Does he know she’s a total ditz!? She reads cheesy romantic novels! She thinks CNN is unbiased!
Tropic of Desire, the tenth Strangers in Paradise trade paperback, begins with the inventiveness that made the series succeed in the first place, and ends with a development some fans found a little too novel.
Title: Tropic of Desire (Issues #39-43 of the third series)
Author: Terry Moore.
The various storylines continue, and once again, we’re reading a graphic novel rather than a distinct story arc. Francine contemplates her wedding and has an interesting, wholly believable talk with a pastor. David confronts his recent lapse into violence. Katchoo struggles with her feelings for Francine, and Casey visits—- after having an amusing encounter with Pat, a long-unseen minor character. Significantly, Moore lets us know that the Big Six are no more; he’s buried that plot.
Then, a twist has the readers questioning everything that has come before.
Issue #39, “You’re a Loser, Freddie Femur!” reminds readers of what made Strangers in Paradise succeed in the first place. Until now, Femur has been a joke, a high-school dork turned high-powered attorney prone to self-serving behaviour and macho posturing. In this issue, we finally see Freddie’s inner self, and Moore reveals a credible character, without sacrificing the laughs. Ingeniously, Moore explores Femur’s psyche through the medium of comix. The story begins as an affectionate pastiche of Peanuts. The style morphs as Freddie’s reverie continues, and imitates (among others) Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes and Walt Kelly‘s Pogo. Pogo Possum even makes a brief appearance.1 Finally, in a nearly wordless conclusion, Freddie—drawn in Moore’s own style—returns to his empty apartment and sits alone on the floor with a beer.
The first glimpse of Francine, back on the farm, features some excellent artwork, and a monologue that should have been edited.
I know that anyone can make a mistake, but there’s a pun on “compliment” and “complement” that features a spelling error. This comic was published in 2001; one would think by now that would have been corrected.
The trade paperback concludes with #43, an issue which shocked many readers, and prompted lively debate about the future direction of the series. Moore knew what he was doing, and the next issue clarifies matters. Anyone reading this edition for the first time will experience the same surprise, and have to turn to the next compilation for an explanation.
The short version: In #42, Francine sits down with her mother and her fiance. She tells them that she loves Katchoo, and has to explore that possibility. The next issue begins in a publisher’s office, with the now-grown Ashley: Francine and Brad’s future daughter whom we’ve previously seen as a five-year-old. She has written a novel called Strangers in Paradise, which her publisher considers promising, though somewhat far-fetched and repetitive (fair criticisms). Over the course of this issue, we see a future where Francine and Katchoo have become lovers and raised a daughter, and the entire criminal plot is a fantasy of Ashley’s (this appears to be Moore’s nod to those who took exception to the “Big Six”). The story then flashes back to the school play that opened the saga. However, Katina and Francine have, in fact, known each other since grade seven2, Katina is not a victim of sexual abuse and together, the girls overcome Francine’s horror over the incident onstage. Katina makes an anachronistic joke about the internet3, and the issue ends with laughter and an enigmatic ”End of Version One.” Not surprisingly, many fans were offended by the apparent refutation of a fictional reality in which they’d invested years of interest.
Artwork: 6/6. Once again, Moore shows his willingness to experiment with what a comic can be, and the opportunities the medium presents for narrative.
Story: 4/6. Once more, this reads like part of a larger, longer graphic novel, rather than a story arc in a series.
Characterization: 6/6. These issues feature the same exaggerations and simplifications we’ve seen in past issues, but Moore deserves commendation for making Freddie Femur into a believable human being.
Emotional response: 5/6.
In total, Tropic of Desire receives 36/42.
1. Harry Potter also appears, but this has less to do with the ongoing pastiche of comic styles, and is in the manner of the amusing but largely irrelevant cameos that had been commonplace in earlier issues.
2. Early on, a passing comment indicated that Katina and Francine met in the seventh grade, but later issues show that they did not meet until they were High School seniors.
3. What is an anachronism in SiP? Moore uses the conventions of comic books; he lets time pass and his characters age at a slow rate, so that only a few years have passed between the characters’ 1995 debut and these 2001 adventures. However, the topical references reflect each issue’s year of publication. This creates temporal anomalies, especially when the story flashes back to high school. If one counts from the first issue, Francine graduated in the mid-1980s; if one uses Tropic of Desire as a starting point, she finished school in the late 1980s. In either case, it’s highly unlikely that Katina would be making a “dot com” joke.
I call attention to this seemingly trivial detail because, in light of future developments, the reference to “lookatme.com” does not appear to be an error. It’s a clue.
The Timeshredder’s reviews may be found here.