Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Cliff Chiang
Colors: Matt Wilson
Covers: Cliff Chiang
The best or most succinct idea I’ve been able to come up with to start this review/essay is by stating the obvious, “ending are hard.” The fact that this is the best I can come up with says a lot more about me than it does the final arc of Paper Girls, but it is also not a trivial idea. Ending are hard. I’ve run plenty of other ideas around trying to say something more creative or original but this is the idea I keep coming back to. It’s the idea that followed me through my second reading of this final arc about a year after the the final issue was published, and it stayed with me as I started to put down words describing what I found in these final pages. I didn’t mean to put off writing about the ending of Paper Girls for for year, but I think that procrastination has been useful. Anything I would have written after that first reading would have been cynical and uncritical. It would have ignored the fact that this is the story the creators wanted to tell, and as well as how the book was asking us to consider it. Paper Girls #2 is the first comic book I bought and Paper Girls #21 is the one of the first comic books I wrote about. I have greatly enjoyed reading and writing and think about this book over the last five years and these final issues are asking us to remember and reflect on that. They are asking us not to focus on the ending or our disappointment that there isn’t more, but to appreciate that it happened at all.
At the end of issue #25 (released October 2018) the four paper girls (Tiffany, Erin, Mac, and KJ) have been thrown forward and backward in both time and space separating them (for one of the few times in the series) in a way where their reunion isn’t a trivial matter. They’ve talked to their future selves, fought gigantic worms, run from prehistoric humans, and survived gigantic mech battles, but they’ve always done so together. Their separation was a new and welcomed diversion to the story thus far, a chance to see how each of them has developed as an individual and to appreciate he strength of their group. News then broke during the October to March break between issues #25 and #26 that the the next five issues would be the final arc of the series. In my opinion this was premature. This coupled with the news that Vaughan was starting to work on TV series for Amazon (Y: The Last Man and Paper Girls) and it seemed to me that this story was ending too soon and for the wrong reasons. With that extratextual baggage heaped upon it, how could I have found those final five issue have been anything other than disappointing, which I did. A review of those issues written last August would have most likely been some nonsense about artists comprising their work for commercial reasons and how the sudden interesting in comic books as IP (intellectual property) resources for studios and streaming networks is compromising the work writers and artists are doing now. These are legitimate concerns for certain properties, but I would have used this argument to fit the narrative I wanted, not examining what the book is saying and or considering that this narrative can not be properly attributed to Paper Girls.
Brian K. Vaughan also co-writes the popular Image comic Saga with Fiona Staples. Saga is currently on a hiatus after reaching the issue #54, which Vaughan and Staples have public stated is the hallway point of what will and was always intended to be a 108 issue series. As books published under the Image label, Vaughan and his co-creators own the rights to the IP they create, and have full creative control of their work. This coupled with sort of thoughtfulness and care that you can see in his work and the time he takes to create it (Paper Girls and Saga have extended release schedules to allow time for writers and artists to create exactly what what they intend) means that he had the ability to end Paper Girls how and when he wanted to. We have to assume that the thirty issues he and his collaborators decided on contain the full story they wanted to tell. There isn’t any more, because they didn’t want there to be more. This forces the us as readers to contend with what is on each page and carefully consider what Vaughan and his collaborators are trying to communicate with their art. Now the fact that Vaughan was able to end this story on his own terms doesn’t insulate it from criticism or prevent it from being an unsatisfactory ending. But as I read the final issues last year through a self-constructed lens that this story was ending too quickly and for the wrong reasons I was never going to appreciate what was actually in those pages. Getting my own issues out of the way allowed room for a more honest critique of these final issues which themselves are commenting on the importance ascribed to endings.
For a series with time travel as an integral part of its narrative, any explanation of how it works was largely hand waved away during the first 25 issues in favor of more urgent action and dialogue. But with the ending in sight issue #27 finally offers a succinct metaphor for how time travel works in Paper Girls and how its mechanics affect the story. Time travel is compared to the magnetic ribbon on an old cassette. As time progresses the events of history are recorded onto the ribbon. As people travel back in time they move along that same already recorded on ribbon. As they operate and affect events in the past they are re-recording over part of the ribbon before they travel back to the present. As people continue to travel back in time re-recording over specific parts of the ribbon again and again, the ribbon (the time stream) grows thick. The current of time at that specific point becomes so strong that any attempts to permanently change this part of the ribbon (time stream) become impossible as the order of events has too much momentum. As it is explained to Tiffany, “It has to happen this way because it did happen this way.” The continued attempts by future time travelers to edit the events of November 1st 1988 means that the current of time will always bring the four of them together and send them on a journey they couldn’t have imagined. But it also means (as the four of them will learn shortly) that the journey will necessarily end with them sent back to that morning in 1988 with no memory of their adventures or the friendship they formed. And if it must end in that way then what was it all for?
