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'Paper Girls' creators Brian K. Vaughan & Cliff Chiang on how TV series 'elevates and honors' the comic
Eisner-winning creators Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang reveal how the series used them to find the right path.
In 2015, a unicorn of a comic book called Paper Girls hit shelves. The Image Comics book written by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Cliff Chiang featured a main cast of four 12-year-old newspaper delivery girls who stumble into a time-traveling war that has them jumping through time. The scale and paradoxical conundrums were familiar to genre readers, but four teen girls leading the narrative? Practically groundbreaking. It went on to become a multiple Eisner Award-winning book with a successful 30-issue run.
And then Prime Video did the next craziest thing by ordering it to series adaptation, retaining the book's core sci-fi conceits and the young teen girl characters at its heart: Erin (Riley Lai Nelet), Mac (Sofia Rosinsky), KJ (Fina Strazza) and Tiffany (Camryn Jones). It's crazy because you can count on a single hand how many live-action, sci-fi dramas with a diverse, teen girl cast exist.
The series debuted on Prime Video on July 29, with Vaughan and Chiang serving as executive producers/consultants and Christopher C. Rogers (Halt and Catch Fire) executive producing/showrunning. SYFY WIRE recently got on a Zoom call with the trio to get the details about how Vaughan and Chiang helped Rogers translate their book to screen, how Paper Girls differentiates itself from other nostalgic '80s stories, and why it's important to get different comic books like this one to screen.
Brian and Cliff, did either of you have any reservations about Paper Girls getting adapted into another medium and it possibly losing everything that made the book so unique?
Cliff Chiang: It's important to trust people, and we had a lot of trust in Chris and the whole team to take the story and adapt that as they needed to because it's a different medium. They can do things on TV that we can't, even something as basic as sound is something we have no access to in a comic. And they can do so much more and the story can hit so differently. We just had so much faith in them and knowing what great storytellers they are, that they could take the story and really elevate it.
Brian K. Vaughan: Yeah, I think we just saw it as an opportunity. Even though for Cliff and I, this [book] was years of our life, the comic really only takes place over a few nights for these girls. We just knew this is such an incredible opportunity for the story to expand. For there to be new threats, for there to be new allies — we just saw it as opportunities. And as Cliff says, it's a different medium. So, for me, I was most excited about casting. And knowing that I've been living with Cliff's beautiful artwork for so long, that we were going to have four incredible young people help bring these characters to life, that was just so exciting. And the casting just went so much better than I ever could have imagined. I think as soon as those young women were in place, I just want to see them go to surprising places we haven't taken them, which Chris and the gang have certainly done.
Chris, what were your concerns in regards to bringing Paper Girls to life in a way that honored the book but also opened up the storytelling?
Chris Rogers: I think the first thing that was so obvious about Paper Girls was that it was this love letter to amalgamated ideas of people that Brian and Cliff had known. This was a very inhabited story about the experiences of these different girls and so if the show is gonna succeed, it needed to replicate that. To jump off from the places Brian and Cliff had given us as these incredible starting points, but then to be personal in that same way. It really was just about getting a group of people in the writers' room who wanted to put themselves into it in that way. And then, as Brian alluded to, the wonderful opportunity we had was to sit down in those scenes for longer than Brian and Cliff can when they have to move panel-to-panel more quickly. And then what would happen next in this panel if we were able to stay in it and have a word bubble that wasn't this small. We were gifted with such a wonderful starting place.
As the creators, what's been particularly exciting to see in this translation?
Vaughan: I'll say for me, watching the show, it is one of the most exciting things when you see a moment that feels torn right from the book. It is when you see yourself recognized on screen and, "Oh, they really got us." But it is not nearly as exciting as when I read a script or watch a cut that I never would have thought of. And I'm like, "Oh, this is such a missed opportunity. Cliff, we have to go back to this comic right now!" It feels like that's my responsibility, mostly, to help foster an environment where that can happen. Cliff and I can be a resource to say, "Look, we know that our comic is this wildly confusing and complex time war going over eons. Let us help you."
Chiang: I had a bunch of conversations with the production department and put together a document showing some of the designs I had made, what the thinking was behind it was, and what the inspirations were. And that really gave them a blueprint of what I was thinking and from there, they could extrapolate and develop and deepen a lot of that thinking, in their own way. And that was kind of the coolest thing, to see us give this kind of raw material to them, and for it to come back in these surprising new ways. And I had some really cool conversations talking about little details around some technology and it came to life. Seeing it on screen like that was just so trippy, because the designs, I don't necessarily draw things to work in real life, but to see them realized in that way was just mind-blowing.
Rogers: What a gift that was! You're understating it. Cliff would send that perfect 1980s Walkman or some trading cards right at the right moment when the room was needing a boost. Or to be able to call [them] and say, "Are you liking this? Is this our show?" And have somebody be able to give you a real answer and then to be able to return to the writers' room and say they like it. You don't have that on a normal show where you have to kind of stand in the storm and trust your point of view, which becomes scary. It's been amazing to have the feedback loop for these two guys to turn to again and again and bounce it all off.
In the book and the series, the four girls are salty kids from Cleveland and they don't hold back. Was there a template you used in terms of finding tone?
Rogers: We use Stand By Me as a model of that prestige drama to actors of this age, and have it not be cute and have it not be a punchline. And to take kids seriously at this age, and especially take girls seriously at this age. I think that differentiates it pretty immediately. When we found these actresses and saw them start to do these scenes, I think all of our shoulders went down because we were like, "Oh my god, I'm in this. I believe this. They're living this."
One of the special aspects of the series is the sense of discovery with the main cast. You can just believe them as the characters because they're relatively unknown. Was that a fight at any point, to not cast well-known kid actors?
Rogers: I think that a real question early on was, "does this need names?" I think it was even floated to age the girls up. I'm really glad we stuck to our guns and didn't do that. The goal was real girls and 12-year-old girls. I think two of them were [that age] on the day we started shooting, the other two were 13 and 14. And this is an all-female writers' room, except for me. There's all female directors. We have writers in the room that are in their late 20s and we have writers in the room who are in their late 60s. We have this amazing spectrum of experience that I think we also brought to bear on the storytelling.
In terms of what to expect story arc-wise, did you go far into the book's mythology or is it relatively contained in Season 1?
Rogers: We got it a little further than I thought we'd get in that first season. And I think that was a permission we gave ourselves in that you just have to. Best laid plans but then there you are in Episode 5 going, "Oh, and that's the end of what we thought we needed." [Laughs.]
Paper Girls as a book, and now a series, remains an outlier in terms of being a story with multiple young, female protagonists in a very sci-fi tale. Why is this story important?
Vaughan: We wanted to do a story about the '80s, where it wasn't rose-colored glasses or nostalgic. We wanted to talk about, which is in many ways, the homophobic, racist, and nightmarish place that we came from. But ironically, one of the things that I miss about the '80s that I felt like growing up was I had Ripley in Aliens and Sarah Connor in Terminator. And it felt like I loved these protagonists and they happened to be women. I didn't want to do a book that was targeted just at one group. It is electrifying to get to watch with my wife and daughter who dutifully look at my comics, and have watched my other TV shows. This was the thing where they're both from the first time that pilot cut came in, "Where's the next episode?" I just felt bad that they hadn't had a show like that to bond over before. And I'm sorry it's taken so long. But I'm so grateful for this entire team for making it happen because I do think it's really something special. And I hope it'll be the beginning of lots more shows that just happen to be genre shows that have an all female cast. I hope this will be the first of many, many more to come.
Paper Girls is now streaming on Prime Video.