Brian K Vaughan's central concept for Paper Girls initially appeared to be creating an 80s Spielberg sci-fi films like the Goonies or E.T. This idea had an immediate attraction both in terms of nostalgia and in terms of playing to Vaughan's strengths. However, four issues in, the nostalgic coming-of-age story is rapidly being replaced by a frenetic, inexplicable, and often shrill sci-fi action story. It's not a pleasant change as Paper Girls transitions from what appeared to be a breakout hit, to a much more typical, less interesting book. The issue opens up by introducing us to an old man who appears to be in charge of the armored faction of time travelers. In an incomprehensible sequence made worse by the odd speech patterns of the future-folk, he orders them to send in and 'editrix'. It's a short sequence but it's a blunt reminder that Vaughan has no interest in letting the reader understand what's going on. It might be forgivable as world-building of some sort, if it weren't for the fact that no character's motivations are yet clear, leaving the four lead girls with no opponent, simply confusion.
As for those girls, they have joined up with two cybernetic, time-traveling teenagers, Heck and Naldo, who claim to be able to cure Erin's bullet wound. A trip through the tunnels to reach the boys ship is interrupted by the appearance of the afore-mentioned Editrix who appears to be sphere with square eyeball tentacles. All that should sound like a bit of a mess, not even mentioning oddly out-of-place mention of homosexuality and the final plot swerve.
All this should likely make me dislike Paper Girls #4 more than I actually do. The lead reason for this is Cliff Chiang whose talent for drawing beautiful scenes redeems even the strangest most disjointed sequences. The fight in the sewers becomes thrilling not because we are invested in any one element of the story but because it is amazing to look at with visual effects and a sense of movement second to none.
With Chiang's art smoothing over the book's many defects, a few bits of Vaughan's script that do in fact work become notable. One sequence illustrates a character's life flashing before her eyes entirely in terms of playing an 80s video game. It's a silly, personal moment of the type the book could use more of. Further, a scene where the girls discuss whether it's ok to trust the boys, not because they are time-travelling mutants but because they are teenagers.
With small character beats like this working so well, I wonder why Vaughan chose to launch straight into an epic sci-fi plot. It's not particularly entertaining, and while it gives the book a certain sense of forward momentum, it robs it of the room it needs for basic character development. I cannot at this point differentiate the four girls or describe any characteristic about them beyond Chiang's typically wonderful designs.
As it is, there is not enough good material in Paper Girls #4 to make it a good comic but still too much to make it a bad one. Things balance out around mediocre which is a shame considering the potential. Perhaps when the first arc has wrapped up, Vaughan can slow things down and craft a more intimate, warm story, but as is, the comic is rapidly becoming a chore to read.
Paper Girls #4 Writer: Brian K. Vaughan Artist: Cliff Chiang Publisher: Image Comics Price: $2.99 Release Date: 1/6/15 Format: Print, Digital