Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Cliff Chiang
Colors: Matt Wilson
Cover: Cliff Chiang
Published: August 1, 2018
Timelines were beginning to turn in on themselves in the last issue of Paper Girls, but issue #23 takes everything up a notch as we see the beginnings of that fateful Halloween in 1988 night begin to play out from a new angle. But before that there is some unresolved tension lingering between Mac and KJ. The paper girls have split up in this future version of Cleveland with Erin, Tiffany and Future Tiffany going to look for a way back to 1988 and KJ and Mac looking for the cure to leukemia that Mac will develop in the future. At the end of the previous issue a voice crackled over Mac’s walkie-talkie, saying that someone is dead. KJ believes that this was Mac’s voice coming in from a different time and/or place, but after checking in that the others didn’t hear anything on their walkie she brushes it off. Mac’s cavalier dismissal of whatever they heard worries KJ who finally reveals to Mac that in her vision (from issue #11), she saw a romantic moment between the two of them on a rooftop not dissimilar from where they are currently. KJ’s inability to express her complicated/confused feelings about her developing sexuality has been running beneath the last dozen issues, but got rather lost until this current arc. The ‘relegation’ of this story line is something we (I) expressed a certain amount of consternation over as it faded into the background in favor of sci-fi and time traveling action. Paper Girls hasn’t lost sight of the inner lives of the four people at its center, but KJ working this out, or even really talking about what she’s feeling, has gone missing. There were moments were she tried to broach what she saw with Mac, but Mac’s gruff posturing always shut it down. If you consider Mac’s introduction in issue #1 in this panel (content warning that the panel includes a hateful slur that will not be repeated here) KJ’s reticence at bringing this up becomes clearer. She can’t entirely trust Mac to be tender and understanding. We also have to remember that for a comic book with dinosaurs and giant robot battles this story is a slow boil. Like Saga (Vaughan’s other wildly successful comic book) this story is taking a while, and it’s likely that tiny plot details from issue #6 will come back in issue #38, and asking for things to develop more quickly does a disservice to what Vaughan and Chiang are creating.
KJ chooses this moment, on top of a hospital in Cleveland in the year 2171 to tell Mac what she saw between the two of them, and all Mac can do is shove her to the ground and call her a pervert. It’s a wrenching scene, or more specifically there are two adjacent panels of each girls face that will tear you up inside. Each of them are deeply hurt, but across KJ’s face is the pain of rejection, while Mac’s hurt seems to come more from fear of not knowing who she is. With some harsh words from Mac it is all over and the two of them run inside the hospital to find a doctor. There is no lingering. There is a brave admission, a painful refusal, and it’s on to the next.
The rules of time travel are still ambiguous in the sense that we don’t know the degree to which past events can be manipulated or if, even though time travel is possible, future events still always happen as they are meant to. We know that the two factions are from points in the distant future and have different approaches to the timeline. The Grandfather and the group that he leads (the ‘old-timers’) believe in preserving the timeline, while the faction from the farther future believes in altering the timeline to put humanity on a better course to avoid certain future events. As Mac and KJ are looking for a doctor, The Grandfather has tracked the persons who went back to Halloween night in 1988 and started all of this when they ran across the paper girls. In response he sends a horde of soldiers on flying dinosaurs back to 1988 to prevent this interaction from happening and the events of this book kicking off. There is a shot of these soldiers pouring through a sort of wormhole, which is something that we saw back in issue #2 from the perspective of the four girls. This suggests that theses events have ‘already happened’ or that they always play out this way, but the implications of that idea will have to wait till next time as the action cuts back to Erin, Tiffany, and future Tiffany. They have made their way to the home of Wari (the woman they met when in the pre-historic-ish times). Outside of her door the three of them are confronted by a floating white sphere with arms that begins to choke the two Tiffanys. Erin pulls out a pocket knife and begins to free future Tiffany who immediately tells her to focus on the younger version of herself instead. Her reasoning is that is that if her younger self dies then she will fade away like she never existed. Whether or not time works like this is unclear, but that’s not the point. Future Tiffany (as well as her younger self) have expressed disappointment at what she has become. That she didn’t pursue her dream of being a scientist but allowed herself to become disillusioned and apathetic. But this moment, the desire to see her younger self survive is a moment of reclamation where she stands up and declares her desire to preserve her life and its potential. This all happens in two panels but it’s a life affirming moment that indicates that in-spite of what these girls have experienced their will to live and have a future remains.
Erins efforts are mostly for naught as Wari opens the door and calls of her robot. Erin begins to explain who they are but Wari remembers them… from their visit the other day. It’s a bit of a mindf**k moment for Erin and the Tiffanys who seem on the precipice of something much bigger. There is a final moment between Erin and Mac but it is probably best covered in our next discussion when their story has a bit more resolution, which leaves us to talk about Cliff Chiang and Matt Wilson’s art. The standout panels are probably those from the confrontation between Mac and KJ. As discussed previously so much is communicated with a few simple but detailed expression that this scene needs very few words. Another set of panels worth mentioning are the panels showing the ‘old timers’ riding their dinosaurs through the portal back to 1988. Everything is bathed in a beautiful pastel pink light that makes even the page with a dinosaur eating dead man something you don’t mind looking at.
(Subjective) Score out of 10: 7