Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Man, this is a cool issue. And it explains quite a bit, not only about this series, but about the saga as a whole. So if you think there won’t be SPOILERS, you are sadly mistaken. Because there will be! SPOILERS, that is. Don’t coming crying to me if you ignore the warning!
This is a pretty huge issue, isn’t it? It is called “Sex Secrets of the Newsboy Army,” after all. How many of you thought it was called “SIX Secrets of the Newsboy Army” at just a cursory glance? It’s weird. The title provides us with a decent clue about something that is very subtle in the book. And it does give us tons o’ info about the Newsboy Army specifically and the overall saga in general! Cool beans!
The whole flashback portion of the issue reads like a sensationalistic newspaper. We begin with “Wouldja believe? ..” Of course we don’t believe – it’s a comic book! This kind of introduction prepares us for the wackiness that is to follow. It is easy for comic book readers to “believe” what happens in the book, even though it is basically unreal. Morrison also wants to us to “believe” the more unpleasant aspects of the book, which are, unfortunately, all too believable. Belief, of course, is a crucial component of myths and legends, which we have seen is an integral part of this whole thing. The story Ed tells Jake is so unbelievable that we shouldn’t accept it, but like myths, we have to accept it on faith. Eventually, Jake must decide if he accepts what Ed tells him and act upon it, even though he doesn’t have to take it entirely on faith – he does, after all, see the Sheeda warriors at the end of the issue.
So we begin in “darkest Africa,” a corny anachronistic phrase that reeks of racism but is used here in a somewhat ironic fashion. The deliberate stereotyping of the natives is another example of this. Morrison is hearkening back to the thrilling tales of yesteryear, but with tongue firmly in cheek. I haven’t read any reviews expressing anger over this, but they could be out there. Anyone know of any?
The Newsboy Army is trying to fix their plane, which has crashed in the jungle. Baby Brain – Ed Stargard – is trying to explain how they should fix it while being held by L’il Hollywood. I’m surprised that L’il Hollywood didn’t show up at the self-esteen workshop with Zatanna, but she does appear in Bulleteer. The black kid with the top hat on couldn’t possibly be Ali Ka-Zoom, could it? Well, of course it could be! On the tail of the plane sits Kid Scarface, otherwise known to us as Vincenzo, the undying don, and on the wing is Chop Suzi, who doesn’t have a pleasant fate, as we’ll see. Suddenly Millions, the richest dog in the world (Ali Ka-Zoom mentioned him in Zatanna #3), and Cap (whose “official” name, I guess, is Captain 7 because of his jersey number, but nobody ever calls him that) come running out of the jungle, chased by cannibalistic natives wearing bowler hats. Cap is carrying a Cessna engine that the natives have been worshipping as a god since “their ancestors” brought in there on a safari package tour. This is interesting, because it implies that “natives” aren’t actually natives, but tourists who went native. This gives this little vignette a very Lord of the Flies vibe, as well as a Peter Pan vibe, and we’ve seen that Klarion, among others in this saga, has a curious Peter Pan complex. This also reminds me of The Gods Must Be Crazy, which I’ve mentioned before in relation to Klarion, as well as the Jon Frum cargo cult (although that might just be me). Notice that Cap also says “Wouldja believe …” when he tells them about the engine. We must suspend our disbelief even more! As he throws the engine toward them, he asks, “How lucky are we?” Not very, as it turns out. Kid Scarface catches the engine, Ali Ka-Zoom distracts the natives with stuff coming out of his sleeves – doves, cards, and the like – and Baby Brain tells Chop Suzi to get the engine installed. It’s probably just me again, but the propeller on the plane, which is a modified ceiling fan, has those tacky flower light bulbs that nevertheless resemble lotus blossoms. The lotus, of course, is a symbol of rebirth and/or creation. James Bond also drove one in two movies – The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only. Come on, that has to be significant! Suzi gets the plane working, and Baby Brain mutters, “Machines love her too.” This statement, of course, implies that one or all of the Newsboy Army loves Suzi – a statement that becomes more meaningful later in the issue. The plane takes off, they scoop Millions up in a butterfly net, Cap says he got a spear in the glutes and hopes it’s not poisoned (contrast this with the arrow through Don Vincenzo, which is definitely poisoned), and they fly toward a land of golden top hats (with one of them saying, “Wouldja believe …” again). But, as Ed points out, that’s another story.
