Strangers in Paradise: High School!

“What most people don’t know about love, sex, and relations with other human beings would fill a book. Strangers in Paradise is that book.”
–Neil Gaiman

She keeps a moet de something
in a pretty cabinet…
–Francine sings along to Queen.1

Though I was certainly aware of Moore’s Strangers in Paradise, it was not until I bought the High School! back issues for a friend that I finally read and got hooked. The sixth trade paperback tells the story behind the series’ opening pages and the origin of Francine and Katchoo’s friendship.

It also features a stand-alone Xena parody, “Princess Warrior.”

Title: High School! (Issues #13-16 of the third series)

Author: Terry Moore.

ISBN: 1-892597-07-1

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We’re more than ten years in the past, during Katchoo and Francine’s senior year of high school, just before the ill-fated school play that opened the original series. The girls’ days begin in contrasting columns of panels. Francine is perky and apparently living some sitcom version of domestic life, though we’ll later see the flaws in the Peters family. Katina’s life has been made hell by an abusive stepfather, and so she rebels. Despite an earlier statement (In I Dream of You) that the pair have been best friends since seventh grade, it’s made clear that the Choovanskis have only recently moved to the neighborhood, and the girls only become friends over the course of the story. (Later, Moore will reconcile this discrepancy in his story’s continuity).

Gradually, the girls become close friends, and we see the origins of the lives we’ve come to know. Life intervenes, and their friendship will be interrupted for a decade.

The ending fades not to the first issue, but to the moment depicted in Love Me Tender, that ends Katina and Francine’s second ten-year separation, in the saga’s future.

Issue #16 interrupts the saga with “Princess Warrior,” a stand-alone send-up of Xena starring the SiP characters.

High Points

Despite the hyperbolic nature of Moore’s world, he handles certain elements with admirable subtlety and restraint. The opening pages show the shiny-dime, sanitized world of Francine, and the remainder of the comic reveals the problems. Without becoming excessive, he shows us the divisions in the family and factors that will influence Francine’s problematic relationships with food and with commitment. The gulf between Katina and Francine’s worlds, clear from the beginning through comic-book contrast, becomes even more apparent when Katina sees her friend’s house for the first time. She looks around with curiosity, and asks if her family rents. Moore also shows us the pair falling in love—romantically? Platonically?—without resorting to crassness.

Low Points

Some of Moore’s usual exaggerations will go too far for some readers. I could accept the cruel kids, the parodically mean-spirited director and the brutal coach. The comments from the home room teacher were overkill.

“Princess Warrior” is pretty funny, though a bit dated. It’s not on par with the rest of this trade paperback, and one wonders about its placement. The finale of the main story links with both the first issue of the first series and the next trade paperback. It’s not really a low point, but it’s clearly not part of the ongoing graphic novel, which flows expertly at this point in the series.

The Scores

Originality: 3/6. There’s nothing very original here, though SiP has not gone into its history in this depth before.

Artwork: 6/6. Moore creates an exaggerated but entirely believable world.

Petty nitpick: Given that Moore pays such careful attention to detail, I was a little surprised to realize there is no easy way to reconcile the view from Katina’s bedroom window with the external view of her house.

Story: 5/6 The dialogue is often hilarious, but Moore also knows when to let the images tell the story. The final scene between Francine and Katchoo might seem overdone to some, but they work in context.

The story meshes perfectly with the first three pages of the first SiP issue, which take place at the same time.

Characterization: 6/6 I had some issues with the minor characters, though they work as caricatures of human types. The understanding of human nature demonstrated in the handling of the principals is rare in comix.

Emotional response: 5/6 The story features some amusing (if occasionally disturbing) satire of high school and a powerful depiction of adolescent pressures.

Flow 5/6 These issues have great flow, internally and with the whole of SiP. “Princess Warrior,” from the rare stand-alone issue #16 seems out of place.

Overall: 5/6.

Notes: Apparently, Peter Parker (or perhaps one of his clones) attended school with Francine and Katchoo. A timewarped Bettie Page wanders through one panel, Michael Bolton appears in Francine’s fantasy, and the science teacher resembles Jerry Lewis’s Nutty Professor.

This issue also references the Molly Lane story from #14 of the second series. Francine’s brother Benjamin once dated Molly.

In total, High School! 35/42.

1. If you’ve wondered, “She keeps her Moet et Chandon in a pretty cabinet.”

The Timeshredder’s reviews may be found here.