The easiest way to get someone to check out something new is often to compare it to other things they’re familiar with. Bitch Planet’s pitch to new readers is “Orange is the new Riddick.” Gotham Academy is “Harry Potter meets Scooby Doo in Gotham.” With only one issue to judge, it’s harder to come up with a pithy, succinct summary of Paper Girls, but “Goonies plus Now And Then trapped in H.G. Wells’ nightmares” is close.
Paper Girls #1 (Image) follows the four titular characters on their morning route on November 1st, 1988. By making them paper girls, writer Brian K. Vaughan has given the reader ample opportunities to figure out the setting of the story. It’s hard to miss the fact that they’re outside of Cleveland in the late ’80s when the girls are discussing the paper for much of their dialog. It’s a comforting—if maybe a little heavy-handed—way of providing specific context, and it helps to ground the characters firmly in reality, which is a particular talent of Vaughan’s and absolutely vital for this story.
Paper Girls may look familiar to fans of Brian Azzarello’s run on Wonder Woman: artist Cliff Chiang, colorist Matt Wilson, and letterer Jared K. Fletcher are reprising the roles they shouldered to tell Diana’s story for this book. The four main characters look like actual teenagers, wearing clothes that are appropriate not only for the year, but also their age and individual personalities. Chiang did a great job with the character designs in Wonder Woman, particularly with Hera. But given the freedom to draw real people in street clothes, he proves himself even better when not constrained by costumes. Wilson’s colors are bright and poppy in a way that evokes the period without looking stale, which is particularly difficult because the whole book takes place predawn, and Fletcher gracefully handles some dialog-heavy panels.
The initial driving force behind the plot is the struggle the girls face trying to finish their routes the day after Halloween, facing interference from teenage boys and a cop who all throw their weight around in an attempt to intimidate the protagonists. But very clearly a mystery begins to creep in and before long it dominates the page. It’s difficult to reveal too much without massive spoilers, but do take note of repeated references to classic science fiction.
Unlike some other books featuring a preponderance of teenagers, these characters speak like kids, for the most part. There is one scene early on where Mac, resident tough girl, says something offensive and is immediately corrected by Erin, the primary protagonist and a good egg by all appearances. It feels forced and strange, like Vaughan wanted to establish their personalities too quickly and reinforce the timeline by having one of them say something that was acceptable in 1988 and isn’t now. It’s unnecessary, jarring enough that interrupts the pacing. For the most part though, the characters feel complete and well-formed, like real people instead of tropes there to help the story along. It’s disappointing that yet another of the few comics featuring teenage girls doesn’t have any women on the creative team, but it’s a very strong first issue with a compelling mystery brewing and a great cliffhanger ending. [Caitlin Rosberg]
Constructed with the surrealist imagery of tarot cards, Caitlin Skaalrud’s Houses Of The Holy (Uncivilized Books) is like cast runes, spread out on the table. Each line and each chiaroscuro is an intermingling of spotted blacks and whites; each swoop of noodling seems insignificant or indecipherable, but the imagery is full of meaning—meaning that each person must derive for themselves. A woman’s journey into her own psyche, the book functions largely through a juxtaposition of strange images and the recontextualization of familiar ones, and it follows a dream logic. The unnamed lead wanders—her movements like non-sequiturs—through shocking sequences: a horse drowning in a river; a squad of deer sitting in a cramped room, reaching out their tongues to a tire suspended from the ceiling; hundreds of polaroids (all detailing women in various states of undress) hanging in the woods, pinned to a clothesline with a rumpled wedding gown. While Skaalrud is hardly the first person to visualize someone’s interiority, she does narratively frame it in an interesting way.
Conventional wisdom, at least in the West, says that a story must necessarily contain conflict. Without friction, there is no drama; no drama, no story. The resolution of the conflict is the end of that story. Skaalrud subverts this trope of axial conflict by setting the entirety of her work within the resolution. The crucial turn in a story—the hinge on which it dramatically pivots—becomes a fractal, and Skaalrud extrapolates that one detail into a whole, demonstrating that each aspect of a narrative can contain its own narrative.
As the unnamed woman who leads Houses Of The Holy moves deeper into the book’s fantastical setting the imagery becomes darker. She sees death and moribund omens—a bride whose face is an opaque shadow—and we see glimpses of some vague trauma that has left her in this state. She has lost a lover, though it’s unclear if that loss is to a break-up or by some accident of fate, and the disparate imagery leading up to that revelation coalesces into something meaningful. This balancing act lends her work a coherence and an engaging narrative familiarity, which gives the book a comforting quality. But she plays around with the conventional understanding of narrative just enough to unbalance the pacing and keep the flow from getting too predictable.
