Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
The last of the seven mini-series rolls out, with the excellent Doug Mahnke on art.Â How can you not love it?Â He shoots a locomotive gun, people!
There’s a SPOILER on the second page!Â So when I say SPOILERS, I mean SPOILERS!
That’s a cool cover, except for his head.Â Why is it so small?
We begin in 1870.Â Careful readers will note that it’s five years before the Vigilante, along with “Johnny Frankenstein,” fought the spider of Miracle Mesa.Â But that’s neither here nor there.Â Our hero, Frankenstein, bursts into a room hung with your standard-issue chainsÂ A voice from off-panel says, “Die, Frankenstein!Â Die!”Â This is, of course, eerily reminiscent of the chants of the Puritans when they were about to put Klarion to the torch: “Burn, Witchboy!Â Burn!”Â (And it’s a contrast to Frankenstein’s lastÂ words of the issue, “Frankenstein lives!”)Â It turns out that Melmoth says these words, which is kind of a strange, unrestrained thing for him to say.Â Frankenstein confronts Melmoth, and says that he can’t kill something that isn’t truly alive – referring to himself.Â Melmoth says, “Or that which cannot die,” referring to himself.Â We’re at a bit of an impasse!Â But Melmoth has bred slug-like monsters that feast on dead flesh like Frankenstein’s, so he has the upper hand!Â But then Frankenstein shoots Melmoth’s head clean off!Â He uses a locomotive gun, and we see that we’re actually on a train – oh, the serendipity!Â You’ll also remember that in the third issue of Klarion, we saw ugly scars on Melmoth’s neck – that’s what will happen when someone sews your head back on!Â Melmoth’s head smashes into the coal bin, which causes the train to crash as it comes down a hill.Â Page 4 has a caption out of place, as the “1955” in panel three ought to be on panel 4, but by 2005, there’s a bustling city where the train wrecked.Â Boy, that’s just asking for trouble, isn’t it?Â That’s like putting your town on top of an ancient Indian burial ground.
Then we meet Uglyhead, who lives in the town.Â Boy, he’s ugly.Â UH (as it’s easier to call him) has a unique gift: he can read people’s thoughts, but in a perfect, comic-booky way: he can actually see their thought balloons.Â Awesome.Â One girl is nice to him, and he thinks, portentously, “I believe I shall spare this one.”Â Meanwhile, all the other kids think typically teenaged thoughts, meaning they are evil and scared and totally infantile.Â High school ROX!Â The nice girl, whose name is Kim, has what we think is a typically doofusy boyfriend, but he turns out okay.Â Meanwhile, UH wonders if he’s schizophrenic or if he has actually become a god.Â He hangs out in front of “Excalibur Fantasy Butterfly World” and tests his power.Â Â The connections in the nameÂ are fairly obvious, but let’s go over them.Â First, it reminds me of the finest comic book store inÂ Portland, OR, Excalibur Comics, which is on Hawthorne Boulevard just a little bit west of where it becomes really trendy.Â If you’re ever in town, stop by and say hello!Â Of course, it’s been five years since I’ve beenÂ there, so it might suck now.Â I hope not!Â Butterflies, of course, become important in the story, but when we first see the store, we’re supposed to be reminded (I guess) of how butterflies come out of something rather ugly and turn into something beautiful.Â Is UH going to be an Ugly Duckling who becomes a Swan?Â Well, not really.Â Of course, the fact that it’s called “Excalibur” reminds us of Arthur’s sword, one of the seven imperishable treasures, as well as the fact that in the first few pages, Frankenstein carries a sword that looks very much like an Arthurian piece.Â And look! there’s a sword hanging in the window of the butterfly store.Â Why, exactly?
UH tests his powers on some pretty young thing outside the store, telling her that she’s scared and unsure of herself.Â Then he proceeds to destroy her self-esteem.Â He tells her that butterflies start out as maggots but then they change, and he asks her if she’s ready to change.Â It’s then that we see the Sheeda spine-rider clinging to his back!Â Dum-dum-dummmmm!
