Constant Contradiction: Cayti Bourquin And Peter Bensley On ‘Paradox Girl’ [Interview]
Paradox Girl is legitimately one of the best comics I've read all year. Focused on a woman (well, a lot of women who are actually the same woman coexisting at the same time at different points in her life) who has the ability to effortlessly teleport herself through time, space, and the comics page, the series takes a premise that's built on the most complicated aspects of time travel stories and delivers on it with a lighthearted fun that seems almost effortless.
After a successful Kickstarter campaign that funded the first three issues, creators Cayti Bourquin and Yishan Li have returned for a crowdfunding campaign to bring readers Paradox Girl #4, 5, and 6. To find out more, ComicsAlliance spoke to Bourquin and editor Peter Bensley about the complexities of telling a story with a nonlinear heroine, and why a superhero story about Stompzillas and time travel is actually about learning to forgive yourself.
ComicsAlliance: Whenever I read a comic that I love, I always try to sort of reverse-engineer how the plot and script work, but when I sat down to read Paradox Girl, it blew my mind. How do you even go about plotting a story where the main character isn't moving through it linearly in the same way as the reader?
Peter Bensley: I think it came to her in a dream.
Cayti Bourquin: The first issue was one that came to me while I was trying to sleep. I think it started with the Stompzilla fight and imagining the page and having that sort of predestination loop. I tossed and turned in bed, laughing at the idea, because it all works even though it's impossible, and from there I started working — well, backwards. I'd come up with jokes that I wanted to tell and later had to figure out how to fill in the blanks so that the loops made sense, and those first few pages, all those Paradox Girls are a mystery, but by the end, you see it's all the same PG on the same "day," just repeating certain hours and skipping over entire blocks of other hours of that day.
When pacing or plotting out an issue, I try to remember that the panels are static points in time, so PG can jump from one panel to another to time travel, or one page to another. I also try to make sure that spreads have their own pacing (page 2 and 3 are seen together, so they can interact with each other) and so on. It's something that you really couldn't do in any other medium.
CA: That really comes through in the first issue in the meditation sequence, where we see PG moving back and forth through the panels of a double-page spread. That visual link of having the panels connected through the pink strings to show her movement is the key to the whole thing. Was that something that you came up with and took to Yishan Li, or did she come up with that visual aspect of it?
CB: That's all in the original script, explicit instructions on the pink lines and slicing to show PG teleporting out or teleporting in. It was very important to me to give the reader ways to follow PG around with her bouncing, especially between pages. I wanted to play with the medium, not just tell a story. Obviously, Yishan has done an incredible job of bringing that idea to life though.
CA: Along those same lines, how complicated do your scripts get? When you have something like the second issue and PG's fight with a wolverine, do you have to note which version of PG is which to keep things straight? Are they numbered?
CB: I rename the PGs as she evolves or changes in the issues. Like Issue 1, she's NOTIME PG to start, once she has her “no time” shirt on. I try to make sure each evolution or variation of the character, STAGGERED PG, LAUGHING PG, etc, are identifiable, so that later I can say to the artist PG teleports onto the page and is now LAUGHING PG
They're pretty simple honestly, it's about one page of text per page of comic. I'm pretty explicit with my blocking and paneling, though Yishan at times makes changes (for the better) to simplify or to express action in a way that worked in my 'head' but didn't work when she went to draw it.
I mean, obviously with a comic book, people see the art first and foremost and, it's hard to explain to people that i didn't just write the dialogue (of which there is very very little), but that I mark all the panels and the layout and that writing isn't just "stuff happens on the page and so and so says a bunch of things." I very much try to show, not tell the story, and not have a lot of big wordy dialogue boxes or captions around.
CA: So how do you approach Paradox Girl as a character?
CB: Paradox Girl is someone without a past, so in many ways she's almost amnesiac? Or whatever the reverse of that is, maybe. She's got a hundred thousand pasts, and none, all at the same time. So she's pretty much always thinking about her 'present', and giving in to her current urge and impulse. I think a driving force behind her is the idea that any mistake can just be fixed later, so she's absolutely careless and reckless, especially with other people's emotions.
She'd be incredibly overpowered if she had the will to use her powers to do something, but she's a ditz (and self made at that) she's ruined any motivation she has for 'the greater good' by her internal (and externalized) conflict with herself. Anything she wants, she might later not want, so a future her will come back to stop her.
So there's a laissez faire attitude that she has, and she means well, she just doesn't think in linear time and in cause/effect the same way as other people.
CA: Is it difficult to reconcile all that and still make her as easy to like as she is? Like you said, she has what's arguably the single greatest superpower, and she primarily uses it to get herself toaster waffles that aren't made anymore.
CB: I think I spent a lot more time thinking about all the ways Paradox Girl is a hot mess than I do writing that out. Some of her unlikability or the collateral damage she causes is shown in issue #3, “Chekhov's Gun's Paradox.” When it comes to writing her for others, I want to tell a good story, and that story be self contained in the issue, so there's never any fear of "continuity" which would be very antithetical.
And being a pretty blonde in a pinstripe suit probably has as much to do with her likability as her actual personality does.
PB: I think her good intentions and childlike sense of mischief are appealing despite the mess she makes. Also I think we tend to be fond of people who are a bit hapless, and she's hapless in dealing with herself. We like people we can sort of roll our eyes at and smile.
