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Strangers In Paradise Omnibus Edition SC Paperback – September 5, 2013
"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
Don't miss best-selling author Kwame Alexander's "Rebound," a new companion novel to his Newbery Award-winner, "The Crossover,"" illustrated with striking graphic novel panels. Pre-order today
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I'm sorry to say that after reading through this entire massive collection that I am thoroughly unimpressed.
Let's start with the things I can't complain about that much:
-The Artwork: Moore has a terrific knowledge of human expression and anatomy and is able to reproduce both on a page accurately. When he's drawing his characters realistically, his people look like normal people and not muscular Greek gods or buxom supermodels. His ability to draw expressions on his characters' faces may be one of the best I've seen next to the late, great Steve Dillon. Moore is also very good at paying homage to more cartoony styles of art, evoking artists like Schultz, Breathed, and Watterson. This comes up throughout the series as some of the more comedic or lighthearted moments are portrayed in this stylized "funny papers" way. It's clear, by Moore's own admission, that he always wanted to draw comics for newspaper syndication, and it shows. If I have any complaints at all about the art, its that occasionally there are some consistency issues. Some of the characters' faces sometimes look alike (Katchoo and Casey in particular, towards the latter part of the series) making it hard to tell them apart until they start talking. There is also a bit of inconsistency with Francine's facial features as well, which may seem well-defined one moment and then lose those distinctive qualities by the next panel. Overall however, I like Moore's art.
-The Tone: While obviously I did not like the execution of this story, I did like the interesting mix of genres. Moore somehow manages to combine the Sunday funnies with a love story with some very violent crime drama, and it's fair to say I've never seen such a unique combination that manages to work together. Even though I didn't necessarily like most of the characters or the ultimate storyline overall, there's just enough of a nibble in each issue that left me curious enough to see what happens next, sort of like a bad soap opera, and this is what got me through all 107-ish issues without quitting.
-The Music and Poetry: Dotted throughout the series are guitar tablatures and song lyrics by a fictional singer/songwriter named Griffin Silver, as well as some attempts at original poetry. These are inserted into the narrative whenever they are situationally appropriate, and I found this to be an interesting element. Some of the songs have decent enough lyrics and seem like something that could have actually been popular on the radio in the 90's (I haven't yet scoured the Internet to see if anyone's recorded them to actual music, but I'm sure some die-hard fans have done so), and the poetry is mostly good, with only a few that fall flat as the kind of embarrassing angst your typical brooding high-schooler might come up with. Still, overall, a neat idea that works in a comic like this. There are also bits of prose with illustrations when it's clear that simply drawing a bunch of panels of a long conversation or off-screen event just wouldn't do the story justice, and it's a smart move.
Now onto the not-so-good:
-The Characters: In order to touch on why I didn't like the story so much, I have to touch on why I didn't like the characters so much, as I feel the story suffers because of them. We are introduced to a pair of best friends named Francine and Katina (or Katchoo as she is ridiculously nicknamed). Katchoo is very clearly, by Terry Moore's own admission, a character who had a name before she had a personality or a background. Clearly here was a writer who had an itch to use the name Katchoo as some sort of manic pixie dream girl (MPDG from here on), so much so that he created early comic strips with her as a fairy, then as an elf, then as a human, all with the same empty saccharine personality. It seems he was more obsessed with using the cutesy nickname than he was in fleshing out a likable character, and that's the main problem I have with all of the characters: likability.
I'll start with Katchoo. Katchoo, as I said, is a somewhat atypical but still MPDG with the slight twist that she's a man-hating lesbian. For a series that won a GLAAD award, I'm very surprised about this. I feel like the trope of the man-hating lesbian was over by the time Chasing Amy had put it to rest, and SiP is only a couple of years ahead of that. Still, throughout the series, Katchoo is portrayed as a character that we are told by the other characters, time and time again, is impossibly alluring and incredibly special. It's a shame, then, that at no point in this series do we actually get to see what makes Katchoo so special. Yes, we are told how perfect Katchoo is, but all we are shown within the pages of SiP is Katchoo constantly pushing people away, physically assaulting people (some for no good reason with a few well-deserved exceptions), drinking, picking fights, treating people like garbage, flying off the handle at next to nothing, and so on. I would have said early on that Katchoo's most consistent characteristic is her fierce loyalty to her friends, but even that doesn't stay consistent as the series progresses. Katchoo is a hot-headed mess of a human being, the kind of MPDG that lonely writers dream about taming and protecting because she needs saving.