We’re back in the present, and Jake is still trying to figure out what’s going on. Ed tells him that he has the biggest story of them all – the editor of the Guardian is a big baby man, but Jake doesn’t care about that. He just wants to know what’s up. Ed tells him that if he had grown up normally, he wouldn’t have a chance to save the world. Jake says he has to quit because the job is wrecking his life. Here we see the dilemma that runs throughout the series – Jake has his self-respect back, but he’s losing his girl. Which is more important to him? Ed asks to be heard, and he tells him that the Army was different, so they tried to make a difference. Millions had inherited money from a “crazy old eccentric,” so they built a junkyard HQ and a printing press and blew the rest on candy. Of course they would! We go into flashback again, and the Army stands in front of the United Nations building and swears to make things better. They say, “And nothing will ever divide us,” another one of those ironic statements Morrison loves writing, considering what’s coming up. Notice there are seven members, so they have a good shot at winning. Later, they leave Millions at home, and things go FUBAR. Back in the present, Jake coldly tells Ed that it will take more than sympathy to keep him around. Ed says their old enemies are coming back, in “flying murder factories as big as cities,” which is a fine description of places like Castle Revolving. Jake freaks a little and tells Ed he needs to explain better. So Ed does.
We go back into flashback, and Ali Ka-Zoom shows up at the printing press, where the Army is publishing the Nowhere St. News with a headline about Mo Colley knocking out Ted Grant, otherwise known as Wildcat. Ali tells them that Mo himself is murdering cops in Nowhere Square. “El Mar” called him and told him. This is Larry Marcus, Carla’s father, who got Jake the job with Ed. I mentioned when I wrote about the first issue that Larry was a member of the Newsboy Army. It appears that he wasn’t really, just friends with them. Maybe he was like Snapper Carr! The kids can’t believe it (Mo’s best friend was a police horse – possibly named Horsefeathers?), but they run to the rescue. Mo is in the square, pulling the eyes out of cops’ heads, twisting their necks, acting like a mindless Grundy, and speaking in the Sheeda language. L’il Hollywood tries to talk him down, and we see the Sheeda clinging to the back of his neck. Mo looks like he’s had a stroke, if you notice. Hollywood manages to get through to him, and Mo rips the Sheeda off the back of his neck and tells L’il Hollywood, “I gone and ruined my big comeback.” The cops immediately gun him down, leaving L’il Hollywood spattered with blood and holding a dead Sheeda. It ends up in a jar, which eventually finds its way to Cassandra Craft’s store and we see it in Zatanna #2. Baby Brain lets us know that it takes control of the central nervous system via the brainstem and could be the reason for human legends – that word again – of changelings. Baby Brain mentions that between Gotham City and New York is Slaughter Swamp, where there was a report about a man being harassed by “tiny medieval fellers riding bugs.” Baby Brain, for some reason, suggests they split into two teams. Why, exactly? L’il Hollywood is upset that Millions has to stay behind, but Kid Scarface points out he’s getting too old for adventure. Baby Brain, as smart as he is, doesn’t understand what happens to groups of six, which is what they’ll be if they leave Millions behind. Both Suzi and Cap 7 are ambivalent about going to Slaughter Swamp. Suzi says she told her parents she’d help out at the laundry – another stereotype! – while Cap has to go to college. Baby Brain points out that it’s for Mr. Colley, and Kid Scarface says, “It’s two fuckin’ teams all right!” The annotations say that Millions is Team One, while the rest are Team Two. That seems kind of flawed, but maybe it makes sense. Speaking of which, something I missed the first time around is that Suzi is pregnant. She is holding her belly in two different panels, and in one, she’s obviously pregnant. But who’s the father???? Could it be the other member of the group who doesn’t want to play kids’ games anymore? Could it????
