long. Where Stranger Things finds its sci-fi trappings in telekinesis, parallel dimensions, and scientific laboratories, Paper Girls is all about time travel.

As KJ, Mac, Erin, and Tiffany band together just to keep from getting mugged by older teenage boys, they get attacked by a trio of ninjas, their walkie talkie gets stolen, they find a spaceship in a basement, and things only get weirder from there. They find a telepathic square with the Apple logo on it, meet dinosaur-riding future warriors, and see tardigrades the size of kaiju.

Ultimately, they are swept up in a conflict between factions of time travelers, mistaken for a scrappy insurrectionist band instead of what they are: Confused 12-year-olds from just outside of Cleveland in 1988.

Vaughan’s characteristic flair for extended serial adventure stories with a mystery at their heart is in full force in Paper Girls, with the added complication of keeping the story’s whole time hopping, causality smashing story back to front. What helps is that our four protagonists — and the wealth of secondary characters they encounter — feel entirely real. Just like Stranger Things, you keep turning pages (or tapping “next episode”) not just to see if they survive, but how they grapple with, say, finding out that they die of childhood leukemia before they finish high school.

The cover of Paper Girls #17, sans text. Image: Cliff Chiang/Image Comics

And if you’re a fan of Stranger Things but wish the show handled its female characters, or its queer coding, or its rosy-eyed love of 1980s pop culture with a little more nuance more frequently, you’ll find a lot to like in Paper Girls.

The comic is about the 1980s, yes, but it’s not sugarcoated. Paper Girls doesn’t let you forget that realizing you’re gay in the 1980s, something Stranger Things has only skirted nervously, sucked. That everyone you knew was lowkey terrified of nuclear annihilation. That the Challenger disaster meant that not even space was a hopeful frontier anymore.

Paper Girls is certainly full of references to 1980s pop culture — it’s all its 12-year-old protagonists know — and let me be clear that there’s a lot of 1980s pop culture that still absolutely slaps. But one of the reasons it’s easy to idolize the 1980s now is because the decade was on the cusp of massive changes.

As the eponymous girls are thrust into deadly, dangerous adventure — hopping between the Stone Age, 1988, 2000, 2016, and 2171 — they are forced to leap towards adulthood, even as the world as they know it is about to be thrust bodily into the information age. As a couple of the girls meet and confront their unrecognizable future selves, they can’t conceive of how they grew up into that.

I’ve never met my future self, but I can still relate. It’s hard for me to conceive of how the year 2000 grew into the year 2016 — and I lived through it!

Paper Girls has been collected into five editions so far, with a sixth on the way after the whole story wraps up at the end of this month. All in all, the series has won two Eisners, and its collections have been nominated for the Best Graphic Story Hugo Award for three years running. Just this week, Amazon Studios announced that it is developing Paper Girls for TV with a series commitment.

All this is to say: You should read Paper Girls. It’s Stranger Things, but all women and time travel. What’s not to like?

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