That brings us to Francine, who with a little more care could have made the series less aggravating. Francine is towards the other end of the spectrum from Katchoo; whereas my dislike of Katchoo is due to her destructiveness and hot-headedness, I dislike Francine because she's a simpering imbecile who makes nothing but bad decisions throughout the entire series. While she is generally portrayed as caring and sweet and well-meaning, none of that really matters because our introduction to her in the first issue involves her stripping naked while having an emotional breakdown in a public park because the guy she's been dating is a jerk. That impression of Francine, a weak simpleton who reacts weakly and irrationally to a man being mean to her, sticks in my mind throughout the series, and there's very little character growth for her until near the end. Francine is entirely codependent on others to shape her, and due to all of her questionable choices throughout the series I don't find her very sympathetic. Yes, at some points in the series, people explicitly tell Francine she's a dolt who depends too much on others and makes bad decisions, but this level of self-awareness doesn't make the character any less irritating. Certainly Francine's arc throughout the series is one of learning self-reliance and finding herself, but the steps taken to get to that point are long and painful and those awkward early moments never really washed away for me. In the hands of a more competent writer, Francine's journey of sexual self-discovery could have been a terrific story. Perhaps in 1993 it was considered groundbreaking, but I wouldn't consider it so by today's standards.
Speaking of irritating, let's not forget David. I would call SiP a love triangle if not for the fact that David's really more of a fifth wheel than a third vertex. David shows up out of nowhere and instantly falls in love with Katchoo for apparently no good reason, and once we actually do find out the reason it doesn't make it any less weird. For much of the series Katchoo treats him like garbage. David, like Francine, is also a simpering idiot who idolizes Katchoo for reasons we are told but are never actually privy to. They way in which David insinuates himself into Katchoo's and Francine's life actually comes off as a little creepy to me, although there are eventually some convenient revelations that explain his presence. Still, David is as one-dimensional as they come: an impossibly clingy nice guy with one specific defining moment in his past who exists for no reason other than to alternately complicate and uncomplicate the relationships of others in the series.
There are many other secondary characters, most of which aren't worth mentioning. There's Freddie, Francine's ex-boyfriend who annoyingly sticks around for the entire series. Freddie is a disgusting manchild, yet another unlikable character in a sea of them, played mostly as comic relief, except Freddie is more irritating than funny. His constant appearances grind the story to a halt, during which I feel like Moore attempts to evoke some sympathy for a thoroughly unsympathetic character when the focus is placed on Freddie for some issues. Then there's Casey, a seemingly unimportant character early on who becomes more important as the series progresses. Casey's probably the only genuinely likable character in the series for me, even though she really only fulfills a role of “other best friend” to the main characters. In many ways, her growth (probably intentionally) mirrors that of Francine's, although it happens much more quickly and with less contrivance. Many other characters come and go. Some of them seem like they're being set up as important characters only to disappear with their plotlines left dangling (I'm looking at you, Sara) or to be killed off swiftly without really impacting any of the story. It almost seems as if Moore didn't really plan some things too far in advance and just dropped characters and their arcs whenever convenient, but maybe that's just my impression.
Lastly the handful of villains over the course of the series lack any clear motivation other than just being evil for evil's sake. None of them last particularly long, and in some cases, they don't even affect or interact with the main characters, which begs the question of “Why bother?” in a couple of instances.
