Sunday, March 27, 2011

Strangers in Paradise, Pocket Edition Volume 1

Cards, Comics and Collectibles really has my number for March. Every Sunday in the month is 50% off on trades and hard covers, so I’m stocking up.

The first read out of this stack is Strangers in Paradise, Pocket Edition Volume 1. I’m way late in the game in reading this series, what with it having started in ’93 and ended in ’07. Better late than never, and the Pocket Edition was a steal to begin, only more so when reduced to half price. This volume collects volume 1 and volume 2 of the original series. It’s a total of 16 issues, as the first volume only had 3 and the second 13. Publisher shifts account for the varying volume numbers. The third volume runs 90 issues, but none of those stories are in this Pocket Edition. Lots to anticipate, though.

Terry Moore is both writer and artist for the book. It’s his work on Echo that brought me to this book, really. I haven’t finished reading Echo, or even caught up to where it is in trades, but Echo has beautiful art and a great adventure story in a sci-fi vein. Strangers in Paradise is a different animal.

I think the most accurate description would be a soap opera with adventure. The core of the story is the relationship between Francine Peters and Katina “Katchoo” Choovanski, two women who went to high school together, went their separate ways, but ended up living together in a rented house in Houston. They’re probably mid ‘20s when the book starts. Katchoo is an artist/painter. Francine is some sort of wage slave. Into the mix we also have Freddie Femurs, a lawyer engaged to Francine, and David Qin, a young art student from New York who meets Katchoo on the street and strikes up a friendship.

Well, that’s how things start out. A lot develops in the 16 issues here. Francine’s been dating Freddie for a year but they’ve never had sex, despite his impassioned pleas. Born of frustration, and his inherent skeeziness, Freddie embarks on an affair with a co-worker, only to have Francine, dressed only in a negligee and trench coat, walk in on him and the co-worker mid coitus. Francine’s had bad experiences with men leaving her after she had sex with them so she’d been holding out on Freddie, who she loved. She was finally breaking down at their one year anniversary and was going to have sex with him. When she leaves him she tells him he missed out because she’s great at sex, something an ex-boyfriend of hers later confirms to Freddie.

Meanwhile, Katchoo loves Francine. She also grows to love David. And she loved Emma, a woman who saved Katchoo from life as a teen alcoholic on the streets of LA, but brought Katchoo into a life of prostitution. Granted, Katchoo was high end and only had two clients, both of whom were women, but the high risk of the profession is fairly evident when Emma dies from AIDS. Katchoo doesn’t want Francine to know about that part of her past but she does break down and tell David at one point when Emma is dying. Eventually Francine does learn all that, with none of the ill consequences Katchoo feared.

Katchoo leaves Houston for Toronto, where Emma’s in hospice, without telling Francine much more than that she was leaving. Francine is a comfort eater, as well as being a bit needy with men (which has the benefit, to men, of her being really good at sex to please men). By the time Katchoo returns Francine has put on about 30 pounds. It’s a combination of the break-up with Freddie and Katchoo leaving, but through the rest of this volume she doesn’t lose any weight, so Francine has the, unusual for comics, appearance of a chubby, attractive woman who’s a main character in a story.

Naturally, Francine also thinks she’s in love with David, but that doesn’t seem to last. Of course, it might come back again in later volumes.

Freddie ends up engaged to Casey, the hottest aerobics instructor in Houston, according to someone in this story. Casey is her own bundle of insecurities, having had at least two nose jobs and a boob job, according to her mother.

Then there’s the adventure. Emma and Katchoo are suspected by Darcy Parker in the theft of $850,000 of Darcy’s money. Darcy’s married to a man in his 70’s, while she’s probably in her 30’s. She seems to be involved with some sort of mafia, though it’s a bit vague at this point. She’s also, it turns out, the older sister of David Qin. She sent David to get close to Katchoo when she located Katchoo, though she didn’t count on David being in love with Katchoo.

Darcy only employs women and has no respect for any man. Her aide de camp is Samantha (Sam), and her primary enforcer is a woman named Tambi, who has an identical twin. Darcy does subcontract out to an ex-cop named Digman to follow Katchoo, even though he’s a man. Darcy eventually has Digman killed by Tambi and her sister, but it doesn’t go very well. Digman talks about who his employer is before he dies, so the police are after Darcy. Katchoo is threatened with the death of Francine if she doesn’t give Darcy back her money, but Katchoo goes to the police and brings them in on the meeting, wearing a wire. Sam, who didn’t actually steal the $850000 from Darcy but had been skimming millions over the years, is framed by Katchoo so that Darcy believes Sam stole the money. Sam winds up shot in the head by the police, Darcy arrested though soon out on ROR, and Tambi’s sister charged with Digman’s murder.

And thrown in with all that Darcy loved Katchoo, too. Sort of. More like felt as though she owned Katchoo. In fact, she has all her possessions who are human tattooed with a lily, which Katchoo has on her left breast.

All of which sounds interesting but doesn’t actually capture all that Moore provides. It’s not just the plot that is important here. In fact, the plot is somewhat less important than the characters Moore builds and how he presents his story. There’s a manga element to the character depictions, with the occasional exaggerated facial expression, but it’s not so heavy handed as to be distracting, as is often the case in manga, at least for me. Moore also uses prose narrative at times, laying some story in book form with side illustrations rather than pictures with words. There are items of poetry reproduced, as well as some songs written and reproduced. There are dream sequences that differ in style of depiction, depending on the dreamer. Some take a “realistic” approach while others intentionally evoke the juvenile, in keeping with the dream. It’s a lot of detail work that shows a love for the craft and the characters, giving them more flesh by having them have memorabilia.

Of course, it’s the love between Francine and Katchoo that drives it all. They’re quite a confused, damaged duo, too. They love each other. They love David. Francine loves Freddie. Katchoo loves Emma. David loves Katchoo. At one point Francine and Katchoo are about to kiss for real for the first time when David arrives. After a long hard conversation in the rain, Katchoo ends up kissing David instead. Francine takes off for Hawaii on free tickets Freddie had left when he tried to get her back at one point. He ended up abandoning that, at least for that moment, and going off to Hawaii with Casey to get married, naked under a waterfall. They’re all very conflicted people with crashing motivations, both within themselves and between them. It’s a sort of engaging, entertaining train wreck of humanity, told very well.
There's also a lot of little details with neighbors and tangential friends. These often add humor to the moment, though our main duo provides plenty of humor amidst their adventures and romances. For all the talk of sexual activity by Francine and Katchoo in the past, I don't think either of them has any sex during the entire year this volume encompasses. That's kind of funny in its own right. If you're looking for titilation, this isn't the place. Sex is prevalent as a topic, not an observable event.

My only drop out of the reality constructed was when someone said the $850,000 wasn’t really Darcy’s money but mob money she was handling. I’m sorry, what? This money disappeared four years previously and the mob’s still letting Darcy account for it? Why hasn’t the mob taken punitive measures already? They’re not known for being forgiving.

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