Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
What’s this? A new post instead of a flashback? That’s uncanny!
Oni Press, 12 issues (#1-12), cover dated November 2005 – June 2008.
Very minor SPOILERS below. I’m not sure if they can even be counted as spoilers, but there you go.
Local is a wildly ambitious, complicated work, one that veers all over the place, makes a mess, doesn’t clean it up, and generally behaves poorly. It’s the comic that made Wood into the great writer he is today and made Kelly the mega-superstar he now is (isn’t he?). It sparks inside the reader conflicting and violent emotions, far more than most mainstream comics, and Wood refuses to let his characters and especially his readers off the hook. Local gnaws at you after you read it, because it’s both horribly unsatisfying and beautifully complete. You should own it because not enough comics anger you, frustrate you, dazzle you, and make you think all at the same time. You should own it because it means different things to you at different stages in your life. It’s infinitely mutable. Whatever I write about it here I may disagree with in five years’ time or even one years’ time. It’s not a question of finding new things (which you can do with many comics), it’s a question of a fundamental change in the way you view Ms. Megan McKeenan, the main character. Wood has tapped into the way we grow and change, and that’s why Local is so brilliant.
Wood and I have butted heads before (not literally; I’ve met him once, last year in San Diego, and hope to see him there again this year) over what he writes in his comics, but I don’t mind that (I don’t know if he does) because I dig the fact that he makes me actually think about stuff when I read his books. Such is the case with Local, especially when we consider its main character, the aforementioned Megan McKeenan. Both Wood and Kelly wrote mini-essays about each issue in the back, and in issue #10, Wood addresses the “problem” of Megan. He rather disingenuously acts surprised that anyone would hate Megan so much. I would argue that if you don’t hate Megan, just a little, then Wood hasn’t done his job, as he writes Megan so well that we have no choice but to hate her. How much will depend on many factors, but I can’t believe Wood was taken aback by the hatred of Megan. He calls out readers (and bloggers, of which I was one) who hated Megan, claiming that he can’t believe they would only want to read about characters who act in a way they find comfortable. Wood often seems a bit prickly in these back matter essays (I’ll get to another example below), and this is him at his prickliest. After the way Megan acts in some issues, it’s not a question of a character acting in a way that’s different than we find comfortable, it’s a character acting in a way that puts her almost outside the pale of society, polite or otherwise. Consider:
In issue #1, we meet Megan ditching a dickhead boyfriend before he can convince her to commit a major felony or at least assists in one. While we admire her courage, in the back of our mind, we wonder why on earth she was with this dickhead in the first place. She’s under 18, we know, so that’s a mitigating factor – perhaps she’s just immature. But she triumphs! Yay, Megan! However, in issue #2 (each issue jumps ahead approximately a year, with the first one taking place in 1994), we find her in Minneapolis (issue #1 takes place in Portland), where she is playing an odd game with a young man – she leaves Polaroids with brief messages written on them in her apartment when she leaves for work in the morning, and the man uses her spare key to get into the apartment and leaves Polaroids of himself, also with messages. Not surprisingly, her co-worker thinks this is a bit creepy. It is, but it’s also a cri de coeur of a lonely young lady, one who craves a bit of companionship even if it’s ethereal. What issue #2 does quite well (issue #1 does this too) is show us a person who has some abandonment issues. It ties into the major theme of the book, and we’ll get back to that.
