Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Conventional wisdom has it that free webcomics are supposed to be leading us to print versions that we’re willing to pay for. In the case of K. Lynn Smith and Plume, it’s worked the other way around for me. I was unaware of Smith’s webcomic until it was announced as a series for the reinvigorated Devil’s Due, but the concept – and the samples I saw of Smith’s art – grabbed me. After reading the two issues out so far, however, I got impatient for more and headed to the web version.
The title of the comic comes from something the main character’s father once told her: “Revenge is like a plume of black smoke. It seems tangible, but when you reach for it, you’re grasping nothing but air.” That – and the story’s opening on the main character’s holding a gun and surrounded by dead bodies – is a huge clue about where the story is headed, but it doesn’t reveal the most interesting part of this supernatural Western. Vesper Grey is the daughter of a treasure-hunting archeologist who’s given her a magic amulet he found. The amulet is attached to the soul of a young man name Corrick, who’s received supernatural powers along with the obligation to protect whomever wears the talisman. No spoilers, but it’s not hard to predict where the revenge element will come in, even though that hasn’t explicitly been revealed by the second issue.
Except for Corrick and some magical artifacts, the world of Plume appears to be the Wild West that readers are familiar with. Smith gives it a touch of magic to help it stand out from other Westerns, but the comic’s real draw is Smith’s skill at creating memorable characters and making readers care about them. She hooked me with humor, often just by way of expressions and body language, and that’s what kept me going through the two, printed issues. There was so much foreshadowing around the revenge plot though that I got anxious waiting to see it start and hit the Internet.
If Smith hooked me in the first two issues with the charm of her drawings and characters, she reeled me in with the third issue and what she’s posted so far from the fourth. It’s not a spoiler to say that Something Awful happens and sends Vesper on a quest for revenge. What compels me to keep reading is the groundwork Smith laid in those first two issues. The next part of the story isn’t completely dark, but it’s bad enough that I can’t quit reading while Vesper’s still there. We may have already been told how ethereal revenge is, but Vesper’s going to have to learn it the hard way; not just from a proverb her dad once told her. I’m afraid for her and the journey she’ll have to go on to learn that, but I find myself committed to taking it with her.
The single-issue format is an odd one for this story. Plume is an adventure comic, but not like any I’ve seen from Devil’s Due in the past. Smith’s work has an emotional component and an affecting look that’s manga-inspired by way of Disney. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see it published in graphic novel form by someone like First Second or Archaia. There’s nothing wrong with releasing it this way from Devil’s Due, it’s just unexpected. But then, so is the comic. In a way, that makes this a perfect publisher and format for it. And though I’ll still be reading ahead online, I’ll also keep buying it in print to show my support. Not just for Plume, but for Smith, from whom I expect many more great things.