What do you get when you mix dinosaurs, outer space, Ronald Reagan and time travel? Meet the Paper Girls.
The latest original series from Brian K. Vaughan, the visionary behind Y: The Last Man and Saga, follows pre-teen newspaper delivery girls Erin, KJ, Mac, and Tiffany through the streets of Ohio in the late 1980s. In one wild night, they encounter everything from teenage aliens to time-traveling, dinosaur-riding adults—as if Cliff Chiang’s vibrant artwork wasn’t enough to keep you engaged.
But Paper Girls is more than just a suburban sci-fi fantasy. It also offers a meditative glimpse at the hopes, insecurities, and fears of American kids in the ’80s. Case in point: the book’s opening scene, in which Erin finds herself out in the middle of space, holding an apple. We quickly realize she’s in a nightmare recalling the most vivid and traumatic event of the ’80s, the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. The trauma ripples off the page, recalling the anxieties and helplessness of being young.
In another scene, Mac desperately seeks out the one thing that could make her—and most Americans at the time—feel safe: a gun. Here is where Vaughan is in his element: he reconciles his nostalgia for a seemingly simpler time, one in which guns still felt like an everyday safety measure, with the cruel reality that weapons like these are designed to do one thing alone.
We caught up with Vaughan to discuss Paper Girls Vol. 1, his personal inspirations for the characters, and what it’s like to be a creator in the comic book world of today.
Last time we spoke, you mentioned that Paper Girls is based roughly on experiences from your own childhood. Can you expand on that?
It’s always difficult to place exactly where something came from. Basically, I’m about to turn 40 years old and that’s a kind of terrifying experience for me. I’d been thinking about the process of growing old and having children, which made me want to explore the question, “Where did I come from?” The 1980s is as much a part of where I came from as the suburbs in Cleveland, Ohio. This is really about that nostalgia and what that means. Is it dangerous? Is it good? I’m not sure. Whenever I’m feeling freaked out or confused about something I end up writing a comic book about it.
Are these characters based on people you knew from childhood? Or are they more like combinations of characters you saw in other works growing up?
I think the characters in my books are always amalgamations of people I knew and continue to know, myself, and my own weird imagination all mixed together. (Laughs.)
You also make a lot of references in Paper Girls to major events of the 1980s. For example, the very first scene in the comic is Erin having a nightmare related to the Challenger disaster. How did those events affect you when you were young?
So much of that came from Cliff Chiang, who is an artist that I’ve loved forever. We first worked together when we were kids, basically, at DC Comics. I was a writer and he was an assistant editor, I think. We’ve been friends forever and have similar backgrounds, even though we grew up in different parts of the world. At the start of the process I mentioned “I have this idea called Paper Girls. It’s inspired by real girls I knew from when I was young.” Which really happened—there was this sea change where all the male paper delivery boys suddenly became female. Cliff and I started talking about what we really remember from the 80s and what we carry with us. The Challenger was just such a huge moment for kids of my generation, whether you watched it in the classroom or not. It felt very much like what our childhood was about: hope and promise for the future, but also fear, disappointment and death.
In later issues, Erin ends up with a gunshot wound and has this oddly comforting fever dream about Ronald Reagan. He appears as a peaceful, nurturing figure who says, “Not everyone who gets shot dies.” What effect did Reagan have on you as a kid?
Reagan was a huge, towering figure for kids in the ‘80s. He was basically Optimus Prime. The Reagan years were eight formative years of my life, in which he was presented as equal parts superhero and surrogate father. For a lot of kids from that generation, Reagan was a massive influence, regardless of what you thought of his politics.
Paper Girls also takes on an interesting perspective on gun culture in 1980s America. With all the sci-fi craziness surrounding the girls, there’s one issue where they decide to get a gun—and suddenly, they all feel safe, at least until things go wrong again. What was your experience with guns when you were younger? How did you feel about them at the time?
They were a big part of my childhood. From playing with GI Joes to realistic toy guns, they were a very common part of my life. And yet, the same would be kind of unthinkable with my children in the current climate. That’s always the appeal of looking at 1988 and seeing how it is no different at all from today, yet there are these subtle ways in which it is radically, unrecognizably different.
I particularly enjoyed the book’s references to that stark contrast between then and now. In one scene, one of the characters from the future is expressing sorrow over the death of his boyfriend and the girls react by being disgusted with him. He just responds by saying, “Don’t worry about it. You guys are from an effed up time.”
