Paper Girls: Brian K. Vaughan on the Moment That Gave Him Goosebumps

TV

This Paper Girls article contains spoilers.

Like Damon Lindelof’s take on Watchmen before it, Paper Girls takes a beloved comic work and expands its possibilities for the small screen. Streaming now on Amazon Prime Video, the eight-episode debut season captures the heart, fun, and general sci-fi mindfuckery of the source material. More than that though, it doubles down on the saga’s core humanity by taking time to explore the rich inner lives of Mac, KJ, Tiffany, and Erin as they are thrown into a decades-spanning adventure that puts them in conflict with everything from their future selves to the realities of their mortality.

Part of the reason this adaptation is so successful is that Paper Girls‘ comic creators Brian K. Vaughan (who wrote all 30 issues) and Cliff Chiang (who illustrated them) serve as executive producers on the series. Their involvement both legitimizes and endorses the show, which ambitiously attempts to build upon the time-jumping world that the comic so perfectly established. In conjunction with the show’s debut, we had the opportunity to discuss all things Paper Girls’ with Vaughan, Chiang, and current showrunner Christopher C. Rogers.

Den of Geek: Tell me about the origins of Paper Girls.

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Brian K. Vaughan: Well, it started in my childhood. I grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, like the girls in this comic, and we used to get the Cleveland Plain Dealer delivered to us and it was always delivered by a young man until one day it suddenly wasn’t. There were a bunch of 12-year-old girls in our neighborhood, delivering everyone’s Plain Dealer. As a kid, I thought “this is fascinating that there are these parents out there that are letting 12-year-old girls go out at four in the morning to deliver bad news to grown-ups.” It was really cool.

At the time I recognized that they were pioneers, the first of their kind. But we also knew this is a job that’s not going to exist in a few years. So they were the last of a dying breed. I’d always thought about them and I always thought about using them in a story somehow. I think when Cliff and I became parents and thought about writing about the experience of growing up, I thought back to those young women and thought “oh, they would be great. Not just supporting characters, but as the leads of a story would be very cool.”

Cliff, what were some of your visual inspirations that you turned to while creating the look of Paper Girls?

Cliff Chiang: I think a lot of times people treat ’80s stuff as a punchline. They go really broad because it’s very colorful and it’s a lot of fun, but we tried to take a lot of inspiration from Amblin movies, things that felt a little bit almost documentary-ish about exploring suburban life in the ’80s. We tried to lean into things being lived in and feeling authentic, but at the same time giving a level of stylization to it. Even though it all takes place at night, it’s all these kind of beautiful colors that our colorist, Matt Wilson, added to it. These purples and pinks and things like that give it a little bit more style and keep it from just being photo journalism.

Christopher, you have already had experience with the 1980s setting in the television world with Halt and Catch Fire. Now, obviously, Paper Girls is partially set in that era. What do you think some of the appeal is as storytellers to keep returning to that decade?

Christopher C. Rogers: To bastardize a Camus quote, I think all art is about getting back to those first fundamental images which first touched you when you’re young. I think we are all, in some ways, children of the ’80s. This story is set in ’88. Like Brian said, it was the things you were seeing outside your window, it might have been girls you knew in school and were friends with or understood.

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I think we’re drawn back into the past and wanting to understand that in a deeper way and wanting to show it in a fuller spectrum too. Cliff said it well, it’s so often a punchline. I think people skim the top layer of what the ’80s were often in depicting it in film and TV, but this show wanted to go a little more when it’s in that period into Reagan, into the differing experiences of people with different ethnicities or sexual orientations, into some of the darker corners as well. We talked a lot about Stand By Me as a story that is about younger people, but goes to adult places. I think as we take on that time period and subsequent time periods, that’s always kind of our touchstone.

I was really taken aback by, in the best possible way, the episode “A New Period.” Just the discussion of seeing what young women go through during puberty. I can’t remember a way where it’s been described with that much heart and humor on television. I was wondering if you could share your thoughts on like that specific aspect of that episode.

Christopher C. Rogers: I think that’s one of the most special scenes in the show. I think it’s a scene only Paper Girls could do and ironically, I had the least to do with it of any writer in our room. It’s an all-female room other than me — women in their twenties to women in their sixties — tons of different life experiences. On the day that we took on that scene, everybody was contributing, everybody got a line in that scene. Then when we ran it by the girls, we wanted to make sure they were comfortable and did they have anything to add? They threw some amazing ad-libs in there.

That’s the best of what we can do, which is to represent the real coming of age experience of people, young women this age, but also kind of fit it inside this kind of exciting arc. I’m very proud of that scene and what we got on camera, and hopefully it makes you laugh and makes you uncomfortable and makes people out there say, “Oh yeah.” I love that you singled that one out.

There’s a real honesty to not only the comic, but to the show as well. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I found the scene with KJ when she sees her future self involved in a same sex relationship to be that kind of beautiful, terrifying, eureka moment that I think most queer people go through when they realize their sexuality. To see that brought on screen in a different way than the queerness was presented in the book expanded the parameters of what Paper Girls can be on television. I just wanted wondered each of your thoughts on that, and in general of how this visual medium is changing the story while keeping the essence.

