Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Paper Girls, Vol. 2 by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang

Ideas are great. Plots are wonderful. But, if you don't have characters at the heart of them, you just have a lump.

I've complained about various Brian K. Vaughan projects over the years -- I admit it -- but he's a writer who always understands character, and puts well-realized characters at the center of his stories...even if, sometimes, those stories meander and fizzle out rather than popping the way we'd hope.

The first volume of Paper Girls was mostly set-up, throwing four tweens from 1988 into SFnal events they weren't well-equipped to understand or handle, and keeping them on the run from two competing groups of time-warring future-dwellers, teasing the idea of a generation-gap time war but not explaining too much.

Paper Girls, Vol. 2 picks up from the moment Vol. 1 ended -- actually, about ten minutes before, from a slightly different perspective -- and tightens the character focus to Erin. Erin is the outsider in this group of paper girls, brand-new on what they're already calling Hell Morning, and the end of the first volume saw twelve-year-old Erin meet 2016's older version, her own forty-year-old future self. And, before this book is done, there will be a third Erin in the mix as well -- time-travel is like that; you can meet yourself coming and going. (Cf. "All You Zombies")

But Erin's not the only one of the girls we learn more about: another of the quartet learns unpleasant things about herself in this 2016, and all of them are having trouble just dealing with what's happening. Of course, if you keep running, you don't have the luxury of time to think.

We still don't know exactly what's going on here. Both sides of the time war believe they're in the right, and both seem entirely willing to capture and mind-wipe entire populations casually, not to mention more destructive interventions. It may be that the background deaths we've seen aren't "permanent" -- time war can be like that, particularly in an only-one-timeline-that-keeps-changing world like this one -- but there's a definite blithe disregard for civilian impacts here, and I have a lurking suspicion that neither side actually cares about anyone other than their team.

The girls want to get back home, of course -- get back to their normal, stable world. But we readers, particularly those of us familiar with time-war stories, know it won't be that simple. They're going to have to solve this somehow, to figure out how to end this war, before they can get back to throwing piles of newsprint at front doors back in 1988. (And, frankly, I can see one or more of them deciding that there are more interesting things to do in a time war than getting back to the life you lived before.)

So: this is getting chewy and exciting and fun; Vol. 2 takes what was good about the first book and complicates it in smart and thrilling ways. I may be shorting Cliff Chiang's contributions here, but a good half of the storytelling comes from his crisp art, particularly his faces. (And let's not forget he draws scenes with three different versions of the same character and differentiates them effortlessly -- even the two that are the same age.) I don't know where Paper Girls is going, but, right now, it's heading there in high style and at high speed.

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