For our first installment of the Fantastic Fangirls (Comic) Book Club, the four of us decided to read Strangers in Paradise, Pocket Book 1, written and drawn by Terry Moore.
If you want to get a jump on our next book club, we’ll be reading the first volume of the manga series Ghost in the Shell. We’ve decided the book club will be bi-monthly — to give us all time to read other things! — so we’ll get that discussion underway toward the beginning of June. More details will be forthcoming.
Today, though, we’re going to start our discussion of Strangers in Paradise which we’ll sometimes just call SiP), by sharing an email exchange that took place among the Fantastic Fangirls’ staff. This is a starting point for whatever our readers would like to say about the book. In the comments, feel free to address any of the points that came up in our discussion, or raise a topic/question of your own.
Since we had so much to say, the discussion will be broken into two days. Today we’re focusing on the substance of the book, and tomorrow we’ll address a few topics about comics in general that the discussion ended up raising. Enjoy!
Caroline: Hi fangirls! I had a hard time figuring out how to begin this discussion of Strangers in Paradise. I finally decided to start by talking about this difficulty, because I think that’s related to my overall experience with the book.
Let me explain.
There’s a saying I heard while studying writing: “Every good book should teach you how to read it.” The idea is that because every book is different, the rules you’ve learned from every book you read before don’t necessarily apply — but if the book is well done, that doesn’t matter, because you’ll figure it out as you go along. I think that’s true to an extent, but I also think that there are a lot of things outside the individual book that help us know how to read it, and genre conventions are a big part of that. If we go in knowing something is a crime story or a romance or a horror novel, we have different expectations. This was an issue for me with SiP because my genre expectations were defined by absence. I knew it wasn’t a superhero book (no capes, no tights, no superpowered punching) but that was about it.
Because of that absence of expectation, I wasn’t sure how to react to the first section (the 3 issues originally published as Volume 1). It starts out as a relationship story, turns into an unexpectedly violent sex comedy, and has these tender, earnest emotional (though not exactly romantic) moments scattered in there. I had a hard time figuring out how to evaluate what was happening; I wasn’t sure how realistic the story was supposed to be, and so how seriously to take either the violence or the characters’ emotions. Was I really supposed to care about them, or was it just fodder for over-the-top hijinks? Also, with the story starting at the end of Francine’s relationship with Freddie, I had a hard time understanding what that relationship had been like, and so I didn’t know how to take Francine and Katchoo’s reactions. I think it’s safe to say they both overreact — Francine breaks down and strips in public, Katchoo physically attacks Freddie — but I don’t know whether to feel that Freddie deserves it.
That’s a longwinded way to say I had trouble getting into the first book. But I put it down and took a break (yes, I took a break to read Twilight, shut up), and then found Volume 2 a lot more appealing. Partly, I think Moore smoothed out some rough edges in his writing and gave more background on the characters, so I could understand how they related to each other. At the same time, I think SiP did, as good books should, (eventually) teach me how to read it. While the plot got more complicated, I had figured out what thread to hang onto to take me through the book. For me, this was the interactions among Francine and Katchoo and David, and once I focused on those characters, it moved forward nicely. I ended up involved with their lives, and wanting to know what happened next.
I’m curious if the others who read it for the first time — Jennifer or Anika — had a similar reaction. How did you feel about the story initially, and did it change over the course of the book? What kept you reading?
Jennifer: I completely agree with you. I knew a little bit more about the book’s genre coming in — or, at least, I’d heard that it couldn’t quite figure out what genre it was supposed to be, and that it shifted from romance/slice of life comedy to center around a dramatic mob/crime plot — so I was expecting a little confusion. But those first three issues threw me for quite a loop. I try to be forgiving of a writer’s early work, but to be honest I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue after that first volume.
