Paper Girls is the story of four ’80s kids from a midwestern town who find themselves in over their heads on a science-fiction adventure while also grappling with the realization that growing up isn’t everything they thought it would be. If that premise sounds familiar to you, you’re not the only one to see the trailer of four girls riding bicycles on a dark street and be reminded of another show featuring the sci-fi adventures of precocious bike-riding tweens.
Paper Girls showrunner Chris Rogers laughs at the obvious comparison that this show is “just Stranger Things with girls.” First of all, he says they really aimed for something closer to Stand By Me, rather than Stranger Things, and secondly, “I’d like to point out that the Paper Girls comic book actually predates Stranger Things.” Brian K. Vaughan (Y The Last Man, Saga) wrote the graphic novel with Cliff Chiang (Catwoman: Lonely City, Wonder Woman) illustrating, and Image published the book in 2015. The first season of Stranger Things came out the next year. (As such, it might be more accurate to speculate that Stranger Things just wanted to be Paper Girls with boys.)
Teasing aside, audiences will likely find something different and, we hazard to say, something deeper and more interesting with Paper Girls, especially in its examination of the past. It’s meant to be so much more than a sci-fi coming of age story that’s fueled by neon-lit nostalgia. The creators regard the ’80s (and succeeding decades) with a more critical and nuanced eye.
“I think for me, it was important that this be a show that is not overly nostalgic, but, in fact, anti-nostalgia,” says Vaughan, who is also an executive producer, along with Chiang, on the Prime Video series. There’s a tendency to look at the past with rose-colored glasses and get caught up in the music, movies and fashion that we love, but the creators of Paper Girls wanted to eschew those rose-colored glasses. “Cliff and I grew up in the ’80s and we remember a lot of terrible things,” says Vaughan, “The homophobia. The bigotry. And we wanted to do a show not about ‘if only we could just go back to this golden era’ but a show about progress.”
That might be a hard sell for some, but Chiang says they did not want the comic or the show “to be easy.” But because of those hard truths, Chiang says “these girls feel very real and their stories and emotions feel very real.” Vaughan credits Chiang for the idea that became the heart of the book and, eventually, the show. While there are many stories that can be told about what someone would do if they could travel through time, it was Chiang who suggested that the story could hinge on what happens when we meet ourselves at a different time in our lives. The device allows for a sci-fi wrapped, character-centered examination of growing up, unrealized dreams and anxiety about the future.
That is not to say the audience won’t see hallmarks of the ’80s, like the music, movies and fashion, but they should not expect the obvious choice. “If other shows, like Stranger Things, do a good job of hitting the nostalgia straight on—you know, giving you the hits and the bright colors and the leg warmers and the things you remember from the ’80s,” says Rogers, they wanted this to be the show listening to New Order and smoking a cigarette in the corner. In the case of music for the show, Rogers says, “I think we were always trying to go one to the right of the song you know.” (Although the song used in the Paper Girls trailer—The Bangles’ “Hazy Shade of Winter”—did hit the Billboard Top 10 in its day, the song’s lyrics and sound are pitch-perfect for the show’s subject matter.)
“We wanted to be a little darker and show all of the colors of what it was, because part of this is a story about how the ’80s, ’90s, and even the time we live now, is a very different place for girls and especially young girls of color,” says Rogers, and they wanted the music to follow that.
In that spirit, Rogers says had the cast create playlists for their characters to give the young actors a sense for what they thought their characters’ internal lives might be like:
- Camryn Jones (Steps) plays Tiffany Quilkin who Jones describes as an “encyclopedic, curious fireball” and a bit of a techie. Her playlist for Tiff included Salt-N-Pepa’s “Twist and Shout” and Prince’s “When Doves Cry.”
