Writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Cliff Chiang have described their collaboration on the comic book series "Paper Girls" as "Stand by Me" meets "War of the Worlds." Yet the oddest part of this period piece mixed with alien sci-fi endeavor is that it actually works.
"Paper Girls" (No. 4 is out Jan. 6 through Image Comics) is set in 1988 and follows a gang of 12-year-old girls on their predawn paper route. But these aren't the kinds of girls with sparkly streamers dangling from their handlebars. Instead, they prefer a hockey stick for protection, walkie-talkies and the occasional smoke. They're a formidable group, and that's before the time travelers drop out of the sky to disrupt their route.
Known for his earlier work in comics such as "Y: The Last Man" and the epic fantasy space odyssey "Saga," Vaughan spoke with The Times about his unflinching yet nostalgic look at the '80s, and what it took to create his ferocious group of "Paper Girls."
FOR THE RECORD
11:18 a.m.: An earlier version of this article stated the name of "Paper Girls" writer as Brian K. Vaughn. His name is Brian K. Vaughan.
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How did this start? Were you riding a bike and all of a sudden you have an idea?
No, it's almost never me doing something physical at any stage. I'm extraordinarily dormant. I mean, I'm old. I'm older now. I'm on the cusp of being 40, and I'm a father. [The year] 1988, which is when I was 12 years old, suddenly feels like a whole lifetime ago. I wanted to write about my memories of being 12 while I could still remember them.
How do you translate that sort of feel, that sort of nostalgia, in writing?
I went to school with Adam Goldberg, who is the creator of "The Goldbergs," a [1980s-set] sitcom, which I love. But Adam will be the first to admit it's a somewhat sanitized view of the 1980s. When we look back at that period, we either look back with rose-colored glasses or we think about the kitschy, fun elements of it. There's a lot of dark sadness of the late '80s. I just wanted to be honest about that period. Really, I think it's like any story. You focus on the characters first and you just try and let that other stuff be the background that fills in their world.
You definitely offer a non-sanitized view of that decade here.
One of the girls in the first issue uses a particularly hateful, homophobic slur. A lot of readers found that horrifying, rightfully so. It is something that I look back on, with my own childhood, with horror. The ubiquity of how casually kids used that word and unthinkingly. And how sort of rapidly it feels like it's changed for the better. Even though these kids are protagonists, they're who we're following. I didn't want to sugarcoat them and make them all contemporary, 21st century kids, because they're definitely not.
These are all female characters. Was it important for you to make it "Paper Girls" not "Paper Boys"? When you hear paper girls, you don't know what it means, but if you heard the term paper boys, you would know exactly what it meant.
I like writing female characters. I remember when I was doing "Runaways" at Marvel, that was a teen book that had more females than males in it. At the time, it was the subject of great controversy as we were doing it. "We should have parody, at least?" Usually, there's a token female or two, but to have a team be predominantly of women, the fact that it was a bit of a conversation to have even that. Now being at Image, where we could do anything we want. Here's a great opportunity to do what I always wanted to do, just a group of females and not have to defend it or explain it, and just get to write them.
And they're all quite rough, and they all have weapons. Why do they all have weapons from the get-go?
Well, it's funny. I was reading a lot of "Berenstain Bear" books with my kids, "The Spooky Old Tree." I always loved the one bear had a rope, one had a stick, and one had a light. I remember telling Cliff [Chiang] that they should each have their own totemic thing that they get to carry with them out into the night. Erin has a pocketknife, which is mainly what she uses to bundle papers. The things that they carry aren't primarily weapons, they're things that serve multiple purposes. But they have to, it's such a strange time to think that we would send out 12-year-old children at 4 in the morning to deliver bad news to creepy grown ups. It's very strange. I couldn't picture letting my children do it, but if I did, they would go out armed as well.
What sort of cliches did you find yourself having to push back on?
The female protagonist [always seems] defined by the boy they're chasing or the relationship they've just gotten out of. I wanted to write a story about four kids who did not give a … about the opposite sex. They're aware of them, but it doesn't define their lives. They're these sort of hard-core gangsters that are much more interested in going around, shaking down the adults who owe them money so they can get their cassettes or buy their own Nintendo systems. It was avoiding the relationship traps that come up in those 1980 films and giving them boys to be crushed out ... and just letting them and their friendship be the story. That was more important to me than "Oh, we can't show leg warmers because it's too cliched."