Issue #3 features Megan only as a secondary character, and in issue #4, although she remains a secondary character, she finds herself in a situation that leaves a traumatic mark upon her. This is the only way we can excuse her behavior over the next few issues – she sees someone commit suicide right in front of her, and is ill-equipped to handle it. It begins a run of three issues of the next four in which she is the main character (issue #7 is about her cousin) and in which she acts abominably. Can we forgive her because of the death she sees? Perhaps some can. In issue #5 she works at a movie theater in Nova Scotia and she wears different name tags all the time, making up her history every time she speaks, and alienating everyone around her. She tries to redeem herself at the end of the issue, but issue #6 shows her hitting rock bottom, as she rooms with a nurse who just wants someone who has the exact opposite schedule that she does, so she can sleep when she’s not working. Gloria (the roommate) rebuffs Megan’s attempts at friendship, so Megan peevishly starts picking apart her life, posting Gloria’s rather rigid schedules on the bathroom wall at the bar where she works and hacking into her laptop. Finally, Gloria goes away for a few days and leaves Post-It notes for Megan all over the apartment. When Megan rants about this at her work, a man down the bar tells her that Gloria told him to come here and meet her new roommate, because she was really nice (and, obviously, Gloria was wrong). This is the issue when Megan truly becomes someone we hate. A friend of hers voices our thoughts: “And you snooped on her laptop for these, right? Remind me never to be your roommate.” Testify, Megan’s acquaintance! Obviously, this is Megan’s journey and she’s supposed to be, if not sympathetic, at least understandable. But her horrible behavior in this issue is almost inexcusable, and it has nothing to do with Megan being young and not being fully formed. Anyone who has ever lived in a society doesn’t act this way. Megan seems to have learned her lesson at the end of the issue, but in issue #8, she ditches her boyfriend for a chance to hook up with a better-looking, richer guy. That she doesn’t go all the way with him and returns to Len is a step in the right direction, but it’s not until issue #9, when her mother dies, that she finally starts taking the first steps toward redemption.
This laundry list of execreble behavior is important, because it’s a testament to Wood and Kelly that, as much as we despise Megan (and despite Wood’s protestations that we shouldn’t), we stick with the comic. Megan is a train wreck, but she’s fascinating, and we keep seeing glimpses that she realizes what a tool she is. Plus, her stories are compelling, as she does things that, perhaps, normal people would contemplate, but then at the point where normal people would pull back because they’re not sociopaths, Megan pushes onward. Who hasn’t imagined a different persona for themselves, a new history, a new story they can tell people? We all have at some point, but in issue #5, Megan does it to the extreme, so that when she’s caught in her lie and a young man gives her a chance to come clean, she can’t even do that. Who hasn’t known someone who is so uptight they need to be taken down a peg? We all have, but in issue #6, Megan destroys that person, simply because Gloria doesn’t want to hang out with her. It’s a brilliant way for Wood to show that we exist in a society for a reason – Megan obliterates boundaries, and chaos is sure to follow. It’s not even her mother’s death that forces her to change – that begins it, but doesn’t complete her transformation – but the art exhibit put on by Nancy Bai in issue #11. Nancy, who works in the same Toronto office as Megan does, steals various markers of Megan’s life in Local – her backpack, some of the Polaroids from issue #2, Gloria’s schedules, various other detritus – and hangs them on a wall, creating a fictional version of Megan’s life and passing it off as artistic imagination. This devastates Megan, whose life has been ransacked as thoroughly as she ransacked Gloria’s life, and she suddenly understands what she has been doing to others all these years. This allows her to let go of the past and find a comfortable space, which she does in issue #12. Wood doesn’t allow her complete happiness and satisfaction, of course, but Megan is on her way. The amazing thing about Local is that we don’t really like Megan at the end, but we don’t hate her, either. Wood has managed to rebuild her image a little, but we can never be sure that she won’t regress. It’s a risky but brilliant gambit.