This is an interesting exchange, because once again, Morrison brings us around to self-esteem.Â Even heroes can suffer from a lack of it, but in this scene, it’s teenagers who suffer from it, which is not the most groundbreaking scenario.Â However, UH suffers from it, too, even though he seems to be the most “well-adjusted” of them all.Â Every teen in this book is full of secrets (the flowers must be blooming in the swamp!) and they all deal with the lack of self-esteem.Â On the surface, it appears that UH would suffer from this too, because everyone keeps telling him how ugly he is.Â But we quickly see that he is very confident, because he can read everyone’s thoughts.Â So the paradigm is overturned, but we quickly see that he, too, suffers, because he desperately wants everyone to like him, even though they are vapid.Â If Shining Knight is the story of a girl’s journey to womanhood, this issue shows the dark side of growing up – the weird things that happen to your body, the weird thoughts that go through your head.Â The Sheeda exploit those feelings, because they can.Â Mean old Sheeda!Â The girl turns into UH, surfing the Internet for butterfly information, chatting with other collectors, eating pizza, and getting fat.Â I wonder who Morrison is comparing them to?Â Her boyfriend gets angry when he sees what happened to her (in one night?), but UH turns him, and everyone else, into sad little people too.Â He tells them that the maggots are in the cellars of the butterfly store, and they need humans to grow on.Â Again we see this idea of transformation skewed horribly, as the teens are turning into their “true” selves, but selves that are the basest parts of their personalities.
On prom night, Kim and her unnamed boyfriend show up, and they know something is weird.Â Interestingly, Kim makes the point that her mother and father went to bed early – have they too succumbed the Sheeda sickness?Â When they enter the auditorium, they find UH surrounded by the students, who are being eaten by the same maggots that attacked Frankenstein at the beginning.Â There are also butterflies flitting about.Â He tells Kim that she was nice to him, so she can be his queen to breed with when he takes over.Â It’s interesting, because in two panels, UH goes from devilish despot to scared teenager, as he follows this up by asking, pathetically, “Would that be okay?”Â Again, he’s not as “secure” with his power as he’d like us to believe.Â He then tells us that the maggots “needed hosts to mature and hatch into spine riders.”Â This is the first time we’ve heard about the true nature of the Sheeda, but we’re still not sure what that means.Â Do they implant the hosts, Alien-style, and then the Sheeda burst out of them?Â Or is it something different?Â And why are the Sheeda, who are from the future, hatching here?Â Oh, my head hurts!
Her boyfriend tells her to run, and then overturns the punch bowls and zaps the floor with the strung lights, killing himself in the process.Â He tells her he loves her in a “totally doomed way that you’ll never forget,” which is a nice teenaged thing to say.Â I’m not sure what he was trying to accomplish, because neither UH or the maggots seem to be affected by his sacrifice.Â Anyway, Kim runs for it, thinking “Uglyhead” backwards in her head.Â Someone at the annotations speculated that this was because from UH’s vantage point, the word would be forward, but I wonder if it has something to do with a Zatanna-like incantation.Â We never see Kim again after this issue, so I guess we’ll just have to keep speculating!
She runs through the halls, and suddenly Frankenstein rises up in front of her.Â This is interesting, because I guess he’s been trapped where the train wrecked for 135 years.Â So who rode with the Vigilante to Miracle Mesa?Â He asks her if something was left undone, implying that only the Sheeda threat could bring him back to “life,” so to speak.Â Frankenstein’s resurrection, of course, reminds us of the Grundys of Limbo Town – he’s stitched together from dead flesh, but he has been in the ground and is called upon to finish a great task.Â Frankenstein is awfully well-informed about this new world, as he immediately recognizes television and radio, but he also knows … evil!Â Kim zaps him with her Taser, which is just what he needs to get a nice jolt.Â UH, meanwhile, is talking to no one (us?) when he says that the Sheeda came here because it has the highest suicide rate in the Northwest.Â He says he’s now the one who’s normal, while everyone else is weird.Â Again, he’s desperate to fit in, even as he scorns the society into which he wants to fit.Â Before he can wreak more havoc, he runs into Frankenstein.Â Bad move.Â Frankenstein throws him through the window of the butterfly store as he quotes John Milton’sÂ Paradise Lost.Â This poem, for those of you lucky enough to have avoided it, is almost unbearably boring, but, you know, it’s a “classic.”Â Remember Donald Sutherland in Animal House bashing Milton?Â Yeah, he was right.Â According to the annotations, in the original novel, the monster reads Milton and identifies with Satan, so Morrison didn’t come up with that.Â I really ought to read that damned book.Â Anyway, Frankenstein stands over UH, takes the sword from the window, which is his own sword, after all, mutters “Michael’s sword,” and shoves it through theÂ Sheeda rider and UH’s neck.Â He dies saying, “Oh God, I’m in He …”Â I suppose “Michael” is the archangel, because he had a sword, but who the hell knows.Â It could be Michael Hutchence for all we know.
