Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Comic book romances can be downright embarrassing. In the Silver Age, Lois Lane spent all her time scheming to get married to Superman while sniping at her rival Lana Lang. During the Claremont years, the soap opera-caliber drama in Uncanny X-Men generated as much angst as the mutant-prejudice angle. It works because the audiences were, respectively, small children and teenagers. The potential embarrassment of rejection and the alien nature of girls or boys really is all you know about love at that age. As an adult, however, it’s hard not to read these comics and go, “Why are these adult characters all acting like a bunch of 8-year-olds?”
You know when it’s not quite so embarrassing? When the characters themselves are 8 years old. Yale Stewart’s JL8 (formerly known as Little League) envisions the members of the Justice League as little kids. I don’t know how he gets away with it, as DC Comics already has its own “superheroes as little kids” concept with Tiny Titans (the publisher doesn’t appear to mind, though, as the webcomic seems to have led to a deal for a Superman book). The characters of JL8 look less abstract, though, resembling characters in an ’80s Saturday morning cartoon. (Justice League Babies?) Or, perhaps even more appropriately, they all seem to have leaped off the same character sheet as Art Adams’ X-Babies.
JL8 recently finished a storyline in which Diana invites her friends to her birthday party. She’s working through her issues of growing up: She’s destined to be a princess, but she hates idea of being someone who, in pop culture, has to be rescued. Meanwhile, he best friend Karen (Power Girl) feels inferior to the prettier, more mature Diana … especially because Karen is crushing on the coolest guy in the school, Clark. She has good reason to feel suspicious, as it turns out Clark really is smitten with Diana, but he’s never expressed his feelings because he’s awkward around girls. Hanging around is Bruce. He is Clark’s best friend, but also likes everyone in his little group. He observes the situation so that no one gets hurt emotionally.
JL8 probably counts as fan fiction; the characters don’t act much like their counterparts in the New 52 — incidentally, the New 52 costumes are donned, discarded and critiqued in an earlier storyline – but they do ring true some earlier incarnations. How long has it been since Superman and Batman were best friends in the comics? Not since Crisis on Infinite Earths, I’ll wager. The canonical Batman and Superman of the past 30 years seem to tolerate each other on the level of co-workers, but at the end of the day they’re going home to Gotham and Metropolis, where their real friends live. No more hanging around the Fortress of Solitude to check in on their Super-Sons! (Which … seriously … is a far more fanfiction-y concept than JL8.)
Admittedly, a major part of JL8‘s appeal are the drawings of familiar characters as youngsters. (Li’l Luthor has hair! Li’l Joker’s wearing a hoodie!) However, they’re also great characters, and their relationships are believable and heartwarming. There’s a scene, for example, where Bruce finds out that it’s Karen, not Diana, who has eyes for Clark (Diana, in fact, has been actively trying to get something started between Karen and Clark during the entire party). He suggests that Clark not give his present, a very personal comic he drew (suggested by bookstore owner Neil Gaiman, and inspired by Daniel of The Endless). He’s going to have to switch it with a copy of Anya’s Ghost, lest he end up breaking Karen’s heart.
Clark really wants to give his homemade comic book to Diana, as it will reveal his feelings for her … but deep down, he’s Superman, and he doesn’t like seeing anyone get hurt. Both he and Bruce know there’s only one real solution.
Even if these guys weren’t wearing superhero pajamas, the story of kids being kids would still be super-enjoyable. The DC references are just cherry on the sundae.
JL8 is an all-ages drama that you rarely see unfold in comics anymore, what with our heroes too busy punching each other in the face to really hang around together. Plus, the Lasso of Truth gets used in a game of Truth or Dare. Because, duh-doy.