PAPER GIRLS' Time Traveling Past, Present & Future With CLIFF CHIANG

Paper Girls
Credit: Cliff Chiang/Matt Wilson (Image Comics)
Credit: Cliff Chiang/Matt Wilson (Image Comics)

Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang continues its fourth arc with this week's Paper Girls #18, and they are now chipping away at the mysterious world they created. This arc, which began with October's #16,  explores the chaotic mess that these girls have been thrown into – symbolically showcasing the true realities of any adolescent child transitioning into the world of adulthood.

Luckily, Newsarama had the chance to talk to co-creator/artist Cliff Chiang to help us unravel the past, present, and future of this time travel, coming-of-age comic book series before Paper Girls #18 comes out Wednesday.

Credit: Cliff Chiang/Matt Wilson (Image Comics)

Newsarama: Cliff, since the beginning of Paper Girls you and Brian K. Vaughan have explored many different settings: including the 80’s, prehistoric times, and now Y2K. What has been your favorite era to design so far? 

Cliff Chiang: Each era has its own charms. I love doing research and trying to figure out the specific hallmarks that distinguish each time period has been an unexpectedly fun challenge. For the 80's and Y2K, it's about the balance of recognizable details and not overloading it to the point of caricature. On the other hand, drawing prehistoric Cleveland was almost purely creative.

Nrama:Each arc has explored new characters and new creatures connected to the Paper Girls mystery. Can you tell us a bit about your collaboration with Vaughan in creating each arcs’ designs? 

Credit: Cliff Chiang/Matt Wilson (Image Comics)

Chiang: What I appreciate about Brian as a writer and collaborator is that he always provides a clear narrative direction for things without being too descriptive and specific. He'll ask for a girl wearing face paint and a necklace of junk technology, and then it's up to me to figure out what she looks like and how she carries herself. There's so much wonderful subtlety and character in his writing, and I try to bring that out visually in the characters. We both give each other lots of freedom, but that also means we have to give it our best effort. 

Nrama: What era would you like to see the Paper Girls explore next? 

Chiang: I've always been fond of the turn of the (last) century. Paper Girls in 1900 would be really cool. The girls could ride those old bicycles with the giant front wheel! 

Credit: Cliff Chiang/Matt Wilson (Image Comics)

Nrama: Even though a part of Paper Girls is about exploring the mystery behind the world, the true heart of the series is with its characters. How do you keep the balance between epic world building and character moments? 

Chiang: The world-building is always enjoyable, but in a way it's more of a technical challenge. If the reader doesn't care or relate to the characters, all that visual spectacle is pretty but feels empty. I love focusing on character moments, finding ways to add to what Brian's already laid out, so when something apocalyptic happens we know what the stakes are. If the focus is too much on mystery and twists it's a case of diminishing returns, especially when you can't top the last surprise. But when you love the characters, you stay with the story.

Credit: Cliff Chiang/Matt Wilson (Image Comics)

Nrama: A big development from last arc is the potential romance between KJ and Mac and KJ’s exploration of her sexual identity. Tell us a bit about your process in exploring this build up and KJ’s internal struggle. 

Chiang: I feel like we're always learning about ourselves, but at twelve you're learning big things that shape your identity. It's important to me to show KJ and Mac's confusing journey with as much empathy and emotional honesty as we can muster. It's easy to go too big, but I'd like to preserve the feeling of those first halting steps into adulthood. Less is more, as long as we don't bury it!

Nrama: Paper Girls #17 left readers on a cliffhanger where Tiffany meets her future spouse. What can you tease about this relationship?

Chiang: It's the opposite of breaking up with someone and wondering what you ever saw in them. None of the girls' futures are what they would have planned for themselves, and for Tiffany this is a real shocker and kind of a disappointment. Who is this weird dude? How much can she trust him? In the middle of a giant robot war, they're forced to connect, quickly.

Nrama: Growing up is a major theme for Paper Girls. How do you in particular explore these growing pains? 

Chiang: It's all about awkwardness. Everybody has said or done the wrong thing and regretted it later, but at the time you really couldn't help it! As you get older you're more guarded, but that's a really tough process of learning to be brutally honest about some things and keeping your mouth shut about others. For me, body language is a huge part of the character acting: leaning in or recoiling, being aggressive or defensive. Sometimes the girls know they're doing it, other times it's meant to be subconscious, but always we're trying to communicate something about their mental state.

Credit: Cliff Chiang/Matt Wilson (Image Comics)
Credit: Cliff Chiang/Matt Wilson (Image Comics)

Nrama: What are your favorite developments from these characters thus far?  

Chiang: Each of the girls has had a bombshell revelation, and seeing how they react and comes to terms with it is really the spine of the story. Mac's leukemia reveal was probably my favorite. It's so unexpected, and though Mac is outwardly resigned and cool about it, she's very much in turmoil and that keeps rippling through the series.

Nrama:In your career you’ve worked on many projects where you drew other people’s characters. What is it like 17+ issues in being your own boss as a co-creator and being able to fully art direct a project? 

Chiang: I approach all my projects the same way, really. I try to put as much of my sensibilities into the art and story as I can, but often there's a wall you bump up against with company characters – some detail that doesn't mesh with a larger plan. It is rewarding to work that way, but you're very aware of the boundaries. With Paper Girls, it's our book and the decisions are all ours. It's hard to overstate how creatively liberating that is. That excitement in turn inspires more crazy ideas, so it makes a huge difference in how personally and emotionally invested I am. Working with absolute geniuses like Matt Wilson and Jared Fletcher, helps too. You know everyone is bringing their A-game.

Credit: Cliff Chiang/Matt Wilson (Image Comics)
Credit: Cliff Chiang/Matt Wilson (Image Comics)

Nrama: How much of Vaughan’s overall plan do you know for Paper Girls? Does knowing or not knowing help you with your work on the series? 

Chiang: I know enough... I think?

Brian and I have talked about the overall shape of the series, but there are plenty of surprises he hasn't shared with me. At first, the editor in me wanted to know everything ahead of time, but as we went on I learned to trust and enjoy the process. Every script has new developments and visual gags I couldn't have anticipated, and as the first person to read it I feel like he's writing it just for me. That's a remarkably intimate experience.

It's a real joy to see a new script land in my inbox, and more often than not I'm reading it at midnight on my phone, eager to get to work the next day

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