-The Story: As touched on above, SiP at its heart is a “Will They/Won't They?” romantic drama with some elements of crime drama and goofy comedy. The heart of the problem is the “Will They/Won't They?” shtick is dragged out for all 107 issues. Very early on, it's clear that Francine and Katchoo consider each other more than just best friends, and that they are deeply in love, but it takes 107 issues of back-and-forth nonsense to figure out if they will end up together or not. It is, in fact, so drawn out that at one point Moore actually acknowledges through one character in a flash-forward how ludicrously drawn out it is. But then he still drags it out for another 50 issues. Don't expect any momentum on the main romance until the very end and maybe you won't be as infuriated as I was. I cannot imagine reading this book on a monthly basis and sticking it out for over a decade just to watch an endless cycle of misunderstandings and laughably convenient happenstances that keep Francine and Katchoo apart. When the characters get too close or comfortable, either some dark plot shift comes out of left-field, or more often, Francine will do something unabashedly stupid to Katchoo or Katchoo will throw a temper tantrum at Francine. It gets tedious and ridiculous, so much so that when one character or the other finally comes to her senses one of the many times throughout the series, I've already stopped caring.
The plot twists serve no purpose other than to keep the main characters apart or to retcon something that clearly did not need to be nor was likely intended to be retconned. A perfect example of this is a twist that occurs within the last few issues of the book. It is so out of the blue, so inconsistent and clearly thrown in as a last minute “gotcha,” that it doesn't hold up under any sort of scrutiny if you go back and read the earlier issues. Without getting into any spoilers beyond that, it is clear that Moore just wanted to throw one last zinger at his audience, and it fails miserably, especially when there are other happenings the audience should be invested in by that point in the series. By the end, the elements of the story that are not directly related to the romance of Katchoo and Francine have become a convoluted mess of vague motivations or have been conveniently dropped from existence.
-Molly & Poo: While we're on the subject of questionable story elements, I must say that, Freddie's incessant appearances aside, nothing has ground a series to a screeching halt moreso than the 3 or 4 issues devoted to the nonsense that is “Molly & Poo”. Possibly this is Terry Moore's attempt to imitate Alan Moore's “story within a story” that he pulled off with “Watchmen” and “Tales of the Black Freighter”, or possibly Terry Moore just thought it was appropriate to publish this experimental claptrap within the confines of SiP knowing that he had a captive audience for it, but either way: wow is it hot garbage. Molly & Poo is a series of letters and stories written by an inconsequential SiP character named Molly who never actually really appears in the series proper or has anything to do with any of the characters other than she dated Francine's brother once upon a time. In this story-within-a-story, the real-life Molly is writing about a Victorian English woman also named Molly who is in an unhappy marriage and is exchanging steamy, sexy, illicit letters with a woman named Poo (between Katchoo and Poo, can we knock it off with the ridiculous nicknames?). The story mixes these letters with some prose passages to flesh out the story, all the while revealing that the Molly in the story is a romanticized reflection of the real Molly writing the story, who may in turn be psychotic.
In another book, perhaps as its own one-shot or mini-series or novella, I might have appreciated Molly & Poo as a story set within the SiP universe but only tangentially so. Instead, we are subjected to this interruption of the main narrative on no less than three occasions, and it has absolutely nothing to do with anything going on in SiP. As much as I disliked the overall narrative of SiP, which already suffered from delays in the plot moving forward, bringing Molly & Poo into the series for entire issues at a time ruined even further the momentum of the series. And for what? For a massively indulgent story that might have been decent as a separate more fleshed-out narrative? Why is it here? What does it have to do with Francine and Katchoo? Aside from both stories involving flirtatious lesbian overtones, SiP and Molly & Poo have no thematic similarities whatsoever. This is not Black Freighter; it's just a mess. Putting myself in the shoes of a monthly reader of SiP, I probably would have stopped buying the book the first time I wasted money on Molly & Poo.
Conclusion: All told, my Strangers in Paradise Omnibus will probably remain a pretty decoration on my bookshelf, but I will never read this series again. I have read that people consider Terry Moore to be someone who writes women really well, and to that I say that Terry Moore merely writes caricatures of women in SiP; Gail Simone, Greg Rucka, and many other comic writers actually write women well. For my money, Terry Moore is not in the same league. I've just sat through 107 issues of soap opera drivel with one-dimensional characters that many of the reviewers here on Amazon seem to love. I can only speculate that many of those readers followed SiP from the beginning back in 1993 and have some level of nostalgia for it. Certainly in 1993 I can imagine it would have been considered groundbreaking. Held up to a microscope by 2017's standards, I would say that there has been so much far better development of female and homosexual characters in recent years in other comics and books and television/film so as to make SiP's portrayal seem shallow, juvenile, and just as I characterized Moore's aforementioned ruination of Runaways, ill-advised. The series gets two stars from me for the artwork and for keeping me curious enough about what was going to happen next even though I wasn't emotionally invested in it. If you have fuzzy feelings of nostalgia for SiP, by all means buy this omnibus edition and enjoy it. If you're a new reader, I'd recommend maybe checking out one of the trades or pocket editions before shelling out for the complete series based on some biased reviews.
