Introduction: The Artist’s Statement
One of the most heralded traits of Brian Vaughan’s graphic novel Paper Girls is its dedication to immersing its characters and its readers in the setting of the story: the early morning hours of November 1, 1988. The comic’s pages are flooded with references to the time period from the political landscape to entertainment to even the clothes the characters wear.
On the one hand, utilizing pop culture references is an ingenious method to build a connection with the audience. This is, in fact, a widely used technique across many disciplines other than comics and literature. Whether it’s to make scientific concepts more accessible to the general audience (Chandrasekaran) or to help teachers connect real-world topics to students’ lives to keep them engaged (Mazzola and Baldwin), anyone can make a pop culture reference to connect an audience to the topic at hand. For Paper Girls, all the references give the comic a stamp of authenticity as each of the main squad constantly refer to what they know to make sense of the crazy sci-fi shenanigans that befall them in the comic. One example of this is when the girls stumble upon the futuristic pod in the basement of the construction site. When KJ comments that the parachute feels like skin, Tiffany starts to go back upstairs protesting, “That’s some Texas Chainsaw bull—-,” connecting the feeling of skin to the gore of the famous horror film.
However, there is a negative side to using so many references. According to Allan Graham in his book, Intertextuality,
“Literary texts possess meaning; readers extract that meaning from them. We call the process of extracting meaning from texts reading or interpretation…Works of literature, after all, are built from systems, codes and traditions established by previous works of literature…The act of reading, theorists claim, plunges us into a network of textual relations. To interpret a text, to discover its meaning, or meanings, is to trace those relations” (1).
A large part of discovering the meaning of a given text is to trace the relations between the text in front of you and whatever other media or event its contents reference. Without the proper tools or context needed to trace these relations, intertextuality falls flat and leaves the reader neutral and completely missing the reference at best, or utterly confused and divorced from the text at worst. Mazzola and Baldwin warn against using too many cultural references in the classroom, advising to “never make pop culture references the sole method by which you relate the class topics to the real world for the students.” It works the same way for literature and engaging readers. If the story only relies on references to set the scene, the author runs the risk of decreased impact and reader engagement. Paper Girls does not make this mistake since its other major focus is on sci-fi elements like alien invasion and time travel, but it does make references the other main foundation that reader engagement is built on because of another drawing factor: nostalgia for the 1980’s.
Nostalgia is another technique used to gain reader engagement, drawing on their memories of ‘a simpler time’ and invoking the positive feelings of the past. Nostalgia as a literary technique has a relatively young history, with its roots being traced back to the Romantic authors of the 19th century (Fischer). However, it is more recently recognizable in the realm of film adaptations, where “nostalgia can be an adaptive impulse” to retell well-known stories and polish up older versions (Kennedy-Karpat). To give a contemporary connection (just this once, I promise), Disney’s live action remakes of older cartoons like Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast rely heavily on the fanbase’s strong emotional ties to the original releases in order to gain support, draw crowds, and sell merchandise for the new movies. Paper Girls employs nostalgia mainly through its visuals. All of the characters wear popular styles from the 80’s – Doc Martins boots, big fluffy hair, bomber jackets, jean jackets, graphic tees with the famous band ‘Guns N Roses’ on them, even a pair of Air Jordan sneakers (which were expensive even back then, running just about $100). All of the houses are furnished with items that could’ve been in any 80’s household – a calendar sporting panels from the comic “The Far Side,” an NES console next to the TV, even a corded landline that Tiffany is shown to move to her living room to talk with whoever is on the other line. This sets the scene and fully immerses readers who saw these objects themselves in the nostalgia of dressing the same way or using the same objects.
All the specific references in Paper Girls serve to wonderfully ground the story in its time period, but those who never lived in the 1980’s don’t have the same context behind the references as those who did. For example, there are a few references to the presidential election of 1988, where George H. W. Bush ran against Michael Dukakis, scattered throughout the book. A poster on the side of the street advertising the Bush campaign sets up the political landscape early on in the comic, but the mention of Dukakis comes out of nowhere at the end of Chapter 2 as Alice’s reason for why the aliens are invading. Without the proper tools, knowledge, or external resources, newer generations will not understand why a certain historical event or cultural icon is being referenced nor their significance in why they were connected to the situation in the first place.