- Riley Lai Nelet (Altered Carbon) plays Erin Tieng, “The sheltered one who is quiet but extremely determined. She wants to feel wanted as one of the only girls of color in her neighborhood and she’s responsible in taking care of the people she loves.” Lai Nelet says she already listened to ’80s music before getting cast as Erin, but in preparation for her role listened to The Smiths, The Cure and New Order, even going back to pre-disco Bee Gees.
- Fina Strazza (Matilda the Musical on Broadway) plays KJ Brandman, who is “fiercely protective and loyal and tries to be clear-eyed about what is right and wrong. She is the brawn of the group but also emotionally intelligent.” Strazza listened to Pat Benatar but admits she is really more of a “’70s gal” when it comes to music.
- Sofia Rosinsky (Fast Layne) rounds out the cast of four main protagonists, playing Mac Coyle, an “assertive, brazen, foul-mouthed, street tough [kid] with a heart of gold.” Rosinsky says she listened to the kind of music Mac would listen to, which would likely include Danzig and some iconic punk jams. (If you really want to get in the mood while jamming on your bike, the official Paper Girls twitter account shared a Spotify playlist.)
Will all of the best laid plans and good intentions wow new converts or satisfy fans of the graphic novel? That will become clear come July 29 when the series drops. (The limited but mostly positive fan reaction online following a special screening of Paper Girls at San Diego Comic-Con bodes well for the show, however.) Rogers promises a new twist and a few surprises for fans of the comic, and Vaughan and Chiang were excited to see new ideas explored that might work better for screen than comic panels.
“The adaptation process is about finding the bridge between two things. As artists, we’re so grateful that we got to tell our story. Now, it’s so humbling that that story has become a springboard for other people to create art as well,” says Chiang.
This isn’t Vaugahn’s first graphic novel to be adapted to TV either, with Hulu’s Marvel’s Runaways and FX’s Y: The Last Man preceding Paper Girls, but he doesn’t plan on giving up creating comics that are meant to stay only as comics. “No offense to film or television, but comics is the greatest visual storytelling medium on the planet,” Vaughan says. “And it remains that. Adaptations are fun and an honor, but, for me, we’re going to continue doing what we did when we wrote and drew Paper Girls—let’s do something that only comics can do.” Vaughan says he originally believed Paper Girls to be unadaptable but Stephany Folsom, who created the series for television, was able to convince him otherwise.
“It’s cool that Hollywood is recognizing this medium has more to offer beyond just superheroes. Comics are an incubator of fearless ideas,” Vaughan says. “But I hope the reverse commute happens, too, that people who love Paper Girls the TV show will come and read the comics as well.” And then read Vaughan’s Saga and Chiang’s Catwoman. For other fearless ideas (like exploring death, sex and violence and why we watch them), Vaughan is currently writing a digital comic with artist Niko Henrichon for Substack called Spectators.
All eight episodes of the sci-fi adventure series Paper Girls premiere July 29, 2022 on Prime Video.
Official Synopsis of Paper Girls
In the early morning hours after Halloween 1988, four paper girls—Erin, Mac, Tiffany, and KJ—are out on their delivery route when they become caught in the crossfire between warring time-travelers, changing the course of their lives forever. Transported into the future, these girls must figure out a way to get back home to the past, a journey that will bring them face-to-face with the grown-up versions of themselves. While reconciling that their futures are far different than their 12-year-old selves imagined, they are being hunted by a militant faction of time-travelers known as the Old Watch, who have outlawed time travel so that they can stay in power. In order to survive, the girls will need to overcome their differences and learn to trust each other, and themselves.
Based on the best-selling graphic novels written by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Cliff Chiang, ‘Paper Girls’ is a high-stakes personal journey depicted through the eyes of four girls, played by breakout leads Camryn Jones as Tiffany Quilkin, Riley Lai Nelet as Erin Tieng, Sofia Rosinsky as Mac Coyle, and Fina Strazza as KJ Brandman. Ali Wong also stars as the grown-up version of Erin, with Nate Corddry as Larry, and Adina Porter as Prioress.