Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Cliff Chiang
Colors: Matt Wilson
Cover: Cliff Chiang
Published: June 6, 2018
Yooo… the Paper Girls are back and things are getting wild in the future. At the end of issue #20 the four girls and the future version of Tiffany (Future Tiffany) were trying to survive New Years Eve on the edge of the millennium as a giant invisible robot battle took place above Stony Stream Ohio. They managed to escape from the an elderly woman who told them about the time stream war, they dodged invisible robots, and then piloted one of these robots to some point in the future. At the start of the issue it is just conjecture that they are in the future but by the final pages it is confirmed that they have arrived in the year 2171 in Cleveland (whether or not Ohio still exists is unknown). One of the threads running through the the discussions of issues #16-#20 was when will the girls’ acquired knowledge of the future come to cross purposes with their desire to return to 1988. KJ, Mac, Erin, and Tiffany have all, through various means, gleaned important pieces of information about their own fates, but the explicit goal has remained to simply get back home. This simple objective is important to keeping the narrative somewhat on the ground as it expands into wilder and less familiar territory (both for them and the reader). This relatable core, young kids working together against something bigger, is absolutely part of the appeal of Paper Girls and a show like Stranger Things. But at some point the girls’ objective would become/is compromised because of what they have learned as they try to get back home. This is true for each of the girls but the tension is probably the greatest with Mac, who learned that she will die from Leukemia, and Tiffany who sees how aimless she becomes in the not to distant future. Wouldn’t they at some point do something (or try to do something) to prevent these futures from occurring? Apart from their own personal motivations the girls have to think about how their actions set them on idealogical sides of the ongoing time war they have recently been made aware of. The import of the choices that the the Paper Girls face continues to grow, and issue #21 is (maybe) the point where this begins to get addressed.
Before we get to that discussion, their are some interesting moments in the girls’ introduction to the year 2171 that deserve a look in. The issue starts with a memory/dream from Mac’s past. It begins with Mac being embarrassed while checking out a book that’s “too old” for her before the latent fear of impending death pushes in and turns her sad memory into a nightmare. It’s a weird sequence that probably deserves more consideration, but in it you see Mac’s fear of being perceived as weird or other and how she responds to this fear with strength. After Mac wakes up the four girls and Future Tiffany decide to head away from the downed robot towards the city in the hopes of avoiding detection. Somewhere far above them the Grandfather is overseeing the time traveling interlopers, but he’s not so much worried about the consequences of their presence as what might happen if they run into the police. This scene presages what is one of the most interesting scenes in the issue when the girls run into a street peddler whose manner suggests that they are hawking illicit materials which are actually just 2018 staples like candy bars, cigarettes, and smart phones. The hawker is yelling at the girls that these are things the church “up there don’t share”, when police on flying vehicles arrive and a shoot up ensues. The girls make a run for it before the lasers start flying, but the following panels give the impression that the street vendor was gunned down. Its an evocative scene that leaves you with a lot to think about, but nothing definite to assume. Who is this church and why are they trying to keep knowledge/things from the early twenty-first century suppressed. Also while the future looks nice (we will get to the art) there still appears to be a predilection towards violent shows of force by law enforcement and a massive imbalance of power between the police and ordinary citizens. Not enough known about this far future to say anything definite, but the editorial choice to have a violent interaction with the police (could part of a larger statement, a plot thread, or both) and someone yelling about an oppressive religious organization are things to keep in mind and a discussion that will be continued in subsequent reviews.
The Paper Girls and Future Tiffany meanwhile make their way, lead by Mac, to library. It is almost completely dark and the light that does make its way through the window reveals that this monument to a time when information was more analog is now for those on the fringes. People are sleeping under table and desks and slumped over in chairs, lovers are searching for a quiet place among the stacks, and generally it is in a state of disarray. Maybe, other than the disarray, the spirit of the library remains, it is a place full of knowledge where any and all can congregate, to find information and quiet place that might be of use to them. That last sentence might be huge stretch, but something about Mac’s memory of her library drew her to this place where she and the other girls discover the Tree of Knowledge. At the back of the library, in the only room with a light on they find a sort of 3-dimensional pixelated tree that tells Mac what year it is, and that in the year 2171 leukemia has been cured. This last sentence provides the thrust to deal with the narrative stagnation that was disccused previously. Mac, and the others by association, will have to decide their stance as far as changing/not changing the future. Mac seems certain, but the idealogical sides of this choice will have to be explored (and now the reason to learn more about the conflict is present). This issue, and potentially the arc as a whole, is a game changer for the Paper Girls as some the questions they’ve been able to forgo previoulsy are directly confronting them. It’s going to very exciting to see how this developes over the the next couple of months, so get your popcorn (or snack of choice) ready.
We can’t get out of here without appreciating that Cliff Chiang and Matt Wilson’s art is back in front of our eyes. We got a small glimpse of the future aesthetic in this issue, and hopefully there is a lot more to come, but there were couple of panels worth discussing. One is the Grandfather’s victorian inspired zeppelin ship. You see the exterior in a few panels and it has these great balconies and railing along with huge ornate windows. Maybe it’s more of a gothic design, but regardless it’s way cool. The second thing to call out are the clothes (or lack of clothes) on the street vendor. When they open trench coat to show off their retro wears, underneath is just starlight and space. The jacket covers their arms and legs (they definitely have appendages), but they are clothed in space. It’s a weird and beautiful detail that just is very this book, and makes you always want to know more.
(Subjective) Score out of 10: 8