So I decided to give the proper context as best I could in the form of a handy-dandy blog post guide.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of EVERY SINGLE LITTLE THING that appears in the comic as I will only be covering volume 1, but I did cover many of the major references needed to understand the cultural context forming the backbone of this story in chronological order of when they appear in the narrative. I also took the liberty of translating all the section names written in the alien language to help organize the comic into ‘chapters’ so that you can read along. By all means, if one of the references intrigues you, do further research on the topic on your own time! Hopefully this list will give you the jumping-off point you need to learn something new.
Chapter 1 – The Chapter with No Name (Seriously, what’s up with that? Every other section has a name.)
- Erin’s Dream
- Christa McAuliffe – She’s depicted as an astronaut with wings because she was a teacher that got to be one of the astronauts that flew aboard the Challenger, unfortunately she losing her life when the shuttle blew up.
- The US and the USSR were still in the middle of the Cold War during 1988, specifically the Space Race where both sides sought to outmatch each other in space exploration and nuclear development. This lead to a general fear of nuclear war, causing many schools to implement nuke drills alongside the regular fire drills and nukes to be at the forefront of everyone’s concerns regarding foreign countries. There are quite a few references to the Russians throughout the comic, all casting them in a negative light as the reason for any general bad thing happening for one reason or another.
- Erin’s House
- The poster over her bed looks similar to a Simon and Garfunkle poster, who were a popular musician duo.
- The poster just to the left of her bed is a movie poster for The Monster Squad, released in 1987, a story about how five teens go up against famous monsters like Dracula who are in search of an amulet.
- The cartoon panel on the calendar is called “The Far Side,” a single-panel comic series by Gary Larson that ran from 1979 – 1995.
- The Cleveland Preserver’s headline references the Iran-Iraq war, which was a long bloody conflict between Iran and Iraq that lasted from 1980 – 1988. What’s interesting is that the war supposedly ended in August 1988, yet for Paper Girls, the paper is reporting that no success is being made in the peace talks between the two nations, implying that the conflict is still ongoing even when the story takes place in November.
- On the Street
- One of the teens is dressed up as Freddy Krueger, the infamous nightmare killer from the movie series A Nightmare on Elm Street.
- On Mac’s hip is a device called a walkman, which was a portable tape player that anyone could plug headphones into to listen to music. Another character who you might have seen with this device is Starlord from Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy.
- When Mac calls one of the teens an “AIDS patient,” she’s making a triple insult with one of the most infamous medical scares in the last fifty years. During the 80’s and even extending into the 90’s, there was an AIDS epidemic spreading across the country. While it’s not a fun disease for anyone to have, people started to solely blame its quick spread on homosexual men because of their ‘unnatural’ sexual behaviors. Since implying a man was gay was used as an insult back then, Mac is insulting Lucas’ health, sexuality, and manhood in a single reference.
- Tiffany says she got her Realistic TRC-218 CB walkie talkies from Radio Shack, which was the one-stop shop for anything related to technology, gadgets, and electronic parts.
- Newspaper deliveries were on the decline because of TV. Two of the most popular sentiments going around were that, as Mac says, “We pretty much used up all the trees on the planet,” and that “video killed the radio star.”
- The Today Show is a daily news and commentary show on TV that has changed hosts many times over the years. Its hosts during the comic were Jane Pauley and Brian Gumbel.
- Tiffany doesn’t trust the police or 911 since they didn’t believe her when she told them that a sketchy lady was following her down the street. While this could have a race factor behind it, another major factor to consider was the common approach to how to deal with your kids. Back in the 80’s, no one really cared about supervising their children. Kids would just get home from school, go play with their friends, and come back home for dinner. The parents wouldn’t know where their kids were, nor would they supervise them because nobody cared. Hence these kids were dubbed the “latch-key kids.” However, later in Chapter 2 we get a confirmation that the girls’ neighborhood does at least have a neighborhood watch, so the girls are supposed to have some protection if they go outside.
- The Construction Site
- TV sets used to have a distinct hum to them that’s different from static – an electronic hum at the loudest, line noise at the quietest.
- The ‘flesh’ sheet triggers an association with the famous slasher horror film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, released in 1974.
- The future pod could have had multiple sources of inspiration, ranging from the lunar landers to the Daleks from BBC’s Doctor Who to the gritty intricate designs of Star Wars spacecraft like the Millennium Falcon.
- NASA was indeed using space shuttles by the 80’s, which has become an iconic spacecraft design.
