Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
I hope everyone had a great day ripping into presents and eating lasagna.Â What, you mean not everyone hasÂ my wife’s home-made lasagna on Christmas?Â Man, you’re missing a treat – she makes a mean lasagna!
But let’s move on to the land of the SPOILERS!Â You know SPOILERS are coming, but you can’t resist reading on!
You have to love Baron Bedlam!Â He’s just so bodacious!
This is a really interesting issue, in that Morrison does a lot more with Shilo and his development as a hero than he did in the first two issues, and he pulls back just enough on the New Gods thing he had going on in issues #1-2.Â RAB’s excellent commentary notwithstanding, the New Gods fit awkwardly into the saga as a whole, and the less we get into their separate mythology, the more we can get into the mythology of the Seven Soldiers.Â In this issue Morrison does a good job of keeping the New Gods apart, even though they are present throughout.Â He does a fine job in showing Shilo’s personal trials and not overwhelming us with New Genesis/Apokolips rivalries.Â Â This issue begins with Shilo whining about a new escape artist whose outfit looks strangely similar to his and whose stunts are even more strangely similar.Â Shilo doesn’t know how Baron Bedlam does it!Â Baron Bedlam, of course, is another Fourth World analogue, corresponding to Doctor Bedlam, but the nice thing about him is that we don’t need to know that at all.Â Shilo talks about Bedlam’s disciples – “plastic people” – which isn’t really all that subtle and turns out to be quite literal.Â Dr. Dezard wonders if Shilo is scared of a little competition, because people will always side with the underdog.Â As he says this, we see a street scene outside his office, and although it’s raining, at least two people are smiling vacuously as they walk on the sidewalk without umbrellas.Â Are they “plastic people”?Â Shilo tells the doctor that he’s going to ask Bedlam to open for him at the “dome show,” and he invites Dezard to come.Â Bad move, Shilo!
He goes back to his apartment and watches one of Bedlam’s stunts over and over.Â Bedlam is getting crushed between two trains, and Shilo slows it down and says it shows Bedlam’s body smashed, and there’s no way he gets out.Â Â His girlfriend, Jonelle, who has just returned from Paris,Â says he was stupid to mention getting contacted by aliens, becauseÂ people are starting to make fun of him.Â We see here the idea of peer pressure and the need to conform – Shilo has been through a transformative experience and doesn’t really care what people think of himÂ anymore, while Jonelle makes the valid point that in the “real” world, image does matter, and Shilo should worry about it.Â Jonelle, of course, becomes aÂ “plastic person” in this issue, but even before that, she is obviously concerned with Shilo’s – and by extension her – image.Â She also mentions Hurricane Gloria, which we’ve heard about before and will hear about again.Â ZZ, meanwhile, is also angry at Shilo, but Shilo turns the tables on him by asking him about the “Flat” he’s inhaling.Â We saw this in issue #1 – ZZ has a weird orb that emits ghostly lights andÂ fumes, and it’s apparently some kind of drug.Â He tells ZZ that he has to stop seeing Lashina, who is, as we saw in issue #1, a Female Fury.Â He’s worried because he thinks “they” got to ZZ too.Â You’ll notice that Jonelle thinks the only thing that can calm Shilo is some good sex.Â ZZ defends his use of Flat, telling Shilo that it “shows you things as they are,” but he looks rather sad as he says it, as if things as they are reveal a sad truth about the universe.Â Â But he’s an addict, and despite his sadness, he can’t stop.Â Lashina mysteriously shows up and ZZ leavesÂ with her.Â Later, Shilo explains to Jonelle that ever since his experience in the black hole, things have been weird.Â This is another indication that perhaps Shilo is still in the black hole.Â He wonders what’s the deal with the “plastic people,” and Jonelle, who is reading about it, says it’s a “new cosmetic thing that makes your skin like enamel.”Â I doubt very much if we’re supposed to ignore the similiarities between it and SmartSkin, which turned Alix Harrower into a superhero.Â The emphasis is again on staying young forever.Â It seems like the method of the Sheeda is to force people to grow up without changing emotionally.Â People like Lance Harrower and the people who have this process done to them are adults, chronologically, but they act like children.Â Therefore, they are easy pickings for the Sheeda and their Apokoliptian allies.Â Jonelle tells Shilo it’s all going to be fine now that she’s back, which is, of course, horrible irony, considering that on the next page Granny Goodness turns her into a plastic person.
