Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Friday, May 26, 2023

Friday, May 26, 2023: Maximum Shelf: Strangers in Paradise, Vol. 1

Abstract Studio: Strangers in Paradise Volume One by Terry Moore

Abstract Studio: Strangers in Paradise Volume One by Terry Moore

Abstract Studio: Strangers in Paradise Volume One by Terry Moore

Abstract Studio: Strangers in Paradise Volume One by Terry Moore

Strangers in Paradise, Vol. 1

by Terry Moore

What at first seems a charming slice-of-life tale about two 20-something roommates becomes a daring romp through the politics of sex, love, and mob violence in this edition of Terry Moore's beloved Strangers in Paradise comic book series. The volume, at 480 pages, comprises the first quarter of the complete serial, and includes the same arresting black-and-white panels and zany dialogue long-time fans will remember from their youth. But even those who did not read the series during its original run from 1993 to 2007 will find this repackaged volume accessible, if not downright addicting.

The story largely follows three main characters: the kindhearted but insecure Helen Francine Peters, aka Francine; the emotionally volatile but steadfast Katina Marie Choovanski, aka Katchoo (yes, pronounced like a sneeze); and their patient, artistic pal David Qin. Francine and Katchoo are best friends and roommates. Katchoo is secretly in love with Francine. Both are friends (or maybe more) with David, who's in love with Katchoo. Katchoo considers herself a lesbian... or, anyway, she thinks so. It's all a bit confusing for everyone, a dynamic only further complicated by the crime-thriller components Moore sprinkles in like an unorthodox garnish. All together, however, the ingredients work: the comic-book form is the ideal medium for such experiments, and Moore makes the chemistry a blast.

As Katchoo's history as an underage call girl named Baby June becomes clearer on the page, so, too, does her connection with another tangle in the love web: she was once both agent for and lover of Darcy Parker, part of the Parker Crime Syndicate and also... David's sister. If readers struggle to keep these narrative threads straight, that's intentional. (It's also part of the fun.) Reading Strangers in Paradise is necessarily immersive; the story requires more than a cursory investment in order to reap the full rewards of Moore's panels. There's a reason this volume of Strangers in Paradise is only the latest of several collecting and reissuing the cult classic series. The story, and its graphic novel form, are stuffed with careful details, often requiring multiple read-throughs to recognize. Combined, these components fuse to form characters that--however absurdist--are difficult not to love. 

Moore plays with stereotypes and clichés throughout the book, employing them as often as he subverts them. Those readers who find the old-school rhythms of comic-book tropes comforting will discover much to appreciate. Take, for instance, the crime syndicate, which employs a ring of women--known as "Parker Girls"--to interfere with democratic processes and execute figureheads. Is such an invention ridiculous? Absolutely, but no less absurd than the superhero tales that regularly dominate pop culture. That pop lingo, by the way, is similarly wielded by Moore in his characters' dialogue, both as a self-critique and a self-indulgence. In one chapter, Katchoo suffers a near-death experience, and copes with the trauma through practiced nonchalance: "But if I have to keep slogging through day after day of this slam dance called life, at least I have a beautiful partner to do it with. I mean, how many people are lucky enough to have a gorgeous woman who'll stand by them... no matter what. ...well, besides Hugh Grant. Come on, work with me here. This is my story. Sheesh!"

Still, it is Strangers in Paradise's place within the context of graphic-novel history that cements its continued importance, and makes the case for the release of this new volume. The series was one of the first of its genre to feature unabashedly queer characters throughout its run, earning it several GLAAD Awards, as well as an Eisner. And while the feminist notions and body politics with which Katchoo and Francine wrestle might seem tired by today's standards, they were downright forward-thinking at the time of their publication; nor are they now so old-hat as they might seem. Many of Strangers in Paradise storylines--from Francine's conservative religious upbringing to Katchoo's sexual confusion to the toxic sway of crime and capitalism--remain as relevant now as they were in the '90s. Comparing and critiquing these themes in a modern context is part of the pleasure of revisiting this book.

Moore promises plenty to come after Volume 1, with plans to eventually collect the entire Strangers in Paradise run across four books. Other collected versions, including the previously published omnibuses and so-called "pocket books," will not be reprinted, making this new release the best way to read the series in its entirety. Die-hard fans will particularly appreciate the fresh full-color covers Moore is designing for each volume, and just as many will rediscover joy inside those covers as well: Moore's creative use of panel organization and occasional arresting full-page illustrations are just as memorable as they were years ago. In spite of Moore's decades of success, there's never been a better time to meet his Strangers than now. --Lauren Puckett-Pope

Abstract Studio, $26.95, paperback, 480p., 9781892597915, June 20, 2023

Abstract Studio: Strangers in Paradise Volume One by Terry Moore

Terry Moore: An Icon, Revisited

Cartoonist Terry Moore is the award-winning creator of many comics series, including the cult classic Strangers in Paradise, a groundbreaking work that earned him the Eisner Award for Best Serialized Story in 1996 and several GLAAD Awards. He is also the publisher of Abstract Studio, which will re-release volume 1 of the series (comprising the first quarter of the complete serial) on June 20, 2023.