The reason Megan is so, for lack of a better term, fucked up is because of Local‘s grand theme, which is family and our attempts to flee from them and return to them. We get this from the first issue, when we find out that Megan is a minor and that the threat of the pharmacist calling her parents (which is only a “parent” at this point, but the pharmacist doesn’t know that) to report her terrifies her. As the series moves along, we come to realize that Megan has no structure in her life because she had no structure in her upbringing. I’ll get back to that. We also see how Wood toys with the notion of “family” as it relates to the way people interact with the world. The indie band, Theories and Defenses, is much like a family, and when they break up and return to Richmond in issue #3, we see four people trying to break the bonds of family and move on with their lives, some better than others. This is highlighted by Bridget Hardy, the group’s bassist, who ends up screwing an old boyfriend in her bedroom in her mom’s house – she is obviously clinging to a past that feels comfortable because she can’t face the future without the band. Bridget’s brief fling is a microcosm of Megan’s 12-issue journey, really – Wood distills many of the themes he’s working on with Megan into Bridget’s five pages of screen time. The traumatic events in issue #4 that affect Megan so very much stems from a confrontation between two brothers, one of whom wants to feel loved by the family but doesn’t know how to loosen up around them and is now trying to insinuate himself into their sick father’s life, while the other mercilessly teases the first brother and makes him feel like an outsider. Their argument and its horrific aftermath, all in front of Megan, drives our heroine to her abominable behavior. But it’s because they’re family that it hits her so hard. As the series progresses, we see other aspects of Megan’s life – her cousin, Nicky, is even more desperately screwed up than she is (I’ll get back to Nicky), and when her mother dies, we finally get to see her family life from her perspective and from the view of her brother, Matthew, who shows up in issue #10. What we find out from him is that their father was a misogynistic bastard, and Matthew is going down that path. What we find out from Megan is that she had a terrible mother.
This is where reading this at different stages of your life colors how you respond to this comic. Wood writes Megan’s mom sympathetically, and obviously wants his readers to see in her unorthodox child-rearing a liberation from conventional and stifling family life. Perhaps a younger reader would agree with Wood, but as an older one (and one with children), I’m horrified by Megan’s mother. She puts absolutely no limits on Megan whatsoever, allowing her to run away all the time, always picking her up and never criticizing her, finally buying her a car so that Megan can run even further away (which she does, all the way to Portland and issue #1). Megan tells Len (to whom she returned in issue #8 and with whom she is still involved in issue #9), “She was removing any obstacle that might be in my way. She wanted me to be free. She trusted me. I felt empowered.” Len asks her about limits, and Megan says, “She lived her whole life with limits. She was smart, educated, liberal, political … but all she became was a housewife in the suburbs. Dad never challenged her, never lifted a finger to give her the slightest break from her routine. I think she would have seen limiting me as a form of child abuse. So she let me figure it out.” This idea sounds great, but what it did was turn Megan into a quiet sociopath who needs to destroy everything in her life and be turned into a fictional construct by a snotty artist before she realizes that maybe, just maybe, limits aren’t a bad thing. Megan’s mother failed at her life, so instead of taking responsibility for the life she created, she simply let Megan “figure it out” by herself. This is the great failing of the comic – Wood never considers the truly horrible things that could happen because of Megan’s behavior. She wanders around as a young teenager and later lets a man into her apartment and never gets raped. She treats people horribly and never gets punched. It’s not that we, as the reader, want this to happen to her, but the idea that she goes through this life in absolutely no danger except of the absolutely most overt kind (a man holding a gun on her, but even then he’s angry at his family) is a bit of a cheat. Megan’s mother lets her do whatever she wants so that Megan knows how to run from anything real because she never wants to get trapped like her mother was, but because she was allowed to do whatever she wanted, she never learned that there are some things you don’t do, not because you can’t, but because you choose not to do them. The sympathetic portrayal of Megan’s mother doesn’t change the fact that she is a terrible mom (especially as she doesn’t treat her son the same way, making her a hypocrite as well), and it highlights Wood’s rather jaundiced view of families in general. Whether that mitigates the way Megan acts throughout the book is up to the reader to decide.
