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Brian K. Vaughan & Cliff Chiang talk the past and future of Paper Girls

Contributed by
Sep 3, 2019, 7:25 AM EDT (Updated)

I hope it doesn't come as breaking news to you that Paper Girls is one of the best comics on the racks right now. But just in case the newspaper has been piling up on your doorstep, or if you've completely cut the cord, I'll give you the scoop.

Paper Girls is an Eisner Award-winning Image Comics series that stars four pre-teen girls — Erin, KJ, Tiffany, and Mac — who are out delivering newspapers on Halloween night in 1988 when they're caught up in a series of inexplicable events that send them on an adventure across time. But this is no happy-go-lucky journey, this is a dangerous conflict that the girls are caught up in, one they're unable to completely wrap their heads around, and as it rages, they'll learn far more about themselves and each other than they ever wanted to know. The group has seen the harrowing future of 2016 and the prehistoric past, the latter of which they left at the end of the last arc, which has just been released in a paperback collection this week as Paper Girls, Vol. 3.

The men behind this unique sci-fi coming-of-age tale are writer Brian K. Vaughan, artist Cliff Chiang, and colorist Matt Wilson, and I had an opportunity to pick Brian and Cliff's brains about the series. They're both titans of their craft, and you may know them from their work on some little titles like Saga and Wonder Woman, respectively. In our discussion they talked about the difficulty of drawing the year 2000, the ramifications of the latest story arc, what they're excited about in comics, and much more. Check out the interview below, along with Cliff Chiang and Matt Wilson's covers for Volume 3 (out now), the first hardcover collection (out November 1), and the next single issue, #16 (out October 4). In other words, there has never been a better time to hop on your bike and ride down to the local comic shop to get caught up on this incredible series.

Warning: Minor spoilers for the latest volume of Paper Girls ahead.

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The most recent issue of Paper Girls wrapped the arc that saw the girls finally get back together after being separated for a long time, but they didn't have much time to enjoy it, being in a prehistoric era. What made this the right time-setting to get the gang back together?

Brian K. Vaughan: Paper Girls isn't a superhero comic, but it's definitely a "team book." Still, we wanted each storyline after our first arc to focus on a different member of our quartet, and this prehistoric adventure was KJ's turn in the spotlight, so we tried to balance her major life developments with our evolving group dynamics. Plus, I love giant sloths.

Each of the girls now knows a lot more about themselves — and in some cases each other — than they did previously, and it's caused quite a bit of tension between them. Will they begin to clear the air in the next arc, or are there more secrets to come?

BKV: Absolutely. 12 is an exciting, terrifying age because your friends are often learning new things about you at the same time you're learning them about yourself. Tiffany will be our spotlight character in the next arc, but the other Paper Girls will definitely continue to deal with the fallout of what they saw, learned, and acted upon in the prehistoric past.

The girls are all whisked away to a new time once again and the end of Issue #15, and we see that Tiffany, at least, ends up in an era where Y2K happened and it happened with giant robots! It's fun to see the Y2K "event" played with, since it's often treated as a joke now. What made you want to explore the idea?

BKV: In 1999, I knew people who were genuinely terrified about the overblown threat of Y2K, while most of us were completely in the dark about the real catastrophes that would soon be unfolding at the start of the 21st century. With this arc, Cliff and I wanted to explore the complex ways we all grapple with our unknown futures.

Cliff, your robot design at the end is awesome, with just the right blend of technological detail and cartooniness. Were there any giant robot franchises you looked to for inspiration in designing it? Are there more giant robots for readers to look forward to?

Cliff Chiang: I guess you could blame it on being raised by comics and television, but I've always loved robots in any shape or size. Rather than create an entirely new design, it makes sense in our story for the robots to be a little recognizable and feel a little nostalgic to really trigger the memories and associations of being a kid. So the robot we see at the end is part Transformers and part Gundam, and hopefully it makes you think of robots you loved watching on TV after school while eating a horrible microwave snack. The design embraces big shapes and impractical mechanics while adding a sense of realism with ladders, exhaust ports, and panels. We'll be seeing some more futuristic robots in upcoming issues, and they've got a completely different reference point. They're a bit creepy, angular and graphic.

