Strangers in Paradise began as a stylized but comparatively realistic comic exploring the lives of some interesting young people in America. It developed into a phenomenon, which took on the characteristics of a true graphic novel. The storyline flashed backwards and forwards in time. The main characters received believable, complex backstories. Terry Moore also provided us with several glimpses into their future, and clearly structured the stories to indicate they were leading to that point.
SiP experienced a few pitfalls. It always worked best when it focused on characters. At times, however, they became involved with complex, far-fetched conspiracies, and these issues received less enthusiastic responses from many readers and critics.1 In its final years, the story meandered, abandoning plots for no clear reason while repeating elements that had already worn out their welcome. The storyline also wandered problematically from the established continuity— once praised by Dave Sim as "seamless."
The final issues, collected in Ever After, features some strong moments and has won praise from many online fans for its Hollywood ending. I cannot agree; strong moments aside, Ever After represents a disappointing conclusion to one of the more innovative and mature comics of the past decade.
The plot picks up after the death of Griffin Silver, presented in Love & Lies, which followed a reconciliation of estranged friends Francine and Katchoo. A very text-heavy issue recounts the reaction of the characters to Griffin’s death and shows us David, now fatally ill, living what will presumably be his final days with Casey and Katchoo. Moore continues to depict the central characters with the underlying humanity that made the series consistently interesting. Brad, on the other hand, barely appears at all. The story relegates him to a plot device, an unfaithful husband who drives Francine back into Katchoo’s life.
Issue #85 focuses on Francine, reintroduces Freddie Femur, and brings perennial bit-part loser Pat back for one final, amusing appearance. Events turn more serious, and #86 neatly depicts the events surrounding David’s passing with strong artwork and few words. We also see the experience as David perceives it, either in his dying mind or some actual afterlife.
After that point, the story careens carelessly into a conclusion.
Instead of the bittersweet reconciliation shown in the future storyline (and the events that might follow it before we had a true resolution), Moore forces a happily ever after between Francine and Katchoo that could have happened at any point in the last four years. It's weak, and it contradicts and undercuts the future that had once been a pivotal structuring point for Strangers in Paradise. The final issues also introduce a pointless piece of retroactive continuity.
This isn't just fanboy whining about continuity. A long-running series might tweak its history, if it has a good reason for doing so. Take, for example, Casey. She appears briefly in the first future segment in a manner consistent with the character we first met, but entirely at odds with the person she became as Strangers in Paradise progressed. This problem could have been handled; Moore has fixed more significant errors2. Fans have been more than willing to overlook this inconsistency, because the change gave us something better: the development of Casey from insecure dipstick to interesting, flighty but empowered woman.
However, the future separation and reconciliation of Casey and Katchoo had been a significant structural element during most of SiP’s long history. It was also a very moving future, and one which left many questions that could have been answered in dramatically interesting ways. Indeed, as late as Tattoo, Moore’s stories were answering those questions. Moore abandons it with this conclusion in favour of one that is far less interesting and moving. Nor does this change read like a postmodern comment on fiction or continuity. Ever After, more so than earlier chapters of the saga, directly references the series history. Rather, the second half of Ever After feels like the work of someone who grew tired of his story and felt the need to bring it to a happy resolution by any means necessary.
Moore also abandons Casey’s character development. We learn that she has always been the person we saw her become. The story reveals her to be a secret agent of Tambi's who was only pretending to be the character we initially saw. Never mind that this staggers even SiP"s elastic, comic-book reality and contradicts years when we’ve seen Casey in role, even when she was alone. Never mind that this backstory makes no sense, given how Casey initially met the others. It undercuts an interesting journey of character for the sake of a shocking revelation that serves no useful purpose3.
Strangers in Paradise still features some impressive, innovative approaches to the graphic form, and at its best, demonstrates the artistic and literary possibilities of comics. Moore has depicted atypical characters with believable humanity. He has juxtaposed thoughtful commentary with amusing parodies and silly cameos. He has used the history of the medium to comment on his own character and stories, most notably in Love Me Tender and the brilliant Tropic of Desire. The better issues should be read by anyone interested in comix. Strangers in Paradise is a landmark series, but the conclusion fails the original promise of a true graphic novel.
1. I hold this opinion, but it does not represent mine exclusively. A quick survey of reviews and discussion boards reveal that, while the Big Six and similar stories have their fans, a considerable number of readers found them wanting.
2. David, for example, has a Chinese last name but Moore soon established a Japanese heritage for the character. This, he concedes, was an error on his part. Gradually, he developed an explanation which became one of the most poignant stories in SIP, the tale of the man whose identity David assumed.
3. Yes, Casey uses her hitherto undisclosed accounting ability in the conclusion, but it really isn't necessary.