Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Delivering papers and bicycling through time: Paper Girls

I finished the Brian K. Vaughn/Cliff Chiang series Paper Girls in 2020, then reread the whole thing in 2021 (yep, this is another repost from my own blog). I’m glad I did because I completely misinterpreted the ending the first time I read it. Spoilers follow.

The first volume opens with the four paper-delivering protagonists meeting Halloween morning 1988 in the suburb of Stony Brook. Chain-smoking Mac is the tough one, the first girl in town to land a paper delivery job. Tiffany is black and a videogame junkie. KJ is Jewish and into sports, but also has a taste for science fiction. Erin, Asian-American, is the newest paper-girl in the neighborhood.

They set out on their route but never finish it, because they encounter what appear to be aliens. But why would aliens mark their electronic equipment with a stylized apple? It looks like the logo on some of the school’s new computers but that’s clearly not it — how could anyone make a computer small enough to hold in your hand?

This sets up the reveal that the aliens are time travelers; they look monstrous because excess time travel has a disfiguring effect. Before we know it, the girls are bouncing through time. They don’t travel in space — it’s all Stony Brook — but they visit their town everywhen from the prehistoric past to the 1950s, from the late 20th century to the unimaginable future. Erin meets her future self and learns she becomes a loser hooked on some drug called Xanax (didn’t those school anti-drug lectures take?). Tiffany learns she grows up into an MBA drop-out and club rat. Mac learns she’ll be dead of leukemia before she turns eighteen. In between all this we get a boatload of pop culture and political references from the 1980s, but not overdone. A nice touch is that the girls adult selves, like so many of us, don’t remember any of this 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. The writer explains history has to change or 21st century America will become a dystopian nightmare: terrorists crashing planes into buildings, killers sending anthrax through the mail, cell phones addicting their users (this wrapped up too soon to deal with the Trump presidency or the pandemic). The older generation, however, thinks tampering with time is a seriously bad idea. They’re out to stop their 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 an incurable disease brought on by excess time travel). 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 returning to the original timeline means their friendship will soon end. The adults inform them it’s for their own good and mind-wipe them over their protests.

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 failure 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 (I saw it more than a few times when I worked on my time-travel movies book).

Rereading, though, I realized 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 reality. That said, it still raises questions. The girls didn’t die in a crash that morning in the original timeline, so what changed? Still, I found it much more satisfying than on first reading (though Mac’s death in the future still bites).

It’s a solid series with a core of likeable characters, interesting dilemmas and good art. I recommend it if you haven’t tried it. And contrary to my first impression, they did stick the landing.

#SFWApro. All Paper Girls art by Chiang.


        1. Caught it. Watchable but I miss all the 1980s pop culture references. And I really hate that the girls are constantly under adult supervision — it feels like someone got cold feet about four tweens struggling to survive a time war on their own.

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