This is the question at the heart of these final issues, why? Why did this all have to happen? At the start of issue #26 KJ, Mac, Erin, and Tiffany are each adjusting to their new circumstances after having been separated in time and space. Erin was sent back to halloween in the present but is snatched from that timeline by the The Grandfather. KJ is sent back to the mid 1950’s-ish where she encounters one of the Teenagers she previously encountered that night in 1988. Mac is sent to the end of planet earth, minutes before it is obliterated by gamma rays from another galaxy, where she meets the woman who invented time travel moments before her death. And Tiffany is sent to the far future where she meets the future/clone versions of her four friends who have figured out how to end the Time War and ensure a better future for planet earth. In these four journeys we get two different answers to the question of why this happened. In the case of Mac and KJ they meet people who are aware they are close to death but are approaching their end not with self pity, but an appreciation of the randomness life can contain and joy that their lives, that any of it, happened at all. They are content with present because they have a profound appreciation for the life that they lived without trying to imbue it with any special or divine meaning. Their lives are precious and valuable because they existed. Tiffany and Erin see another answer to the question of why did this happen but from opposing viewpoints. Tiffany with the Teenagers who have worked ceaselessly to adjust the past and create a just and more equitable future, and Erin with the Old Timers who have ruined the future with their dogmatic worship of the past. Both were working towards the future with different conceptions of what the past is or means. Vaughan and Chiang are very aware the reader is asking this question and respond in kind by plastering this question across the first page of issue #28 and making it the crux of this issue. This is also the most visually striking issue of the final arc with each paper girl’s journey told across the page horizontally and simultaneously. It is a very inventive way to illustrate that the same amount of time is passing for each girl and what they are learning in relation to each other. before they are final reunited at the beginning of issue #29.
With their gained perspective the Paper Girls reunite along with the future version/clones of themselves and The Grandfather. They are there to end The Time War and correct the time line, but he is the final wrench in the plan. He is hindering their progress literally (holding Erin hostage) and metaphorically (holding onto his dogmatic ideas of a righteous and divinely appointed opinion of himself and history). The Old Timers believe in the sanctity of the past, near and distant, and work (often violently) to preserve it and the status quo it created. In previous reviews I haven’t often discussed the politics of paper girls but the book often lays bare it feelings for those who are pay attention. What other demagogue can you think of that is so convinced of his own inherent greatness that he is willing to let people die and suffer in order to “further” his own myth. And in case the answer doesn’t come to you there are a few points throughout the book where halloween revelers wear ghoulish trump masks. The Grandfather is only broken of this opinion when he see a vision of his life not shaded by his own grand delusions, but as containing certain random events that he imbued with profound meaning. The religion/cult/ideology he to enforce his divine appointment was based on a lie, a lie which he violently perpetuated. The only response The Grandfather has to this vision is “Time isn’t on anyone’s side, is it?” This is his first self-aware moment, where he realizes that history won’t, and never could, imbue his past with any special or extra meaning. It won’t do this for him, and it won’t do this for anyone. Our history, our time on earth is valuable because of the actions we perform in the present. If we support and can feel supported by our friends, if we work towards creating a more just and equitable world than the one that exists right now, then maybe we will be be able to look back at the end of life and be happy that it did happen. But to get to the end thinking only of yourself and then look back and interpret some meaning or value that didn’t exist will only bring regret. This was very much my path with this book. I as I got the end I looked to these final issues to make all the ones that came before meaningful and important. This approach ignores and diminishes the joy that I have had reading, writing, and think about this comic for the last five years. It ignores all the joy this book brought my because I wanted it to mean or be something else. This is a process that happens with finales of all sorts, where we expect the ending to make everything that came before better, which ignores how great that thing may already have been. It is a difficult yet important task that we are being asked to do, to appreciate the past but don’t hold onto it too tightly for we risking destroying what may be a beautiful future.
The final issue reinforces this idea with the two possible endings it presents. The main part of issue #30 see the paper girls back home on the morning of November 1st as they meet up with each other while they complete their paper routes. They deliver papers, chase off some teenage boys, and relax and the local playground. Then they cycle off down different streets in different directions as the panel slowly pulls back to reveal their tiny and unnoticeable place in the universe. And the book could end there, with them going separate ways. Maybe they’ll meet up again and be friends, maybe not? But that doesn’t erase the journey they went on together, the future that they worked towards and the time we spent with them. That they don’t remember what happen doesn’t diminish how important it was when it happened. We can wish they would be friends but maybe that is not how the story ends. But maybe it is how the story ends, as the panel zooms back in on Erin calling out to the others asking if they want to ride their bikes for a little longer before school. The last image we see is them riding into the sunrise together. This is absolutely a more hopeful ending, but it doesn’t make what happened before more important. Their journey and actions over the last thirty issues will always be important, and if it ends in friendship that’s great too.