As kids, we all dreamed of the day when something extraordinary would happen. Maybe we finally received our Hogwarts letter (fourteen years later, I’m still waiting). Maybe you prayed for a sudden alien invasion where you could pick up a blaster and become the world’s savior. This dreaming is completely normal. In fact, it is so ordinary that it has inspired an entire subgenre of science fiction and fantasy. The Kids-On-Bikes genre sees small town American teens tackling supernatural problems. With entries as popular as STRANGER THINGS, THE GOONIES, and the inimitable IT, Kids-on-Bikes has become a stand-out narrative. Playing into this popularity, Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang have worked with Image Comics to add their voice to the narrative. PAPER GIRLS has quickly become a crowd favorite.

Ask nearly anyone working at ComicsVerse, and we’ll tell you we love PAPER GIRLS. First published in October 2015, the series has fed into the growing boom for Kids-on-Bikes stories. Starring four preteen girls, PAPER GIRLS quickly evolves from a typical post-Halloween paper route into a romp through the fabric of space-time. The series is bonkers in the best way, and critical response has come in highly positive. With two Eisner awards already under its belt, Vaughan and Chiang are still running strong, with a fourth volume set to release in April 2018.

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What makes PAPER GIRLS special isn’t the way it plays into the Kids-on-Bikes genre. In many ways, it acts as a deconstruction of it. PAPER GIRLS adapts time-honored tropes for modern appeal. However, it also subverts many of these tropes to create a more well-rounded narrative. With all this in mind, let’s take a trip through time together to examine PAPER GIRLS’ role in the Kids-on-Bikes genre. Do be warned: there are some spoilers of the comic ahead.

What is the Kids-on-Bikes Genre?

Courtesy of Image Comics

Kids-on-Bikes is a relatively new term describing an old genre. NPR describes the genre as a “sci-fi subgenre, in which smart kids realize otherworldly dangers adults refuse to see.” This only scratches the surface of the genre’s definition. The main shared element between the stories is the bikes. It might seem obvious or unnecessary to say, but the bikes are what define the entire genre. While adults in stories aren’t limited in their modes of transportation, kids don’t have access to cars or planes. They only have the bikes or public transit, and rural kids don’t necessarily have access to the latter. This not only cements their age, but it also racks up the tension. After all, if a giant pterodactyl (a la PAPER GIRLS) chases you, wouldn’t you rather zoom away in a car than on a bicycle?

While the bicycle has to make an appearance in the story, Kids-on-Bikes has to have so much more. The time period and location have become key. Typically, these stories are set in the late ’70s, early ’80s as a nod to the writers’ childhood. Also, these stories usually happen in small town settings. While another nod to many writers’ backgrounds, this also aids in the storytelling. The small town setting contains the events to a singular, small location. No kids or teens can escape these confines on their own, so any threats localized there have a good chance of catching them. From this base, the writer can add his own elements to craft a story and tensions that stand out on its own.

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The Rise of the Genre

While some may argue that Stephen King’s book IT started the genre, I disagree. By timeline and impact, E.T. acted as the genre’s beginning. No matter where it began, it has quickly skyrocketed into the collective consciousness. But what exactly made people so interested in Kids-0n-Bikes? Why has it reached the peak it has?

The Nostalgia

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment

One big reason is the nostalgia. As kids, we all expected some big story to happen to us someday. We wanted to fight off some evil wizard or an alien invasion. As we hit adulthood, we realize that story will never happen. I think Kids-on-Bikes exists to allow writers to explore that childhood desire. If they and their childhood friends faced some great evil, what would they actually do? The question leads down so many twisting narrative tracks that a writer would be a fool not to follow them.

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However, this nostalgia isn’t just for the imaginative side of childhood. It’s for the bonds and joys of just being a kid. You never have relationships quite like those from childhood. Those friendships have something different. More importantly, these stories are love letters to the pop cultures of the writer’s childhood. STRANGER THINGS is a time capsule of the 1980s, meant to impress young viewers and incite a fit of nostalgia in the older generations. THE GOONIES, while meant as a contemporary story at its creation, now showcases the best of eighties culture today. These stories allow writers to relive the real aspects of their own childhoods while mixing in a dash of the strange for good measure.

The Setting

Courtesy of Netflix Entertainment

While the small-town setting works perfectly for amping up the tension and creating nostalgia, it also has other strengths. If you look at a majority of contemporary science fiction and urban fantasy, most of those stories take place in big cities. Having never lived in an “urban jungle” until I went to college, I couldn’t truly connect to those narratives. However, the Kids-on-Bikes genre gives me a strong anchoring point. The small-towns more accurately represent my memories. The neighborly camaraderie, the worries about harsh winters and social status; all of these aspects and more relate to my family’s experiences. The Kids-on-Bikes story helps represent this true to life aspect and, more importantly, it more accurately represents the experiences of its viewers.

The Horror

Courtesy of New-Line Cinema

It should come as no surprise that many Kids-on-Bikes stories are also horror narratives. STRANGER THINGS has the Demogorgon. IT has Pennywise the Dancing Clown. However, besides the latter of these two, this horror is more accessible. When watching STRANGER THINGS, it has scary moments, but they don’t happen often. The key aspects are the character exploration and how the characters deal with those scares. The younger cast also helps assuage some of these fears with their quips and personalities.

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This accessible horror allows for a wider audience to experience the stories, which in turn bumps up the popularity. People feel as if they are battling these horrors alongside the cast instead of being victimized by it. Interestingly, it is often not the monster itself that is the scariest. It is the fear of growing up, not changing and being trapped in that small town.

