Written by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by artist Cliff Chiang and colorist Matt Wilson, with lettering and design by Jared K. Fletcher, the Image Comics series Paper Girls thrusts four newspaper delivery girls into a strange adventure when they encounter weird, mysterious characters that speak an unknown language. This language is represented in the comic by an alien text; after reading the second issue of Paper Girls I had a theory that this text was a substitution cipher for English words. My theory was correct – a few weeks ago, I deciphered the text and began writing an article for Nothing But Comics on the decoded language.
But then – doing a Google search on a translated alien phrase in issue two (“Nostalgia is death”) – I discovered that someone had already deciphered the alien text a month before I did!
It turns out The Dinglehopper blog deciphered the text back in October 2015. I wanted to learn more about The Dinglehopper team and their decoding process, so I contacted them.
Tell us about yourselves. Who are you, and how long have you blogged about comics?
The Dinglehopper is a husband and wife team: Erin and Michael Perry. We’ve been blogging for about two years, but had only gotten into blogging about comics when Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Bitch Planet #1 came out. That got us back into comics slowly at first, but then at an exponentially increasing rate. When Erin started also blogging for PopOptiq, our transformation was complete. Erin reviews Paper Girls; Michael does the decoding. We try to enable each other’s fascinations.
You obviously enjoy Paper Girls, but what are some of your other favorite comics?
Favorite, right? Jem and the Holograms. What Kelly Thompson and Sophie Campbell do is pretty much magical. That and The Wicked + The Divine. Jem is joy. WicDiv is intellectual pleasure. Bitch Planet Bitch Planet Bitch Planet.
Before we discuss the process of decoding the strange alien text in Paper Girls, I’d like to address a bigger question – Why did you do it? It takes time and effort to decode a substitution cipher, and some people might have given up and just got on with the story. You didn’t – what were your motivations for deciphering the text?
[Michael is answering the rest of these questions, since he did the decoding work.] I think the reader is supposed to pass over the unfamiliar characters the first time through. I did. They don’t impede the story in any way. When we started talking about the issue, the question of whether it meant anything came up. Once you have the decoder ring, or chart, everyone benefits.
Let’s talk about your process of decoding the alien text. How did you do it? Did you have a particular word that served as a “Rosetta Stone” for your decoding efforts? For example, in the second issue of Paper Girls, I made the assumption that the four-letter alien word repeated twice in that issue was the word “shit”; I also assumed, due to the differences in the last character (one dot, and then two dots), that one was a period and the other was an exclamation mark. From there, I was able to decipher the rest of the script in the first and second issues. But you cracked the code in the first issue, so what was your process for that?
I think I’m actually more impressed with your inspiration. The apostrophe was the giveaway for me. When an apostrophe is followed by two of the same letter, that letter is L. The W and the E followed. The E gave me THE in the same sentence and the process flowed naturally from there. I clumped all the panels together much like they appear in our post. I imagine doing it with the print version is more labor intensive.
I see you make the assumption that an apostrophe in the word “WE’LL” -and a lack of a one in the word “YOURE” – might suggest that the creative team was trying to signal to readers that the text was a substitution cipher, and that perhaps apostrophes are not necessary in the alien text. When I was decoding the text, I thought this was strange also, and dismissed it as a typo. Do you think the use of the apostrophe was a deliberate choice by the creative team?
I think it was a deliberate choice made by the creative team. It’s not necessary. It gives the readers a letter and thus the means to unlock the cipher. I actually think the dialog in the first issue is designed with decoding in mind: doubled letters, terminal punctuation, most of the alphabet. The way you did it suggests the same thing about the second issue. I thought repeating the same word with different punctuation was odd until you contacted us.
You’ve created an excellent decoder chart for the alien text. What was your process for creating the chart?
It’s kind of embarrassing. I used Microsoft Paint. Cut and paste.
Thanks, Erin and Michael!
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