The main problem, for me, was the humor. I have a lot of difficulty handling embarrassment humor; it’s the main reason I can’t watch sitcoms. And the bulk of the humor in those first three issues is pure, cringe-inducing embarrassment humor. When Francine stripped in the park, I wanted to dig a hole in the ground beneath me just so I could hide from the secondhand embarrassment. And between those moments of humor, all of the dialogue and interactions felt incredibly stale and clichéd (concussion hijinks! bad poetry!). I didn’t feel a connection to any of the characters, and I didn’t really care what happened to them. The only thing that kept me going on to the rest of the issues in the Pocket Book — other than my obligation to this blog! — was Moore’s cartooning, which was incredibly impressive and expressive even in those rough early issues.
Like you, I started to enjoy the book more in the second volume, especially once the dramatic elements overtook the comedic elements that had made me squirm. But I’m not sure I ever fully connected to that trio of characters the same way you did.
Anika: Well, I knew next to nothing going into this. When I got my book in the mail I was surprised at the mass of it and that it was black and white — and based on those two things, and the fact that it is written and drawn by the same person, and that according to the summary on the back (yes, I’m that person who reads the back of the book) it was about a love triangle — based on all that I went into it expecting Western Manga. And that is exactly what I got. If Kimagure Orange Road — a series about falling in and out of love with your best friends — and Gunsmith Cats — a series about two girls with secret mafia-and-child-prostitution-laced pasts taking on the world — had a baby, it would be this book.
Maybe because I was looking for the love triangle, I started off following the throughline that existed between Francine, Katchoo and David. And I think that helped me get through the bumps at the beginning; I do agree it builds momentum as it goes. The characterization of both Katchoo and Francine bugged me at first — they seemed to be…false? Cliché? Over-done? I’m not sure, but it bothered me. Katchoo calling the Rodin sexist really bothered me. But I loved David. I met Terry Moore at Baltimore Comic-Con. He’s soft spoken and earnest and I don’t think David is a self-insert but I imagined all his lines of dialogue in Moore’s voice (and David kinda looks like Joseph Gordon-Levitt so I started imaging him in the role, too) and as the story went on and Katchoo opened up to him . . . Well, I don’t know if I started to see her through his eyes or what exactly, but I got over my knee jerk dislike of her and started to really like how things were playing out.
Sigrid: Page fourteen.
On page fourteen, Katchoo begins telling Francine how Freddie should have, would have, courted Francine if he really loved her. What begins as a slam on Freddie ends with Katchoo stating her feelings for Francine without owning or acknowledging them. Francine recognizes this and yells at Katchoo for . . . not for hitting on her, because Katchoo didn’t, really. Not for hiding her feelings, because, well, Katchoo isn’t managing that, either. Francine essentially yells at Katchoo for wanting more from her than Francine is comfortable thinking about or recognizing. What won me, though, was Katchoo pounding her fist on the floor, castigating herself for handling the display of desire so poorly. She doesn’t blame Francine for emotional obtuseness, avoidance, and question-dodging — she blames herself for pushing too hard. Neither of these characters, for all their love and affection and regard for each other, can actually see the other person clearly. How gorgeous.
When I first read this, twelve years ago, I knew on page fourteen that this was going to be a story about me, about my life. Not the prostitution, or the murders, or the violence — but the over-the-top melodrama between people who love each other but are extremely poor communicators? Oh my, yes. That’s the story I read. The story of the emotional entanglements between a handful of people. After all, who doesn’t fall in love with their best friend? And how completely painful is it when they don’t return the feeling? How awkward is it when your best friend falls in love with you? How do you keep the friendship without hurting your friend? How hard it is to breathe when the object of your crush is in the room, and they don’t care if you’re alive?
I have an incredible fondness for the scenes of wild exaggeration. I read them as being true to the emotions of the scene, not the facts. Emotions made manifest in life. I hadn’t consciously thought of SiP as Western Manga, but that makes a ton of sense to me: lengthy scenes that do little to move a plot, and do everything to immerse the reader in a single moment of hyper-drenched feeling. The scenes of embarrassment are horrifically embarrassing, because to the person experiencing them, they are. The over-the-top cops arresting Katchoo are caricatures because, well, that’s how Katchoo feels about them. Katchoo, Francine, David, and Freddie are frequently shown in full-body posed shots because they are either the center of everyone else’s attention for that moment, or they feel like they are.