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What new challenges does this new era present to you as an artist compared to the other times we've been to in the series?

CC: It's actually hard to draw the year 2000! Not much has radically changed since then, so it's really important to remember the little things, to try and pinpoint design and fashion trends to make it feel specific and not generic. And Google just brings up the most ridiculous examples, so it's been a challenge to make the era seem authentic.

KJ has a pretty dark moment in the last issue, one that seems to be influenced by her not knowing how to process her newfound knowledge of the future. It's a big moment for her and for the series. Can you talk a bit about what creating that scene was like for both of you, and what kind of trajectory it puts her character on for the next arc?

CC: KJ's really crossed over into adulthood now, where things aren't so black and white. She knows it was wrong, but I feel like she'd do it again in a similar situation. She might be uncertain about the future, but she's always going to protect her friends.

For me, it was really important to preserve the shock and brutality of the moment. We don't see KJ much until the big splash page, so it's a surprise and her decision to act doesn't feel premeditated. But after the first whack she just keeps going, and we then focus on those strikes and how messy they are, both viscerally and psychologically. It was a great scene to draw.

BKV: How far would you go to defend your loved ones? For most 12-year-old kids, that will only ever be a hypothetical question, but KJ gets to answer it for real in this story, and Cliff couldn't have handled the moment more perfectly.

Two new characters we were introduced to in the previous arc were Wari and Doctor Braunstein. From both your perspectives as writer and artist, what did you enjoy most about those characters' interactions with the core group of girls?

CC: I love that they are so different from each other and from the paper girls. Braunstein, older and supposedly wiser, starts off so arrogantly focused on the possibilities of science, but once she's confronted with the consequences of her actions she becomes a hero. Wari is probably the most jaded and pragmatic of the group, which in a way makes her the most adult. Even though she's only 12 or 13, she's seen a lot of hardship, and I really enjoyed that harsh perspective.

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What are you most looking forward to readers experiencing in the upcoming arc?

CC: Brian's done a masterful job of building up mystery and suspense in the series, and we're starting to pay that off in this arc. He still hasn't told me all his secrets, so I'm excited as a reader, too! I also love that we can go from mega-destructive giant robot action to heart-wrenching character moments as Tiffany struggles with the choices of her 24-year-old self.

BKV: I don't know how, but Cliff's artwork somehow gets more spectacular with each arc, so I'm most excited for readers to see the ways he's reinvented himself this time. And in this story, the girls will finally get some concrete answers about the bizarre war they've found themselves caught in the middle of, so I look forward to watching them each react to some major revelations.

Will we ever see a newspaper delivered again in this series?

BKV: Ever the professional, Erin has been carrying her Cleveland Preserve bag with her throughout this whole series, so I suspect we'll see another paper or two flung before our story is over.

I'll wrap by offering my congratulations to you Brian (and series colorist Matt Wilson) on your well-deserved Eisner Award wins. But the question is for both you and Cliff: What has you most excited about comics right now?

CC: I'm really happy that more and more people are making their own comics. I remember how daunting it was for me to just put pen to paper, page by page, until you had a finished comic, but the way new creators are doing that and bravely bringing their unique voices and experiences to their work is really inspiring. Comics are changing.

BKV: I just finished a graphic novel called Boundless by Jillian Tamaki (whose excellent This One Summer Cliff recommended to me as we were brainstorming Paper Girls), and it's the kind of masterpiece I don't think could have existed when I first started reading comics. This is the real Golden Age of our medium, in no small part because of the inclusivity of its creators, and the diversity of their stories.

Paper Girls #16​ is on sale on ​October 4 from Image Comics. All art by Cliff Chiang and Matt Wilson.