I still vividly recall buying LOVE ME TENDER; I'm a fan of science fiction novels and horror short stories and I'd never heard of SiP (I wasn't a comics reader, although I think I may have by this point discovered the Watchmen and Sandman graphic novels via my local library). But SiP... Gosh, SiP blindsided me. I saw those Tragedy and Comedy masks in the style of the two main characters (Francine and Katchoo) on the cover of LOVE ME TENDER, did a double take and picked it up. Flicked through the pages and... And I wasn't there. I wasn't in the store anymore. Like Alice down the rabbit hole I was GONE. Terry Moore's artwork stunned me. I never read one single dialogue balloon while I glanced through the book. I didn't have to. It was all there. These were real people, they had to be; comics, the funny pages, didn't have this kind of incredible subtlety of facial expression. I didn't even look at the price on the back of the book... just walked up to the counter in a daze and bought it. That's never happened to me, not before or since.
Over the years, as each new trade paperback came out, SiP followed me on my own epic journey through love ¬- married, an affair, divorced, married once more. SiP has been taken to task for going on longer than it should have...and, yeah, I can see where people might be coming from with that (certainly from the writer's point of view I can understand Moore's difficulty in letting go of characters he'd fallen in love with). But here's the thing, it's SiP's very length which makes it such a pleasure to lose yourself in. It's like having an intense love affair. For instance, I've just read ECHO: The Complete Edition, Moore's second series following SiP. It's good, and the verbal sparring between Ivy and Julie is terrific, but even at 600 pages you can read it in a weekend; after all, that's 600 graphic pages, not prose. SiP's main story runs 2000 pages (with the omnibus's final 150 pages containing bonus material: one-shot stories, a prequel and such) and the accumulative effect of that, if you read it in one massive gulp over a period of a week, is astonishing. It's a totally immersive experience in which you happily let go and lose yourself.
And if there's another advantage which SiP has, that Echo doesn't, it's its lack of plot. Oh, there's story, to be sure, but not a nuts `n' bolts plot like Echo, which is very linear and neat. SiP is sprawling, it's a mess, it's on-off love story is repetitive it's... well, it's true to life. The characters' timing is off, one coming back into the other's life at the wrong time, and that's true to life. The characters take a long time to find themselves, and that's true to life.
And don't be fooled by this being `merely' a love story: it's structure is very ambitious. This saga has been called a love triangle, but it's not: David's in love with Katchoo, yes, and although Katchoo let's her guard down and let's David in, she's never in any doubt as to who she's in love with. Katchoo is a woman in flames, who burns everyone around her, but she can also be an incredibly practical woman if she has to: you sense that Katchoo could move on if need be - David and Francine would fall apart without her because it is the very intensity of Katchoo's love that sets those around her on fire. Everything about Katchoo is extreme - her love, her hate, her happiness, her depression - and she makes others feel more alive just to be in her presence.
The scale of the series was not there in the beginning, indeed the first 70-odd pages are very much a screwball comedy with its broad humour, although there are several delicate emotional moments too. Once you get past this the next 180 pages moves up a gear: it's here that Katchoo's violent past is revealed. It's this section (#2, I DREAM OF YOU) which won the series the prestigious Eisner Award. Once part of an elite organization known as the Parker Girls, Katchoo discovers the past won't leave her alone, and indeed the revelations from her complexly entangled dark days in the underworld continue to shockwave right up until the very end of the saga's 2000 pages. It's the juxtaposition between the series' frequently humorous love stories and Katchoo's incredibly violent other life which truly makes the saga such a compelling read.