The book is called Local, partly because each issue takes place in a different place and the locality is almost as important to the story as the characters are. This is where Kelly really shines, in fact, as he does a fine job immersing us in each location. In order, the locales are: Portland, OR; Minneapolis, MN; Richmond, VA; Missoula, MT; Halifax, Nova Scotia; Brooklyn, NY; Tempe, AZ; Chicago, IL; Norman, OK; Austin, TX; Toronto, Ontario; and Burlington, VT. What’s interesting is that Wood matches the type of story a bit with the location, and he also reveals some biases through his choice of place. For instance, issue #4, which technically occurs in Missoula, confines its characters to a diner outside of town, where we can get a sense of the Big Sky of Montana. In the final issue, Megan escapes the confines of the towns and heads to the wilderness of Vermont to confront her demons, and the fact that she holes up in an old, colonial-style farmhouse is important, as is the fact that she begins to work the land and make something from scratch rather than skimming along the surface of life. The West, the symbol of muscular Americanism and individual freedom, is the setting for Megan’s rejection of her loser boyfriend, the lawlessness at the diner, the rabid punkishness of Megan’s cousin Nicky, and the severing of her family ties (if we count Oklahoma as the West). The North and East gives us the cloistered creepiness of Megan’s Polaroid boyfriend, the comfort of a home left behind long ago, desperate and failed attempts at re-invention, the cramped confinement of a densely populated borough, the bustle of an upscale neighborhood, and a sleek corporate culture. Only with Vermont, Wood’s home turf, does the East offer the same type of freedom that the West does. Whether conscious or not, Wood’s tone about each location comes through in the issues. Portland is a hip, trendy kind of place, and Megan goes into, not a chain pharmacy, but an old-school single-store place (which has apparently closed but was still open when I lived there, and it was a keen place). Minneapolis is Ryan Kelly’s home town, and he knows the cool places where Megan can hang out. Wood lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, so he has a soft spot for it. He grew up in Vermont, so the same thing applies there. What’s interesting about the locations is what we can glean about those places that it appears Wood doesn’t like and what kind of stories he sets there. Norman is a bleak place under Kelly’s pencils, full of dust and poorly-constructed, dull houses and bland motels. The “fancy” restaurant in the issue looks vaguely cheap. Issue #10 takes place in Austin, a trendy place these days, but Matthew’s Austin is obviously not the city of SXSW. Wood’s greatest opprobrium is reserved, however, for Tempe. It’s no secret that I lived in Tempe for a few years before moving next door to Mesa and that I, in general, hate living in Arizona. So issue #7 was of particular interest to me, as I wondered why Wood set it there. Kelly does very little with the locale – in fact, he probably does the least with the location of any in the book, and that speaks volumes about the blandness of the Phoenix area (where the interesting sights are rather hard to find, even though they do exist). Wood, meanwhile, places Nicky, who’s more of a psychopath than Megan ever is, into this middle-class dream of Arizona. What makes the issue interesting is that Wood, unlike any other issue in the book, finds nothing redeeming about Tempe at all. He writes at the end of the book about his time in Tempe: “It was the weekend of the Fiesta Bowl, so the streets were full of rabid football fans, scary cops clearing the streets of homeless people and skateboarders, a military ‘air show’ which consisted of helicopter overflights, and drunken college kids. All this in a climate and environment that’s about as polar opposite as what I’m used to as you can get, and it felt like an oppressive police state. … [I]f I was a kid like Nicky and I had a cop running me down because my skating might offend some face-painted out-of-town lunatic of a football fan, I would be seriously pissed off.”
It’s really fascinating to feel the hatred seeping off the page when Wood writes this, and compare it to Nicky’s predicament in issue #7. Nicky is bored, sure, but does that excuse his horrible behavior? We barely see his family, but there’s no indication they’re all that terrible, and his house is a normal, middle-class ranch style abode. Wood seems to excuse his behavior because of where he lives, as if a dull, relatively conservative (Arizona is certainly conservative, but not obnoxiously so), consumerist town breeds psychopaths specifically. And his choice of Tempe is weird, because it’s a college town, after all, and the downtown area (which we see briefly when Nicky goes out smashing car windows) is as funky as any other college town in the country. Wood might not like football, but to compare the parties that go on during the Fiesta Bowl to a “police state” is an odd choice of words. When I lived in Portland, the cops moved the homeless and skateboarders out of the way plenty of times for various events, yet I doubt if that would be considered a “police state.” Nicky might be pissed off, but to put the blame on where he lives is very strange. It’s part of the bigger idea of place shaping people that Wood is getting at, though. Theories and Defenses’ home town provides a safe haven after they self-destruct. Toronto’s modernity provides a perfect backdrop for Megan to come into her own. Norman is her past, dusty and desolate. Vermont, like Richmond, becomes a place for her to call home – the property has no connection to her drunk father, only her sainted mother (the real estate agent specifically says “your mother … purchased the property” – no mention is made of Megan’s dad), so she can connect to the past that she wants to remember and forget that which she wants to forget. All of the locations are chosen carefully, and that’s why the setting of Tempe is so striking. Wood finds Arizona terrifying, which is rather interesting.
