This review contains spoilers. Skip To The Verdict? »
One of the more durable fan discussions when it comes to Dragon Ball Z revolves around just what point creator Akira Toriyama would have stopped the story if he weren’t being pressured to continue it by means of lots and lots of cash. Giving fuel to these discussions is the perception that the series had several points where it made sense for the story to end, but didn’t, opting instead to repeat variations of the same plot until I no longer really gave a damn.
That same feeling of “you could have stopped there, so why didn’t you?” also pervades Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise. While presumably no suitcases full of money were involved in his case, his chronicle of the lives of best friends Francine Peters and Katina “Katchoo” Choovanski had, across its run, several points in which the story could have logically ended in a satisfactory manner. The series continued, though, and while it was never really bad, there came a point where plotlines started to repeat themselves and it began seeming apparent that Moore had no particular place where he wanted to take the characters, as evidenced by the increasing list of dropped plotlines and retcons. While the book continuously flirted with the idea of setting its two protagonists together romantically, it had also made a more than solid case for why that future was just not in the cards: Yes, Katchoo was deeply in love with Francine, and wanted nothing more than for them to spend their lives as a couple. Yes, Francine loved Katchoo, and had even made attempts to give her what she wanted. In the end, though, that’s as far as things ever got: Francine could not bring herself to take the final leap, and what’s more, every time the idea was broached, it ended badly, eventually driving what seemed to be a permanent wedge between the two.
When we’d left the cast at the end of the last book, they had all, if not gotten exactly what they’d wanted, at least gotten to place where they’d been able to make peace with their personal demons. Katchoo’s career as an artist had taken off and she had just opened an art school. She and David, her other best friend / love interest, had gotten to a point in their relationship in which they could just be friends without drowning in drama. Another friend, Casey, tired of the Vegas showgirl life, moved back to Houston; Freddy, her ex-husband, was dating a coroner and had managed, to a degree, to bury the hatchet in his relationship with Katchoo. Only Francine had gotten what she initially wanted with her marriage to Brad Silver: despite rocky spots and her continued estrangement from Katchoo, her marriage appeared to be a success.
The story could have ended there. Sure, it wouldn’t have been a particularly neat ending, but it would have been perfectly in line with the series’ argument that relationships are messy and complex. Instead, Moore decided to finish things with the “ideal” happy ending of getting his protagonist Katchoo together with the love of her life.
Thus, the job of this sixth volume is thus to destroy the status quo and return a sense of uncertainty to the characters’ lives, in order to set up the end game. Katchoo and Francine reconcile. David and Casey begin to date, only for the relationship to be jeopardized by the discovery that David has a brain tumor. Francine discovers that Brad has cheated on her, just as his brother, famous crooner and recurring character Griffin Silver, is killed; she decides that Katchoo was always The One, and that she wants a divorce so that she can go after her.
Casey decides that she wants to have David’s baby before he dies, and Katchoo agrees to serve as surrogate, since Casey’s past bout with anorexia has left her unable to carry a child. They also attempt to get their ducks in a row so that David can receive some experimental treatment for his tumor, but that measure proves ineffective as David dies.
David’s last will and testament leaves to Katchoo his billion dollar fortune (inherited from his dead half-sister Darcy Parker, and more theoretical than actual, given that is being held by the I.R.S., which plans to keep it tied up in red tape forever) and reveals that Casey had, for the entire period of time in which she knew the cast, been working for Tambi (a.k.a. Mary Beth Baker, Katchoo’s half-sister and the heir to a crime syndicate formerly led by Darcy, for whom Katchoo previously worked for as a prostitute) to spy on Katchoo and keep her safe. Not long after, Francine and Katchoo finally get together, just in time to realize that a) they’re both pregnant, and b) that Tambi and Casey had arranged to free up half of David’s inheritance, making the new couple millionaires many many many many times over. The end.
It is perhaps appropriate that the series ends with the two protagonists striking it rich, because the ending makes me think of watching somebody else win the lottery: it feels too easy, too unearned, and too arbitrary. As much a fan I was of the idea of Francine and Katchoo as a couple, the book had made too good a case for why that could not actually work in practice, and revisiting that idea again was the last thing I wanted for the book, particularly since the book then goes on to ignore the very complications it helped raise in its quest to get the characters together. Suddenly, an epiphany is all Francine needs, which frankly, leaves me unconvinced: she’s had those before, too, and they didn’t help.
What’s more, it ends up feeling like a step backwards for both characters. Francine’s new-found resolve never gets tested—Katchoo only puts up token resistance when Francince confesses her love, and any complications arising from her divorce are dealt with off-panel—and therefore the question of whether she’s actually all in never gets actually dealt with—we don’t find out if she’s truly changed because the story ends. Plus, a huge part of Katchoo’s arc has been realizing that Francine is very much like her recurring alcohol problem, accepting that, and learning to be happy without her. While that growth didn’t make a reunion out of the question—and I did appreciate the eventual rekindling of their friendship—the quickness with which it occurs makes me think not of romance, but of falling off the wagon.