CA: I definitely want to talk about the personality aspects and the way that her primary conflicts are with herself, but since you brought it up, I do want to ask about why you decided to go with Sexy Librarian as her default look. It certainly reinforces the idea of her as being not-quite-a-superhero, but is there more to it?
CB: I like to think that it's the only outfit that they could all agree on. That Paradox Girl is in her broadest scope of narrative, a search for identity, and it's something that she wants. She's not unique in the world, there's always more of her around. I think there were probably wars that have been retconned away where they argued over what they should be wearing.
But really, it was a look that I liked for her, because, as you said, it underscored her “not being a superhero,” and was a look that I myself really liked. It also sort of subverts expectations. There's a bit of Doctor Who style there I suppose (though I had not watched until well after I'd written PG).
PB: Didn’t you mention once that she chose it because when she's doing superhero stuff, she's being “serious,” and a suit is her slightly childish conception of what one wears to be serious, to do serious things?
CB: Oh yes, thank you, Peter. There's a measure of like, “I’m gonna be a grown up now,” and she's dressing like she thinks a grown up does. "Time to put my hair in a bun, put on a suit and go to work."
PB: Which then creates a tension between this very prim look, and very goofy behaviour.
CB: And it underscores that there's not just the one paradox (not just time ones). She's a living paradox, a constant contradiction. A hot mess with big messy curls filled with all this internal conflict, but at the same time, a “competent" and refined looking superhero.
CA: You mentioned before that you think of her as almost being an amnesiac in terms of not having a real past, and that she's searching for her own identity, but there's also this idea in there of how we as people are always sort of mad at ourselves for what we did in the past. The you of today is always a little grumpy at the you that stayed up too late last night because being so tired was a problem for the future, you know? PG tends to take that to its literal extreme.
CB: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. We always have regrets or little mistakes or things that keep us up at night, kicking ourselves over --- sometimes big things: breakups, loss, hurting someone — sometimes they're little things: You forgot to renew your prescriptions, forgot to reply to a text. PG is the consequence of having the ability to fix all of those in the blink of an eye. We're all the chain of dominoes that lead us to now. All those stupid mistakes and things we regret are 'us', whether we like that or not. P
G erases all of her regrets, which can sometimes be a binary thing where one regret turns into another one and an infinite loop results. PG is sort of my way of saying, "Accept the past, accept yourself, accept now." Only while making jokes about banana waffles.
CA: In the first three issues, we're introduced to Paradox Girl with stories that are pretty lighthearted takes on her powers, with two where she's essentially battling against herself, and one that skews a little closer to a traditional superhero story that's filtered through the lens of a backwards chain of causality. What can we expect from the second arc that's on Kickstarter now?
CB: So, we have issue #4: “Time Wounds All Heals,” which is a a little more of a sentimental story, and I don't wanna give too much away, but it's about how PG's greatest power and her 'timelessness' is also a pretty big weakness (a self contradiction again).
Issue #5 is "The Paradox Who Loved Me," which is back to wacky hijinx on a very James Bond style spy thriller, but where all the roles are Paradox Girl, and of course the Paradox Girl who's at the end of the causality loop knows more than any of the others."
Issue #6 is “The House of MMMMMMMMMM,” which brings Cycle One to a close and is about a Waffo Restaurant that closed in the '80s, and is a reference to House of M. Like much of PG it's a light hearted satire, poking fun at comic books and their constant need for continuity.
The Cycle overall can be read in any order and there are references between all the issues, and contradictions, as you mentioned issues #1 and #2. She spends a day fighting Stompzilla, but then on some other day, ends up bringing a baby Stompzilla from somewhen to stop her emu infestation --- but the act of which destroys her house. How can both be true? If she unleashed Stompzilla, how did she have her house when he was terrorizing the city? So some things “never happened” or retcon themselves just by trying to create a linear story.
The Cycle at large is more about a step forward for Paradox Girl and for the audience, understanding her, and (hopefully) preparing them for the next set of six issues, which create a new Cycle. Fortunately I think we just hit funding for the 'annotated version' so, there'll be PDFs with annotated notes for me to explain all the hidden Easter eggs and interactions between the issues.
CA: One of the things that attracts me to characters is an adaptability that can see them fitting well into any kind of stories. It's the thing I love about Uncle Scrooge and Batman, that they can move between different genres --- or at least different takes on genres. Paradox Girl absolutely fits in that category by design, so is there an upper limit to the stories that you and Yishan Li can tell about her? Or that you want to tell?
CB: Want to tell, yes. I have three cycles in mind (so 18 issues total) to tell her story. Obviously she could become that iconic sort of character that can bounce around and do or be in anything (here comes a Christmas Special, etc). We've had some fun with that with our mini-issues that we released as part of our last Kickstarter. Philosophically, I believe characters and stories need to have endings to bring closure and give the reader a sense of release and relief. I read this elsewhere --- and have probably repeated this elsewhere as well --- but I loved the new Star Wars movie, but it robbed us of Luke, Leia, and Han's happy ending.
We're never going to see Batman finally go, “Okay, I can let the death of my parents go, I guess most people's parents die eventually." Or if we do it'll be rapidly retconned back to him being grim and dark again. Which is sad to me, I want those characters to be able to get closure, but I understand that they're iconic and that they represent more than just themselves.
My ultimate story (I love this title so I share it with everyone I can) is "The Crisis on Infinite Girls", and I want that to tell the end of PG's story, not necessarily in a death or finality way, but in a way that closes the character and makes the reader feel that catharsis.