Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
As Paul Tobin has shared his list of favorite female characters, I was especially keen to see how he’d write one of mine. I was a big fan of The Six Million Dollar Man back in the day, and 11-year-old me was deeply affected by the tragic love story of Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers. For those who don’t know, Steve and Jaime (I called them Steve and Jaime) dated before Jaime was in a skydiving accident that nearly took her life and did give her amnesia. Steve convinced his superiors at the Office of Scientific Information to save Jaime’s life with bionic implants, spinning her off into her own series, but without any memories of being in love with poor Steve and oh, the heartbreak!
My having a huge crush on actress Lindsay Wagner may have also helped my interest in The Bionic Woman, but I’m fairly certain that I fell in love with Jaime first. The question I had going into the comic book series was whether or not I’d be as haunted by comic book images as I was by those TV shows. Or if Tobin even wanted to tell that kind of story in the first place. Not knowing what to expect, I plunged in with as open a mind as possible.
Although Tobin references Jaime Sommers’ backstory (and Austin makes a cameo in the fourth issue), the focus is – in fact – not at all on them. I think that’s wise. The melodrama of the TV shows was helped by lens filters, swelling music, and actors staring longingly at the camera, but none of that’s going to play in a comic book. Instead, Tobin keeps the series focused on the spy stuff. Sommers is no longer with the Office of Scientific Intelligence, but working on her own. Her break with OSI hasn’t been completely defined, but seems amicable, even if the organization didn’t really have much input about her leaving. They’re not hunting her down at any rate. This, too, is wise.
I would’ve gotten bored quickly by a story of Sommers on the run from OSI, being pursued by her bionic ex-boyfriend. That drama’s too easy. Tobin goes for an all-new story with all-new villains: a criminal organization called the Mission that harvests body parts from unwilling donors and implants them into wealthy customers. Recently, the Mission has been going after people with bionic implants, starting with OSI’s earliest experiments and moving up to Sommers herself.
I was surprised by how capable the Mission is. At first it seemed like kind of a lame idea for an evil company and that Sommers would make short work of them, but although her superpowers make her extremely competent against their field agents, she’s still only one woman, working relatively alone (except for a weapons dealer who’s on the run with her). The Mission simply has more resources than Sommers, as well as the intelligence to keep her in the dark about the organization’s size and structure. In other words, they’re smart villains and worthy opponents of someone as capable as our hero.
And Sommers is very capable. Tobin has ramped up her abilities from the TV show. Or maybe that happened in The Bionic Man comic, I don’t know. However it happened, in addition to speed, strength and extraordinary hearing, Sommers can now change her appearance, shoot miniature robots out of her arm and connect directly to the Internet from her brain. Honestly, I’m not on board with at least two of those enhancements, but so far Tobin hasn’t let them overwhelm the story. I’m most able to accept the Internet connection, partly because I think it’s kind of cool, but mostly because Sommers still has to sift through information at human speeds. There appear to be similar limitations on the other improvements too, so I’ll deal.
I’m not fond of the art on the series so far. Leno Carvalho drew the first three issues and Juan Antonio Ramirez drew the fourth. Ramirez has the more developed style, but both have some maturing to do. Poses are stiff and faces are awkward throughout, but the there’s a particularly painful panel in the first issue where Sommers is reading in her underwear with her bionics showing. Never mind that her bionics are always covered by skin in every other instance; what really bothers me is that there’s no transition between metal and flesh in the drawing. Carvalho just stops rendering mechanical details partway up the limbs, leaving the colorist to define, unconvincingly, where the bionics stop and Sommers’ body begins.
Despite that, though, I’m going to keep with it. Both artists are pretty clear storytellers, so even if the art isn’t as attractive as I’d like, it doesn’t get in the way of my reading. Most significantly though, Tobin’s feel for action and his characteristic humor makes Sommers and her supporting cast entertaining enough that I want to spend more time with them. He also keeps throwing in more and more references to the TV shows with each issue. We’ve already seen Austin and next issue promises Oscar Goldman. I’m hoping that Bigfoot and the Fembots aren’t far behind.