Strangers in Paradise Volume 1
by Terry Moore
1996 Eisner Winner for Best Serialized Story
I have this picture of how Terry Moore came up with Strangers in Paradise in my head. He set out to create a touching romantic comedy with a trio of characters caught in each other's orbit but unable to ever quite connect. While he was plotting that he was also working on a violent, noirish crime drama. Then one day he tripped while carrying both scripts and the pages got scrambled. As he was trying to put them back in order he said, "Hey, this could really work!" and history was made. I don't care if it isn't true, it feels like it should be. There's no reason why such an odd mix should work but it turns out it does in Strangers in Paradise.
Francine is an insecure woman who undergoes a traumatic break up with her boyfriend over her not wanting to have sex. Her roommate Katchoo is an artist with anger management problems and is in love with Francine. David wants to go out with Katchoo but she claims to have no interest in men though she finds herself becoming attracted to him more and more. Together they are alternatively funny and sweet as they try to feel their way through the relationships. They also have very dark secrets and one of them is being hunted.
The strength of Strangers in Paradise is in its characters. Moore's cast, including the extended cast, are not your typical romantic characters. Their relationships are well outside what you'd normally find depicted in stories; their emotions are rocky and prone to wild swings, their attitudes toward sex cannot be summed up simply, and their lives are not simple. I haven't read past volume one yet but if the love triangle resolves by the three of them deciding to have a group marriage to each other I wouldn't be surprised. I don't want to see any of them hurt which just tells you how much Moore managed to make a connection between me and his characters.
Since the characters are defined by the romantic possibility that's the setting that they work best in. Those slice of life portions are whimsical and charming. They carry an undercurrent of simmering passion that hasn't come to the surface yet in the series.
The flip side of that is the dark, violent crime drama and that is less effective. It's not that it isn't good. Having the cute characters put into the path of harm ratchets up the tension. The brutal violence is shocking in the context of a book that was about the love lives of the group a few pages before. It's just that this storyline is much less developed in the first volume. I couldn't wait for it to be over so I could go back to the lighthearted portions.
With the art Moore took the interesting direction of using a varied style depending on which plot was moving forward. When things are romantic the characters are cute and cartoony but the art gets a harsher look when the violence comes. Moore draws some impressively expressive characters. His artwork is an important aspect of bringing them to life.
I've only read one volume of Strangers in Paradise but I've ordered the next two. I'm enthralled by the lives of these characters and I want to see if through to the end. Moore has made it easy to fall in love with them just as they fall in love with each other.