Brian K. Vaughan: Thanks. I got goosebumps as you were describing it. I’m just remembering watching that scene for the first time. It was like, “Oh, this is why adaptations are great,” because that’s something that I think Cliff and I had captured in our own unique way in Paper Girls. I’m so proud of that moment in the comics, but seeing that scene on television and the way they were able to do it was pretty breathtaking. I’m so grateful for it. I just, I loved it. Cliff?

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Cliff Chiang: I’m amazed by how many scenes there are that I wish we had done in the comic. There’s just so much heart and so much emotion and just taking the characters to places that I wish we could have gone to. Seeing those come up in the episodes was just so thrilling and just made me so happy to see the team really take the show and make it their own.

Christopher C. Rogers: The baseline opportunity of the show, in many ways, was to sit down longer in these great moments that are suggested in the comic. With that one, again, it was going into the room where people were telling their own coming out stories and saying, “then what else is true, what else do we want to feel?” And then going to the director who had her own coming out story for that one, “What do we want to feel?” And then going to the actress and saying, “These are the things that we think are true around this, but what is…” It’s such an additive medium where so much can come out in the process of making it and that, again, is a moment that I feel was just so amplified by a hopefully very benign process.

By the way, that actress (Fina Strazza) is amazing, because she has to do so much of it with a look. It’s not a dialogue heavy moment. So I really just couldn’t be more impressed with the actresses that took this on and really did the homework to understand where these characters were coming from.

Now, I know that the comic predates Stranger Things, but do you think the comparisons that are inevitable, just because you have young kids having supernatural kind of adventures in the ’80s. Do you think that will be something that will help the show or hinder the show?

Brian K Vaughan: I’m hopeful that it helps and that I still have never seen Stranger Things. I have to admit, because it came out as Cliff and I were in the middle of writing our series and I didn’t want to be influenced unintentionally or otherwise. But I’ll say that my son is 12 years old and Stranger Things is the most important thing in his life. He absolutely loves it.

He’s watched every episode of Paper Girls, perhaps, because of any sort of surface similarities. He was initially intrigued, but from the very first episode, he’s like, “Oh dad, this is nothing like Stranger Things.” I was like, “Oh, does that mean you hate it?” He’s like, “No, this is really good.” So yes, I think the world is big enough for two shows about young people who happen to be from the 1980s. And I think hopefully as you’ve said, it is wildly different. So yes, I hope we can all coexist peacefully.

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At this point what is the future of Paper Girls and where would you like to see the series go?

Christopher C. Rogers: We believe the future is bright. We absolutely know where we want to go. I think if you’ve read the comics, you know that we’re just scratching the surface of the arcs of these characters. I know Amazon shares that excitement. I think we go through the normal process, just like any other show. Have it come out, see what the reception is, but absolutely, I think everyone on this call Amazon, Legendary, Plan B are unified in excitement about a direction for a second season. I know the girls share that as well.

Tell me a little bit about the casting process with bringing these people who are primarily known for comedy into this crazy Paper Girls world.

Christopher C. Rogers: Absolutely. The show attracted fans. Jason Mantzoukas is a huge Paper Girls fan, who in fact gave the comics to Ali Wong and said, “You should read this” before there was ever a TV show, before there was ever an opportunity. I think a love of what Brian and Cliff did unified a lot of the actors that came to play with us. Nate Corddry is obviously playing a character that we invented versus somebody that’s established in the story, but he took that on, read the comics, had questions.

I think we just were looking for people that were as psyched about it as we were, that didn’t see it as a job. Likewise, know that this show belongs to the girls and were going to be additive to their experience on set. Ali certainly brought that, Jason brought that, Nate brought that. The chemistry on the day is everything to us, and those are all people, because of their ability, (can) have very serious things happen, but then have very funny things happen. You have to be able to do both to play in the kind of Brian K Vaughn and Cliff Chiang-verse and luckily I think we had three fantastic actors to do that.

When you finished the comic, was there a sense that was the final exploration of the Paper Girls world? Has the TV show inspired you to maybe revisit these characters?

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Cliff Chiang: In a lot of ways I feel like an old gunslinger. I thought I’d put that all behind me, but then seeing the show it gets the neurons firing and I start thinking about other ways we could try to re-enter the Paper Girls universe. Just because, I’m so excited about the show and what they’ve been able to do with it and being able to expand on our story. It makes me want to try that too. But yeah, I don’t know if there are opportunities for that, but it’s very exciting and for the show to kind of jumpstart some of those creative impulses is really a wonderful thing for me.

Christopher C. Rogers: I say, do it. I want to read it for me.

Brian K. Vaughan: I will say, it definitely, it made me, as always, just want to work with Cliff again. Whether that’s on Paper Girls or something original, I guess we’ll see. But it has just been so nice because usually after you finish a book, it’s sort of like, “oh, here’s this old relationship that I had” and you drift apart.” It’s just so nice that we get to keep sort of living in the Paper Girls world together, but it’s weird to not be checking on Cliff’s beautiful layouts or doing corrections on balloon placements or whatever it just makes me want to make more comics with Cliff. So I’ll say, never say never.

All eight episodes of Paper Girls are now streaming on Prime Video.

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