Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
First of all, Grant’s art is amazing. He has a cartoony line, and his characters verge on caricature, but he also has a wonderful eye for detail and storytelling. Grant creates a town, Bolton, and makes it come alive – the houses make the town look like an old yet modern Victorian village, with chimneys jutting out of steep roofs and stone walls, all juxtaposed with aerials and air conditioning units. Grant also shows the degradation of the poorer parts of town, as his three main characters – Christian, Muck, and Verne – wander the streets, sneak into their own houses (they’re ditching school and need to grab their surfboards), and hang out in dingy stores. Grant crams a lot into this book – he lays out pages with lots of panels, but his clean lines don’t clutter the smaller panels, and when he does open things up, the effect is stunning. This comic is a nod to Australian surf comics, so when the three characters end up at the beach, Grant draws the giant waves on a full page, showing the ocean’s intense power. When the kids venture up the rail line to see a dead body (Grant admits that he’s copping from Stephen King, but as there’s nothing new under the sun, it doesn’t matter all that much, plus, this is taken from Grant’s own life), he moves easily from the built-up area to a bizarre natural world that seems both welcoming and threatening – the flora is beautiful and weird, but there’s also a hint of menace to it. Grant’s characters are raggedy and weird, too, but they convey a good sense of teenage ennui and waste, while his adults give off a vibe of goofiness, which is how many teenagers see adults. His kids look weird because they’re 13, when they’re not quite kids but not yet adults, and Grant captures the awkwardness of puberty very well without making a big deal about it.
Grant’s coloring is superb, too. The entire book is brown and blue and black, which doesn’t limit Grant at all. The town is shades of brown, which turns it from a charming place into one that crushes spirits, while the blue of the natural world makes it look more sinister. Grant makes sure the waves are black and white, giving them a far more majestic feel than if they had been blue. The blue becomes important when we consider one of the main themes of the book, which is racism. The “Other” in this book are blue creatures, and Grant makes them look so alien (they’re not even human) that their blue skin is not even the weirdest thing about them, although it does make them stand out in the bland, brown world of Bolton (which is entirely the point, I’m sure). This is a gorgeous book to look at, and Grant has a good future as an artist.
The characters in Blue are fascinating, too. Christian, Muck, and Verne are fairly typical young teenagers, in that they’re crude, narrow-minded, rather despicable to each other and everyone else, uninterested in school, and far greater in speech than in action. But Grant makes them so compelling that we can’t help but stick with them – they’re misanthropes, sure, but only because, it’s implied, they don’t know any better. The writing is often viciously humorous, too – one of the best sections is when they’re walking the rail and throwing rocks and such at various landmarks and telling each other what the others have to do if they hit them. The first time, for instance, Christian says to Muck, “If I hit that star picket over there you have to eat a snot sandwich,” and things just get grosser from there. They always miss, until Muck hits one after challenging Christian to something far more serious than what they’ve been saying. There’s a lot of gross-out humor in the book, but it’s perfectly in line with how many 13-year-olds talk. The relationship of the three main characters (it’s a stretch to call them “friends” – as Christian narrates in the book, “thirteen-year-olds don’t pick their mates,” and he flatly states that if he had met the two of them a few years later, he wouldn’t have hung out with them) is what drives the comic, and it’s very well written. I should also point out that Grant includes a fascinating essay in the back of the book about his own comic book experiences and a brief history of Australian surf comics. I agree with some of his observations and disagree with others, but it’s still a very interesting read and offers a different perspective on what Americans think of as a linear comics history.