- War of the Worlds was originally a science fiction book written by H. G. Wells in 1897. The reason why it’s so famous is because an actor named Orson Welles dramatized the novel over a radio broadcast in 1938. The people who tuned in towards the middle of the broadcast did not get the disclaimer at the beginning that this was a science fiction story, causing a panic that the story’s events about a reporter reporting on an alien invasion were actually real.
- “Shop class” is referring to woodworking class, which was a required class in most middle and high schools across the nation at the time.
- E.T. – It’s a famous movie about an alien who comes to earth with a glowing finger. There’s not much else to be said here. Go look it up if you don’t know it.
- The actual name for the comedy show KJ references is TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes
- Light pollution was also a problem back in the 80’s, but only in more developed areas like the cities. If you lived in the suburbs, it depended on how far away you lived from the city.
Chapter 2 – Nostalgia is Death
- The Neighborhood
- “George Bush for President” sign – 1988 elections between George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis haven’t happened yet, so there’s still signs for the campaign out in the yard.
- The weird clown’s head in the grass with the cone hat next to it was actually a sprinkler toy called a Fun Fountain. You would put the clown’s head on top of the sprinkler, forcing the water to shoot out from the top of the head and suspending the hat in the air to rain water down on the kids below.
- Jude’s bag of goodies is actually a collection of tech through the ages: Tiffany’s second walkie talkie, a corded landline, an early cellular mobile (the clunky box cell phone), two different models of flip phones, a cordless landline, an iPad, and an unknown device that could either be a mouse or a futuristic phone.
- Erin’s House
- Mac is wearing Doc Martins, a popular boot brand back in the day.
- “Rocky Dennis disease” is referring to an incredibly rare sclerotic bone disorder called craniodiaphyseal dysplasia, of which Roy Lee “Rocky” Dennis is its most famous holder. His story did indeed inspire the movie Mask.
- The emergency broadcast tone Mac refers to was an emergency system sent via TV and the phone lines in the event of an emergency (aka nukes). Usually the common encounter with this system was a reassurance that this was just a test of the system followed by either a sustained blaring tone or a series of blaring tones.
- A shillelagh is a wooden walking stick mixed with a club knot on the end, courtesy of the Irish.
- Back on the Street
- Russians sending nuclear mutants from Chernobyl – Chernobyl is a large nuclear power plant in Ukraine that was under the control of the USSR during the 80’s. It had a famous reactor meltdown in 1986, causing radiation and nuclear waste to leak out into the surrounding environment.
- Apple did indeed exist during the 80’s due to the fact that the company had been releasing technology since 1976. At the time, the Macintosh computer models were big, clunky boxes, but they were a far cry from the computers that took up entire rooms in previous decades. Computers were generally only found in the workplace or school at this time; the big shift to having home computers would happen later in the mid 90’s.
- The Star Trek IV reference is an accurate summary of the movie, but the reason it happens is funnier – the main characters go to all that effort to time travel via slingshot around the sun so that they can save the whales, and by saving the whales, the crew saves the galaxy.
- Peggy Sue Got Married is a movie released in 1986 depicting how a woman who regrets her life choices finds herself traveling back to her past to change her decisions.
- Siskel & Ebert were a famous movie reviewer duo who would review the latest movies and give them either a thumbs up or a thumbs down and explain why.
- Wallace’s shirt depicts the very famous rock band, Guns N Roses
- Wallace’s shoes are Air Jordans, an incredibly expensive brand back in the day. A pair of those sneakers would run you about $100 in 1988, which is expensive even for today’s money.
- Drakkar Noir is a pleasant-smelling men’s cologne, and the company still sells products today.
- Mac’s House
- Alice’s alcohol brand is Rumple Minze, for any one who can’t read the label.
- A.A. stands for Alcoholics Anonymous, a nationwide alcoholic recovery program that’s still in operation to this day.
- Here’s the out-of-the-blue mention of Dukakis, where Alice blames him and people like him for the current state of the world at the time.
- Mac’s gun is a mini barrel revolver, reminiscent of the revolvers of cowboys out in the west.
Chapter 3 – Death is Forever
- The Football Field
- Terry is dressed in a Terminator costume, referencing the first movie released in 1984 that would later get an entire series dedicated to the franchise.
- Gabs refusing Terry’s advances is a trope reversal of popular media at the time that showed the starring heterosexual couple get together because of a crisis.
