[14 September 2007]
When I first got my dream job as a clerk at the local comic book store, my friend and mentor was a man named Jeff. Jeff was a part-time substitute teacher and the store’s resident gaming expert. Everyone who walked in the door knew him and he knew every customer’s name. He taught me everything I know about customer service and taking care of your people. Yet despite the fact that he had worked at the comic store for almost a decade, he actually read very few comic books. While my reading habit continued to grow with wallet-straining fury, he managed to keep his spending under control. Despite the constant barrage of awesome must-read books I consistently threw his way, he always smiled and said he was content with the few titles he enjoyed. I knew he read Knights of the Dinner Table, but having never played Dungeons and Dragons the humor was lost on me. He also read Transmetropolitan and that book turned me into an immediate fan of Warren Ellis. The third and final book of Jeff’s was some indie black and white comic called Strangers in Paradise.
Every time I would poke at the unknown book by some guy named Terry Moore and try to divine why anyone would read it when it doesn’t have Batman and wasn’t written by Alan Moore, Jeff would just, say “Read it.” I always resisted but one day after spending an idle moment on a quiet Sunday talking about life and movies, subjects that just go well together, Jeff nodded to himself as if making a decision, walked out to his car, and returned holding volumes 1 and 2 of Strangers in Paradise. He said, “Just read them.” Now I sit here seven years later writing a review of the final 10 issues of the series that I have come to love, with tears still fresh in my eyes from the sadness and joy at the final issue, and all I can think to say is “Thank you, Jeff.”
When I heard the news that Moore had decided to end his long-running indie powerhouse I reacted with a mixture of heartbreak and happiness; heartbreak because one of my favorite comics was ending and happiness because it would end on the creator’s terms by going out strong. While there was never a decrease in quality in the work it had become clear over the last few story-arcs that Moore was losing a little flexibility. It seemed that certain flash forwards and storylines projected into the future had reduced the type of stories Moore could tell. The decision to end the series, while painful for me to accept, came at the perfect time in the story. Many of the larger storylines revolving the lead characters, Francine, Katchoo, and David, had been resolved. While a handful of lose ends needed to be tied the only remaining issue was the question that had been on the minds of fans for years: Will Francine and Katchoo ever get together? While I was pretty sure that the answer would be yes, the question of how remained to be answered.
Moore begins his final arch by shattering the previously established status quo in order to bring all his storylines to a close. The first major change was the breakdown of Francine’s marriage to her rich doctor husband, Brad. Francine had spent most of the series riddled with self-doubt and looking for her knight-in-shining-cliché to come and rescue her from her life and give her the house and kids she always dreamed of. When she learns that her husband has been having an affair she doesn’t breakdown into an emotional wreck; she instead finally realizes that her true love has been there waiting the whole time. She maturely ends it with Brad and goes to fight for Katchoo.
Francine’s self-actualization at the end of the series is emblematic of one of Moore’s greatest strengths; character development. In the very first storyline of the series Francine has a complete mental breakdown when her then boyfriend, the crude and cheating Freddy Femur, has an affair with his secretary. Now many years later, Francine is able to suffer the same indignity at the hands of her ideal man, and does so with inner-strength and grace. While comic books as a medium have certainly come a long way, there is still a lack of substantive female characters being written. While there are a few exceptions it is sad to see how many women are still being reduced to one-dimensional archetypes. Francine’s development, like all the female characters in SIP, is a stunning example that it is possible to create complex and real female characters without reducing them to stereotypes or caricatures.
The next earth-shattering change comes from the death of the character David Quinn. David was a deeply complex person who managed to make room for himself in the hearts of Francine and Katchoo despite his troubled past. While he was my favorite character in the whole series, his death while tragic and powerful was also necessary. He was devoted to Katchoo and while he had reconciled himself to the fact that their love would never be exactly as he wanted it, his very existence as a third option for true love ultimately made him an obstacle in Francine and Katchoo’s ultimate union. This particular plot device is fascinating for a multitude of reasons. First of all it reinforces the idea that not all happy endings are without their tragedy. If Moore cured David of the brain tumor that eventually took his life, I feel that I would not be as satisfied with the ending. You can only have a happily-ever-after if you also have a point of tragic reference to put it into perspective.
With Francine at last ready to embrace the love she had previously feared and all other loose ends tied, the last issue ends with Francine and Katchoo, both pregnant, together at long last. It took a long time but the payoff was worth the wait. Moore concludes his passionate and powerful story with the ending it deserves. I will miss Moore’s book as a fan, but now that it is over I hope the series will be scrutinized by people within the comic book industry to gain a better appreciation of just how much it contributed to the medium. For the longest time I had dismissed the book as simply being the modern incarnation of those boring old romance comics. That was a mistake I freely admit as I know realize that for many years SIP has been the one true comic that tackled love with all its complexities and pain.
Comics, just as they have with women characters, have been notorious for reducing love stories to their most basic components. They were used as background drama to fill the panels between big fight scenes or at worst as plot devices that lead to the ruin of one of the characters. Moore was able to craft a series where the love story was central and all the plot and drama was subordinate to that. While I think this book is great for what it is, I believe that is also worthy of what it represents for comics as a whole. This book has expanded that range and ability of the entire medium to tell a love story without diminishing it. If the reader of this review will forgive a little melodrama, I would go so far as to say that Moore isn’t just a great storyteller, but in the larger realm of comics he is a visionary.
While I no longer officially work at a comic book store, I frequent my friends quite regularly and whenever someone comes to counter and asks for something different or new Strangers in Paradise is one of my regular recommendations. I’m not always successful in turning on the superhero fans onto something different, but there have been a few notable exceptions. Just like I thanked Jeff at the beginning of this review for recommending SIP to me, I have a handful of fans who still thank me as well. Yet I think I speak for all of us when I say that the real thanks belongs to one man in particular. So thank you Terry. Thank you so much.