PAPER GIRLS: A Subversion

PAPER GIRLS has all of these elements. In fact, it perfectly fits the Kids-on-Bikes genre. Four girls on bikes run for their lives from a time-traveling army in a small town setting. However, it is so different from the other movies and television shows that I have mentioned. It isn’t a suspense book, but a human narrative about friendship and defying destiny. The story examines the tropes of Kids-on-Bikes and flies in their faces at times. With that in mind, let’s dig deep into the different subversions that PAPER GIRLS brings to the genre.

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The Changing Town

Courtesy of Image Comics

One of the strongest aspects of PAPER GIRLS comes from its examination of the small town. Let me tell you a little story. When I grew up, we would visit my grandparents in a little town called Tracy. Every time we visited, we saw more and more people, and the town very much came alive. Almost a decade later, we returned to a ghost town — almost no one was there anymore. Small towns change in the blink of an eye. Other Kids-on-Bikes stories fixate on a singular point in time. They look at a town at its height or at its fall, but without any transition. Even IT, which sees a town decades apart, still has the town thriving despite the time difference. You don’t get to see the sad realization that these towns might not survive.

PAPER GIRLS, on the other hand, tackles this theme. Through the time-travel aspect, the girls are allowed to see their town after years have passed. More importantly, the sight horrifies them. They aren’t wowed by present technology. They see their favorite mall closed down and overgrown with vines. Protagonist Erin even likens the experience to Alzheimer’s disease. She feels like she should recognize the place, but it doesn’t match her memories at all. This small town collapsed around these young women, giving the story a new type of edge. It almost speaks against nostalgia. The feeling is great, but only in hindsight. PAPER GIRLS almost says that you should focus more on supporting these small places now before we lose them forever.

The Girls

Courtesy of Image Comics

The Kids-on-Bikes genre suffers from far too much testosterone. The genre is largely dominated by young boys searching their way to manhood. If there happens to be a girl character, they are often the sole female on the team, put there as another conflict piece for the boys. While IT and STRANGER THINGS do an okay job developing their female leads as strong characters, these characters are still only tokens in a largely male cast.

Brian K. Vaughan obviously wanted this disparity to stop. And he didn’t just stop at one girl character in PAPER GIRLS. He made an entire cast of strong-willed, intelligent, and powerful female characters, with almost no males to speak of in the comic. In fact, the only males that appear only have minor or antagonistic roles. The focus lies squarely on the females, which is a breath of fresh air.

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Vaughan hit the ball out of the park with Erin, MacKenzie, Tiffany, and KJ. He still plays into the typical eighties’ archetypes of the Leader, the Brain, the Rebel, and the Jock, but he does it on his terms. The entire cast is filled with capable and decent women. They aren’t dealing with typical young person issues. The girls don’t ask about the cute boy down the street. They question the very rules of their own destiny. Mac, who learns she dies from leukemia in the future, raises a middle finger to her own destiny and fights like hell. Tiff does much the same when she learns that her future will consist of little more than video games and school. Even at a young age, these girls are some of the most badass characters in comic books.

The “Monster”

Courtesy of Image Comics

Every Kids-on-Bikes story has its supernatural force. I’ve already mentioned Pennywise and the Demogorgon. However, very few supernatural forces act as little more than an overarching threat. None represent an ideology or progressive school of thought. However, the “monster” in PAPER GIRLS is literally a time-traveling war between age groups. The young people of the future battle the old overviews of technology and meddle with the timestream. While I am not far enough in the series to understand the extent of this ideological war, I do understand that it is really cool. The young have adopted a sort of guerilla regime under the noses of their pterodactyl riding superiors.

This works so well because the girls don’t have a particular stake in this war. They are innocents, swept up in consequences far beyond them. The girls only want to find a way home and to stay together. In the face of these extraordinary events, they are motivated by very human emotions. Eventually, the war becomes pretty personal for them, considering that it sends them flying through time. However, this enemy still only exists to move the plot forward. It presents an ideology that is relevant to the current struggles of the protagonists. Can (or should) they meddle with their own destinies? It’s a time-travel faux pas that changing the past usually doesn’t fix the future, but does that mean they shouldn’t try? The war forces our characters to examine themselves as all good monsters should.

The Themes

Courtesy of Image Comics

Most Kids-on-Bikes narratives deal with fears of getting older, and for the most part, PAPER GIRLS doesn’t divert from this blueprint. The fight against destiny is only one of the brilliant themes throughout, but there are others. One of my favorites has to be the theme of childhood friendship. After all, how many of our friends from that time do we still have? Erin experiences this most drastically when she meets her older self. Older, stuck in her small town Erin is a lonely woman with few friends and anxiety. Her main piece of advice is to hang on to the Paper Girls because you only make friends like that once in a lifetime.

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PAPER GIRLS isn’t afraid to explore new and different themes. From concerns over cloning to the ideological war, this comic has a bit of everything. However, you should take note that every one of these themes comes from a very human place. They don’t consist of philosophical mumbo-jumbo. They come from the perspective of four young women who are trying to figure themselves out. Because of that, this story, as well other Kids-on-Bikes narratives, is so engaging.

Final Thoughts: PAPER GIRLS and Kids-On-Bikes

The Kids-on-Bikes genre is a genius means to recapture the nostalgic setting, and place young heroes at the helm. PAPER GIRLS simply raises the bar. The story components, the lead characters, even the antagonist all build on and break down the subgenre of which they are categorized. By creating this story, Vaughan and Chiang have pushed the genre to places it couldn’t go before. And, more pressing, they created a team of iconic female characters to lead that charge. I hope you give PAPER GIRLS and other Kids-on-Bikes stories a chance. They may just sink their teeth into you like they did me, especially if you ever wanted to be the hero of your own story.

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