The seventeenth Strangers in Paradise trade paperback features much that entertains, but also signs of series fatigue.
Title: Tattoo (third series, #70-72, 74-76)
Author: Terry Moore.
Katchoo wakes up after a Las Vegas bender and finds herself married to David. After dealing with a stalker pursuing one of Casey’s showgirl friends, she returns to Houston and continues her art career.
Francine tries to settle into married life. She and Brad move to Houston, and her parents reunite.
This issue also features a photo section of fan’s SiP-related tattoos which reveal their devotion for the series. A few of Moore’s sketches appear, which reveal his behind-the-scenes process. Finally, the usual cover gallery has been included, and the artwork suggests Terry was more comfortable when Francine and Katchoo were together.
The opening—- Casey awakes and recalls her marriage to David– and the story’s second half—- when the characters return to Houston—- showcase Moore’s strengths. Nothing terribly original happens, but he handles it well. If he cannot bring Francine and Katchoo back together, he makes use of many elements from SiP’s early years. Freddie Femur returns, older if not consistently wiser. Moore even shows Femur drunk and singing “Freebird” at a gala, and he makes it work. The supporting cast at Katchoo’s studio continues to show potential. As a bonus, Pat makes his first cameo in some time, serving drinks at an important function.
The single funniest bit in Tattoo involves a “Still Life” and a “Life Drawing” class resolving a scheduling conflict.
A strange thing happens in these issues, which originally were bifurcated by the final chapter of Molly & Poo. Moore sets up an elaborate Las Vegas mystery involving Katchoo, David, Casey, and Casey’s friend Rusty. Rusty seeks clues in the unsolved disappearance of her husband. When she attracts a disturbed stalker, the principals once again face danger. While this plot develops, David and Katchoo struggle with the fact that they married while under the influence. These sorts of things happen in SiP, and Moore tells the story well.
Then he abandons the plot. The stalker gets taken down, and a section heavy with expository prose (and lines like “the truth hit me like a ton of bricks”) forcibly concludes the various storylines. We even see a piece of Rusty’s future, though we never learn the fate of her husband. It feels less like a conclusion than an author becoming bored with his current project.
Originality: 4/6. The mystery in the first part of this story has potential; Moore forces the conclusion. The second part of the story features some good material reminiscent of the early issues though reflecting the characters’ ages. It’s good but not overly original. Fortunately, much quirkiness remains. At least three times, the artwork turns momentarily cartoony, to good effect. One page becomes “SiP Thimble Theatre with Jet Jones,” and hilariously recalls the weekend color comics of an earlier era—though those features never would have riffed on the word vagina.
A cat named Maggie narrates one brief section, to good effect.
Artwork: 6/6. If his story seems to be faltering, Terry Moore continues to produce excellent, understated artwork. The use of small details in the opening sequence, the menacing depiction of Rusty’s stalker, the park landscape in #76, and the variety of realistic body types all demonstrate his talent. He also continues to include oddball details. The showgirls’ seamstress, for example, resembles Edith Head/Edna Mode.
Story: 4/6. Both major story arcs feature strong moments, but (as discussed under “Low Point”) Moore forces a conclusion to the first, and then introduces a new danger in the second, lurking in the background. It might have made more sense to allow the first to somehow carry into the second, if Moore was growing tired of the Vegas setting. In any case, Tattoo features fairly good material which never reaches its potential.
Characterization: 5/6. Characterization remains generally strong; Katchoo becomes something of a self-parody in two sequences where she’s left alone too long. Francine’s personality faces new challenges in her already-troubled marriage.
Freddie Femur has been permitted to grow somewhat. He remains, for the most part, the entertaining boor from the series’ early years, though he has obviously developed some affection for Katchoo.
Emotional response: 4/6
Flow 4/6. Some well-constructed stories suffer from abrupt shifts and forced developments. Some fine moments appear; Moore creates effective parallels between Francine’s and Katchoo’s marriages.
Overall: 5/6 These issues show glimpses of Strangers in Paradise at its most entertaining, but also clear indications of a series suffering from serious fatigue. Little wonder that shortly after Tattoo appeared, Moore announced he would bring his story to a definite conclusion.
In total, Tattoo receives a score of 32/42.