Was "Paper Girls" always supposed to be a comic? Is that how you pitched it?
Yeah. I'm lucky enough having worked in film, television and comics that when I come up with an idea, I just decide from the beginning, "This feels more like a TV show," or "This feels like a comic." It's never like, "Oh, this would be a great movie, so let's do it as a comic first and then try and auction it." That seems like a terrible way to go about things. This is meant to be a comic.
There are some things that comics do really well that other mediums can't. We're serialized like television, which is cool. You get to fall in love with characters over a long period of time and watch them grow and change. Yet we have this unlimited budget that television doesn't have. If I want to have a double-paged spread, as it's called when you have two pages together, of giant dinosaurs over the city, I could do it. I don't have to worry about "There's no way we could do that on a TV budget." It's a lot like "Saga," thematically it was more a TV show. Spectacle-wise, it was more of a movie. Whenever it started to feel like that, that's when I realized it was time for the greatest medium of them all, comics. It's really superior to television in a lot of ways.
Do you know how long this run is? Do you have a finale that you've planned?
Yeah. I never like to go into a story unless I know how it's going to end. There's always the fear that maybe people won't respond to this book, but it seems like our sales are already strong enough. I'm pretty confident that we'll get there. I don't want to give out an issue number, but I'll say that it will be shorter than something like "Saga," which is meant to be a huge, vast epic. But much longer than a miniseries.... It will be a few years that we get to follow these girls.
What is so oddly cinematic about riding a bike in the middle of the street? It pulls on the heartstrings. What is it about putting a character on a bike?
America is such a car culture, and I think that we have always associated automobiles with freedom. Bicycles are the training wheels, no pun intended, version of that. It's your first taste of a vehicle that will take you out far and wide, beyond your parents. Particularly comics, bikes are so horizontal. They look great on the page.
One thing I will reveal, though. When I started pitching this idea to Cliff — he will hate that I am revealing this — he did admit, "Hey, Brian, I actually don't know how to ride a bicycle. I never learned how to ride a bike." I said, "Cliff, this is all you're going to be drawing forever." He's an incredible specimen, Cliff Chiang, that he has never gotten up on a bicycle before, but his panels of girls just riding along on, as you say, just so cinematic and exciting.
Why don't you take him out and record it? Hold the back of his banana seat and push him down the hill.
That is hilarious. The DVD extras of our collections will have us going around, me riding his handlebars....
What is it about the '80s that makes it so easy for us to assume that around the corner, there's a monster? It's a simpler time or something. What is it about that past that allows us to make it Goonie-fied?
I don't know. I think a lot of the fiction that we loved then has less to do with what was in the zeitgeist and just the fact that those weird, mid-level movies could get made back then. You could do something like the “Goonies” or “Monster Squad” or what have you. These days it would be very hard to get a wholly original movie, especially one starring young people, made. You could do stuff based on books or an existing IP, or a reboot. I just felt like the '80s, even though there was a lot of terrible things about it, there was just a lot of inventiveness and these crazy, weird, disposable ideas would come out. It was really fun. I think back on that time not always fondly, but definitely with a lot of wow. There was a lot of creativity happening at the margins back then.
One of your characters has a “Monster Squad” poster on her wall.
I wanted one of those. I didn't want to have the John Hughes poster or the other sort of signifiers that people remember. I want more those movies that are little bit more forgotten to time, but I think there's the kids who did discover it at the right time, it hit us very deeply.
What do you want to avoid when you're writing something set in the past? What's the sort of thing that you find yourself falling into, that you pushed it back on?
I don't know. I don't think there was too much, honestly, of that. I know there will be some, whenever you do something that is a period piece or you're comparing the past to the present, there's going to be pitfalls that you go into. I'm not so worried about that. For me, the thing I told Cliff, is it’s just really important to have these four protagonists be 12 years old. That was the most important thing for me. And to have these characters not be defined by, sometimes even when you have a great book, the female protagonist, they're still defined by the boy their chasing or the relationship they've just gotten out of.
I just wanted to write a story about four kids who did not give a … about the opposite sex. They're aware of them, but it doesn't define their lives. They're these sort of hard-core gangsters that are much more interested in going around, shaking down the adults who owe them money so they can get their cassettes or buy their own Nintendo systems. It was avoiding the relationship traps that come up in those 1980 films and giving them boys to be crushed out on, and just letting them and their friendship be the story, not needing the love interest around anywhere. That was more important to me than, "Oh, we can't show leg warmers because it's too cliched."
