In the latest edition of Comics to Read Before You Die, Jessie Robertson looks at Strangers in Paradise…
Creator: Terry Moore
Published Jan 1993
So, storytime: I borrowed a number of books from my cousin a few months back to get some new material and with those books, his wife threw in Strangers in Paradise, saying she tries to get people to read it and no one ever wants to. I will, in fact, read most anything, especially in the comic format so I gave it shot. If you’re looking for superheroes or radiation-fueled origin stories, turn back now. This book is simply about two friends, Francine, a normal woman with love handles and who always falls too hard for the wrong guy, and her best friend Katchoo (believe her real name is Katherine), who is a wild, live life by the moment blonde. They live together. Katchoo is secretly (or not so secretly) in love with Francine. Strangers in Paradise is the story of their friendship, spanned over a long period of time and it’s definitely not for everyone. In fact, when I started researching the book, checking out fan opinions, critics reviews, I found that as many people who heralded this book as something unique, and special and real, there are as many that found it whiny, boring and completely asinine. It’s won several awards, including an Eisner and ran for over 15 years in some form or another. So, it’s got the track record to show for itself as being a proven winner, so why all the hate?
I read the first three stories of this series and the first collection which takes you through the intro to these characters. Francine is dating a guy named Freddie Femur, who has been trying to score with Francine, but she just isn’t ready to go down that path with him. The dude’s marginally frustrated to say the least and it all comes to a head when Francine is ready to get it on and finds him, mid-coitus, with someone at work. The relationship breaks down but not before Francine puts all the guilt and blame on herself, blaming her sexual witholdance as the reason their relationship fell apart; Freddie, is just done with her playing hard to get and is ready to just get. Francine’s reaction is to strip all her clothes off in a public park and show him what he is missing, but it really just serves to make her look crazy to anyone happening by. When she gets home, it’s the perfect moment for Katchoo to embrace her roommate and downgrade Femur and show her how well she can care for Francine. We’re also introduced to a third sort of main character, David Qin. To add to this complex web of love, he’s head over heels for Katchoo; which is a love, as she tells him, that can’t be because she is into women. David is the most faithful friend anyone could have, and proves it over and over to the women and is devoted to their well-being. But, David has a secret, that comes out in a strange storyline involving his older sister running a spy network of female operatives (that Katchoo was a part of) that muck up political elections, frame important figures and even take them out of the picture.
The spy underlying story I found to be too hokey as a plot device between two friends who have an undeniable connection but neither can clearly define if what exact connection works best between them. There’s a ton of good characters that sort of filter in and out of the story but are all inter-weaved into each other’s past and future. Katchoo is clearly the breakout character; she’s beautiful, she’s impulsive, she’s living with the struggle of being in love with her best friend, watching her make mistake after mistake with men who don’t deserve her, while struggling with her own past and own sexual identity at times. Francine is an interesting character too, and while she’s older, I see some similarities between her and Girls’ Hannah Horvath (HBO show). Both are not your typical picture of a female lead; they’re heavier, they’re insecure, they live life by their emotions, but both draw you in not just because of the mistakes they make and you rooting for them not to but because you know someone just like that in your real life. Francine also struggles with her religious identity, mostly due to pressure from her mother and her not being able to see herself in any other way than a doting husband’s wife and adorable children’s mother. It’s a fantasy countless young girls have had growing up, it’s sort of the American Dream of a bygone era, but Francine holds onto it like her own religion, which doesn’t allow her to see Katchoo as a viable partner for herself.
If you’re adventurous, or tired of the same old schtick in comics, reach out and try something different, unique and rewarding as an experience; if you latch onto these characters, I guarantee you will want to see how their whole lives unfold in Moore’s 100 plus issue run; if not, you’re not alone; join the other masses who don’t see the appeal and avoid the book. There’s no greater reward than either finding something like this and really latching onto it or completely seeing no value in what’s been produced; you can now join the discussion as an informed reader and that’s the beauty of one of our greatest freedoms.
Next time: Discover Morpheus