When Shilo arrives that night, Bedlam confronts him with his posse, who are presumably bad guys from Apokolips, but I’m not familiar enough with them to worry about it.Â They’re punks – that’s all we need to know.Â Bedlam tells Shilo he’s there to replace him, and as Shilo cops an attitude, Jonelle shows up, plastic, and tells him that Bedlam is better than he is – at everything.Â This idea of sex running through this issue and, to a lesser extent, the series itself, is interesting.Â Jonelle hits Shilo where he lives, so to speak, when she implies that Bedlam is a better lover than he is.Â This sets Shilo off, as he leaps at Bedlam and attacks him.Â Shilo, as I mentioned, has gone through an experience that supposedly left him with more awareness about what the world is like, but the first time someone challenges his manhood he snaps.Â He attacks Bedlam and breaks his head open, proving that he’s not human – Bedlam is, in fact, the ultimate “plastic person,” able to transfer his consciousness into an infinite number of bodies.Â Dr. Dezard shows up and tells Shilo that Bedlam is a “living wavelength,” and that Shilo has already been replaced, because the people want “a plastic man who smoothes away all the rough edges for maximum appeal.”Â This is a not-terribly-subtle critique of both mass popular culture and comic book culture.Â Morrison is bemoaning the homogenized tripe that comes out from the faceless corporations that run popular culture (ironically, there’s an ad on the facing page for Underworld: Evolution, a slickly-produced sequel that stars a perfectly toned and air-brushed Kate Beckinsale and Scott Speedman with fake-looking and “plastic” special effects), not unlike his bosses.Â I’m not going to get into the fact that a man who takes money from a faceless corporation produces comics that critique it, because that’s a problem with any artistic endeavor, and it’s not the place for it, but it’s interesting that Shilo, who is pretty mass-produced himself, still has too many rough edges for the public.Â Presumably he was the perfect escape artist, not too threatening, aÂ “safe” black man for the whiteÂ American public, until he went a little nuts after coming out of the black hole.Â The American people like their superstars quirky, but not crazy.Â Shilo went a bit around the bend!
Dr. Dezard takes MotherboxxxÂ away from ShiloÂ (which brings up an artistic point: where the heck is Motherboxxx all the time? she is not visible until Dezard takes her off Shilo’s shoulder, and prior to that, there’s no evidence she’s even around) and brings in Dark Side, who tells Shilo the Anti-LifeÂ Equation.Â This destroys what is left of his mind.Â The Anti-Life Equation, in case you’re wondering, is: Loneliness + Alienation + Fear + Despair + Self-Worth / Mockery / Condemnation / MisunderstandingÂ x GuiltÂ x ShameÂ x Failure x Judgment; N = Y where Y = Hope and N = Folly; Love = Lies; Life = Death; Self = Dark Side.Â Now that’s an equation!Â As Shilo staggers through the streets, he passes a television with a picture of a mushroom cloud on the screen, and in the background of one panel, watching him sadly, are Lightray and,Â according to the annotations, someone named Jezebelle.Â As he walks through the rain, he is passed by a familiar taxi cab carrying a familiar blue kid.Â Yes, it’s the taxi fromÂ Klarion #3, which is taking our hero and the Deviants to the Museum ofÂ Superheroes.Â At the same time, we see Carla pushing Jake’s engagement ring away and it falling into the gutter.Â Wow – all these things happen at the same time????Â Shilo wallows in self-pity as Bedlam takes over the top spot and wows the crowd.Â But then Shilo sees Metron again, who points out acts of kindness and tells him that there’s a Life Equation andÂ that “one good man can make a difference.”Â This is apparently enough for Shilo to resist the Anti-Life Equation, which makes me wonder how effective the whole Anti-Life Equation is in the first place.Â Shilo bursts back into the dressing room where Dark Side sits with his minions (and Jonelle), and Dark Side says he might be immune to the Anti-Life Equation, but “no one escapes the Omega Sanction.”Â Yes, that sounds like a Robert Ludlum novel (I think it was published after The Gemini Contenders but before The Holcroft Covenant) and when Dark Side is Darkseid, it means those cool beams come out of his eyes and turn right angles before incinerating his foe, but in this world, it apparently means getting his thugs to beat on Shilo with baseball bats.Â Not very original, if you think about it.Â Jonelle gets off on the beating that Shilo is taking, and Dark Side points out that in “his world,” Shilo is smaller than a grain of sand, “and evil is a mountain.”Â Shilo wakes up in the trunk of a car and calls out to Motherboxxx, but Dezard is busy dissecting Shilo’s computer, and Shilo has no one to turn to.Â The bad guys open the trunk and proceed to turn Shilo into pulp, even though he tries to buy his way out of it.Â Then they do some work on him with a drill before dousing him in alcohol and setting him on fire.Â This is not the first time we have seen someone become a living pyre – in fact, it’s the third time in the epic.Â They use some bolt cutters on his family jewels – again, we see the connection to sex, and now that Jonelle has figuratively unmanned him, these guys do it literally – and we pull back to view Hurricane Gloria over northern Florida.Â It’s a disturbing scene, made even worse by Morrison’s penchant again for “humanizing” bad guys with a few simple words.Â We saw how the flunkies employed by Melmoth were discussing feminism in movies, and Dark Side’s minions are discussing one guy’s sister and whether or not she likes the other one.Â It’s a perfectly reasonable conversation to have, and we could believe it’s just a few guys sitting around drinking beers if it weren’t for the fact that they’re destroying a human being at the same time.Â They return to the city and throw Shilo’s battered body in front of where Bedlam is performing.
