Circle of friends
OK, most people don’t count international spies as close friends. But crime bosses, intrigue and large bunches of cash are only part of the lure of Terry Moore’s long-running comic book epic about a group of Houston friends in their 20s. This self-published series, which has become a classic, concerns the lives of Francine, Casey, David and the imperial street-urchin and international courtesan-spy Katina Choovanski, called Katchoo (like a sneeze). “Strangers in Paradise” is about how adulthood is an improvisation learned rather than a state achieved.
The series started in 1993 and is loosely of the same period as “Love and Rockets” by the Hernandez brothers and “Sandman” by Neil Gaiman. It is one of the last of those long-running, drama-based comic books of the ‘80s and ‘90s to end.
The story started when Katchoo -- petite, blond and the top soldier in an international yakuza operation run by Darcy Qin Parker -- defected and headed back to Houston to try and reconnect with her childhood friend and greatest love, Francine. In the series’ last issues, compiled in “Love & Lies” and “Ever After,” Katchoo has to come to grips with the idea that the two may never share a life together. The former crime genius is now a successful artist. Darcy is dead. However, the remnants of her mostly female mob are after Katchoo to force her to make good on her long-ago promise to provide Darcy’s empire with an heir.
Katchoo may be the soul of the series, but David Qin, Darcy’s do-good, deeply Christian brother, who holds this small group of friends together, is its heart, only now he’s dying of cancer. Partly to honor her pledge, and partly out of affection for David, Katchoo decides to have his baby.
Although assassins and the feds occasionally make appearances, the focus is on relationships. Moore was among the first to make drama work this well in a long-form comic. His plots are strong, lyrical and deeply funny. Although Moore lost steam and went a bit weird in his last compendium, he now brings back the momentum from the first years of the series, making the ending a visceral, even damp-eyed, good read.
“Strangers in Paradise” is a love story about whether or not the intensity of a person’s first loves can be maintained beyond his or her 20s. Moore comes down firmly on the side that says it can. It’s as if William Wordsworth woke up and realized that he and Samuel Taylor Coleridge could be friends forever (and maybe even want to shack up!).
Moore’s humorous pathos is ever-present. When Francine yet again strips in public (she’s famous for ending up embarrassingly naked), Katchoo looks skyward and tells her, “You know, they can see you at NASA. Wave hi. . . .” The series’ long, strange wisdom becomes even stronger toward the end. “You love women,” Francine says to her unfaithful husband. “I’m just the one you married.” David, whose faith is nearly as unshakable as his loyalty to his friends, is visited by his sister in his dreams, who tells him: “The truth is, nothing matters. . . . And that scares the hell out of people.”
Despite dysfunctional relationships, blackmail and terminal illness, the prevailing feeling in these books is joy. Joy to be alive, joy in others and, in Katchoo’s case, joy to finally be free of her indentured servitude in crime. “Francine . . . are you a spy? You don’t work for. . . Darcy, or the Feds, or the secret society of people out to get Katchoo and drive her completely nuts?” Katchoo asks her oldest friend. Like most people, she can’t believe that someone could ever simply love her and delight in who she is. With Katchoo’s years of blackmailing senators and sleeping with the scariest female mobster ever to grace comics, she has better reason for paranoia and insecurity than most, but the sentiment is a common one. To the surprise of these characters, and to the surprise of most people, the answer is yes, we can be loved.