Let's start by getting readers familiar with your work, if they weren't already fans of Strangers in Paradise. What is this volume you're publishing now? Something old or something new?

This is the one and only Strangers in Paradise series, divided into four equal parts for today's book market. I am creating new covers, of course. It's an epic series, so four books seemed like the best way to present it to the world.

Why is now the right time to release this new collected version?

Strangers in Paradise was always said to be ahead of its time because of the themes in the story. I think readers will appreciate the story now more than ever. The struggle for love and acceptance is always relevant.

As the author and creator, how would you compare Strangers to other comic books and graphic novels, especially more contemporary titles?

It's funny--I wrote Strangers in Paradise because I wanted to read it and couldn't find it by other people. I wanted to read a modern romantic triangle where the three characters handed their script one to the right. The will-they/won't-they tension is off the charts as they all fumble through the relationship like a bull in a china shop. Hence the name: because, in love, we are strangers in paradise--not sure how to behave or what to say without blowing it. Also, I didn't want the entire story to be a quiet domestic tale, I wanted an element of danger and sacrifice. It makes for a very engaging story, where the love blossoms in the midst of life and death. I'm not sure what book to recommend on a similar vein. That's why I had to write Strangers in Paradise.

Has the fanbase for Strangers in Paradise continued to surprise you, three decades after it first came out?

Yes, it has. It's what I hoped for all along. I do believe that books with certain qualities stand the test of time. Strangers in Paradise was never about the decade in which it was created. The story is timeless because it's about people, and how we work and love and hope and fight for things we believe in. Write on that level, and it doesn't matter when the book was written or read.

What is most exciting about releasing this particular version of your collected run?

The fact that Strangers in Paradise will be introduced to the world at large, beyond the world of comics and pop culture. For that I am very grateful.

How would you describe your art style, and how has it evolved in the years since you started Strangers? Do you feel a certain nostalgia for your old drawings?

Once I began drawing Strangers all day every day, my learning curve went through the roof. I felt like I could see my art improve even in the length of one 20-page issue. The thought crossed my mind I could go back and redraw the first issue better now, but then you face this sort of philosophical choice of, Do you redraw Issue No. 1 over and over to perfection, or do you move forward to draw 100 issues and never look back? So I chose to move forward and let my learning curve show. It taught me a lesson that you can't wait for your art to mature before you hit the art world.

Get on the art train as soon as you can and grow up in public. Once I saw it in my life, I began seeing it in every artist's work. Am I nostalgic for my old style, racing through the art as a cartoonist with a brush? Well, I miss the simplicity of that, but it doesn't produce the kind of art I'm capable of making now.

How has the response from the queer community shaped the depiction of your characters, particularly given that the series won a GLAAD Award? What responsibility did you feel (and do you feel still) to depict these relationships with authenticity?

My heart was opened through my love for my first cousin Ben, who was one of the early victims of AIDS. When Katchoo says, "When do we get to live as if we belong here?" I thought of Ben and how he struggled for acceptance and a happy life. To this day, I choke up thinking about it, so my feeling about this has never waned--it's at my core. And while I'm not the characters I write, I do try to be like a journalist who reports the truth. I am able to tell you Katchoo's story because I can tell you Ben's story. So in a very real sense, I share the GLAAD Award with Ben. I miss him.

Which of the stories in this particular collection--Volume 1--do you recall being the most difficult to write (or, perhaps, draw)? Do you remember why?

The writing comes naturally for me, maybe because I've been doing it for most of my life. The art is the hard work because the process never ends. It takes a second to write "Suddenly every window in Manhattan blew out." It takes a week to draw that sentence. So it's not a matter of one scene in Strangers that was a challenge; it's every scene with architecture and buildings and a million-point perspective and furniture and decorating the interiors and.... Art is hard.

Do you have any plans to continue this series at some point, even though it's been many years since the official ending?

I've made many books since Strangers in Paradise, and all of them contain some character from Strangers. Even the series I'm currently making, Parker Girls, has Katchoo playing a major role. For me, this keeps the characters alive and relevant. I didn't leave Katchoo behind; she's still here, looking great, and still cooler than us. --Lauren Puckett-Pope

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