Even though they weren’t as long ago as, say, the 1940s, the 1870s or even the 1770s, the fairly-recent 1980s have become a constant, almost obsessive setting for period fiction, beginning around the turn of the millennium or 9/11. Honestly, it’s hard to say which.

In the 1980s, we knew who the enemy was. Reagan called Russia an “evil empire”, which he would defeat with his “Star Wars” defense system (one must wonder if his eventually lethal illness had a tighter grip on his mind than we had thought then, and perhaps he was confusing reality with the products of Lucasfilm). The Communists were bad; we were good. Rocky Balboa stood up to Ivan Drago. The Wolverines beat back the Soviets. To combat the godless Commies, Bob Dylan had turned to God, and David Bowie, our English ally, became a god. Star Trek: The Next Generation updated the Cold War metaphor of the original series, and so did a revival of The Twilight Zone.

Here, in the pivotal years of the 21st century, it seems everyone but Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang have lost sight of this. Recently, they’ve introduced us to the world of “Paper Girls,” set in a 1980s that feels more like the September 12, 2001 than the 80s ever did. The story posits a world where a group of young newspaper delivery girls in the suburbs stand between an invasion of aliens – or perhaps time travelers – and the human race. Or maybe they find themselves trapped in a war, as two sides of … whatever these strangers are seem apparent, and they are in conflict with one another.

The youngsters – and, indeed, the few adults of their town they’re able to find after the incursion begins – are just as confused as we are in the present in our own lives, and just as confused as we are as readers. And it’s not just the weird circumstances they’re in that they’re forced to face down: they’re struggling with puberty, PTSD, homophobia, internalized misogyny and the desire – no, need – to rebel against their parents. If it sounds like “Paper Girls” is more like Netflix’s Jessica Jones than The Goonies, well, you’d be right.

Chiang, fresh off an acclaimed stint on the New 52 reboot of DC’s Wonder Woman with writer Brian Azzarello, brings incredible life and character to this small town struggle against the unknown. Every night sky, every new piece of technology, every emotional nuance is captured and made fresh from everything we’ve seen so far from him in this series, even in the last panel. His angles, lighting, close-ups and long-shots … it’s like reading a comic drawn by Emmanuel Lubezki.

Vaughan continues his wave of post-9/11-themed comics that began with work like “Ultimate X-Men,” “Mystique” and “Runaways” for Marvel, but became a going concern in earnest with creator-owned books like “Y: The Last Man”, “Ex Machina,” “Pride of Baghdad” and, most recently, “Saga’ and ‘We Stand on Guard.” Vaughan’s themes and questions are clear and consistent, but each time they’re approached and asked in a different way. With Pride and We Stand, Vaughan put us in the shoes of individuals trapped in occupied, devastated territories. Machina gave us an insight into the look of a New York civil servant gone big-time politician after the Towers fell. Y grappled the concept of what truly matters after a massive shift in the world’s sociopolitical climate. In Paper Girls, he explores the personal state of confusion and emotionality of youngsters on a heretofore-unclear scale, immersing us in their worlds, their minds, their hearts. Vaughan’s writing is as great and carefully-structured as it has ever been, maintaining its momentum and drive while fully immersing readers in its story’s intricacies as much as he drives us straight into their souls.

“Paper Girls” is a great comic about scary things, and why it’s okay to be scared of them – and why fear, in general, is okay, and a perfectly valid emotion. We live in a small and scary world, one that gets smaller all the time, and this perfect blend of Time Bandits and Return to Oz in a post-Donnie Darko world serves to remind us that, even in the dark unknown, there is a light.

Of course, it’s the light that Leonard Cohen told us about in 1992, not long after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War: “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack, a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”

– By Kevin M. Brettauer