The last time we met, Strangers in Paradise was brought up as a cornerstone of comics, albeit a cornerstone weathered to the point of being riddled with holes. We started discussing some of the issues present in the series, including the toxic nature of Katchoo’s character arc. Unfortunately, once you hit a certain word count for your articles the editors at WWAC start aiming a red laser pointer at your head and pretend it’s a sniper rifle until you shove off.
This time, we’ll be tackling the incredibly botched nature of the love triangle itself. See, this comic started in 1993, and the relationship dynamic was a woman torn between a man and another woman. Outside of never discussing how novel that is for the time, the gang’s main problem is that they never sit down and talk about what they want. Katchoo talks to both David and Francine seperately, but it’s rare to see all three of them actually sit down and discuss their feelings for each other. You never really get a sense of what each individual wants in relation to the entire trio, and considering how often Katchoo seems to throw herself between the two, and how little they seem to argue about this, it’s a wonder they never considered being a polyamorous couple. I know this is brought up in every love triangle scenario, and it might be a bit tired in concept, but in this scenario it’s warranted.
There other pairings within the comic that feature polyamory, more than one of which actually directly feature Katchoo or David, but there are multiple scenes that are so queer-coded that it makes my brain hurt when they don’t follow up on it. As an example, when David’s gotten back together with Katchoo, she catches him in bed with another woman, Casey. This is immediately followed by Katchoo stuffing both of them together into a closet so she can pretend to be asleep, as Francine is coming back home after a long argument with Katchoo. While in this weird mix-up, Casey and David start getting vaguely sexual with each other, and Katchoo and Francine almost make out. Casey and David fall out of the closet, we laugh at this comedic sitcom schmaltz, and then … nothing. This scene is never brought up again. Katchoo and David almost swapped spit with other people within a meter of each other, but this is…just irrelevant, apparently.
It’s clear that everyone in this fuckheap has desires around each other, but they refuse to sit down and talk, instead just winging it and hoping the next broken piece of furniture costs less to replace. Eventually the characters start to settle, depart from each other and very rapidly grow as people as we skip through months of their lives. The problem is that this happens 16 volumes in, and I had to deal with 15 volumes of wishy-washy half-baked romance that should have started and stopped with clear communication. Even near the end, the relationship aspect is left mostly vague, and you’re left wondering who is dating who, and how everyone feels about it. Especially because we do get moments of how Francine feels awful when Katchoo is unfaithful … except sometimes when she’s clearly pining over David and everything’s chill.
The love triangle is ultimately solved by, believe it or not, killing David via a brain tumor. The series disliked talking about the romance in any sensible way so much that they solved it by ejecting the issue into the stratosphere and forgetting about it. “Look, now the girls are alone! No need to worry about the complexities of dating when there’s only two of you, right?” Imagine, for example, if in the third book in the Twilight series, Jacob suddenly got hit by a large truck, and we then spend the last part of the novel dealing with his medical issues and untimely passing. Sure, it’d be heartbreaking due to Jacob having redeemable qualities, unlike most of the Twilight cast, but it would blow away any tension that the books had set up concerning Bella, Edward and Jacob. Granted, Twilight sucks anyway, but the point is clear: to kill off a part of your love triangle like this, after 19 volumes, doesn’t feel like that character’s story arc coming to fruition. It feels like you painted yourself into a corner and decided the only solution was to run across the floor while we watched.
Since I am harping on two corners of the love triangle, Francine has her own significant problems. As a character, she’s fine, but never lives up to her full potential. Her role in the story is twofold: she’s an insecure, plus size woman slowly regaining her agency, and she must reconcile her conflicting desires for both Katchoo and a traditional nuclear family. The latter aspect is mostly handled well, with major personal introspection and discussion; she talks to a priest, and she considers how her conservative upbringing is keeping her from accepting herself. However, the story of Francine regaining her agency is another matter. Strangers in Paradise wants to send a message about body positivity, but that message overrides her character. When we discuss her lifestyle, it mostly concerns her eating and her weight. When we go into her work at an advertising agency, it eventually devolves into how the ad company thinks she has a hot body that they can use to sell condoms. When she meets old friends and colleagues, the discussion will almost always go to her weight. When Katchoo tries to tell Francine she has more worth than she knows, Katchoo shows this through nude drawings of Francine’s body. And when it comes to her past relationships, it always comes back to Freddy Fucking Femur and his obsession with her tits.
Freddy Fucking Femur. If you’ve ever had a toxic relationship, you will tear every page of Freddy Fucking Femur from these books and sacrificially burn them. If you’ve ever been hit by revenge porn, you will try to find every man who remotely looks like Freddy Fucking Femur and club them in the teeth. Till the day you draw your last breath, as long as you still have a functioning brain cell, you will find it in your power to utter the phrase: “By Satan’s itchy butthole, I hate the rotten human shitstain that is Freddy Motherfucking Femur.” That is how much of a repugnant toad this man is. He is a selfish, cheating liar who pressures his girlfriend for sex, then hides her nudes for his “personal collection” long after he’s broken up with her. He is such a limpdick putz through the entirety of the series that it’s like Zeus’s kidney stones came to life and decided they want to be just like their dad.
As you might have guessed, I hate his existence, fictional as it may be. However, he is truly is the harbinger of Francine’s problems as a character. Throughout the story, we focus on different aspects of her life, but it always goes back to the shape of her body. Her relationship with Freddy concerns his abusive behavior, her inability to prioritize her own needs, how he projects his feelings for her on all of his consecutive partners, but it all falls flat when it boils down to ‘she is overweight, but still hot?’
Francine as a character is never explored much outside of her relationship to Katchoo and her concept of a family. Terry Moore seems to think that women regaining agency revolves primarily around their appearance and who they date. Her career, lifestyle, social interactions and so forth are hidden under this one message to the point that the message becomes her character. She loses credibility as anything but a walking billboard for Moore’s flawed body positivity message, and I really never get to see anything else out of her. I wanted the comic to just discuss her work environment without bringing up the topic of her breasts. I wanted to see her slowly take control of ALL aspects of her life, and not just this narrow-minded perspective that clogs all of her growth as a person.
With that, I just ripped into all three main characters and the fundamental premise of Strangers in Paradise. Next time we’ll be putting the finishing touches on this colossal bitchfest of an article, and going into even more critical analysis of toxic relationships and screw-ups on queer identity.
~I can’t fucking wait~
“This is why STRANGERS IN PARADISE is the comic I hand to people – Usually women – who have never read a comic, and have no interest whatsoever in superheroes or horror or fantasy. Readers who view comic books as a strange, quirky, campy but slightly shallow medium – the drag queen of literature.”
-Alisa Kwitney (Volume 3 introduction, 1996)