One reason why Local is such a fantastic comic is because Wood trusts Kelly to tell the story. Not only does Kelly make each location feel real to the reader, but he also needs to show us the aging of Megan as she navigates these 12 crucial years of her life. So in issue #1, we get an angry and somewhat scared Megan who puts on a brave face even as she steps cautiously out on her own, and by the time the series ends, she’s matured a great deal. While Wood makes the family theme explicit in some issues, Kelly does it more subtly, like in issue #4, when Megan pleads with the two brothers to stop yelling and hitting each other. The words are fine, but Kelly’s desperate Megan shows that this familial bickering hits her a lot harder than we would expect from her witnessing two strangers arguing – it’s obviously something far more deep-seeded, but we don’t know quite what it is yet (and Wood won’t tell us for several issues). Megan’s disturbing behavior at the movie theater in issue #5 is perfectly encapsulated, not only by what Wood writes for her, but the way Megan glares at the mother who complains that a strange girl was being too friendly with her teenaged son. Megan goes from smiling to angry in an instant, and Kelly makes sure we see all the psychoses swirling around in her head. Her loss of identity at the end of the issue is also perfectly captured by Kelly – a slack-jawed and glassy-eyed Megan simply doesn’t know how to respond to the most basic of questions – what’s her name? We see her anger earlier, in issue #3, where she has a cameo. Kelly takes her from elation to meeting one of her idols – the drummer from Theories and Defenses – to the disappointment when she realizes he’s charging her for his autograph, and then caustic hate when she sees that he spelled her name wrong and left his phone number on the album. It’s a nifty tour-de-force in the middle of the issue. Megan’s transformation into an adult in issue #11 is amazing, too – she sees Nancy’s art project and Kelly shows the way it punches her in the gut – there’s no need for words. By the end of the book, Kelly shows us that Megan is at least on her way to being an adult, and it’s impressive how she looks only subtly different from issue #1, but we can see the maturity in her face. She’s a bit leaner in the face, a bit harder in the eyes, but she’s still Megan. As much as Kelly does with making each location come alive, he does so much with the characters that is more astonishing, and Wood is wise to trust him with great chunks of wordless storytelling.
I may be harsh about some aspects of Local, but that’s not really a bad thing. This is a meaty series, one that demands your attention and thought and asks uncomfortable questions and doesn’t necessarily give pat answers. That it raises my hackles occasionally makes me appreciate it all the more. If we think about villains in superhero comics, we might boo and hiss when they do dastardly things, but do we really hate Doctor Doom? Or course not – he’s a cartoon. Wood and Kelly make Megan a real person, and we respond to her as we would to a real person, so the fact that we hate her means that they’ve done a marvelous job. And the fact that they redeem her – to a degree – is an even more marvelous job. Local gets inside our heads, because we recognize so much of the behavior of so many characters – from Megan’s awful behavior to Nicky’s teenage rebellion to Matthew’s bitterness because he views women through his sexist father’s eyes to Nancy’s desire to create fiction from scraps to Bridget’s slinking back to her mother’s house – that even if Wood takes some of them to the extreme, we can still see what drives the characters. We all have families, and while some are more fucked up and some are less than the families in Local, their gravity is always there, and we live our lives pulling away or giving into it. Local isn’t an easy read, but great works rarely are. And don’t we want our creators to strive for greatness?
There’s a giant hardcover of Local collecting all 12 issues. It appears that it hasn’t been released in softcover, but the hardcover is easy to find and it’s not that spendy. It’s definitely worth your time; it stays with you long after you’re done reading. And as always, I must direct your attention to the archives. I’ll get back to updating them, I promise.
(This is what Brian Wood looks like whenever I write about one of his books!)
Comics Should Be Good accepts review copies. Anything sent to us will (for better or for worse) end up reviewed on the blog. See where to send the review copies.