From some 330 pages onwards (#4, LOVE ME TENDER, beginning with the five page superhero dream sequence drawn by Jim Lee) SiP kicks into high gear and truly comes into its own, opening with a fortysomething Francine who hasn't seen Katchoo in ten years... or has she. Moore plays with time from here on out: is what follows a flashback, or is the older Francine a flashforward to what might happen? Okay, granted, you can argue that this is simply retro-fitting engineered later in the series (after all, with LOVE ME TENDER originally appearing in 1997 it's unlikely Moore had the whole series mapped out for the remaining ten years of its run). Retro-fitted or not, it doesn't take away from the sheer scale of Moore's storytelling ambition.
Considerations of Moore's narrative achievements aside, and that of the incredible violence of Katchoo's other life, let's not forget the saga's humour. Make no mistake, SiP is hilarious, frequently coming from the personality clash of Katchoo and Francine's ex-boyfriend Freddie, but also from the many metaphorical dream sequences, featuring pastiches of Peanuts, Calvin & Hobbs, Disney-style fairy tales and the superhero genre, and even a sequence in which the series takes itself to task for the repetitive nature of the main characters' on-off relationship. Oh, and let's not forget Katchoo's lost weekend in Las Vegas!
Of course, it's the emotional weight of the characters' relationships which makes SiP so special. Like a candle burning at both ends, the characters exhaust each other physically and emotionally. All of them - Francine, Katchoo, David, Freddie and Freddie's new girlfriend Casey - are a train wreck: they break each other's heart. They move on, they move back, they unobtrusively slip into another's life, or steamroll right through it. They cross lines they shouldn't be able to go back from, only to realise they're soulmates who can endure more than they thought possible. Crashing and burning in the other's fire, but vitally still capable of emerging from the other side of the flames and - eventually - able to smile at each other and say, "We made it. We survived. We're still friends."
SiP is a story of twentysomething love, the most crucial decade of anyone's life to fall in love in, because everything in so heightened, everything is in the extreme, love most of all: all consuming, emotionally wrenching and "Omigod I'm ALWAYS going to feel this way and I can't stand it and I'm, like, totally going to DIE!" Love doesn't just burn bright during this decade, it's positively incandescent. Unsurprising, then, that it's this decade that takes up so much of SiP's pages, covering as is does friendship love, a parent's love, lover's love, break my heart and I feel I'm going to die love.
True, tearing up at the end of re-reading SiP there's a part of you that thinks, "God, to have it back. To feel that all consuming madness kinda love." But here's the thing (and, surprisingly, Francine probably understands this better than Katchoo, for all Katchoo's pragmatism) when someone wants to rekindle a relationship they think it's only a matter of getting back with a `someone'. But that's not true, because what you're really trying to do is get back to a `somewhen'. Even if, miraculously, the person hasn't changed (and if they haven't then it couldn't really have been love - love should always change you, else what's the point) that moment, that period, that somewhen in time is gone. It's realising this which made Francine initially let go of Katchoo during her wedding to Brad. But, like I said, there's a lot to smile about in SiP too: after all, love is supposed to be a joy, not something to be endured.
So, forget any reservations others might have expressed about SiP, and don't be intimidated by the vast number of pages - indeed, rejoice in it. You'll lose yourself in its all consuming love and it'll break your heart as it burns you up in its flames... but don't worry, for like Katchoo you'll emerge from the fire, renewed and revitalised. You'll survive.
[If you were to buy all 19 volumes of the original trade paperbacks it would set you back a hefty 300 bucks - so this new omnibus edition is a steal!]
If you're like me, you would rather own a pricey, hardcover edition of a great comic book series than a bunch of trades or floppies. Marvel's Omnibi (the plural of Omnibus) and especially DC's Absolute series are dreams come true. Well, add Terry Moore's STRANGERS IN PARADISE OMNIBUS to that list.
You get TWO, hardcover, slip-cased dictionary-sized tomes collecting every single issue of the series and a hardcover, slip-cased collection of all the covers, too. Plus, there are only 1,500 of these babies in existence and you get a piece of paper signed and numbered by TERRY MOORE to prove it!
I'm not going to tell you that I look down on people that don't own one of these sets, but I do.
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