I heard about Strangers in Paradise for years, but never picked up an issue, despite having a friend who read the thing regularly. Perhaps it just looked too much like the romance comics I ignored as a kid. Perhaps I recognized that this comic was a true graphic novel, and that I could not appreciate it unless I read volumes. Eventually, I read my first Strangers, special back issues (the "High School!" series) bought for my SiP-reading friend's birthday.
The damn thing hooked me.
The Collected Strangers in Paradise contains the three issues of the first series, a very funny vignette from Negative Burn, and several of Terry Moore’s early efforts at entering the world of syndicated comic strips, material which influenced the series.
Title: The Collected Strangers in Paradise (Issues #1-3 of the first series)
Author: Terry Moore
Strangers, in short: three emotionally overwrought friends and their pasts entangle in contemporary America. 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 from pasts they cannot escape. The original series lasted three issues, and introduced the principal characters.
Ten years after a mortifying incident in high school, Francine Peters finds herself living with her long-lost friend, tough girl and artist Katina Choovanski—"Katchoo." Katchoo meets an enigmatic man, David Qin, around the same time that Francine breaks up with her boyfriend, Freddie Femur.1 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.
This collection also features "Sweet Dreams." This Strangers in Paradise vignette, first published in Negative Burn, plays with the characters' imaginations, an old comic theme to which Moore will return.
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.2 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 Will Eisner's The Spirit3. We have a self-contained world, like ours, but clearly modified to suit the nature of the genre and the concerns of the writer/artist. Like a comic 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 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. 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. Moore expresses the familiar through the genre’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. Little that happens is actually impossible, but we’re supposed to understand the actions in the context of a genre that seldom respects the strict limits of real life, and takes pride in the fact.
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; one of these literally rises off tables with its ringing. Celebrity and comic-book look-alikes put in cameo appearances. The plots feature soap opera coincidences and pulp fiction action; the characters' romantic feelings flow frequently into poetry. The overwrought paranoia of the thriller and the conspiracy theory Moore only hints at in this first story, but it will also find its place in …Paradise. These aren’t flaws; they’re the sorts of things that happen in comics, without detracting from our willingness to believe in and sympathize with the characters.
Strangers in Paradise has a reputation as a comic book that appeals to people who don’t read comics. 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 the trade paperbacks or the hardcover anthologies. Over time, the series grew to become a true graphic novel, and later single issues will likely prove incomprehensible to a new reader. The Collected Strangers in Paradise is an obvious place to start.
1. His last name is Femurs in some of the early issues.
2. I've not read the entire run of Cerebus, and I'm acutely aware of some later issues that many consider unreadable. I’m inclined to agree. Sim's best work, however, exploits the possibilities of comix as few of his contemporaries have.
3. Although not a strip in the conventional sense, the original Spirit comic was distributed in newspapers.
A variation of this review appeared first at bureau42