Note: Steve Bissette and I are teaching a course in contemporary comics history (Survey of the Drawn Story II, as it’s properly known). Our students are required to submit an essay, in blog form, on an aspect of contemporary comics history. They are restricted to the period of 1969 – present.
Today’s essay is by Tom Casteel. Enjoy!
– Robyn Chapman
Strangers in Paradise by Terry Moore
by Tom Casteel
Strangers in Paradise is a comic book series that was self-published by its creator Terry Moore from 1993 to 2007. The series ran for 90 issues, coming out reliably every 6 to 8 weeks for fourteen years. Excluding a handful of pages drawn by Jim Lee for a special issue, Moore single-handedly penciled, inked and lettered every panel of the series’ run. Putting this output in perspective, Jeff Smith’s Bone ran for 55 issues over thirteen years. When the series ended in 2007, some industry commentators claimed it was the end of the self-publishing movement started by Dave Sim. Cerebus and Bone had both ended in 2004, and Strangers in Paradise was arguably the last widely read title that had emerged during the self-publishing era of the mid 1990s. At its conclusion the series was still highly popular. The entire run has been collected in trade paperbacks, all of which are currently in print, and has been translated into seven languages.
In 1992, Moore was looking for a way to break into either the comic book industry or the world of syndicated newspaper comic strips. He wrote and drew the first issue of Strangers in Paradise, the first comic book that he had ever drawn, as a calling card or portfolio piece to get him work at one of the big comic book publishers. His intent with creating the first issue was just to get a job, not to self-publish his own comic book. However, after seeing the first issue, Antarctic Press approached Moore about creating a 3-issue mini-series, expanding on the characters and plot of the first issue. Though he later admitted that he had no idea of what he was getting into and was just faking his way through, Moore agreed to the deal with Antarctic and in November of 1993 the first issue of the mini-series was published. At first Moore thought the mini-series would be the end of Strangers in Paradise, and he would try again to use this work to get a job at one of the large publishers. However, the mini-series received positive critical response and Moore was encouraged by other self-publishers to continue with the project. Moore knew that Strangers in Paradise was not the type of book that would be published by Marvel or DC, though he also realized that it wasn’t “alternative” enough to appeal to some of the smaller presses either. After a brief run with Homage Comics, Moore started his own publishing company, Abstract Studio, and re-launched the series with a new first issue in 1994.
Strangers in Paradise is primarily a story about the relationship between its three main characters: Francine Peters, Katina “Katchoo” Choovanski and David Qin. The series starts with the budding relationship between Francine and Katchoo. David enters the story in later issues, though he quickly grows in importance until becoming a central character. Another character, Casey Femur, gains importance later in the series and is also a central character at its conclusion. These characters possess remarkable emotional depth and complexity. It is tempting to give a profile of each character, but like real people their individual personalities cannot be neatly summarized in a few words. The relationships between the characters are complex and are ever shifting between friendship and romance. The deep internal emotional lives of the characters, and the complex emotional terrain of their relationships creates a highly satisfying and remarkable story.
The artwork on this series is impressive. Moore’s linework is beautiful and achieves both realism and simplicity. Working with a brush and nib, with fluid live lines, Moore masterfully conveys a huge range of emotion. He draws his characters convincingly with real body types and real faces. His work has been praised for its realistic portrayal of woman’s bodies, especially given the context of the highly sexualized and spandex-clad content of much of the comic books of the major publishers in the mid 1990s.
Moore’s take on the sexuality of his characters has brought the series both positive and negative attention. The romance between Francine and Katchoo is the driving emotional element of the story, though neither character ever makes a declaration of their sexual identity. The story is really about their relationship, not about their sexual preferences. Interestingly, at first glance Moore does not seem to be your typical crusader for equal rights for gays. He was raised in a conservative Christian church in Texas. Moore decided to explore issues of sexuality in his early issues of “Strangers in Paradise” after his cousin, a homosexual, died of HIV early on in the AIDS epidemic. After members of his church began to read his series and saw what they considered a favorable representation of homosexuality he was asked to stop the series or to leave the church. Moore left his church and continued the series.
Another interesting aspect of Moore’s approach to this series is his inclusion of his other creative efforts in the comic book. Moore decided early on in the series that Strangers in Paradise would be the outlet for all of his creative passions, even those not were not traditionally included in comic books. The stories often include poetry, prose, song lyrics and fine art. These elements are used both as storytelling elements and as creative works of the characters, which is an effective device in revealing their character.
Moore’s career in self-publishing continues today. He started his new series Echo in 2007 and plans to conclude it within two years with issue number 30. This series is a sci-fi thriller, yet still embraces Moore’s flair for emotionally diverse characters and realistic but simple drawing.
– Tom Casteel