Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Diana Nock’s The Intrepid Girlbot is set in a world without dialogue. There are no word balloons, and thus no interaction with other characters in a traditional sense. There are some sound effects: Robots ping and clang, animals snarl and growl. But there is no talking. It’s the webcomic version of a silent movie, with a vaguely sepia-toned color palette to match.
There’s hardly any emotional cues as well. Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin could, at least, convey the enormity of their shenanigans through a double take or a shocked expression, completed with bugged eyes. The Girlbot, on the other hand, has a permanent look affixed on her face: the blank “o_o” emoticon. She is, after all, a mechanical person. She’s not the only one either. Other robots have faces that smile and are more pleasant. And yet, these robots are creepier than the Girlbot, mainly because their expressions refuse to change as well. They go about their daze with a smile on their face, even when there’s danger. Deep down, their emotions are a mystery behind a painted facade, like the creepy, unblinking doll head that we glimpse from time to time.
It’s interesting, then, that most of Girlbot’s emoting is through her arms. Unlike her legs (or wheel), they can stretch to ridiculous lengths and form shapes. When she’s anxious, they flail about in the air. When she’s angry, they take on angles that are rigid and severe. The movement of these arms modify her unchanging expression. Depending on the situation, it can be seen as surprise, happiness, or fear.
The world that Girlbot lives in is a lonely one. Beyond just the worldlessness, the world of The Intrepid Girlbot feels remote and isolated. Girlbot lives in a tiny house surrounded by desolate plains with scattered enclaves of wildlife. Butterflies flit here and there. A family of raccoons live in the nearby woods.
Girlbot, though, is dangerous to organic matter. A simple, loving touch from her cupped hands can electrocute small, innocent creatures. One such creature is a poor little raccoon who Girlbot has decided to shower with love. Instead, she showers him with pain. The raccoon is burned to a crisp. There’s a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster aspect to Girlbot, except that she’s tiny and cute. Fortunately, Girlbot has plenty of devices on hand, such as a case for healing.
That’s not only wonderful toy that Girlbot has at her disposal. She also has a somewhat parental figure in the form of two large arms that extend out of her house. (Or … perhaps it is the house?) There’s also a room with old robots that our poor raccoon stumbles into. There are clues here and there to Girlbot’s past, placed in unlikely spots around the webcomic like the mysterious Dharma symbols on Lost. The strangeness eventually comes to the forefront in Vol. 2, when Girlbot’s dream begins to reveal her past, as well as the fate of the world. (Yes, robots do dream of electronic … people.)
Anyway, the raccoon gets a significant upgrade, becoming a cyborg with Teflon skin and laser eyes. Now, more robot than critter, the raccoon escapes, only to find that his upgrades hurts the ones he loves. The segment where the raccoon returns to his colony is a little confusing because all the raccoons tend to look the same. (It must be their masks.) His life now ruined, the raccoon sniffs out Girlbot using his new bionic nose looking for one thing: revenge.
And so it goes in the world of The Intrepid Girlbot. It’s a cycle of mystery, discovery, and unlikely friendships. The Girlbot teeters at the edge of the uncanny valley. Spend any time with her, though, and you come to realize why she’s a sympathetic figure.