Then there’s the twin pregnancies. One I could have lived with, because children figured so heavily in Francine’s dream future–and even then, there was nothing requiring one to be introduced just as the two characters got together. Two suggests that Moore believed a story about women couldn’t be truly happy if motherhood wasn’t thrust upon them, which is problematic, to say the least. It’s especially frustrating, since the whole reason Katchoo consented to getting impregnated in the first place was because Casey wanted David’s child. This, however, is never brought up again after we learn of Katchoo’s pregnancy; we’re left having to conclude that Casey for some unexplained reason stopped caring or stopped having a stake in what was to be her child, and it feels like a slap in the face.
The way the endgame treats Casey is probably what bothers me the most, not only because the “she’s a spy” retcon is a transparent ass pull—things like moving to Vegas makes absolutely no sense if her job was keeping an eye on Katchoo, and that’s only one of about a dozen inconsistencies the “twist” creates—but because it places everything about her in question. Even the book doesn’t seem to be clear about how much of her life is fabricated—on the same scene where Freddy Femur argues that everything but the lie was the real her, he comments that he likes the real her better, which is nonsensical at best. Perhaps more importantly, given how Casey had grown into something particularly special–characters like her are often jokes, so it was nice to see someone who’s ditzy and looks-oriented and guileless be treated like a complex person—the fact that we’re no longer able to take what she is on faith is heartbreaking. It’s a completely unnecessary development, there, as far as I can see, to facilitate hooking her up with Tambi, which if that is the case, feels utterly disrespectful for both characters.
Equally disrespectful and frustrating is what Casey’s outing says about David. While it is perfectly in character for him to out someone without their consent, the fact that doing so is, in effect, the last thing he ever does, leaves a bad taste in my mouth, compounded by the fact that this and other similar actions don’t stop everyone else from basically nominating him for sainthood. It’s things like this that prevent me from thinking Strangers in Paradise as an fully feminist text: in its unwillingness to call out problematic behavior, it helps normalize it. Freddy Femur may be an ass, but at least the book didn’t pretend otherwise.
In short, the way the series tramples over everything in order to get to the end makes me want to hate this book with every fiber of my being. It’d be the easiest thing in the world to do, except that Terry Moore is still an excellent storyteller, and even when the story itself isn’t up to snuff, he still tells it in ways few can.
Last week I bought the second issue of the Jimmie Robinson mini-series Five Weapons (it was quite good). Among the various notable things about the book is the way its pages are structured around the exclusive use of the letterbox panel—panels that take up the entire width of the page—a detail I admit with no small amount of shame, I paid no attention to until it was mentioned elsewhere.
It’s impossible not to notice how pages are structured in Strangers in Paradise, however, or how the sheer variety of well-timed techniques help in making even the dodgiest of stories palatable. Depending on the needs of the scene, Moore can be either very wordy—although never to the point of overwhelming the art—or completely silent. There’s text pages, poetry, and mini-stories within the story, which combined with Moore’s gift for character design (People with different body types! How is that not the bare minimum for artists?) and expressions help make the world feel very real, despite the sometimes farfetched plotting. It’s the opposite approach to that of Archie: The Married Life, which nevertheless takes SiP to that same place.
One particular thing I’d like to mention about the art is the way it mostly manages to avoid the male gaze, which is particularly impressive given how much (unlikely to lead to pearl-clutching) nudity there actually is in the book. There’s a particular scene in which Francine is taking a phone call while half-dressed, and it took some thinking before I actually realized that that was actually the case, because of casual it is treated—she could have been wearing pants, and the way the scene is staged wouldn’t have changed at all. Like reality, the world of Strangers in Paradise is not one where nudity inherently suggests sex, which feels incredibly rare, in comics.
I want to like this comic so much. Growing up, Strangers in Paradise formed an essential part in my formation as a comic book reader. It helped me appreciate narratives outside the superhero subgenre, it broadened my then limited view of human sexuality, and it helped me realize that hey, stories about women matter. It was by no means perfect or as progressive as it could have been—heaven knows it could have used more People of Color that didn’t all belong to the same family—but it was a sterling example of what mainstream comics could be, and should have been all along. It deserved a better ending than it got.
The plot is rather horrible, but there’s no denying Moore’s storytelling chops. 3 out of 5.
It depends on how much you want to see Katchoo and Francine get together. If you want that, then yeah, this is kind of essential. If not, you can totally check out at Book 5 and still get a satisfying ending of sorts.
Books 1 – 5, all of which are better than this one and are just as accessible.
I’ve recommended it before, but Rachel Rising, also by Terry Moore, really is great so far.
« Back to the top?