Warning: This post discusses the basic plot elements of the Netflix series Stranger Things, the comic Paper Girls, and the film Super 8.
Autumn 1979. Ohio. Five kids on bikes tool around their suburban development and stumble into an adventure involving monsters and sinister authority figures.
Autumn 1983. Indiana. Four kids on bikes tool around their suburban development and stumble into an adventure involving monsters and sinister authority figures.
Autumn 1988. Ohio. Four kids on bikes tool around their suburban development and stumble into an adventure involving monsters and sinister authority figures.
These are the setups of three recent pop culture offerings: respectively, the 2011 film Super 8, the new Netflix series Stranger Things, and the Image Comics series Paper Girls, which launched last year.
But these three properties share a lot more than just that common jumping-off point. They are all concerned with adolescence, specifically the push-pull tension between the familiar safety of home and the unknown dangers of the adult world.
That's a well-trodden patch of pop-cultural real estate, of course, and much has already been written about how much Stranger Things in particular owes to both Steven Spielberg and Stephen King. Certainly "E.T. meets IT" makes for a tidy logline, but there's a good deal more to the show, and to the whole "Kids on Bikes" science fiction subgenre to which it belongs.
There's plenty of Ray Bradbury and Madeleine L'Engle in the mix, for example; books like The October Country and A Wrinkle in Time helped create the "Kids on Bikes" sci-fi subgenre, in which smart kids realize otherworldly dangers adults refuse to see. But then, that's something we've been chewing over ever since Aesop wrote about the perils involved in the protocol of using a kid as your village's early-warning wolf-defense system.
Even so: in 1982, Spielberg's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial cemented several of the core tenets of the "Kids on Bikes" subgenre, and those elements are central to all three of these recent properties, in different ways.
1. The Bikes
They're hugely important — arguably moreso than the kids who ride them — because they're a perfect distillation of what this subgenre's all about: the first taste of freedom, and the dangers that come with it.
Bikes allow kids a limited form of autonomy — they can roam freely, but not terribly far. They are powered by a kid's own muscle and determination, not anything external. They are nearly silent, perfect for stealthy midnight excursions beyond one's own quiet cul-de-sac.
In Super 8 and Stranger Things, the bikes allow the kids to slip between the cracks and explore on their own, beyond adult attention. So important are they to this form of storytelling that the discovery of one kid's abandoned bike is the trigger that first alerts Stranger Things' sheriff that something isn't right.
In Paper Girls, the Image comic written by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Cliff Chiang, the bikes are the main characters' tools of the trade. They're the means by which they go about their business — distributing morning newspapers — and the reason they're up before dawn to encounter three hooded figures who, it seems, are up to no earthly good.
2. The Time
1979, 1983, 1988. This is science fiction not powered by a vision of the future but a longing for the past. Specifically, the past of its creators' childhoods — the era when they first saw ET, and its basic visual and plot beats imprinted themselves onto their minds. Super 8 can't help leaning into the Spielbergian tendency to cast childhood in a golden, nostalgic glow, while the darker Stranger Things seems more willing to engage with things like bullying and other forms of petty, everyday middle-school persecution.
Paper Girls is the only one of the three to tell its story from the point of view of young women, not boys, and it doesn't seem coincidental that its tone is harder, flintier, funnier, more pragmatic, and far less concerned with idealizing the "lost innocence" of childhood.
All three are set in autumn, a season of transition from carefree leisure to a colder, harsher, colorless existence. Halloween figures as a plot point in Paper Girls — a time when the veils between our world and the next wears thin.
3. The Place
Midwestern suburbia. Or at least, Midwestern suburbia as it's collectively remembered, full of culverts, storm drains, empty lots, and deep woods, where well-maintained split-level colonials lie just blocks away from more modest trailer homes.
As storytelling triggers go, "There's something dark lurking behind the white picket fences" has been used so often it's lost any real power to surprise, which is why all three of these properties are careful to depict their suburban settings as less than idyllic. Which brings us to:
4. The Adults
In all three, parents and other adults tend to struggle to get by. Single-parent homes are the norm, often touched by addiction of one sort or another. In Super 8, the main character's father seethes with resentment over the death of his wife. In Paper Girls, one character's stepmother threatens suicide in front of her, and on Stranger Things, every adult seems lost: the sheriff to grief and booze and pills, the missing boy's mother to what everyone around her believes to be mental illness.
Their existence in these stories serves to isolate and define our young main characters. To our kid protagonists, adults are too wrapped up in themselves to pay attention, much less take necessary action. They cannot be convinced, so they must be circumvented — that's the story engine that drives every "Kids on Bikes" tale.
(Note: In recent issues, Paper Girls has featured one adult who's completely sympathetic, and in whom the characters completely trust, though exactly why they do so is something I shouldn't reveal here.)
... (But it's pretty cool.)
5. The Authority Figures
Sinister, faceless, possessed of advanced technology and — most importantly — not to be trusted. In all three, they represent Adulthood in its final form, furthest away from the high emotionalism of Childhood — coldly and ruthlessly scientific. Both Super 8 and Stranger Things double down on their ET influences with hazmat suits that could have been lifted from that films prop department. Paper Girls, on the other hand, tweaks the formula in ways that have yet to be fully revealed - but again, cold science seems to be the enemy of feeling, of the human connections our characters so prize.
6. The Monster(s)
Inevitably, unfailingly, the least interesting or engaging thing about the "Kids on Bikes" subgenre. Maybe this is because, on any story's metaphorical level, it always represents the same thing — the fear of growing up — and thus can never be satisfyingly defeated by our heroes, only grudgingly accepted.
Super 8 hammers all of this home with some broadly telegraphed business involving a locket, while Stranger Things wisely backgrounds its monster as long as it can, because it and we are far more interested in its all-too-human monster, played by Matthew Modine. It's still too early in Paper Girls' run to know for certain what it's up to, but it also seems wisely determined to keep our eyes on its human villains.
All six of these core elements owe a lot to Spielberg and King, but they've since become a part of our collective narrative infrastructure. The storytellers who've come after them will keep finding ways to pay them homage while altering the precise alchemical mix in ways that make what they create from them new, and wholly distinct.
(NOTE: But you know those scenes in Stranger Things where Eleven is walking through that vast dark space, across water? That's an example of the show borrowing from something much more recent and less well-known — in this case, Jonathan Glazer's creepy, atmospheric 2013 indie Under The Skin — and that, to me, seems much less a valid homage, and much closer to mere imitation.)