Strangers in Paradise: Volumes 1 and 2

Strangers in Paradise Volume 1As I mentioned last week, I’m taking a massive open online course (MOOC) about gender in comic books. We’ll be reading a lot of comics, and although I don’t intend to write about all of them, I do intend to share my thoughts about at least some of those that are available as paperbacks. Although most of the comics in the course are the types of superhero stories many of you probably think about first when you think of comic books, we started the course with a look at a series without a single costumed hero.

The series Strangers in Paradise by Terry Moore is a story of two women, best friends since high school, and their lives and loves. Francine is insecure about her body and her relationships, but when the first book opens, she’s been in a relationship with Freddie for a while. Francine’s been reluctant to sleep with Freddie, fearing that he’ll ultimately reject her, as has happened to her so often in the past. Freddie soon does find a more willing object for his affections, and Francine completely breaks down.

Francine’s best friend and roommate, Katchoo, is scornful of Freddie, but we soon learn that she’s scornful of all men. Her heart is with Francine, and when Francine is hurt, Katchoo is swift to react.

The first volume, just three issues long, focuses in Francine and Freddie’s break-up and Katchoo’s quest for vengeance. The characters are just being established, so they’re pretty one-dimensional, although there are hints of greater depths. This applies particularly to Katchoo, who comes across as man-hating, bitter, and violent, but her story gets filled out in the second volume, which, in nine issues, delves into Katchoo’s past history as people she thought she’d left behind return. This second volume steps beyond its relationship focus to tell a story of criminal conspiracies and cons, but the heart of the comics is still the relationship between Francine and Katchoo, and the many dimensions of love that exist between them.

Strangers in Paradise Volume 2Moore is known for his realistic black-and-white depictions of women’s bodies, and I loved the way both Francine and Katchoo were drawn. They seemed like real women. In fact, one of the exciting things about these comics is that most of the characters are women, and Moore presents a variety of personalities and body types. But I have a serious issue with one element of Francine’s story–the way Moore handles her weight.

When the series starts, Francine looked to be like a woman of average weight, curvy with a little fat. After her break-up with Frankie, she begins binge eating and gains weight. Even then, Moore’s drawings often made her look beautiful. She was sometimes shown in unflattering poses, but so were all the characters. (And I should note her weight is only overweight in comparison to what we typically see in the media. We’re talking about a woman slightly larger than the real-world norm.) What bothered me was how far over the top  the binge eating that led to the weight gain was.

Strangers BingeStory-wise, Francine’s binge-eating makes sense. She’s been dumped, and she’s consoling herself with food to the point that she doesn’t even realize how much she’s eating. That seems authentic, but the actual binges that Moore shows seem more like a punch line than a sensitive depiction of someone who’s hurting. He shows her mixing ice cream and chocolate syrup and milk right in the ice cream carton to make a “milk shake,” eating a stick of butter, and pleading for Katchoo to get her some liver. And as a fat woman myself, I get so tired of seeing the message that this is the kind of behavior that leads the weight gain. Sure, routinely eating whole sticks of butter might cause weight gain, but this level of bingeing is, I suspect, pretty rare. For a lot of people, it doesn’t take anything like that to end up gaining weight.

With that said, it was nice to see that even after her weight gain (and the images here do not show her at her heaviest), Francine is still treated as a capable, kind, and even beautiful woman. Her weight does not define her.

As for the rest of the book, I enjoyed it, even when the story got a little silly and melodramatic. In fact, I enjoyed it enough that I’m pondering reading the rest of the series. (If my library had it, I’d read the rest for sure, but having to spend money on it makes me think a little harder about whether I liked it enough.) We also read the first issue of Terry Moore’s horror series Rachel Rising. Just the one issue was little more than a teaser, and so I don’t have much to say about it, but that teaser was awfully intriguing, and I’m considering giving that a try as well.

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