I finished the Brian K. Vaughn/Cliff Chiang Paper Girls a year or so back, but never got around to reviewing the final volume. Eventually I figured I’d just reread the whole thing and roll it into an overall series review. That proved to be a good idea as I’d completely misinterpreted the last couple of issues the first time I read them.
The first volume opens Halloween morning 1988 in the suburb of Stony Brook when four paper girls meet during their rounds. Chain-smoking Mac is the tough one, the first girl to land a paperboy delivery job; Tiffany is a videogame junkie; KJ is into sports, but has a taste for science fiction; Erin is the newest papergirl in the neighborhood. This delivery route will be like no other because they encounter what appear to be aliens. Only why would an alien have equipment that has an Earth apple marked on it as a logo? It looks like what some of the girls have seen on computers in their school, but obviously you can’t have a computer small enough to hold in your hand.
It turns out the “aliens” are time travelers (it has a disfiguring effect if you travel too much) and before you know it the girls are bouncing across time along with them. It all takes place within Stony Brook, but ranging from the prehistoric past to the unimaginable future, from the 1950s to the end of the 20th century. Erin meets her future self in the second volume and discovers she’s a loser; Tiffany learns she grows up into an MBA drop-out turned club rat. Mac learns she’ll be dead of leukemia before she’s out of her teens. If you have any nostalgia, the series has a boatload of pop culture and political references, plus a recurring gag that their adult selves don’t remember everything perfectly (“I could have sworn we’d seen Freejack by ’88.”).
The girls encounter Quanta Braunstein, the inventor of time travel; Wari, a Paleolithic teen mother; and a comic-strip writer helping the time travelers change history. They have to, she explains: the 21st century is a dystopian nightmare of terrorists crashing planes into buildings, killers sending anthrax through the mail and cell phones addicting their users!The older generation, however, thinks tampering with time is a seriously bad idea. They’re out to stop the kids and the Paper Girls are caught in the middle. Plus they’ve got to deal with constant danger, treacherous clones, lesbian love and Mac’s looming death (they find a cure for leukemia, but it turns out she has the deadly time-travel wasting disease, which is incurable). I must admit I eventually lost track of how some of the plot threads in one era led into another, but the series stayed fun.
And then came the final volume. The girls have become scattered across time (Mac and Braunstein are on Earth watching the sun going nova), but eventually their future selves (or clones) bring them all together. They’ve brokered a truce in the war: no more time travel, no more attempts to change history, everything will be restored as close as possible to the original timeline. That includes wiping the minds of the four so that their future follows it’s predetermined path. The girls aren’t down with that: Erin and Kimberly don’t fancy their adult lives much, and none of the girls like that in the original timeline, they no longer hang out after ’88. However the adults inform them it’s for their own good and mind-wipe them anyway.
We return back to ’88, the morning after Halloween as the girls make one last ride together, more or less oblivious to their adventures in time. (Tiffany’s done her best to plant subconscious triggers to reboot their memories). As they approach a crossroads, a car that’s been tailing them suddenly cuts in front of the girls, forcing them to brake abruptly. Good thing, because if they’d gone through the intersection, a reckless driver would have hit and killed them. Instead, they’re alive and it’s just possible they’ll stay friends (though Mac’s still doomed, dammit); we see the driver was Wari, giving the girls a final Thank You.
I thought this ending was a cheat the first time I read it. Characters declaring “you can’t change the timeline,” then making a special exception for some reason always feels like a cheat to me, and I saw it more than a few times, when I worked on Now and Then We Time Travel. Rereading I realize the issue with preserving the timeline wasn’t keeping the time stream stable but simply a concession from the kids to the elders. Wari intervening might break the terms of the deal but it’s not going to destabilize the time stream.
That said, it still raises questions. We know the girls didn’t die in a crash that morning in the original timeline, so what changed? Was it the subconscious memory stimulus changing things slightly? Still, I found it much more satisfying than on first reading. Though Mac’s death still bites. But nevertheless I enthusiastically recommend the series.
#SFWApro Comics art by Cliff Chiang, all rights to images remain with current holders.