One character’s stepmother is a drunk and it's a total mess. Are we going to get darker than that? Are we going to see bloodshed? Are we going to see tears? What's in store?
Yeah, definitely. This is a book for kids so I want all of those things. It was the stuff that I loved when I was 12 years old, was not stuff marketed to 12-year-olds. Kids always want to reach a little bit beyond themselves. They want to see what darkness and horror the world has to offer and they want to hear things they're not supposed to hear and read things that they're not supposed to read. This book is going to get very dark and weird. And hopefully, still be appropriate for 12-year-olds.
Was “Paper Girls” always supposed to be a comic? Is that how you pitched it?
Yeah. I'm lucky enough having worked in film, television, and comics that when I come up with an idea, I just decide from the beginning, "This feels more like a TV show," or "This feels like a comic." It's never like, "Oh, this would be a great movie so let's do it as a comic first and then try and auction it." That seems like a terrible way to go about things. This is meant to be a comic.
There are some things that comics do really well that other mediums can't. We're serialized like television, which is cool. You get to fall in love with characters over a long period of time and watch them grow and change. Yet, we have this unlimited budget that television doesn't have. If I want to have a double-paged spread, as it's called when you have two pages together, of giant dinosaurs over the city, I could do it. I don't have to worry about “There's no way we could that on a TV budget.” It’s a lot like “Saga,” thematically it was more a TV show.
Spectacle-wise, it was more of a movie. Whenever it started to feel like that, that's when I realized it was time for the greatest medium of them all, comics. It's really superior to television in a lot of ways.
As a writer, is that easier having no limits or is it harder having no limits in comics?
It's easier for me. It's a pain in the … for my poor artists. It takes me seconds to write, "Draw a stadium filled with TV-headed robots." That takes forever to draw. It is definitely easier for me as a writer, but a lot of heaviness for my collaborators to do.
You create these very specific-looking characters, like a TV-headed prince. Fiona [Staples, artist on "Saga"] is incredibly gifted, as is Cliff. These are beautiful panels, but have you ever said, "I actually imagined that this would a be a little rounded on the edges?” How collaborative is it?
Never. No. The joy of all my collaborations is we give each other a lot of space and freedom. Fiona and I, we talk at length before we begin each new arc of something. After we've talked and batted back and forth, what worked, what didn't work, what do you want to draw, what are you sick of drawing. Then they just trust me to write and similarly I trust them to draw. For Fiona, my descriptions are getting more and more bare with each issue because she's one of the greatest designers in the history of comics. I don't have to say much more than, "Marco is a guy with horns. He carries a sword. Alana's got wings and she carries a ray gun. Please make them beautiful, fully formed people." She does it. I never give notes. I like being surprised. The artwork has never come in and been like, "That's not as good as it was in my head." It's always a thousand times better than what it is in my meager imagination.
How does that affect you as a writer though? Once your imagination comes to life in those illustrations? Does that actually change the way you think? Has an artist’s illustration ever changed what you felt about a character or a plot?
A hundred percent. I remember in the first issue of “Saga,” these characters the Will and Lying Cat went in their introduction and then it's like he's this implacable killer. I don't know. As soon as I saw Fiona's pages, it was like, "Oh! He's just a big dumb kid that I hate with little animal friends. I understand it now." The characters are always two-dimensional in my head until I see the artwork. When I see Cliff draw Mac or Erin in the book, that's when it'll become real.
My comics career, I broke in at a time where writers got all the attention, were the stars. My career has just been a process of me understanding that writers always take a backseat. This is an artist medium and we are there to serve them. They don't work for us. My life has gotten much better once I realized that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
9:05 a.m.: This post has been updated with additional information from the interview.
This post originally published at 5 a.m.
Previous pages from "Paper Girls" No. 1
(Cliff Chiang/ Image Comics)
(Cliff Chiang / Image Comics)
(Cliff Chiang/ Image Comics)
Previous pages from "Paper Girls" No. 3
(Cliff Chiang/ Image Comics)
(Cliff Chiang/ Image Comics)
"Paper Girls" is available at Image Comics.