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Monday, August 15, 2022

‘Paper Girls’ review: Comic adaptation is more than ‘Stranger Things’ with time travel

Let’s get this out of the way: Paper Girls, the Image comic created by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang, debuted in 2015 — a full year before the Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things first premiered on Netflix. And neither team are the first to try their hand at Amblincore, which is a term I just invented to refer to the glut of recent media indebted to the magic of ’80s movies brought to you by a couple of guys named Ste(ph/v)en.

And while the story begins in 1988, it would be inaccurate to say that Paper Girls is set in the ’80s. Our young protagonists are ’80s kids through and through; aspiring U.S. senator Erin (Riley Lai Nelet) has a dream sequence where she’s facing off against Ronald Reagan in the 1984 presidential debate. The most treasured possession Mac (Sofia Rosinsky) has is her brother’s battered Walkman and carefully curated mixtape (shout out to Danzig). But by the end of the first episode, they’ve been swept into a futuristic conflict and dumped Dorothy-style into 2019. It’s not a spoiler to say that 1988 remains a long way away for the rest of the first season. 

So, yes, when you start Paper Girls, the Prime Video series based on the aforementioned comic, you’ll see pre-teens on bikes riding around without supervision — the perfect scenario for discovering something weird and deciding to investigate it on your own without involving pesky adults. When you finish this season, you’ll have been drawn into a larger story on a scale that dwarfs the small town at its epicenter. And, yes, there are some pretty wild-looking Technicolor clouds that herald an ominous incursion. But that’s about where the similarities to the Netflix juggernaut end — and the comparisons should end, too.


Credit: Amazon Studios/Legendary Television.

Focused Erin, tough Mac, geeky Tiffany (Camryn Jones), and stifled rich kid KJ (Fina Strazza) are paper girls who form an uneasy alliance on their delivery routes in a small suburb of Cleveland. It’s the early hours of the day after Halloween when we first meet them. The strains of New Order’s classic “Age of Consent” play over the teen delinquents of Stony Stream, Ohio, who are still out causing various ruckuses. Chasing down someone who messes with them out of paper-girl solidarity leads them into the path of a “time war” being fought between ideologically opposed factions far in the future; a power outage and a mysterious fuchsia glow in the sky raise the specter of a Cold War-era nuclear standoff. But within minutes, they’ve staggered out of a strange vehicle and into 2019, confused, traumatized, and forced to stick together.


What would you do if you had to explain to your wide-eyed 12-year-old self why you are where you are in life?

Between Erin’s sensible nature, Mac’s wrong-side-of-the-tracks bullheadedness, Tiff’s tech know-how, and KJ’s pragmatism, the kids might have been all right on their own under the usual rules of these kinds of stories, but there’s a refreshing insistence on trying to find an adult to help them out in each new situation. The parental role here is played by Erin herself — occasionally in moments of reluctant leadership, but mainly in the form of the forty-something adult Erin, who is still living in her mother’s unchanged house when the girls land in 2019.

Ali Wong is a revelation as “Old” Erin, from the very first moment of her refreshingly realistic anxiety-attack-mindfuck — i.e. the reaction a normal person would have upon being confronted by their 12-year-old self appearing out of nowhere to criticize their life choices. Wong imbues adult Erin with a worn-out resignation that pays off repeatedly through the season, clashing with her younger self over how to handle their situation and then sliding into furious exchanges about the direction her (their) life has taken.

A tween girl and a woman, both Asian, sit on a bed.

Riley Lai Nelet and Ali Wong, both as Erin.
Credit: Amazon Studios/Legendary Television.

This is the true charm of Paper Girls, right here: What would you do if you had to explain to your wide-eyed 12-year-old self why you are where you are in life? What would you say to future you, if you were less than thrilled with where you’d ended up? So many time travel stories emphasise not interfering with older or younger selves, spouting rants about grandfather paradoxes and butterfly effects. This story nods briefly at those theories and tropes but refuses to over-explain reasons why an older self might not remember travelling through time when they were 12 and meeting them…self.

As each of the four paper girls discovers what their future holds, they find something that simply doesn’t compute. Twelve is old enough to start to have some pretty grown-up ideas about what kind of person you want to be, but young enough that — if you’re lucky — you have no idea how insistently and unavoidably life can get in the way of your goals and dreams. The young cast strike a good balance between seeming like kids and growing up fast as they’re confronted with their own futures; Rosinsky’s Mac is capital-T Tough but lets the cracks show, while Strazza keeps KJ’s cards close to her chest early on and folds a potent cocktail of trauma and denial into her work in the back half of the season.

The Paper girls look out a window


Credit: Amazon Studios/Legendary Television.

All of this said, Paper Girls does struggle in this debut season. The pacing feels off in the second half, even as big emotional beats arrive at unexpected moments and are all the more powerful for it; the antagonists’ motivations are muddled unsatisfactorily after a season-long Terminator-style hunt. Plus, the casting of a certain internet-beloved TV comedy regular fails to reach the notes of incongruous menace it’s clearly aimed to hit.

Stephany Folsom, who co-wrote Toy Story 4 and Thor: Ragnarok, shepherded Paper Girls through development, serving as exec producer and co-showrunner before departing the series last year with no reason given. (The sudden announcement came after filming had already begun.) It’s hard not to wonder if there were creative tensions behind the scenes. It’s even harder not to wonder what this show, which features time travel and mechas and motherfucking dinosaurs, could have done with anything close to a Stranger Things budget instead of the CW-genre-show sandbox it’s apparently making do with.

The comics’ giant, gory tardigrade battle on the edge of Lake Erie may have been a casualty of the VFX budget or of the simplification of the time travel mechanics. Either way, I feel robbed, and you should too. First, they were but a funny aside in Ant-Man, now this — tardigrades deserve more love in comic adaptations!

But this is a show with an enormous heart, and a beautiful setting for exploring the tension coiled tight inside that moment when childhood is over and adolescence hasn’t quite started. Those kids from Hawkins can blast Kate Bush and splay their hands at each other all they like, but there’s never been a Stranger Things scene quite like the one where Mac, Tiff, KJ, and Erin try to decipher a tampon box leaflet. Hopefully, the paper girls are worth following through this awkward phase.

Paper Girls(opens in a new tab) debuts today on Amazon Prime Video.(opens in a new tab)



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