This structure—this conceit—subtly challenges misconceptions about story, but it does so without draining the drama from life. Instead of bringing the artifice of drama closer to life, Skaalrud brings life closer to the artifice of drama. She imbues the minutiae with spectacle and grandeur; instead of saying, “This can be just like life: drama free,” she says, “This is just like life: every instant is pregnant with drama and mystery.” [Shea Hennum]
Sacha Mardou’s Sky In Stereo (Revival House Press) could pass for autobiography, if an unsuspecting reader didn’t know better. It’s understated and quiet without being oppressively so, ornamented with the kind of very specific details that we might expect to find in personal reminiscence—sunlight shining through an open window in the morning after sex, for instance, illuminating a Pavement poster on the far wall. It feels personal, and intimate in a way that belies its status as fiction.
Quite by accident, 14-year-old Iris finds herself growing up in a religious household in the early 1990s in Manchester, England. After her mother becomes a Jehovah’s Witness, Iris finds herself suddenly drawn to the church as well. Although she gets along well enough with the church, she realizes as her school years draw to a close that she would much prefer to go to college than drop out of the secular world altogether. Although she tells herself that her resistance to the religious life comes from having read a second-hand copy of The Age Of Reason, it seems to have more to do with the fact that all her religious friends are already making plans to be married and have children straight out of high school. Saving herself from a lifetime of chaperoned dates to Pepe’s Pizza Kitchen, she applies to university and spends her summer behind the counter at Burger Loco.
Iris is aggressively average, a painful situation in which to find oneself as a young adult. She doesn’t feel as pretty as the girls who don’t have to spend long hours dressed in a uniform over a greasepit, and she’s unable to move past the occasional fling with her work friend (and object of infatuation) Glen. Glen isn’t that much of a catch, either, but he’s one of those guys that never seems to be short of female companionship. He also does a lot of drugs, and while Iris manages to put off his suggestion that they do heroin together, she does quite like acid.
The rest of the book details her slow descent into an acid-influenced breakdown. Whereas the “gray and ordinary” skies over Manchester were once empty in anticipation of the New Kingdom, they’re now filled with colorful paisley pouring through a tear in the fabric of the world. But acid is an unpredictable drug. Her trip seems to fade but her strange behavior doesn’t, and she’s soon disappeared down a rabbit hole of manic synchronicities and paranoia. Something besides acid flashbacks are pushing her further down the spiral. The book ends with Iris being taken by the police, and future volumes promise a stay in rehab or a mental hospital.
Sky In Stereo breathes on the strength of its details, a portrait of life in the north of England at a specific time and place. This was Madchester, after all—even if, by the time of the story, the kids are more interested in going back to the Velvets than whatever The Mock Turtles were up to. More interesting to read about, at any rate, than it probably was to live. Anyone who’s ever been stuck in a dead-end job in a dead-end town without an exit strategy should be able to relate. [Tim O’Neil]
With his delicate pencil work and skill for atmospheric, emotionally rich storytelling, Sam Alden has emerged as one of the most exciting talents in alt-comics. His new graphic novel New Construction (Uncivilized Books) is an exceptional showcase of his cartooning prowess, featuring two New Orleans-set stories about personal trauma: “Backyard” spotlights a house of young adults whose roommate, Molly, has suffered an acute mental breakdown and now acts like a dog, walking on all fours, barking instead of talking, and living in the backyard because she trashed the house. “Household” focuses on a brother-sister pair scarred by childhood abuse from their father that severely damages their relationship as adults.
Powerful and unsettling, the stories have a raw vitality that makes the characters’ distress especially palpable, and Alden doesn’t offer any easy resolutions to their pain. Rendering the comics in pencil gives them a fragility appropriate for the mental states of the traumatized characters, but they have distinct tones thanks to the differing levels of detail in the linework.
Alden uses a finer, more specific line for “Backyard” that heightens clarity, which is important considering the structure of the story. The narrative is largely told through small moments that have been pulled from longer events, dropping the reader into scenes already in progress. It takes a certain amount of time to become accustomed to the pacing and figure out how these moments fit together, but the structure allows Alden to pack a lot of story in 63 pages by giving the reader key information without wasting time getting in and out of a scene. It gives the impression that there’s a lot happening off the page, resulting in a very full story despite the lean storytelling.
“Household” is a longer narrative with a looser rendering style, giving it a hazy quality that fits Tim’s confusion and disorientation as he acclimates to a new environment. The hastiness in Alden’s drawing is very intentional, making the comic an experiment in trusting his artistic instincts to tell a story quickly and efficiently. There’s still plenty of detail, but his pencils are thicker and less meticulous, bringing a roughness to the story that reflects Tim’s emotions. “Backyard” is about the people around Molly trying to maintain stability while caring for their friend, and the detailed artwork presents a perspective more in tune with the roommates than Molly. “Household” is more concerned with putting the reader in the mindset of the traumatized character, and the shift in the rendering style is an effective way of intensifying Tim’s experience through visuals. Alden’s informed artistic decisions give these stories strong emotional impact, and New Construction continues to build up the reputation of a remarkable young cartoonist. [Oliver Sava]