Content Warning: This retrospective mentions abuse and sexual assault.
It’s time for the finale of this rantrospective on Strangers in Paradise. From the characters to the execution of the premise, a lot of it falls flat on its face, and this time it’s not different.
The third major problem that the comic talks about, but fumbles horribly: Francine and Katchoo’s bisexuality. Both of these women have been shown to like women and men to different degrees, Katchoo being mostly into girls, and Francine mostly into men. Of course, there’s plenty of terms one could use to describe their feelings in today’s language. Heteroflexible-demisexual, Demiromantic-Asexual, and so forth. But in 1993, those terms were limited to the point that the only ones known to the public would be lesbian, trans, bisexual, and gay, hence the original four letters in LGBT+. Throughout the lengthy run of the series, the characters discuss the nature of Francine and Katchoo’s sexuality as “Lesbian” or “not Lesbian.” Through arching storylines and dozens of discussions between characters, I never saw bisexuality used as a term. Bear in mind, BiNET USA, a non-profit national US organization made to spread awareness for bisexuality, was founded 5 years before the comic premiered.
To a degree I can’t entirely fault Terry Moore for this, as at the time bisexuality was being demonized by the LGBT+ community at large, most notably by lesbian critics. Heck, if you want a horror story, look up the lesbian/bisexual conflicts in the Northampton Pride Marches, 1989-1993. There were critics there openly and vocally debating on whether “Bisexuality was compatible with feminism.” There were undoubtedly bisexual attendance members listening to this bile for years running, and it showcases the toxic environment surrounding anyone who is not traditionally gay/lesbian in the LGBT+ community, a stigma that continues to this day. However, that still doesn’t stop the handling of our character’s sexuality being largely problematic.
This isn’t even getting into the handling of race and sexual abuse in Strangers in Paradise. Any Asian character I saw was directly tied to the Yakuza, and of those, the only characters considered redeemable was a born-again Christian and characters that lead to his Christianity. The only black character I remember seeing was a therapist playing support for Katchoo, which bleeds into the literary stereotype that black characters are only there to further the emotional arc of the white leads. I was informed that one of the cast had a black boyfriend at one point, but after re-reading the series I honestly don’t even remember him and he was dropped as a character very early after his introduction. That should be evidence enough that this book isn’t concerned with intersectional feminism. There are a shit-ton of nuances and uncomfortable undertones surrounding these creative choices that I as a white person am not equipped to articulate.
I can however, talk about by far the worst part of this entire thing: the rape court case. In issue #47, a character called Lindsey Noel files a rape charge against a man, hiring Freddy Fucking Femur as a lawyer. We get an intensely gruesome recounting of every violent thing that was done to her, leaving her visibly scarred. What sets me off the deep end is that in reality, Lindsey was lying about the whole thing, and was in fact setting up an innocent man just in the hopes of getting close to Freddy. Why did she do this? Because she’s actually a Parker Girl, a group of elite mafia-led sex workers, and she planned to kill Katchoo by using Freddy as a middleman to introduce them. She wants to do that because Katchoo’s sister, also involved with the Parker Girls, was responsible for actually disfiguring her. Lindsey is then quickly assassinated before her plans can come to fruition.
So, to reiterate, readers had to go through an intensely fucked-up description of rape, all to accomplish a half-baked plan that was stopped before Katchoo was even aware of it. This is the storytelling equivalent of killing the puppy in John Wick, only for the criminals to slip on a giant banana peel and break their necks in an unrelated scene. It’s unnecessary from a story perspective, and could undoubtedly trigger an abuse survivor, making it a double poison of bullshit.
This isn’t the first case of abuse in Strangers in Paradise. Earlier, Francine’s ex-boyfriend Chuck finds out that his girlfriend Rachel is breaking up with him unexpectedly. This is because, unknown to him, Rachel is actually named Veronica and is a sleeper agent working for the Parker Girls. When he pushes for a reason why, she physically assaults him like nothing I’ve ever seen. This is reflected in the art, which for the most part works well, but scenes of intense emotion can misfire. The characters become very ugly—intentionally so, but it paints the scene so viscerally that it feels inappropriate. Veronica’s face is contorted and stretched, literally frothing at the mouth for no particular reason. This is then followed by two scenes of the characters playing off Chuck’s horrible abuse as humorous. The highlight of this mess is when professional-black-hole-of-humanity Freddy Femur gaslights him seconds after Chuck got up from this encounter and chases after Veronica’s car. It feels like Terry Moore did not understand the incredible severity of bringing these topics to discussion. You cannot invoke rape and domestic abuse without fully realizing what that means for the narrative, the characters, and most importantly, your audience. It’s incredibly mishandled, and frankly disgusting.
Now, after almost 4000 words of critical bitching, is there anything positive worth discussing in this comic? Believe it or not, yes. As much as I complain, there are plenty of moments done well, some even to a fantastic degree. Scenes of guilt, loss, and emotional turmoil are generally touching when it doesn’t directly relate to the central love triangle. Humorous moments most often hit the mark, and there are little touches here and there that capture the female experience in a way most cishet guy writers wouldn’t think to put in, for which I commend Terry Moore. There’s also a powerful scene where Katchoo meets her friend Emma, an ex-Parker Girl who is on her deathbed after a long battle with AIDS. It’s quiet, thoughtful and well-put together, and these kinds of scenes are all over the series: beautifully done, emotionally touching, and well-drawn. The crime aspects are also for the most part engaging, and Katchoo’s mafia storyline is almost always entertaining. I just wish all these nuggets of good character moments and well-timed comedy weren’t interlaced with such a broken mess of a narrative.
In the end, Strangers In Paradise is an enjoyable slog of a series. It was touted as a veritable monolith of progress at the time, and to give credit where it’s due, I believe that Terry Moore gave everything he could to make this as feminist as he could think to make it. But, in a world where I can right now look up half a dozen fantastic intersectional webcomics from diverse creators, it frankly can’t compete. The Alternative Comics of the 80’s and 90’s were an important stepping stone to the queer comics wonderland we have today, but none show how much we had left to go quite as well as Strangers in Paradise. Still, a stepping stone it is, and for what it’s worth, I recommend looking through it. For all its rough edges, it’s an earnest story, and a fantastic timestamp to see how much progress we’ve made since it was first published.
“People, fights, relationships, desperation, desire, despair, hope… and no spandex? In a comic book?”
-Overstreet’s FAN (On the back of volume 2, 1996)