Friday, January 21, 2011

About Two Girls -- A Year-Old Review of "Strangers in Paradise"

Originally posted January 15, 2010. I've since bought the entire Pocketbook collection.

Here's another "backburner" work that I'd been carrying around a desire for over the course of several years, but just now got the chance to explore: Terry Moore's Strangers in Paradise. I took the first pocketbook out from the public library, and downloaded scans of all the rest...but I do plan to buy all the pocketbooks, and hence the complete series, now that I've finished reading it.

Strangers in Paradise is about the love between Katina "Katchoo" Choovanski and her best friend Francine Peters, a love that takes them several years and several false starts to realize, especially with Katchoo's shadowy past showing up to ruin things at the worst possible times. Part soap opera, part crime thriller, SiP spans over a hundred issues and is by turn humorous and heartbreaking.

Now, you know this blog is about exploding mechanical dragons and shit, but I really don't have a prejudice against works without fantastic elements. It's just that I started out liking genre material, and in the circles I travel in and the sites I visit, it's SF and fantasy which gets the most exposure. So I ventured into Strangers in Paradise without the sense that I was doing something unusual or personally transgressive.

And I really, really enjoyed this comic. There were a lot of tropes and ideas which usually annoy me or at least bring out my inner cynic, but somehow Moore usually manages to pull things off, though sometimes only by the skin of his teeth.

Normally I have difficulty reading stories where romance is the central element. A lot of the time, I end up frustrated, flabbergasted, and finicky about the characters' interactions and decisions, there seeming to need to be extra stupidity needed to move the plot along or create obstacles in a love story than in any other...or worse, no reason why the characters should like each other.

Somehow, though, I found the long build-up and frequent detours in Francie and Katchoo's relationship to be a pretty fun and interesting read, though with a few eye-rolling parts. It helps that there is the rough transition from being best friends to admitted lovers, their contrasting personalities and backgrounds, and the stigma against lesbiansim, makes for a set of pretty believable reasons why they two of them would have so much trouble getting together, even with their behaviour towards each other sometimes seeming outrageously flirtatious right from the get-go--though on the other hand, North American women can apparently get away with a lot more and remain "just friends" than guys can.

Katchoo in particular I was surprised that Moore pulled off so well, given how hard a character she'd be to write: glamourize her toughness and explosive anger as a "bad girl" thing and her painful backstory seems suddenly flimsy; overemphasize her pain and she'd seem too much like a woman in need of "rescuing", but mostly Moore gets the balance right.

Francine is a really fun character, too, although I curse her more than a little bit for being Genre Blind (dammit, TVTropes....) enough to realize that marrying a doctor would lead to many lonely nights, and having Brad Silver cheat on her was a little too easy of a way to remove him from the picture.

The times Moore seems to hint that Katchoo may be right about men, save for the sense that David is "one of the good ones" is unsettling, and it's a sense that, if I recall correctly, has lead to some accusing David of being Moore's self-insert character. David is fleshed-out enough that if he's a self-insert, he's the rare "good one" (again), and there are several other "good" male characters in the books.

A parallel plot (that I thougth was a dream sequence before it went on longer) in which an older Francine is depicted regretting leaving Katchoo behind for a "normal" life but eventually-ish fixes that, felt a little cheap to start with, since I usually don't like time-skips which spoil an ending (though they can also create suspense in and of themselves). But then, these fast-forward tales were contradicted by the actual storyline and the comics' proper ending, leaving me wondering what the point of was. Did Moore change his mind about the ending halfway through? Or was it a deliberate misdirection?

Blending the aspects of crime thriller and sometimes downright cartoony slice-of-life drama isn't done seamelessly, yet the thriller elements, as ill-fitting as they somtiems be, are so important to Strangers in Paradise that I almost can't imagine the series without them.

Darcy Parker may be a nasty villain, but she's also horribly cheesy at times. Having an incestuous attachment to David was pretty much the epitome of gratuitous over-the-topness.

That little fat guy with the curly hair and glasses who keeps showing up is a pretty irritatingly transparent shot at the "other" comics readers. We've all known people like that, but to have basically the same joke told over and over again, just with him in different jobs, gets tiring fast.

Likewise, the "SiP draws REAL women" back-patting is something I could do without. The art in SiP is fantastic, and I truly wish more female characters in comics were drawn (in all the ways that means) like Moore's cast, but you've got to let some of this stuff speak for itself, you know?

And as I said, the art is fantastic. Moore is great with facial expressions, both the realistic and the cartoony variety, and just draws everything well in a realistic but distinct style. This makes the comic's brief ventures into prose and script all the more annoying, though, and I wish he would have avoided that. I don't mind experimental layouts, but switching to prose in comics has always bothered me.

The only real problem I had with his art was that even with all the attention to detail, sometimes it was hard to tell certain characters apart before they spoke speaking. It often turns out that those characters are related by blood, but not always. I know I still mistook Casey for Katchoo, or vice versa, a whole bunch of times.

In short, love the comic, love the plot, and I'm getting the whole collection.

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