Note: This was written using the six-volume Pocket Editions of Strangers in Paradise, not the issues, the original trade paperbacks or the re-issued trade paperbacks. Volume or page numbers correspond accordingly.
Spoiler Alert: This essay contains spoilers for the entire run of Strangers in Paradise, including deaths, alternate future fake-outs, Parker Girl revelations, and who has kids. Be warned.
Strangers in Paradise is an award-winning comic. It’s won awards. It’s won gay awards, to put not too fine a point on it. The back of the trade edition in my hand as I write this says SiP won the GLAAD Media Award for Best Comic. The comic is famous for the tortuous and convoluted relationship between Francine and Katchoo, the female leads, and the men and women in their lives. And I must admit that the first few times I read SiP I was zeroed-in on the gay. On Francine, on her decisions, the ways she coped or didn’t, the desire to not give up on anything and how that led to her not taking anything offered. I was obsessed with Katchoo, with her stubborn determination to not be merely the sum of her damage, with her raging loyalty and the various ways she interpreted that loyalty. I was fascinated with David, with Tambi, with all the rest of them. But the longer I read SiP, the older I get, the more I find myself drawn to one woman in this train-wreck of romance, violence, and extremely poor interpersonal communication. The woman without which the story would not end as it did, would not be nearly as positive a model for lesbian and bisexual women. Casey.
Without her intervention, Francine and Katchoo would never have gotten together.
In the possible future I’m going to call the “Ashley Grown” future, Ashley Katina Silver, adult daughter of Francine, reveals that the entire story of Strangers in Paradise to date has been a fiction written by her. She is told by a publisher that her manuscript is rejected because, frankly, the lead characters (based on her mother, Francine, and her Aunt Katchoo) just keep doing the same thing over and over again. They never learn, they never grow, they’re stuck in a loop of desire and self-sabotage. Ashley replies, “You didn’t read far enough. That’s where Francine breaks the cycle once and for all.” [Pocket vol 4 p 63] It’s clear to me that Terry Moore had recognized that this was the complaint most often leveled against his work. He’s hanging a lampshade on it, hoping that will help. It doesn’t, really. Many of the SiP readers I talked to, including myself, were fed up with Francine and Katchoo’s endless circle of not getting together, fed up with the teasers of a ten-year-distant future in which Ashley is a young child and Francine and Katchoo are very unhappily estranged. In this “Ashley Child” future we are told that the cycle never breaks. (And let me digress and add that superhero comics do not have a lock on alternate-future-prevention stories.) This future is presented in the first four volumes as being very, very real. Yet despite the Ashley Child future of longing and failed hopes, the series ends with Francine and Katchoo together, with Francine pregnant, with Brad Silver out of the picture. It seems a promising step towards the Ashley Grown future, though we know that that future can’t come quite true as stated.
It’s pretty clear to me that the single largest factor in getting Francine and Katchoo together is, was, and inevitably will be Casey.
The first line we get from Casey is “Hi! Tee hee hee!” [Pocket vol 1 p 172] It’s lettered with smiley faces and a heart dotting the “i” in “Hi”. She’s Freddie Femur’s finance, shortly after he’s dumped Francine. Francine runs into Freddie and Casey in the supermarket. In the short scene Casey is polite, well-intentioned, happy, and manages to completely hurt Francine. Strangers in Paradise is, at this point, the story of Katchoo and Francine. We have no reason to look more closely at Casey, no reason to empathize with her at all. But I do, and I notice little things that I suspect Terry Moore did not plan or intend but which fall into a pattern of significance later. Casey tells Francine, “We’re exchanging our vows standing naked under a waterfall! Isn’t that just the most romantic thing you ever heard?” Freddie says the naked part was his idea. But that implies that the other parts were Casey’s — that she knows the romantic wedding she wants and is getting it. She’s also smart enough to know that Freddie’s insulting her, and she tells him to cut it out. None of this matters in the moment. But considering that we find out in Pocket vol 6 that Casey has been working for Tambi all along . . . it matters.
Casey’s intro matters because she’s not a DUCK, not a deep undercover Parker Girl, like Veronica. She’s not a federal agent, like Sara. She’s not a duck-hunter, like Cherry. Casey is, we find out from David’s posthumous letter, an accountant who was picked by Tambi to get into Katchoo’s life because of her personality – not her espionage skills. Casey was picked, Casey took the job, because that’s the kind of person she really is — a woman who genuinely loves life, has affection for everyone, and means the best at all times.
In Pocket vol 3, Casey tries to sleep with David and Katchoo. It doesn’t quite come off the way she means, but she means it. Casey wants to be with David, she realizes her mistakes with Freddie, and while she is on an undercover mission to watch over Katchoo, Casey has genuinely fallen for David and Katchoo both. In Pocket vol 4, when Francine and Katchoo have a fight a drunken and miserable Katchoo finds solace in Casey’s bed. This is not a pity-fuck. And it’s not romantic love on Casey’s part. It is exactly what it seems — a friend giving comfort and solace to someone they love.
It’s possible to look at that scene — Casey sleeping with Katchoo — and Francine’s subsequent screaming fight with Katchoo as the blockade to Francine and Katchoo not getting together at that time. Francine had come to Katchoo prepared to “surrender,” prepared to “give in.” But think about that for a minute. No relationship — no healthy, long-term, adult, fully consensual relationship — should be founded on one person’s loss. Maybe Katchoo and Francine would have gotten together then. And maybe it would have lasted a while. But Francine catches Katchoo post-coitally with Casey, catches Katchoo lying — and lying BADLY — about it, and storms off. What happens then changes the story of SiP.