So why do I think there’s controversy about this book? Well, a keen observer will notice that I haven’t mentioned the plot, and I skimmed over the blue-skinned aliens. All three pull quotes (by Craig Thompson, Shaun Tan, and Dylan Horrocks) on the back of the book make reference to the plot and themes of the book, which they claim are racism and immigration and “Australia’s ongoing debate with itself” and the “insidious ‘us-and them’ mentality that still festers” in the country. That’s fine, and Grant cleverly introduces the blue-skinned aliens as the immigrants, yet no one notices that they aren’t exactly human (which is, of course, the point). So while the plot doesn’t really matter, because the basic plot is that three kids ditch school and walk along a railroad track to look at a dead body, the themes do matter. Early on, a new girl appears on the beach and talks to Christian, Verne, and Muck. She’s a perfectly normal girl, down from Sydney, and the three kids treat her like dirt. Then, there’s an extended wordless scene where the aliens arrive in Bolton, and people react very poorly. Then Christian begins his narration as a grown-up, explaining what has happened since the aliens moved in and started buying up the real estate. When he flashes back to his adolescence, Grant shows us a double-page spread of nationalistic Australian propaganda interspersed with photos of Christian and his mates growing up. In the flashback, Christian lets us know that Bolton was conceived as a company town, and everyone worked for the “plant” – it’s never explained what happens there – but now, the aliens have taken over and things have changed. Christian can only work as a painter, and he yearns for a day when “proper” Aussies kept their houses tidy and the town looked nice. Throughout the book, there are references to anti-immigration slogans and policies, and when the three kids see one of the aliens walking through town, Verne explains to Muck how they’re like various other immigrant groups, using extremely racist terms to describe them.
What might be controversial about that? What’s odd about the book is that Grant doesn’t condemn the characters at all for thinking this way. Through Grant’s own pictures, we see that the way Christian describes things is correct – Bolton was once a pleasant, if boring place to live, and now, when the aliens have moved in, it is very run down and decrepit. Christian lets us know that the plant closed down, but he claims that the town had started going downhill before that, and from the fact that the aliens seem to cover everything with graffiti, maybe he has a point. At one point, he shows Christian sitting in front of the wall he’s painting, in a double-page spread showing the entire road, and the town looks sad – windows are boarded up, traffic lights are broken. On the next page, he shows the exact same spread from when Christian was a kid, and things look immeasurably better. Christian does narrate that when you’re looking back on your life, things seem more clear-cut than when you’re living it, so his recollections of the town don’t exactly jive with the way he acts when he’s 13, which isn’t surprising. But Grant gives no indication that Christian is, in fact, wrong. Life, as portrayed in this comic, was better when “real” Australians were living in Bolton (no mention is made in the comic of the Aborigines, which isn’t surprising). The aliens came in a ruined everything.
Grant points out in his essay that “vehement nationalism” is extremely prevalent these days at the Australian beach, which has changed from the 1950s and 1960s, when the vibe was definitely more liberal. Is this book entirely an ironic comment on this phenomenon, and someone who is not steeped in Aussie surf comic history will not understand it? I refuse to call this comic racist, because Top Shelf wouldn’t have published it and various cartoonists wouldn’t have endorsed it if it were. But I don’t understand what comment Grant is making with Blue. As a book about the vagaries of growing up and how kids deal with a strange world, it’s quite good. But Grant doesn’t really address the themes of racism and immigration for which he’s praised by those quoted on the back of the book. Yes, he brings them up, but as I’ve pointed out, the only conclusion we can reach from the way he handles it is that Bolton was better off before the aliens showed up. Nothing in this book contradicts that. There are no adults, really, in this book, so we have no idea how white Aussies treat their children and others as opposed to the alien adults. The aliens have no lines of dialogue, so we know nothing about them. I get that we only have a fairly untrustworthy narrator from which to glean information, but, as I pointed out above, Grant’s artwork seems to back up Christian’s claims. It’s very vexing, and I have no answers about this comic. Obviously, a lot more than aliens moving in has gone wrong with Bolton, but again, we don’t see any of it. We have only Christian’s word and Grant’s artwork.
I would Recommend Blue for a few reasons. One, the art is beautiful. Two, the bits about three kids growing up are strong. Three, it does bring up a legacy of ugliness in Australian history (and, by extension, the history of many countries) and how the society has changed. I’m troubled by it, though, and I wish I wasn’t. Blue is an odd and haunting comic, and I don’t know if Grant bit off more than he could chew or if I’m completely missing the point. Probably the latter, but this is just my impression. Maybe someone smarter than I am can set me straight.
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.