Graphic Novels, Tough Chicks is an original feature that celebrates the amazing female characters that abound in graphic novels. While many people still associate this particular form with a male readership, certain graphic novels empower women and combat feminine stereotypes through illustration and text. Tough chicks resist injustice, fight for their beliefs, and they don’t take flak from nobody. These women are capable of fighting their own battles, both literally and figuratively.

Paper Girls Vol. 1 by Brian K. VaughanPaper Girls, Vol. 1 (Paper Girls #1-5)

Authors & Illustrator(s): Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Chiang, and Matthew Wilson

Genre: Science Fiction, Feminism

Publisher: Image Comics on April 5, 2016

Source: Publisher via NetGalley

My thanks to Image and NetGalley for providing me with a digital review copy. No compensation was provided for this review, and all opinions are my own.

In the early hours after Halloween of 1988, four 12-year-old newspaper delivery girls uncover the most important story of all time. View Spoiler »

If you’re in the know about comics and graphic novels, then you’ve read at least one series written by Brian K. Vaughan (Saga, Runaways, Y: The Last Man) – and if you’re not in the know, then you’ve likely still heard about some of his projects. The writer is back at it again with a new genre bending series featuring young women who are undoubtedly tough chicks.

The year is 1988, and 12 year-old Erin Tieng is one of the few newspaper delivery girls in her sleepy hometown. Quiet, studious, and lonely, Erin gets ready for work on the morning of November 1st knowing that she’ll have to deal with all the garbage left over from Halloween celebrations – including dreaded teenagers.

It’s during an unpleasant encounter with said teens that Erin experiences what I can only describe as my personal dream come true: she is initiated into a bike-riding, smack-talking girl gang. JEALOUS! Tiffany, KJ, and Mac are all paper girls too, and they know that there’s safety in numbers when weird stuff goes down on Halloween. But as the girls ride through their routes, they realize that there’s something extra weird going on this year. Accosted by ninja-like dudes who speak gibberish and want to steal their walkie-talkies, the girls then witness their neighbours, friends, and family members just…disappear into thin air. As if that weren’t enough, they’re confronted by a pair of deformed, cyborg-like teenage boys who claim that they’re from the future – and that they need the girls’ help to stop the ninja dudes and save the missing townspeople. So not your average morning at work, clearly.

Image: Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Chiang, & Matthew Wilson
Image: Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Chiang, & Matthew Wilson

PAPER GIRLS VOL. 1 illustrates the realities of being a woman in a male-dominated society or micro-society, in this case working as a paper girl. Erin is subjected to aggression and sexual harassment from male characters, dealing with crass innuendos and unwanted overtures from teenaged boys…when she herself is only 12. As she implies in the panel above, Erin just wants to do her job without being harassed. I think this is a sentiment that a lot of readers can relate to, especially women in male-dominated fields (or any customer service role). Despite some cheesy ’80s, John Hughes movie tropes, PAPER GIRLS VOL. 1 presents a quiet, powerful feminism from the perspectives of girls who may lack the sophisticated language to articulate it but nevertheless know that what they’re experiencing isn’t right. I was really pleased with this element of the graphic novel, especially coming from an entirely male creative team.

I’ve spoken about this before, but queer representation in SFF is really important to me as both a reader and a reviewer. BKV has built a representation for portraying queer characters and relationships in a complex and nuanced light, so I was very taken aback by the fact that there are homophobic slurs in PAPER GIRLS VOL. 1. But then I remembered – this is set in the 1980s, at the height of paranoia about AIDS and its links to the queer community. One of the paper girls named Mac, a rough-edged girl from the wrong side of the tracks, calls people “faggots” and uses derogatory references to HIV/AIDS as insults. Thankfully, Mac’s behaviour is not condoned in PAPER GIRLS VOL. 1 nor does it go unremarked upon: Erin calls her out for her homophobia and the other girls are visibly uncomfortable with Mac’s homophobia. But if you’re a reader who’s sensitive to homophobic slurs, you should proceed with caution.

Image: Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Chiang, & Matthew Wilson
Image: Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Chiang, & Matthew Wilson

Language and communication are actually central themes throughout this volume, as each group of characters has a specific dialect. The mysterious, space-age adult warriors speak a kind of Pidgin English; their enemies, the technophile teens from the future, speak a completely different language; and the paper girls’ speech is littered with 80’s slang and pop culture references. I’m not totally sure where the story is going to take these themes since we’re only on the first arc, but I liked what I saw and I’m curious to find out more!

Have you read anything by Brian K. Vaughan? What are your favourite feminist comics? Do you plan to read PAPER GIRLS?