Review: PAPER GIRLS #30 and the Pain of Nostalgia

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Well, this is it. After nearly four years, Paper Girls #30 signals the end to the strange, time- and space-traversing adventures of four girls from the town of Stony Stream. It’s scantly the longest run in comic book history. Regardless, this story grew into an expansive, always surprising—and surprisingly touching—coming-of-age tale.

If you read the previous issue, then you’ve already seen the climax of the story. It’s now the morning after Halloween and the girls are back  home, as if nothing ever happened. Rather than the time-traveling action that became the series’ trademark, Paper Girls #30 chooses to end the story on a somewhat quieter note.

In an ordinary review, I’d break down the issue, examine what works and doesn’t work with the writing and craft, discuss the artwork and whether it illustrates the narrative well…and so on. This book somewhat resists that approach, though. Not least because it’s the final chapter in an ongoing story that, in universe, likely transpired over the course of a matter of hours (it’s hard to tell, time travel is like that, after all). Here, though, I think it’s best to take a different approach.

Paper Girls #30 is, on one hand, a departure from much of the series in terms of setting and concept. What it does instead is concisely tie together the themes present throughout the narrative in a surprisingly poignant manner.

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Age and the passing of time are at the core of this series. The conflict between teens and the Old Timers; characters running into themselves at different chronological points and places; the idea of time itself as a fluid and ever-changing dimension; all meet at that key intersection.

The Pain of Homecoming

The word “nostalgia” is derived from two Greek words: nóstos, meaning “homecoming,” and álgos, meaning “pain” or “ache.” It’s literally the pain of returning to the past, knowing you can never really recapture it; you can never really be part of that world again.

Paper Girls plays with this idea, supposing a world in which you can revisit the past through time travel. Even then, the central thesis rings true. You can visit different times and experiences, but you can never really be who you were at the time again.

The characters themselves are on the cusp of leaving childhood behind. They find themselves caught between the security of childhood and the independence of being an adult. That’s an exciting—and terrifying—time in one’s life. You have the sensation of being caught between two different realities. You’re eager for the freedom of adulthood, but in exchange, must lose a different kind of freedom you can only really have as a child. The tragedy of it is that the latter is something you only really appreciate once it’s gone.

Throughout the series, the girls become unwitting observers to a generational war that plays out over eons. Until the climax, they never seem to really know who they can trust. Is it the coolly authoritative Old Timers? The passionate, rebellious youths? Through it all, their express intent is to make it home alive; to return to their own proverbial Kansas and security of Aunt Em and Uncle Henry’s farm. By the book’s end, though, they find the idea of going back impossible. They’ve been outside the cave, and what they found changed them so profoundly that they can’t imagine losing what they’ve gained.

The Kids are Alright

Even upon return to Stony Stream in 1988, despite not remembering their adventure…they can never really return to the people they were when they left. In Paper Girls #30, we see that Erin, KJ, Tiffany, and Mac have indeed changed from who they were at the series’ beginning. That’s not a bad thing; growth is a positive thing. It’s a matter of how we contextualize it that matters.

Each of the four paper girls begins this narrative in search of something. It might be identity, or purpose, or even acceptance of the inevitability of time itself. By the book’s end, each character’s arc is complete. Even if they don’t recall the events of the story, they’ve still undergone that journey and come out the other end different from the girls they were when we began.

The conclusion illustrated in Paper Girls #30, thus, suggests that their change was inevitable. If they don’t remember the events that transpired, then the development they experience occurs naturally, as time ceaselessly marches on.

 You Can Never Go Home Again

It’s easy to draw comparisons between a series like Paper Girls and, say, a show like Stranger Things. They’re both about a group of suburban kids in the 1980s who find themselves drawn into a supernatural adventure. The difference is that, in Stranger Things, it’s the adventure that molds the characters’ story arcs. In Paper Girls, though, the adventure molds how we, as readers, interpret the characters’ story arcs.

A large part of the series’ appeal is the sense of nostalgia it inspires. It’s not necessarily a specific nostalgia for the setting or the ‘80s gadgets; it’s a deeper, more permeating sense. It derives, I’d argue, from looking back at adolescence as we now think of it, as some bizarre and often horrible, yet irresistibly appealing adventure, rather than as the day-to-day tedium it seemed at the time we lived it. Like the characters here, we nonetheless come out of it very different from who we were when we started.

From the first issue through to Paper Girls #30, we get a lens through which we can observe the abstract notion that is growing up. It gives us the tools to examine, contextualize and understand a process that we never fully notice until it’s already passed. In that way, Paper Girls allows us to wrestle with nostalgia, without being subsumed by it. We have the rare treat to examine the past as a sweet memory, without overlooking the bad parts.

In the end, we know that regardless of what happens, whether we’re spirited away on a grand adventure or live out another boring day in the ‘burbs, change is inevitable. Try as we might to hang on, things are going to slip away. The best we can do is embrace that change, and keep going. We can move forward with the knowledge that, while the past is nice to visit, we can’t—and shouldn’t—long to stay.

Paper Girls #30 is now available at your local comic book shop.

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David DeCorte
David DeCorte covers comic book, entertainment, pop culture, and business news for multiple outlets. He is also a sci-fi writer, and is currently working on his first full-length book. Originally from San Diego, he now lives in Tampa.