Panting melodrama, writ on the page for all to see.
Caroline: Wow, lots of great thoughts in the opening round. Awesome! I’m going to respond to Sigrid first, because she asks some great questions, even if they’re intended as rhetorical. Who doesn’t do these things? Well. . .me. The relationships and situations of these characters don’t reflect my own experiences, even remotely. That didn’t keep me from enjoying the book — it might honestly have helped — but I think it’s worth taking note of, since it seems like identification might be particularly important to the way some readers react to SiP.
I usually tend to gravitate to reading about experiences that are different from mine, but identification can still strike when I’m not looking for it. I know I’m at the point that you guys want to shoot me if I mention Twilight again, but the reason that book affected me more than I expected it to is that I could see so much of my teenage self in the heroine. I wouldn’t want to be her friend, but I can look at her story and see, in an exaggerated way, “I felt that, I did that, I would have done that given half a chance.” Her experience is exaggerated way past the point of reality (there were no vampires in my high school, dammit!), and it illustrates one bad decision after another, but I can’t help being fascinated.
In the same vein, I can see how even the most cartoonish parts of SiP could serve that purpose for readers who had (or are having) a different adolescence and young adulthood than I did. And the more I think about it, the more I’m glad that I had the first volume to get acquainted with the main characters. The broad strokes of the early issues give me a very vivid idea of Francine and Katchoo and David to fall back on as the story progresses. Francine is desperate for any kind of affection or attention, even while pushing it away. Katchoo will go to violent extremes to protect her friends against threats and insults, even if the threats or insults have little to no rational basis. And David. . .well, David will fall under the spell of any strong-willed woman in the vicinity. So even when it turns out he’s a spy sent by his sister to betray Katchoo, he can declare his undying devotion to Katchoo and . . .I think he really believes it.
With that, let’s open up the floor to more discussion about the characters. Anika’s already given her thoughts on David. Did the rest of you have strong reactions to particular characters?
Jennifer: I find it interesting that Sigrid and Caroline have talked about identification, because I think I was a mix between the two of them — vacillating wildly between “no one I know has EVER acted like that,” and “I have totally acted like that, and it’s the parts of myself I’d least like to see mirrored in fiction.” The second reason is, I think, why I had such a strong reaction to Francine. I just wanted to slap her for being so pathetic and letting people walk all over her, but at the same time I knew I was only yelling at myself. I’ll spare you all the embarrassing personal details, but anyone who knows my friendship history is probably nodding right now.
What really bothered me about Francine, though — or, rather, the portrayal of Francine — was the way every bit of her story seemed so focused on her appearance, her weight, and food. I’d heard that Francine was an uncommon comic book heroine because she doesn’t have the supermodel-esque body usually found in comics, and I was quite happy about that. But at the same time the book makes SUCH a big deal out of her size — through characters (or Francine herself) criticizing her for it, or loving her because of/in spite of it — and the food jokes are so non-stop (eating a stick of butter, really?), that I found myself increasingly uncomfortable. I didn’t like the way she was defined by her appearance, especially because every bit of her story so far has been relationship-focused, and her appearance is always a huge part of those interactions.
Then there was David. I have a notoriously high tolerance for “nice guys” who are sometimes entitled jerks without realizing it. I even like Holden McNeil in Chasing Amy, probably the most similar character to David I can think of. But I spent most of this book wanting to strangle David. From the way he dismissed Katchoo’s self-definition of her sexuality out of hand to his inability to take “no” for an answer, he proved himself to be a selfish prick long before his connection to Mrs. Parker was revealed. And the way the girls simply took him back with hardly a question afterward drove me absolutely nuts. I don’t think he’s evil, but I get the feeling we’re supposed to like and identify with him, and support this love triangle, and mostly I found myself wondering why these girls would ever give this dopey guy the time of day.
Oddly, though she’s not my usual character type at all, I found myself liking Katchoo the best of the three characters — maybe because she’s SO far removed from my real experiences that I can read about her troubles more objectively.
