Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Early in 2012, I reviewed the first four issues of Stephen Coughlin’s digital comic, Sanctuary, and mentioned that I’d probably wait for a printed trade paperback, because I still like actual books more than digital comics. Recently, Coughlin got in touch with me and mentioned that he had finished the comic and asked me if I’d like to check the whole thing out. So now I’m going to review the entire thing! Coughlin writes and draws it, Jordan Fong colors it (I’ve mentioned this before – I’m not sure what Fong does on the book, because it’s in black and white, so maybe he adds the gray tones?), and Jef Bambas letters it. SLG publishes it, and you can download copies right here for one thin dollar each. That’s good value!
Sanctuary is called thus because it takes place at an animal sanctuary, but a loaded word like that has connotations, so Coughlin has several characters looking for their own form of sanctuary. It’s never obvious, but it’s there, and it’s pretty clever. This is basically a murder mystery starring sentient animals, some of whom are able to communicate with the humans who run the sanctuary through the machinations of a COMIC BOOK SCIENCE DEVICE (I love those). Coughlin introduces a lot of characters, both human and animal, and there are plenty of threads about the characters, but he never loses track of the murder mystery, which is nice.
In the first issue, Coughlin sets everything up. He introduces the main animal players – a male and female gorilla, three giraffes (a female and the two males – one alpha and one not – who are sweet on her), a very obnoxious panda, Ezra and Cleo, a tiger and lion who are best friends, and Ezra and Cleo’s fathers, who are also best friends. Ezra, like any good curious kid, goes to places he really shouldn’t, so at night he goes into the panda’s enclosure and finds him dead. That can’t be good. We also get some of the humans – Dr. Pierre, the stuffy head of the facility, and Dr. Odette, whose sister is a rather weird research assistant with a crush on Dr. Pierre. There are a lot of personalities to keep track of, but Coughlin does a nice job with all of them. Despite the secrets most of them are carrying, the book never gets too gloomy, even after the panda’s death. Using humor to etch out the personalities of his characters is smart, and Coughlin does it well. He also confounds our expectations – the giraffes are tougher than we expect giraffes to be, and the panda is vulgar, making it more likely he was killed because someone just didn’t like him. It’s good misdirection, because we’re just not sure what’s going on until we’re well on the way.
The plot isn’t terribly complicated, which is fine, but it does have several layers, because we just don’t know who did it. We think one animal might have, and then we think another one might have. We think one human might have done it, and then we think another one might have. At one point, Ezra and his father investigate what’s going on in the medical building of the sanctuary and Coughlin introduces the spiders, who are extremely creepy and seem to have their own agenda. As the plot unravels, we discover that a lot of creatures have their own agendas, including those we think are fairly benign. Can we trust anyone? Perhaps not, but Coughlin does keep us on our toes as we read, so it’s kind of fun. Actually, the biggest problem I have with the comic is that Coughlin doesn’t wrap things up particularly well. He leaves it open for sequels, and while I wouldn’t mind seeing more of these characters, it’s a bit frustrating when we get to the end.
Part of the fun of reading this is that Coughlin does a nice job balancing the more sinister aspects of the comic with a lot of humor. Even at the darkest times, he manages to slip in jokes (such as a “duck-duck-goose” joke that shouldn’t work in the situation in which it’s used, but does). He humanizes all the characters quite well – just when we think one character is totally evil, they make a comment that’s both funny and shows that they have lives outside of being evil. Ultimately, there’s really only one truly evil character – even some who appear bad have good reasons for what they’re doing – and that helps make the comic more complex than you might think on a first look. Coughlin keeps the book moving with his plot, but the book works because the characters are interesting to follow as they move through the plot.
Coughlin’s art also helps. He has a cartoony style, almost animated, and the fact that the characters look so charming helps create a clashing tone with some of the darker stuff, which then helps with the jokes when Coughlin makes them. His rubbery style helps a great deal with the action of the plot, of which there’s quite a bit, and it helps anthropomorphize the animals a bit, which is crucial in a book like this. There’s a scene where one of the giraffes looks far larger than it has any right to be, but Coughlin, it appears, is trying to make it look more like the humans are attacking a dinosaur, and he’s exaggerating for dramatic effect, which seems to work. One problem with the art on the book is that the spiders just don’t look as terrifying as they should. I know it’s a weird complaint, but Coughlin wants them to be creepy, and when he doesn’t show them too closely and just as black dots, they seem much more horrifying. When we see them in close-up, they look a bit too cute to be that menacing. Other than that, he does a nice job on the art. The animals are humanized enough that we believe their conversations, and it’s also a bit more awful when something happens to them – even when it happens to the obnoxious panda. It’s like Coughlin killed Po the Dragon Warrior or something. That shit ain’t right.
I hope Coughlin has a chance to continue the story, but if he doesn’t, these seven issues are a fine story (even with the somewhat ambiguous ending). You can read issue #1 for free, and I encourage you to go check it out and pick up the rest of them. It’s pretty keen.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
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