The first Pocket Edition of “Strangers in Paradise” is a frustrating soap operatic story filled with logic-defying twists, questionable motivations and a pair of two-dimensional protagonists who are not entirely likable. The mystery of this book is what has drawn these characters to one another because, in real life, they would have preferred to remain strangers.
Writer/artist Terry Moore tells the story of the continuously fractured, but seemingly unbreakable, bond between high school girlfriends and present day roommates, Francine and Katchoo (real name Katina). Francine is unlucky in love and finds herself continuously drawn to her ex Freddie who dumps her early in the story for not wanting to consummate their yearlong relationship. Katchoo is in love with Francine and has let her affection for her best friend be known. We also learn that there are years that Katchoo has been out of the picture; during this period she was involved in prostitution and mob shenanigans. Mobster Darcy Parker has a crumb bum private dick named Digman follow Katchoo to get back $850,000 that Katchoo may have stolen from Mrs. Parker. To complicate matters just a smidge more, Katchoo catches the attention of a young man named David who falls in love with the troubled woman and he won’t allow her to shake him off.
On the surface, all of these elements could make for a sprawling page-turner, similar to Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” series, as rife with passion and romance as it is with mystery and crime. But Moore’s work is lacking subtlety and, in this first edition at least, he doesn’t seem to have made up his mind about who his characters are and what it is that drives them. “Strangers in Paradise” also suffers from a continuous aimlessness as the story feels made up as it goes along, lacking the structure of a disciplined story as it abandons ideas carelessly over its course.
For example, after Francine is in a car accident and knocked out, she awakens not knowing who her ex-boyfriend is and she begins acting peculiar. She’s stumbling around, eating ridiculous amounts of food and generally not making any sense. Forget for the time being that Katchoo chose bed rest over a hospital and diagnosed her friend with amnesia, but in the following scene Francine has her faculties completely in check. Later in the story a detective believes that Katchoo is responsible for a violent attack on Digman, so he has two warrants opened against Katchoo, one for the beating and another for murder. But nothing is done with this. Katchoo is never threatened with the arrest for Digman’s murder, which was committed by one of Mrs. Parker’s thugs. In a third example, Francine has a dream in which she wakes up stunned to realize that she has fallen in love with David. But nothing transpires between the two of them. There are no awkward glances or uncomfortable moments between she and Katchoo as Francine struggles with this arbitrary yearning that could end her friendship.
Moore’s careless style grows distracting as these plot devices continue to go nowhere and “Strangers in Paradise” makes its way through twists and turns that fail to compel. Similarly, the characters who inhabit Moore’s story lack any dimension and are too often dragged into groan-worthy pratfalls that would be more at home in the Sunday funnies.
Moore never addresses fundamental questions in this first collected edition. Why does Katchoo love Francine? Is it because Francine is beautiful? All we really know about Francine is that she has had a string of failed relationships, she has little self-control, and she continues to stay tied in some manner to her misogynist ex-boyfriend Freddie. A more important question might be this: why does anybody like Katchoo? She’s constantly angry and abrasive (even to Francine), she’s prone to violent outbursts and she leaves town repeatedly without letting anybody know where she is going. Other than their beauty, Moore doesn’t convince us why anybody, including his readers, ought to care for his two protagonists. Then there’s David, a character who is entirely forgettable and who seems to exist only to be yelled at by Francine and Katchoo.
While an interesting convention, Moore uses sequences of prose that only serve to demonstrate the writer’s weaknesses and he fails to draw much authenticity from his characters. The first sequence involves the detective at the hospital where Digman has been brought, beaten to near death. There is nothing revelatory about the characters in this scene, which one would presume would be the reason for alternating to prose. A second scene involving Freddie drinking with a co-worker offers one small nugget about the type of man Freddie is. To make a waitress insecure about her appearance, Freddie purposefully doesn’t look at her when she brings him a second drink. This is the type of detail, which should have been in abundance in these scenes, that would have helped to flesh out Moore’s characters.
Finally, in a moment that is thoroughly confounding in its implausibility, Francine eventually comes to the conclusion that she is willing to take Katchoo up on her advances. As they speak tenderly to one another and close in on a kiss, they are interrupted by David who has decided to come pledge his love for Katchoo. Being the unlikable character she is, Katchoo screams at him, punches him and then… embraces him. He asks her to stay with him and she agrees. So we are supposed to believe that Katchoo, who has only professed adoration for Francine during this story, is going to run off with David moments after Francine gives herself to Katchoo? Again, nothing leads up to Katchoo’s decision in this scene and it just serves as another jarring moment that pulls the reader out of the material.
What works in “Strangers in Paradise” are Moore’s pencils. The artist’s characters are filled with emotion and he is adept at body language and expression. While there are some inconsistencies with the characters faces when Moore draws close-ups, the majority of his work is pleasing and his layouts, while not groundbreaking, are the work of a strong visual storyteller.
With all its faults, “Strangers in Paradise” could work if Moore would do more to establish who these characters are and identify what it is that draws them to one another. Moore has created a foundation from which something interesting could be established, it simply does not exist in this book.
Strangers in Paradise, Pocket Edition 1
Written by: Terry Moore
Art: Terry Moore
Letters: Terry Moore
Publisher: Abstract Studio
Original Publication Date: August 2004
Pages: 360 pages
“Strangers in Paradise” Pocket Edition 1 contains “Strangers in Paradise” Volume 1 (#1 through #3) and “Strangers in Paradise” Volume 2 (#1 through #13).