When people tell me romance comics are dead, I shove a copy of Strangers in Paradise in their hands.
Strangers in Paradise has always been more than a "romance comic," but there’s no question that Terry Moore’s work stands apart from most comic-book offerings. The twelfth Strangers in Paradise trade paperback chronicles the rift that leads to the ten-year separation of the central characters, an event which readers have anticipated or dreaded since the second series.
Heart in Hand (#50-54 of the third series)
Author: Terry Moore.
Some spoilers will appear in this review, though the most significant ones will be left for your discovery.
Issue #50 begins with a summary of recent developments, and then takes the narrative in many directions. The ten-year separation of the characters, a key part of the story, will soon take place, and readers will have to adjust to a more fragmented narrative. In Japan, David Qin continues his efforts to give Tambi an heir. Francine struggles with the possibility of building a life with Katchoo, but both have people in their pasts whom they’ve not forgotten. These include Francine's former fiance, the father of her unborn child. Katchoo, meanwhile, meets "Cherry Hammer," a dangerous associate of Tambi’s. We learn more about the plot involving the rapist, Dumoni, and see more of the dossier the FBI has compiled on Katchoo.
Despite the darker elements overshadowing this story, Moore has not lost his light touch. Katchoo and Francine race through the streets in a sequence that manages to be entertaining comic-book excess (along the way, they nearly run over Robert Crumb) and yet still capture the believable relationship between the characters. Francine discusses her adult life with her nine-year-old self, who advises that she marry a fireman and have babies. Heart in Hand also features the return of a running joke: the voyeur next door. In this case, it turns out to be Kevin Smith, in real life a fan of the series.
The artwork remains strong, and features some imaginative transitions and juxtapositions. We follow Katina’s phone call to Tambi through space. Francine-– in slight disguise—- examines a book store’s Gay and Lesbian section. The Mystery section is behind her. A Science poster encourages readers to "Explore New Worlds." This works, and reads less heavy-handed than it sounds.
The scenes between David (Yousaka) and Tambi (Mary Beth) contain both touching moments and violent humor. However, I don’t entirely buy the situation. As for David’s Japanese girlfriend, she remains a quiet, submissive stereotype. She’s also being misused by David, who usually takes the moral high ground. I hope the series will address this point
Towards the end, we see two different perspectives on the incident that will drive Katchoo and Francine apart. Readers knew from early on the story would reach this point. Moore creates the rift through a development which is unexpected, shocking, and entirely plausible. Unfortunately, the temporal shifts and the demands of series story-telling have created some problems and left quite a few readers hoping for some clarity as Strangers in Paradise counts down its final issues.
Casey Femur’s appearance in Love Me Tender, in the story’s future, effectively makes no sense in the wake of this story’s events. Readers either have to wink at it, or else assume that Francine will meet a dead ringer for her friend, also named Casey, at some point in the future. It will be interesting to see if Moore addresses the continuity error. He elsewhere reconciles another, lesser continuity problem, regarding Francine and Katchoo’s first meeting. He also quite cleverly explains why Japanese-American David has a Chinese last name.1 Clearly, he cares about such things, and has an imagination to resolve problems with his story. I recognize that this is a comic book series and Moore will conclude it as he will, but I will be among those disappointed if he simply ignores continuity or throws in a "Pam Ewing’s dream" twist2. True, he made the “alternate reality” sequences in Tropic of Desire and Brave New World work, but Moore intended that twist from the start, and he used Francine’s imaginings to reveal character. The ten-year separation is another matter. For years the event has been a critical structural element of the saga. The early issues feature a remarkably coherent narrative-— "damn close" to "seamless," according to Dave Sim—- and the fact contributed to SiP’s emotional power. The break-up in this issue works very well, and has an impact to equal the powerful reunion scene in Love Me Tender. Casey’s involvement is part of this story. Any compromising of the Ten Year Separation will seriously damage a comic-book narrative that has been inventive and touching, and which has worked as a graphic novel.
Heart in Hand makes an excellent addition to that novel, which I would not want to see falter in its final chapters.
1. In an interview in The Comics Journal #276, Moore admits he created the David Qin character and considered him Japanese/American, but did not initially realize that Qin is very much a Chinese name. From fairly early on, he built the groundwork for his explanation, fully developed in the fourteenth trade paperback.
2. Late-night soap opera Dallas was in its early years a ratings hit which established the cliffhanger season finale by turning "Who shot J.R.?" into an international obsession. The later seasons grew increasingly silly, and feature one of the most notorious and risible retcons in television history. Bobby Ewing (Patrick Duffy), a central character, died at the end of the 1985 season. After a year away, Duffy wanted back onto the show. The solution? His wife Pam had dreamt the entire previous season. The spin-off series, Knot’s Landing, had made Bobby’s death a plot point, and so he remained stubbornly deceased on that show.