The next page sees our heroes in Slaughter Swamp, and Baby Brain says, “I concede that the two teams idea was intrinsically flawed.” He says that sticking together seems smarter. So they should have brought Millions? How does Baby Brain know that the two teams idea was flawed? What has convinced him of this? Kid Scarface uses “Wouldja believe …” again, as he checks out the black flowers. As Cap mentions that he has to be on a plane to college the next day, they see Cyrus Gold’s cabin ahead, with the lights on. Jake makes a joke about hunting fairies as Ed continues. They enter the cabin and see the sewing machine that we saw in Seven Soldiers #0. It’s surrounded by tiny flying Sheeda. In the background Gloriana Tenebrae is speaking to her magic mirror, keeping with the fairy tale motif we’ve seen before. A bald man scoffs at them and tells them that some day black flowers will cover the earth and kids like them won’t be worth a damn. We know that the black flowers represent a secret, and the bald guy is hinting that kids won’t be around, because everyone will have secrets and therefore be “grown up.” We already know that two member of the Army have secrets, and they are the most “adult” – their secret involves sex, after all. The mirror tells the Queen that “seven will come, by roads unseen, unknown. And end the Queen of Terror’s reign with a spear that was never thrown.” We’ll get back to the “spear that was never thrown,” because it comes up again, as it must. The first part is interesting, too, as Ed figures out what it means, and will tell Jake soon. The bald guy – who Ali, in Zatanna #3, explained was the Terrible Time Tailor – tells them that he brought Gloriana Tenebrae here to kill people like them – superpeople, apparently.
Back in the present, Ed says that Cyrus Gold’s cabin, like Miracle Mesa, has come unhinged from time and space. He also mentions that Shelly Gaynor and “six” other superheroes were lost at the mesa. Ed obviously doesn’t know that only six heroes showed up, but we’ll forgive him for that. He asks Jake, “Can you feel the strands of the web tightening?” in an obvious reference to both Ali Ka-Zoom’s “mystery thread” and the spiders that show up throughout the saga. The Terrible Time Tailor, meanwhile, tells them that his world has no place for smart-ass kids – another reference to the “grown-up” world, and then asks Ali Ka-Zoom for his top hat. What’s up with top hats, anyway? The Newsboy Army go to the Land of Golden Top Hats, Giovanni Zatara obviously has one, Ali Ka-Zoom gets one somewhere after the bald guy takes his, and Cassandra’s mysterious visitor has one! Could he be the same bald man in Slaughter Swamp? Ed gives us some crucial information in the present, as he quotes the Terrible Time Tailor: “Now go try on the clothes I’ve made. Do it or I’ll kill you and the fucking dog. I make special clothes, you see. Suits you’ll wear when you’re older.” We then see how the Army will turn out as adults. Kid Scarface, of course, is Vincenzo, and he’s a “guilt-ridden undead mass murderer” – notice the presence of guilt, once again. L’il Hollywood is an alcoholic, Ali is a homeless schizophrenic, Baby Brain is a reclusive freak. Chop Suzi is “dead at 14,” which means she didn’t make it far past the events of this comic. Millions is also “dead at 14,” which means he had a pretty good life. But, we’ll see him still alive in Seven Soldiers #1, which means the timeline is screwed up somehow. Finally, Cap is a “child molester/murderer.” In the next panel Cap says, “No. She wanted me.” Then, we see Kid Scarface knocking Cap into Ali Ka-Zoom’s cabinet with a baseball bat at Ali and L’il Hollywood look on, cheering viciously. Ali told Zatanna that in the cabinet was a hole, and they put a boy in there who did something they decided was wrong. We can infer from the issue that Cap got Suzi pregnant, who died perhaps because of complications from the pregnancy. Cap, of course, might have actually killed her, since he is called a “murderer.” The fact that he says “She wanted me” makes it sound like he did, in fact, molest Suzi. As Cap is probably 18 (he’s going to college) and Suzi is 14, this is the definition of inappropriate sex, but from earlier scenes, it seems like the sex was probably consensual. It’s a debate that can go on forever. Did Cap and Suzi have consensual sex? Did Cap force himself on her? His words seem to imply that. Did Suzi die from a miscarriage or other complications? Finally, did Cap kill her himself? The grief of the Army is obvious – they allloved her, as Baby Brain implies in the beginning of the issue, so their reaction might not have to do with anything more than Suzi dying and their need to find someone to blame. Notice that Cap is blindfolded. Did they gouge his eyes out?