But beyond that, something I really enjoy in your books is how female characters are just characters. They just do what they do, how they do it, because just that’s who they are. While writing these stories, do you consciously keep that kind of feminism in mind?
For me, gender was a factor in that I really wanted to write a story with protagonists who happened to be female, but were never defined by male characters. Even if you sometimes have a badass female protagonist, the story is still driven by who her boyfriend is or who the guy she’s trying to rescue is. I love that these 12-year-old girls don’t give a shit about boys. They have no interest. They are prepubescent kids who are just allowed to be passionate about what I was passionate about when I was 12 years old: having a degree of freedom from my parents, and finding some way to earn a bit of money to be autonomous. This was a perfect time and place, with a bunch of 12-year-old girls in 1980s Cleveland, to write a story where you can just follow them as diverse, complicated human beings without having to worry about who they were smooching.
The story is also a total rollercoaster. You start with a very small, neighborhood setting and by the end, the story has become a time-travel, thriller, sci-fi event in history. Were there any modern day sci-fi stories that inspired you to frame it that way?
No, if anything I was inspired by what kind of invasion or time-travel stories I have not seen before. How can we do something that feels different? It always starts with just the characters and what I wanted to say. There were so many complicated geo-political things happening in the 1980s. There was the Cold War and a genuine fear with kids in my class that we would die in a nuclear holocaust. That didn’t feel like an outside chance. It felt like there were some good odds that we were all going to die. That’s harrowing for a kid, to have just some knowledge of this big, expansive, difficult-to-wrap-your-brain-around war without total understanding. I wanted to plunge the girls and the audience into that situation, where there is just shit going on and we [everyone involved in making the book] know what is about, but for the readers, and more importantly for these girls, it’s just a terrifying, confusing mystery.
There was also an interactive component to each issue of Paper Girls—for example, in the first issue you invite readers to mail in a form and join a newspaper guild. And in other issues you print reader comments and thoughts. How did you decide to add these layers to the series?
Ever since I started Saga I realized that the letters page is just cool. I’ve loved them since I was a kid. Preacher, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s comic, was one of my favorite stories and I would buy it just for the letters page. I knew we wanted to do a different kind of letters column. It was really Cliff’s idea to come up with the membership card that we were able to send out to people. We wanted to treat this letters page as if it existed in 1988, as if it wasn’t being written in the present, but was more of an artifact from the late ‘80s.
Throughout the story you have some subtle—and some not-so-subtle—references to Apple, the tech company, as a kind of looming figure. What do you think the role of technology is in these character’s lives?
It’s a very important role. Apple has been a huge part of my life as a creator and as a human being. I’m just thinking of how different my job is now compared to how it was ten years ago, and how different my friendships are. All because of the computer and the phone in my pocket. I want to take a look at who we were before those things came into our lives and who we have become after. Is one better than the other? I’m not sure.
So far in the story’s initial run, you’ve tackled a lot of generational issues. What are some other questions you hope to answer in future issues of the series?
Well, some of the Paper Girls end up in a different time period. We will be leaving 1988 and that’s a big deal. In coming issues we will also be looking at some of the tropes of time-travel stories and how we can avoid them. The next five issues will be very different from the first and will also give a lot of answers to some of the questions we left hanging at the end of Issue 5. It will definitely be a better chance to get the know the girls individually.
What techniques do you use to avoid tropes in your writing? Time-travel stories have been around as long as anyone can remember and there are some things that have to be in a time-travel story for it to be recognized as such.
Sometimes you don’t have to avoid them. Sometimes you realize “oh, this is a trope for a reason!” It’s the same as always: me writing about my own fears, while trying to avoid responding to other movies or books. How can we use the genre of time-travel to say something really personal about our lives and our pasts? Hopefully, that feels different and new.
Finally, Y: The Last Man, which is currently in development to become a television series. What can you tell us about that?
Yeah, it is currently in development with FX. I can’t say anything more than that since we are in the extremely early stages.
As a creator, can you talk about the process of transforming your creation into another genre, in this case from comics to television?
When I had the opportunity to work for Stephen King and adapt something he wrote, I got to ask him the same question and he said “Brian, as Elvis said, it’s your baby. You rock it now.” That was the sweetest thing another creator could say in that situation. It was like him saying, “Look, I trust you. I already told the story the way I wanted to tell it. I know it’s going to have to change. Go out there and do your best.” I hope I will be able to be as generous and supportive as Mr. King was to me to whoever ends up helping make the show.