Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Zack Morrison’s Paranatural weaves a tale of ghosts and the people who bust them. It centers on a team that acts a lot like exterminators, trapping pesky spirits in special tools. In a way, it resembles property created in the 1980s that also centers on a plucky team with a catchy theme song that once vanquished a puffy, marshmallow-like foe.
I am talking, of course, about Dragon Ball. I don’t think it’s an accident. This is, after all, a webcomic where there’s a dojo in which old men throw around fireballs and where one kid has supernatural powers that cause spiky hair. The characters also look pretty similar to Akira Toriyama’s style — cartoony, somewhat-squarish and exaggerated during the big action sequences.
Paranatural also strikes the same tone. There’s a lot of world-building going in this comic; it’s filled with secret societies and weird rules about the different spectral beings. It can be a little confusing, but it’s also firmly tongue-in-cheek. Just like how serious moments in Dragon Ball are frequently undermined by the presence of cartoony animal people, Paranatural frequently gets cheeky … like banishing a troublesome ghost into a toilet plunger.
Paranatural centers on Max, a grumpy, bat-wielding kid who begrudgingly moves into the town of Mayview with his weird family. Pretty quickly, though, he discovers he has a terrible gift: the ability to do sweet flips. Also, he can see ghosts. Once that gift is on, it can’t stop. He sees ghosts everywhere: hanging out in the streets, sitting on people’s heads, hovering outside windows. It sets him on edge.
Also setting him on edge: The non-ghost world is no less surreal. Everyone at his new school seems to want a piece of him. Immediately, he antagonizes the school’s bully, Johnny … who has a very zen approach to physical threats. The Journalism Club, headed by the nutty Suzy, is desperate for members and tries in vain to recruit him. But the most mysterious is a group known as the Activity Club, a group of kids that vanquishes dangerous spirits. They are: Isabel, a grim, competent fighter who has power over paper; Ed, Isabel’s capable sycophant who wields ink; and Isaac, an outsider who undermines the team’s authority and can generate lightning clouds. Paper and ink may seem a little lame at first, but Isabel and Ed transform their weapons into myriad objects that would make Green Lantern jealous (a ridable origami horse, for example). They’re led by Mr. Spender, a teacher with sunglasses who has the flair for the dramatic.
Max himself discovers that he can use magnetism like a junior-grade Magneto. It’s all too overwhelming, though, and he tries to distance himself from all this Activity Club nuttiness. Eventually, however, Max is more or less forced into the Activity Club when a malevolent creature attacks his family’s business. And from there, a whole new world opens up for Max — one with mysterious shortcuts, possessed weapons and snakelike trains.
It’s a webcomic that’s fun, action-packed and visually inventive. There are a lot of enjoyable character moments, too. Grumpy as he is, it often feels like Max and the similarly surly Isaac are the only sane people in a world gone loony. The side characters are so crazy that it’s always a joy to see Max bounce off them in bewilderment. Johnny, the bully, is especially a delight, and he delivers some of the comic’s best one-liners: “On a scale of no to yes … yes.” “I just seen some freaky sights, yo!” He’s terrible as a physical threat, but aces as comedy relief.