"What most people don't know about love, sex, and relations with other human beings would fill a book. Strangers in Paradise is that book."
"She keeps a moet de something
in a pretty cabinet...."
--Francine sings along to Queen.
Though I was certainly aware of Moore's Strangers in Paradise, it was not until I bought the High School! back issues for a friend that I finally read and got hooked. The sixth trade paperback tells the story behind the series’ opening pages and the origin of Francine and Katchoo’s friendship.
It also features a stand-alone Xena parody, "Princess Warrior."
Title: High School! (Issues #13-16 of the third series)
Author: Terry Moore.
We’re more than ten years in the past, during Katchoo and Francine’s senior year of high school, just before the ill-fated school play that opened the original series. The girls’ days begin in contrasting columns of panels. Francine is perky and apparently living some sitcom version of domestic life, though we’ll later see the flaws in the Peters family. Katina’s life has been made hell by an abusive stepfather, and so she rebels. Despite an earlier statement (In I Dream of You) that the pair have been best friends since seventh grade, it’s made clear that the Choovanskis have only recently moved to the neighborhood, and the girls only become friends over the course of the story.1
Despite the hyperbolic nature of Moore’s world, he handles certain elements with admirable subtlety and restraint. The opening pages show the shiny-dime, sanitized world of Francine. This isn't all façade, however; she really has an optimistic view of the world, and a strong, generally positive relationship with her mother. The story gradually shows us the divisions in the family, and factors that will influence Francine's problematic relationships with food and with commitment. The gulf between Katina and Francine's worlds, clear from the beginning through comic-book contrast, becomes even more apparent when Katina sees her friend’s house for the first time. She looks around with curiosity, and asks if her family rents. Moore also shows us the pair falling in love— romantically? platonically?—without being crass or prurient.
Some of Moore's satiric exaggerations will go too far for some readers. I could accept the cruel kids, the parodically mean-spirited director, and the brutal coach. The comments from the home room teacher were overkill. Overall, however, Moore creates an exaggerated but entirely believable world filled with exaggerated but believable people, and these have been central to SiP's success.
The dialogue is often hilarious, but Moore knows when to let the images tell the story. High School! overall features some amusing (if occasionally disturbing) satire of high school and a powerful depiction of adolescent pressures.
Along the way, Moore includes the usual sight gags, cameos, and general strangeness. Apparently, Peter Parker attended school with Francine and Katchoo. A timewarped Bettie Page wanders through one panel, Michael Bolton appears in Francine’s fantasy, and the science teacher resembles Jerry Lewis’s Nutty Professor. This issue also casually references the Molly Lane story from #14 of the second series. We learn that Francine’s brother Benjamin once dated Molly.
Before they part, the girls have one final conversation. It's a bit over the top, but believable in context. The ending fades not to the first issue of SiP and their reunion ten years later, but to the moment depicted in Love Me Tender, the end of their second ten-year separation, in the saga's future.
It took Moore several years to finally reveal the story behind the first three pages of Strangers in Paradise, but High School! does justice to that memorable introduction.
1. Later, Moore will reconcile this discrepancy in his story’s continuity.