Katchoo is angry and guilty and hurt, in this scene. This is nothing new to her. It’s sort of the air she breathes, her own personal gravity. And Katchoo lashes out at the nearest person who cares about her. Again, this is nothing special. We’ve seen it before. What’s new, what’s different this time is simple — Casey doesn’t play Katchoo’s game. So simple, so profound, and so difficult to do. When Katchoo calls Casey a horny cheerleader, when she accuses Casey of ruining her life, all Casey says in return is, “you must be in a lot of pain to say something like that to me.” And Katchoo breaks down. Under the kindness and recognition, Katchoo accepts Casey’s comfort and friendship. For the first time in four volumes of story Katina Choovanski really begins to grow.
“I miss Katchoo the most. Except for those two times in college, one of which I can’t remember because I was so drunk at the time, she’s the only woman I’ve ever slept with. Katchoo is like that, she brings out the mother in you and you just want to hug her and love her and … well, maybe it’s just me.” — Casey, Pocket vol 5 p 169
In Pocket vol 5, in the Vegas storyline, Casey calls Katchoo her best friend. But Katchoo calls Casey her best friend, too. Katchoo’s heart has widened enough to include bonds of mutual trust and regard. And Casey rewards that trust with a clear-eyed affection. Casey sees Katchoo. All of her. And as we find out later, Casey really does at this point know everything about Katina, about Baby June and the money and the sex. None of that matters to her. She loves Katchoo.
“Casey is the best friend I’ve ever had — without her I would be a sour dissident. She reminds me that life can be fun. And it’s not like she’s completely oblivious to the awful things in the world, she just doesn’t seem to absorb them like I do. They don’t stick in her belly and light a fire of outrage within her that can’t be put out. She doesn’t yell at the stupidity on the TV like I do, she doesn’t yell at celebrities and politicians. Bless her heart, she doesn’t yell at anybody. She hugs them.” — Katchoo, Pocket vol 5 p 284
And Casey also loves David. Now, while there are many models of bisexuality in Strangers in Paradise — Katchoo sleeps with David and a few women, Emma sleeps with men and women, Francine sleeps with men and loves-and-makes-out-with Katchoo — Casey is the least conflicted, the least hung up about what she wants. She wants David. She has wanted David since the moment she laid eyes him. She also loves Katchoo. Casey also is incredibly attracted to Tambi, we find in Pocket vol 6, and is particularly attracted to Tambi’s, erm, aggressive style of relationship management. Casey wants what she wants and feels no shame for it, no conflict. She believes in love and happiness, she believes in people. And it’s this belief that kicks Casey and David into trying to reconcile Francine and Katchoo in Pocket vol 6. Only Casey would think that handcuffing people together in a sound booth would really bring out their best.
The initial reconciliation attempt is, despite or because of the handcuffs, partially successful. Francine and Katchoo re-establish their friendship but go no further. It takes a confluence of circumstances — David’s death, Katchoo’s pregnancy, Francine’s pregnancy, Brad’s cheating, Marie Peters’s resurgence as Mary Midnight, the death of Griffin Silver, Tambi’s manipulations of Special Agent Sara Bryan — to get Francine and Katchoo into the partnered relationship they’ve been circling since they were sixteen years old. But Casey is there throughout. She cajoles them to talk, she maintains lines of communication, she keeps phone numbers, she relays information. She supports Katchoo throughout David’s death, she keeps Katchoo human and connected and feeling during a crisis that would have sent a twenty-six-year-old Katchoo directly to alcohol-supported suicide. When Francine finally walks back on the scene, Katina Choovanski is there and able to listen.
It still doesn’t go that easily. But it goes, finally, with Casey urging Katchoo and Francine to love each other fully and completely. Because love and happiness are just worth it. And chances shouldn’t be missed.
The comic book world includes a lot of angst, a lot of drama. And so it should — people like stories with conflict. We like to see the protagonist win through and the conflict resolved. Strangers in Paradise has all that and a bag of chips, what with the organized crime and the shootings and the sexual abuse and the plane crashes and rapes and various deaths. In that world Casey is a necessary character, a relentlessly upbeat while not naive voice of emotional reason. She’s the voice of the practical and obvious, the Anya from Buffy, the one who says what everyone is thinking — except when no one has thought of it yet. Without Casey (and Freddie and other, minor, characters,) SiP would be a carousel of emotional damage. With Casey the entire story is redeemed, jerked out of adolescent longing and into a realm of adult relationships.
Casey walks into the story as a joke. A punchline to a riff about men and their assholery and the women who stand for it. Yet from her first lines we can see a woman who isn’t afraid to want, isn’t afraid to ask, and isn’t afraid to stand up for her desires. I think she’s Terry Moore’s finest creation to date. Casey Bullocks-Femur isn’t anyone special. She’s not superpowered, she doesn’t fight crime, she doesn’t have a mission or a plan or a mask. Casey is someone you know. She’s someone you meet every day. She’s not the hero. And by virtue of that very mundanity, Casey is one of the best role models I know.
Email: sigrid @ fantasticfangirls.org