Anika: I’ll be honest, if I can’t find myself in something it is difficult for me to care about it. And with that, I’ll say Strangers in Paradise will never be one of my favorite comics. I don’t self-identify with any of the three “main” characters. Katchoo is the closest to being a “me” character (Carol Danvers, Clarice Starling, Misato Katsuragi, Olivia Dunham) but she’s not quite (she’s a Sigrid). Francine is nothing like me. And while I do truly love David it’s because he’s a Pacey — and I would not describe him as a “nice guy”. I think I like him for all the reasons Jen dislikes him. If I am in this book (so far), I’m Emma. And she’s a supporting character at best. Also, dead.
I noticed the weight thing, too, and it was sort of annoying and relates back to my possibly irrational anger at Katchoo calling Rodin sexist. It seems very “Cosmo” to have Francine eat her pain away just like it seems very “Gloria Steinem” to hate on Rodin and paint muscley naked men. A bit forced. But I do think that is a product of the medium somewhat. Comics can tend to be broader in characterization and relationships. I can forgive all these things if the story keeps me interested, which it does (actually, much like Twilight).
I also like the police detective. It’s another thing that reminds me of manga somewhat: we learn just enough about the side characters to be intrigued, but they only show up to do their part. In the movie in my head the detective is Charlie from Fringe and I find myself hoping he’s around some in future stories.
Caroline: Anika, I’m glad you mentioned the cop! He was one of my favorite parts — because he seems interesting in himself, and because he seems like a sign that the story isn’t going to be limited to the rather caricatured view of the police we saw in the early issues. I get Sigrid’s point that the cops are shown the way that Katchoo sees them at first (and that’s a whole tangent we can get into about subjectivity), but conflicts are usually more interesting if both sides have a point, and the cop seemed like a character with potential. Of course, it may be telling we can’t remember his name.
I wanted to touch on Jennifer’s comments, too. I also didn’t much love the more slapstick-y, embarrassment-based comedy, but I recognize that can be a matter of taste. The jokes about Francine’s eating really did get on my nerves, though. On one hand, I get that a lot of people really do talk about food this way, and there were times — like with Freddie, and with Francine’s mom — that it just seemed in character. But other times, I felt like we were supposed to be laughing along with the story — the depressed lady likes to overeat, hah hah! Part of me wants to call this humor ‘dated,’ though I don’t know if that’s because we’ve really changed how we talk about body acceptance or because it’s about as fresh and funny as a “Cathy” cartoon from the ’80s. Seriously, either she’s got an eating disorder and should get help — which isn’t funny — or she’s a reasonably healthy woman who happens to like food — in which case, leave her alone. It isn’t a deal breaker for me, but I kind of hope those jokes die down over the series.
Sigrid: You guys, you are KILLING me, here! I have to laugh at myself for my irration desire to defend the comic! Because, honestly, none of you have said anything that isn’t true — it’s just a question of whether those points matter to a reader or not. And if they matter to you, they matter, and if that gets in the way of enjoying other aspects of the book, well, it gets in the way.
In my essay Sexpot Savior I mention that Casey is actually my favorite character in the whole run of SiP. (And what do you mean, Anika, that Katchoo is a Sigrid?!) But, of course, all the depth that makes me love Casey so much happens later, after the first Pocket edition is over. In fact, a ton of character development that addresses the things you guys didn’t enjoy — the caricature, the jokes about weight and eating, David’s schmoopiness — all happens later.
But how much good does that do a person trying to read SiP for the first time, because someone told them that this would be the comic they loved?
Sigrid’s comments here ended up segueing into the topic of SiP as a “gateway comic” and a staple of “Girlfriend Lists”. That proved to be a VERY energetic discussion, so we’ve separated that out for its own post, which we’ll run tomorrow in place of our usual Q&A.
Meanwhile, this IS a book club so we’d like to hear your thoughts on the first Pocket Book of ‘Strangers in Paradise.’ Talk about the genre, the characters — respond to any of our points or raise your own. We just ask that you not mention anything that’s overly spoilery for later volumes in the series, for the benefit of those who want to keep reading.