Frankenstein burns the school down, which Kim thinks is overkill, but he says his necessary because the contagion spreads so fast.Â He finds a nifty backpack in the rubble with a weird horned god on it, and into that he puts the sword.Â Kim asks him to take her with him, because she could be “Girl Frankenstein,” but he says he must walk his road alone.Â He tells her to prepare for Armageddon, because the Sheeda are coming.Â This is where it gets a bit confusing.Â This is what he says:
Find your kin and tell them to gather weapons, for Armageddon’s breath is now upon their necks.Â If men called Sheeda come this way, if dark Melmoth shows his hand again … tell them they have, in their folly, awakened my vengeance.Â Tell them, I will find them and make hammers fall upon them like a rain.Â Tell them … Frankenstein lives!
Okay, so it’s all very dramatic.Â Is he talking about the Sheeda, or Kim’s “kin”?Â I assume he means for Kim to tell Melmoth and the Sheeda all this, but wouldn’t she be running in fear instead of telling them all of this?Â And by saying “folly,” he seems to imply that the people of the town have inadvertently woken the Sheeda, so he’s kind of pissed.Â I’m going to stick with Frankenstein being pissed at the Sheeda, but it’s kind of a bizarre thing to tell a scared teenager to tell the horrible armies of “dark Melmoth.”Â Anyone want to argue the opposite?
This is an interesting issue, because Frankenstein is not the main character.Â From what we gather about him, he is unlike the other soldiers in that he doesn’t really have to change all that much.Â Zatanna is a superhero, sure, but she has issues.Â Frankenstein goes through this issue, and the series, very single-mindedly.Â We’ll get to whether or not he transforms at all later, but in this issue, the idea of transformation is linked far more to puberty than it is in any other series, Shining Knight included.Â Also, in most of the series, transformation has been seen as a beneficial and necesary thing (with some exceptions, of course – Galahad would argue the opposite point), but in this story, it becomes something far more sinister.Â This is, of course, because it’s tied to the “bad” kind of growing up – becoming more secretive and worrying about what your peers say about you, which is something every teenager has to go through.Â How we come out of it shapes our future, and Morrison is looking at an adult hive-mind in a very literal sense, as the students all become fodder for the Sheeda army, which is like-minded, almost insect-like.Â Frankenstein, perhaps, can resist the Sheeda because he isn’t truly alive – he has been built as a fully-functioning adult, and his purpose is singular – fight Melmoth and the Sheeda.Â Can he grow at all?Â We’ll see.
Is Frankenstein the hero?Â That’s a tough question, because it seems so easy.Â Of course he is!Â He kills Uglyhead and defeats the Sheeda threat!Â However, in this issue at least, it doesn’t seem like he has much choice.Â This is what he does.Â He has to fight the Sheeda, so where is the heroism?Â Now, I’m not suggesting that fighting the Sheeda isn’t heroic, but it’s interesting that Kim, who does “betray” Uglyhead at the prom when she thinks that he’s crazy, acts more heroically at school, because she refuses to cave into peer pressure and automatically condemn UH.Â She’s not a perfect hero, but she does make a choice, which Frankenstein doesn’t appear to do.Â He does what he does because it’s what he does.Â We’ll watch the growth of his personality over the next three issues.
Finally, we have revelations about the Sheeda.Â In the last issue of Zatanna, the time tailors liken them to a disease.Â Frankenstein does so too.Â They certainly act like some kind of disease, but what does Morrison mean about what we are, as the Sheeda are our distant descendants?Â We have already seen hints that Morrison is linking industry with depravity, and “progress” with the horrors of technology (which makes me think he doesn’t drive a car, doesn’t use electricity, never takes any kind of lab-created medicine, and kills his own food, but let’s not get into that), and the Sheeda seem to be the epitome of that.Â It’s interesting to note that Frankenstein himself is the result of technology gone wild, but Frankenstein rebelled against this an has become a hero.Â He is looking for a life without all that technology, because it symbolizes, to him, a careless and egotistical creator.
Mahnke’s art gives this a nice look, because he’s a very good artist.Â He’s excellent at drawing the grotesque, and it’s useful on a book like this, with the lead character being quite hideous and all.Â But Mahnke does a nice job bringing out the horror of the “normal” scenes, as well, and as the students spiral into madness, the art reflects that well.Â He’s called upon to deal with a lot of weirdness in this series, but he’s definitely up to the task, at least in this issue.
We’ve seen how some of these series are directly involved with the Sheeda threat and others are not, at least for most of the series.Â This issue promises to give us some good revelations about the threat, because Frankenstein appears to know a lot, and he’s very keen on going after Melmoth.Â It’s certainly an interesting issue.
Annotations!Â Â Read them at your peril!
What could be next?Â It’s more Kirby-esque tribute!
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