In a little over a year, Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise ends its run. Despite the underwhelming interest Bureau-crats have shown for my proposed reviews of the entire series (Uncle Jam was interested. Thanks.), I’ve decided to go ahead. I’m starting this week with The Collected Strangers in Paradise, which features the three issues of the original series, and a few surprises.
Title: The Collected Strangers in Paradise
(Issues #1-3 of the first series)
Author: Terry Moore.
Three emotionally overwrought friends and their pasts entangle in contemporary America.
Ten years after a mortifying incident in high school, Francine Peters finds herself living with her long-lost friend, tough girl and artist Katchoo. Katchoo—- Katina Choovanski– meets an enigmatic man, David Qin, around the same time that Francine breaks up with her boyfriend, Freddie Femur. When Francine experiences a nervous breakdown, Katchoo takes aim at Freddie, and reveals that she has learned a few things during her as-yet unexplained time away from the home town.
The volume establishes the series’ principal dynamics. Katchoo loves Francine; Francine sometimes reciprocates. Francine loves David; David sometimes reciprocates. David loves Katchoo; you get the idea.
Katchoo and David each carry problematic secrets.
This collection also features “Sweet Dreams.” This Strangers in Paradise vignette, which first appeared in Negative Burn, plays with the characters’ imaginations, an old comic theme to which Moore will return. It’s a great short piece, but does not connect to the main plot. We also see some early sketches and several of Moore’s failed attempts at comic strips; one even features a nymph named “Katchoo.”
Moore understands the genre in a way matched by few contemporary writer/artists. Dave Sim—at one time, a great fan of the series—comes to mind.1 Already, in his first complete comic, Moore’s ability to play with narrative, art, and text are evident. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Moore originally tried to write a newspaper strip. Strangers resembles in certain respects Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy or Eisner’s The Spirit2; we have a self-contained world, very like ours, but clearly modified to suit the nature of the genre and the concerns of the writer/artist. Like a newspaper strip, it aims for a wider audience than traditional comic books. As in the strip, definite story arcs exist, but many details remain unresolved, and later stories develop from these points. In future issues, as Moore’s confidence grows, he increasingly introduces elements that shape the entire series. He hasn’t quite hit his stride in these early issues, but they hold up well, and portend things to come.
Francine, Katchoo, and David resemble real people, and their relationships have been rooted in familiar human psychology. As they exist in a comic book, however, they express the familiar in the medium’s hyperbole. Francine’s sometimes-boyfriend Freddie is a self-centered jerk of the sort we all know, but his infidelities and insecurities have been magnified into parody. I’ve certainly encountered the kind of emotional instabilities exhibited by Francine, but she takes them to extremes. Nothing the characters do is impossible, but we’re supposed to read their actions in terms of a genre that frequently ignores the strict limits of reality.
Strangers’ panels (I’m thinking of the entire run here, not just this volume) fill with slapstick, exaggerated movement, and ridiculous Chicken Fat details. Katchoo destroys a succession of alarm clocks that rise off tables with their ringing. Celebrity and comic-book look-alikes put in cameo appearances. The plots feature soap opera coincidences and pulp fiction action; romantic feelings run into poetry. These aren’t flaws; they’re the sorts of things that can happen in comix, without detracting from our sympathy for and willingness to believe in the characters.
1. I’ve not read the entire run of Cerebus, and I’m acutely aware of some later issues that many consider unreadable. Sim’s best work, however, exploits the possibilities of the genre as few of his contemporaries have.
2. Although not a strip in the conventional sense, the original Spirit comic was distributed in newspapers.
The dream sequence in #2—the first of many creative dreams in Strangers— serves little purpose that I can discern, other than to hook a few readers. And while the series will give many minor characters their moments in the spotlight, the characters involved here amount to a sideshow, and don’t bear the kind of attention given.
This is a mild point; I really found little to dislike about the volume. A future review will address the concerns some have raised about Moore’s depictions of men and women.
Originality: 4/6 While Strangers in Paradise contains many familiar elements—- short story characterization, soap opera drama, comic hijinks, pulp violence, and thriller paranoia—- Moore has mixed them into something quite unlike the genres from which it borrows.
Artwork: 5/6. It’s good, and Moore already demonstrates a desire to play with the form. It’s not as good as it will get. Nevertheless, Moore conveys attitude as effectively as anyone in the business, and from the beginning he shows an understanding of how art and text can work together.
Story: 5/6. It’s a bit chaotic, but this three-act play holds together.
Characterization: 5/6. See “high points.” These aren’t quite realistic people; then again, neither are Shakespeare’s characters. They’re representations of real people, as translated by the conventions of a genre.
Emotional response: 5/6
Overall: 5/6 I heard about this thing for years before I finally read an issue. And then another. And then it hooked me. Strangers in Paradise has a reputation as the comic that appeals to people who don’t read comics, but I recommend it even to the typical fans, if they’re not too wedded to muscles and spandex. At this point, you’ll want to look at these trade paperbacks or the hardcover anthologies. Over time, the series grew to become a true graphic novel, and current single issues will likely prove incomprehensible to a new reader.
In total, The Collected Strangers in Paradise receives a score of 34/42.