The final two pages show Shilo in a wheelchair, completely bandaged, with a cast on one arm, trying to buy groceries.Â Dark Side comes in and puts the “D’pends undergarments” out of his reach on the shelf, which is just mean.Â I mean, sure, beat a man almost to death, emasculate him, set him on fire, but don’t put the diapers out of his reach!Â As Dark Side leaves, two men stand over Shilo.Â It’s Orion and Lightray, in their “real world” aspects.Â Orion says “The Life Trap has you in its grip,” and Lightray says, “And there’s only one way out …”Â That’s a suitably ominous place to end.
This issue, as I mentioned, is more interesting than the first two because of how it ties into the rest of the epic.Â We finally get some confirmation that Shilo is living in the world that the rest of the saga takes place, as the scene on the street shows.Â It’s still a strange world, though, that feels disjointed from the rest of the saga – possibly because the world in which Shilo lives seems much more like our own world than the world of DC.Â But that’s neither here nor there – Shilo is firmly placed in the universe with the rest of the Seven Soldiers, so he can safely intersect with them later.
The interesting part of the issue stems from Morrison’s examination of the “plastic people” and what that means to the epic as a whole.Â The critique of modern society, with its emphasis on exterior rather than internal beauty, is heavy-handed – that’s not to say it’s not a point worth making, just that the metaphor is a bit obvious – but that’s not all Morrison is saying.Â Shilo Norman himself is guilty of this sort of behavior, and now that he understands what is happening, the glorification of external beauty has become more sinister and less vapid.Â Dark Side links this objectification to the nullification of life itself – if no one ever gets old, what’s the point of propagating the species?Â We have seen this attitude before with Gloriana Tenebrae, who plans to live forever and therefore has no need for an heir – in this case, Misty.Â These people can’t take the long view, because they are so wrapped up in their own lives, and therefore Dark Side will bring out the extinction of humanity not by overt conquest and enslavement, but by appealing to yet another Deadly Sin – vanity.Â When they become “plastic,” they are freezing themselves in time, and can no longer evolve.Â They are ripe for the harvest, and the Sheeda are coming.
Shilo is fighting against this, which, as I mentioned, is ironic, because in the beginning of the series, he is as “plastic” as the rest of the people.Â His sojourn among the New Gods has shown him that the outer shell means nothing – again, the imagery isn’t subtle, but when he glimpses the majesty of the New Gods behind and above the broken bodies of the homeless people, he understands that he has been living the wrong kind of life.Â This is the first step on his road of transformation and heroism, but like our other heroes, nothing is easy.Â Shilo suffers more than the others, which indicates that he was far more along the road to damnation than the others.Â He has the hardest road to travel, because he was in so deep to begin with.Â His transgression is against society as a whole, a society that worships what he used to give them – external spectacle with no soul.Â Now, “people are starting to make fun of” him, as Jonelle points out, and once you become the object of ridicule, it’s far easier to destroy you.Â Shilo is destroyed because the public – that arbiter of culture – no longer has any use for him.Â He has become too “serious.”Â Who needs that when the circus is in town?
Williams’ art, while not perfect and perhaps the weakest in the series, fits the story well.Â He draws exaggerated perfection, and the body language of Jonelle and the rest of the plastic people is highly sexualized, which goes only with the fetishistic aspects of the book – the plastic people, after all, are coated in enamel, which can easily be seen as a sex toy.Â The art would look awkward in another book and in another context, but here, with the undercurrent of not only sex but “movie-star sex,” as my wife and I put it – think Pierce Brosnan boning Rene Russo on marble steps, for crying out loud, in The Thomas Crown Affair – it works, because we see that Williams is striving for external perfection of his cast but also shows their grotesque nature.Â Williams, from the little experience I’ve had with him, always draws this way, and it’s possibly a happy accident that he found a book that works to that style.Â But that’s okay – it works.
For more inside information, you can always check out the annotations.Â Of course, Jog has his usual good thoughts, as he delves more into the New Gods angle than I do, but less into the materialistic part of the book!Â So it all balances out.
Next: A superhero convention.Â You know that will be fun!
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