- Back to the Girls
- MacGyver was a character in a popular TV show of the same name that would take ordinary objects and combine them in unique ways to create useful items, frequently weapons, to help solve his problems.
- The car that the girls are driving is called a station wagon. Its most recognizable form started getting released in the 1970’s, but saw a surge in popularity in the 80’s to where it was one of the most well-known cars. The hype died off in the 90’s, which is probably why Tiff calls it ancient.
- Erin’s Dream 2: Electric Boogaloo/Hallucination
- The man that talks to Erin is Ronald Reagan, former president of the US. He actually did have an assassination attempt via gunshot and survived.
- The space battle going on above Reagan and Erin ice skating is a depiction of the Space Race. A US space shuttle with lasers and rockets is fighting a swarm of rockets labeled CCCP, which stands for the Central Committee of the Communist Party and is the Russian abbreviation for the USSR since those are the actual letters they use in their alphabet.
- There are two major Charlie Brown references for the two major films about the Peanuts characters: the sad Christmas tree from A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) and the pumpkin patch from It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966)
Chapter 4 – Forever is Now
- The Antagonists Talk
- The old-timey rotary phone with the weird eye in the middle looks like an antique, but it would have been feasible to still use rotary phones in 1988. The late 80’s were a transition period from rotaries to button phones since all rotary production stopped in 1986, but rotaries were still largely in use during the story since the production cease only happened a few years prior.
- Public Enemy was a popular hip-hop group founded in 1985
- We don’t get much context, but “C-Day” sounds a lot like “D-Day” from World War II, where the operation to take back France from the Germans via the beach run was implemented with many casualties, but great success.
- In the Sewers
- The Editrix looks like a Beholder from the popular table-top RPG Dungeons and Dragons (which was created in the 70’s) and no one can tell me otherwise.
- The game Tiffany’s playing is called Arkanoid, created for the NES gaming system in 1986 with a special controller that had a knob you could twist to make playing the game easier. You move the platform across the screen, trying to bounce the ball so that you hit all the colorful bricks to clear the level.
- People with cord landlines wanted to bring the phone with them so that they could talk to the other person longer or with more privacy, but were limited by the distance they could go from the phone, so people got creative with ways to bring the phone to their desired location.
- In one of the Arkanoid panels, Tiff’s eating a bag of chips, a Coke, and a Hot Pocket.
- The Woods
- A bat mitzvah is a coming-of-age party in Judaism, signaling a child’s transition to taking responsibility for their lives and actions.
- KJ labels MRI’s as futuristic because that medical technology was still relatively new during the 80’s. Not many people had experienced them yet, but the tech was in use at the time.
- Seven Minutes of/in Heaven is a party game where two people are chosen to go into a closet and stay there for seven minutes, after which they come out of the closet to let the next pair go in. Whatever happens in the closet happens, and it can range from silence to having a nice conversation to full-on makeout sessions.
Chapter 5 – Now is Gone
- The mesosphere is the middle layer of the Earth’s atmosphere.
- “Ex-lax” is a laxative to help you poop, and it’s still used today. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anything for how popular the phrase was, so I don’t know if this was actually used or if this is just one of KJ’s creative complements.
- Apple Records also existed, and they were the record company that sponsored the Beatles.
- On a similar note, John Lennon was a member of the Beatles who was assassinated in 1980.
- Adult Erin has an older iPhone model in her pocket, though I can’t tell what model from the limited view. It’s safe to say that the girls have jumped about 20 – 25 years into the future.
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Chandrasekaran, Arun Richard. “Pop-Culture References in Peer-Reviewed Scientific Articles.” Matter, vol. 4, no. 3, Mar. 2021, pp. 759–60, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.matt.2021.02.009. Accessed 7 Dec. 2022.
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Kennedy-Karpat, Colleen. “Adaptation and Nostalgia.” Adaptation, vol. 13, no. 3, Nov. 2020, pp. 283–94, https://doi.org/10.1093/adaptation/apaa025. Accessed 7 Dec. 2022.
Mazzola, Joseph J., and Nicholas A. F. Baldwin. “Building the Field of Dreams: Pop Culture as a Means of Reaching Students.” Industrial and Organizational Psychology, vol. 13, no. 4, Dec. 2020, pp. 555–58, https://doi.org/10.1017/iop.2020.102. Accessed 7 Dec. 2022.