After this unsettling scene, we’re back in the present, and Ed tells Jake that the Sheeda take all the time in the world, because “in their world, only a day will have passed.” This makes sense, as the cauldron left Castle Revolving only a few minutes before Justina followed it, yet Vincenzo appears to have possession of it for years. Ed also tells Jake he doesn’t think the Sheeda are aliens, and that they’ve come to get him, not Jake, because they don’t know about Jake. The legend says when they come to harvest the earth, seven soldiers will overthrow them. That’s why they went after the Justice League. Ed tells Jake that they don’t know about the latest Seven Soldiers because none of them recognize each other – this is an ingenious plan, if you think about it, and we wonder how much Ed had to do with the other soldiers. Jake figures out that Ed and Larry set him up, and Ed says that all Jake needed to become a superhero is a good origin story, and that’s what this is. As the Sheeda invade the building, Ed asks Jake to try to stop them. Jake takes both Ed and Lena, Ed’s personal assistant, with him. He calls Carla and tells her, “it’s not about the job or the money, it’s about being in the right place at the right time to do the right thing. And knowing you’re gonna do it even if you don’t want to.” He tells her he’s coming to get her, and then the three of them hit the streets! Notice that Jake sums up the heroic theme of the saga so far – Klarion has already realized the same thing, that he has to save Limbo TownÂ even though he doesn’t want to. Justine already understood it, and she gets a lesson in it when she kills Galahad. What is Zatanna’s lesson?
The grand theme of this issue is, of course, growing up. The saga has concerned itself with becoming a hero as a metaphor for growing up, but in this issue, we see the both the darker side and the brighter side of growing up. In the issue “prior” to this, we see Justina go through a transformation that, as Ragnell argues, marks her journey from girl to woman. In this issue, Morrison returns to this idea that adulthood somehow marks the loss of heroism, as the kids grow up and lose their youthful exuberance and innocence, highlighted, of course, by the sexual relationship between Suzi and Cap. The Time Tailor, like Melmoth, makes repeated references to growing up, and makes it sound horrific. Adults, after all, have secrets, and it’s this that binds them to places like Slaughter Swamp. When Ed was a child, he roamed the streets freely, fighting injustice. Now that he is an adult, he hides himself away, because he’s ashamed. The Newsboy Army are not, in the final analysis, true heroes, because of the fact that they don’t grow up properly. In the present, after years of wandering in the wilderness, is when they become true heroes. Ed makes sure that the “Seven Soldiers” concept might work this time. Vincenzo shelters Vanguard and fights the Sheeda to the death. Ali guides Justine and refuses to die until he gives comfort to Vincenzo’s soul. Years after their dissolution because they “grew up,” the Newsboy Army has grown up for real. Morrison does indicate that there is a loss of something wonderful when we reach adulthood, but it is possible to still remember what it was like to be a child and incorporate that into your new personality. Jake had forgotten that, but this issue (and the mini-series up to this point) reminded him of it. We can’t stop puberty and the onset of adulthood. But we don’t have to become soulless in the process. We can still do the right thing regardless of “the job or the money.” We can still be children at heart, even though we have to make harder choices and face more dire consequences.
In this issue, Morrison also does something else he enjoys doing – using Silver Age ideas but showing us the dark underbelly of it. The world of the Newsboy Army is shiny and bright, as they take their oath in front of the UN building, full of hope. We never expect to see Mo Colley plucking the eyes out of cops or getting gunned down, and we don’t expect the sexual undercurrent that runs through the story. Even the prologue, in “darkest Africa,” has a disturbing edge. Morrison knows that when we read Silver Age stories today, we read them with a jaundiced eye, so he does it for us. It’s disturbing, because we can never be sure how explicit the writers of that time were being. Here, it’s obvious how explicit Morrison is being. It ties into this idea of growing up. We can no longer enjoy olde-tyme comics like we did when we were children, because we see things differently. Whether this is a good thing or not I’ll let others debate, but it’s certainly true. Morrison is one of the few writers who is very good at setting something in a Silver Age milieu and then putting a modern twist on it. When he does this, it makes for an unsettling reading experience. And in this way, the fourth issue of this series reflects our reading of comics in general – the natives at the beginning are presented relatively unironically, so that a kid can enjoy the thrilling adventures, but as we move through the book, it becomes more and more “mature.”
This is a very good issue just for the story and art, as Stewart does a nice job with the flashbacks, giving everything a patina of nostalgia. The old scenes look like a newsreel, and their grainy quality is charming when the story remains light and creepy when the Newsboy Army ventures into Slaughter Swamp. Stewart, as usual, does a fine job with the present-day scenes, giving Ed’s nerve center an ultra-modern look as well as a heavier line. It’s a nice contrast.
I always need to point out the annotations, which are good for this issue. Jog has very good thoughts about it, too. Marc Singer, someone else who is smarter than I am, makes excellent points. Any others? Shout them out!
Next: A new, weird mini-series!
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