Comic Love: The Groundbreaking "Strangers in Paradise" Turns 20
Strangers in Paradise, the seminal comic series created, written, and drawn by Terry Moore, is coming back this year for its 20th anniversary with an 2,400-page omnibus coming out in July and a new prose novel in the works.
For its many fans like me, reading more about Francine and Katchoo would be like reuniting with old friends. But there are certain aspects of SiP that prevent me from getting too excited about the prospect of a comeback.
First, the good. SiP has been rightfully praised for its focus on women, relationships, and non-heteronormative sexuality. Its central characters, Francine and Katchoo, are passionate, flawed women with whom readers can easily sympathize. They make bad decisions, confront their fears, and find self-confidence and peace. Plus, they look realistic. The women are drawn with a range of body types—curvy, muscular, slim, fat—with folds and bulges just where you might see them on your own body, and have wonderfully expressive faces with eyes and mouths that convey countless and sometimes indescribable mixtures of emotion.
In addition to great female characters, SiP also gave us David Qin: a male protagonist who is attractive, interesting, and Asian. As an Asian-American woman, I was thrilled to see David. His existence is an acknowledgement that Asian men—who, in popular media, were usually libido-less old sages or the butts of jokes—deserve to be taken seriously as sexual beings and as individuals in general.
SiP is also progressive in its treatment of sexuality. None of its main female characters are entirely heterosexual, and don't express their sexual orientation in conventional ways. Katchoo, who identifies as lesbian, falls for David; Casey and Francine, who don't identify as bisexual or gay, both get involved with Katchoo. By emphasizing the personal nature of sexual orientation and expression, SiP portrays LGBTQ people as people first and foremost and sexuality as a spectrum instead of a one-or-the-other deal.
When it comes to women of color, however, SiP is less progressive.
Although most of its characters are women, barely any of them are of non-white descent except for David's villainous sister Darcy. Other non-white female characters are relegated to the sidelines: Katchoo's black therapist, or David's nameless and mostly silent Japanese girlfriend, who is the epitome of the Submissive Lotus Flower stereotype. We rarely see her speak; when she does, it's to state that "it would be honor to bathe Tambi-san" in preparation for sleeping with David.
Similarly, Darcy isn't a meanie who just happens to be half-Asian—she's pure Dragon Lady: a cruel, power-hungry, sexually deviant yakuza princess. She gets involved with Katchoo and then treats her as property, even having a symbol of ownership (the lily) tattooed right over Katchoo's heart.
Another issue that needs reexamining is the decision to publish this new story as a prose novel rather than another comic, partially because Moore doesn't seem to be a great fiction writer.
Take this prose extract from Vol. 2, issue #9 of the comic:
A few months later, Freddie met Casey, the kind of girl he understood and was comfortable with. He thought marrying Casey would make him forget Francine. He was wrong. It only made him realize how much he missed her…
This is a classic example of telling instead of showing: a basic Creative Writing 101 error. And it seems even weaker when compared to the non-prose sections of the comic, where we can see Casey clinging to Freddie's arm with an annoyingly blissful grin – her word balloon is even decorated with flowers – as they shop for groceries, or Freddie's grimace and recoil as he turns down her sexual advances.
SiP was created for a visual narrative medium, and Moore is great at playing with the possibilities of comics. He combines cartoon-esque and more realistic art to contrast actual events with characters' inner thoughts (e.g. Katchoo's dream in Vol. 2, issue #2), and draws scraps of blackness creeping up the page out of darkness to depict the death of a loved one and that emotional state where there's nothing left to say.
Moore's strength lies in character creation, visual art, and scriptwriting. Take Francine and Katchoo's conversation as they're moving into their new house in Vol.3, issue #1. Their banter about ostensibly trivial topics like mushrooms and Linda Eder serves to illustrate intimacy, love, friendship, and a shared past; we don't have to be told how they feel, because it's so easy to see in the dialogue and art. Portrayals like this are what bring Moore's characters to life.
Additionally, the visual dimension to the characters can't be ignored. Although the ways that they speak, act, and think are of course hugely important, they wouldn't be who they are without their facial expressions or their body language: Katchoo's devilish smile, for instance, or Francine's tendency to hunch over when she sits. Pure prose would also strip away one of SiP's most-praised attributes, namely the depiction of non-idealized body types. Describing these verbally is much less effective than actually seeing waistline folds and crow's-feet when characters bend or smile a certain way.
So the next time Moore returns to SiP, I hope it's with a new comic or graphic novel; comics are the only medium that can adequately portray the loves, bodies, thoughts, and relationships of Francine and Katchoo. And if it is a comic with some positive, non-marginalized depictions of women of color– so that non-white readers could be fully included—that really would be something to get excited about.
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