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Friday, 12 April 2013

Strangers in Paradise: Volumes 1 and 2


Without love, we're never more than strangers in Paradise
Writer: Terry Moore
Art: Terry Moore
Publisher: Abstract Studio

What's it about?
Volume One: Freddie and Francine are a couple.  Francine lives with her best friend Katchoo.  Francine has trust issues and won't have sex with Freddie, though they've been together for a year.  So Freddie and Francine split up.  Katchoo comes onto Francine, who declines.  David notices Katchoo in an art gallery, comes on to her, and is rudely (very rudely) rebuffed.  Francine has a breakdown and Katchoo vows revenge on Freddie.  The relationships get messier and more ridiculous as each character tries to negotiate their way through the romantic minefield.
Volume Two - I Dream of You: A similar situation as before, but now Katchoo's mysterious past is catching up with her.  She disappears for two months, worrying Francine sick.  A shadowy, violent figure hires a corrupt copper to track and report on Katchoo's movements.  People are found severely beaten; Katchoo confides in David; Freddie is lurking in the background; Francine has still not moved on from him.  The finale of the volume solidifies it as a crime, rather than romance, story.

I am reviewing these two volumes together as they are best read in tandem.  Strangers in Paradise is described as a romance comic, and while Volume One is all about boy/girl, girl/girl, girl/boy relationships it is certainly not a traditional romance story.  Volume Two fleshes the characters out and gives a better feeling as to where the series is going.

What's good about it?
Throw away your preconceptions of romance stories.  There is love and sexual attraction in these people's lives, but it does not cater to traditional tropes and it is rich in LGB characters. Volume two is full of lesbian characters - in fact women, straight and gay, dominate the series.   The tone of the book meant that I first read David as a lesbian, shame he's not.  I don't hold that Katchoo is 100% gay, or that Francine is 100% straight, which these books infer.  Their relationship, as best friends and with other people, is messy and emotional.  It's great to read something which has this ambiguity.

I found these books hugely enjoyable.  The writing is articulate, the characters are likeable (even Freddie is!), and the story is told with tongue in cheek humour and sympathy.  Upon discussion with other readers, I discovered that some felt the characters were merely shallow stereotypes.  I disagree. I felt that they were caricatured more than stereotypes, and caricatures with depth and life to them.  But more on that later.

Women lead the book.  They take charge of their lives, they are not simply the romantic interest or the sidekick.  They have interests other than men.  They have careers, and friends, and family, and money worries, and they love food, and they are creative, and they are frustrated with their lives and they are happy with their lives.  They form gangs, they get arrested, they bail each other out, they run criminal cartels, they thieve and they love and they hate.  These books easily pass the Bechdel Test and for that I am grateful.  It is an absolute pleasure to read a book about women, rather then men.
What's bad about it?
As mentioned above, the characters have an element of stereotype about them.  On the surface, you could argue that the cast is made up of a vile womaniser, a man-hating lesbian, and a woman who needs a man to make her life complete.  Yes, the characters do have these traits about them, but as the series progresses they become more fleshed out, and they either subvert or rise above their stereotypes.  For example, Freddie, who left Francine because she wouldn't have sex with him, is shown to care deeply for her.  Katchoo is not gay, but has a reason to distrust men and a very complicated history, that is about more than sex or abuse.  David becomes a key figure in the group's life and has a role to play beyond that of counterfoil to Freddie.

What's the art like?
All apart from a few pages are in black and white.  The characters are simply drawn, with the emphasis on expression markers such as eyebrows, mouth and eyes.  Emotions are told through body language and hair styles, strange as that may seem.
There's a page in volume two where Francine and Katchoo are arguing, but they are off-screen for all 9 panels.  Instead, we see a corridor and a pot plant, and two shadows.  The conversation is told through narration boxes, and the emptiness of the corridor with the violence of the words combines to produce powerful feelings within the reader.
Some of the artwork feels like the saucy seaside postcards from the 1950s.  It seems playful and perhaps a little disconcerting.

Other pieces are just darn good.  These next two pieces speak of power.

Moore draws women well, realistically.  There's none of this tiny, waspy waists and huge bosoms business.  Each character is recognisable in her own right and each looks like a real person.
More information
You can buy Strangers in Paradise in hardcopy or digitally on Comixology.  Hardcopy details as follows:
Volume 1 ISBN: 1892597004
Volume 1 price: £6.99
Volume 2 ISBN: 1892597012
Volume 2 price: Up to £9.99 for second hand copies on Amazon.

Look inside Volume 1 on Amazon here
Look inside Volume 2 on Amazon here.

Terry Moore has written and drawn a lot of other comics.  He wrote part of the Marvel young adult superhero series Runaways, reviewed here, and he's written Rachel Rising, about a girl who returns from the dead. I've read issue one of this and it's very intriguing.

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