Next to the Canadian TV productions Anne of Green Gables (1985) and Anne of Green Gables - The Sequel (1986), the 2150 page 19 volume graphic novel series Strangers in Paradise (1993-2007) is the greatest love story ever told and I've just spent a week totally gone and LOST re-reading SiP in this new 20th anniversary omnibus edition. I bought my first SiP trade paperback (#4, LOVE ME TENDER) back in the mid-90s when I was just entering my mid-twenties and that's where I saw this omnibus last month, same bookstore from all those years ago, Forbidden Planet in Glasgow, and from whose UK website this current edition is available.
I still vividly recall buying LOVE ME TENDER; I'm a fan of science fiction novels and horror short stories and I'd never heard of SiP (I wasn't a comics reader, although I think I may have by this point discovered the Watchmen and Sandman graphic novels via my local library). But SiP... Gosh, SiP blindsided me. I saw those Tragedy and Comedy masks in the style of the two main characters (Francine and Katchoo) on the cover of LOVE ME TENDER, did a double take and picked it up. Flicked through the pages and... And I wasn't there. I wasn't in the store anymore. Like Alice down the rabbit hole I was GONE. Terry Moore's artwork stunned me. I never read one single dialogue balloon while I glanced through the book. I didn't have to. It was all there. These were real people, they had to be; comics, the funny pages, didn't have this kind of incredible subtlety of facial expression. I didn't even look at the price on the back of the book... just walked up to the counter in a daze and bought it. That's never happened to me, not before or since.
Over the years, as each new trade paperback came out, SiP followed me on my own epic journey through love ¬- married, an affair, divorced, married once more. SiP has been taken to task for going on longer than it should have...and, yeah, I can see where people might be coming from with that (certainly from the writer's point of view I can understand Moore's difficulty in letting go of characters he'd fallen in love with). But here's the thing, it's SiP's very length which makes it such a pleasure to lose yourself in. It's like having an intense love affair. For instance, I've just read ECHO: The Complete Edition, Moore's second series following SiP. It's good, and the verbal sparring between Ivy and Julie is terrific, but even at 600 pages you can read it in a weekend; after all, that's 600 graphic pages, not prose. SiP's main story runs 2000 pages (with the omnibus's final 150 pages containing bonus material: one-shot stories, a prequel and such) and the accumulative effect of that, if you read it in one massive gulp over a period of a week, is astonishing. It's a totally immersive experience in which you happily let go and lose yourself.
And if there's another advantage which SiP has, that Echo doesn't, it's its lack of plot. Oh, there's story, to be sure, but not a nuts `n' bolts plot like Echo, which is very linear and neat. SiP is sprawling, it's a mess, it's on-off love story is repetitive it's... well, it's true to life. The characters' timing is off, one coming back into the other's life at the wrong time, and that's true to life. The characters take a long time to find themselves, and that's true to life.
And don't be fooled by this being `merely' a love story: it's structure is very ambitious. This saga has been called a love triangle, but it's not: David's in love with Katchoo, yes, and although Katchoo let's her guard down and let's David in, she's never in any doubt as to who she's in love with. Katchoo is a woman in flames, who burns everyone around her, but she can also be an incredibly practical woman if she has to: you sense that Katchoo could move on if need be - David and Francine would fall apart without her because it is the very intensity of Katchoo's love that sets those around her on fire. Everything about Katchoo is extreme - her love, her hate, her happiness, her depression - and she makes others feel more alive just to be in her presence.
The scale of the series was not there in the beginning, indeed the first 70-odd pages are very much a screwball comedy with its broad humour, although there are several delicate emotional moments too. Once you get past this the next 180 pages moves up a gear: it's here that Katchoo's violent past is revealed. It's this section (#2, I DREAM OF YOU) which won the series the prestigious Eisner Award. Once part of an elite organization known as the Parker Girls, Katchoo discovers the past won't leave her alone, and indeed the revelations from her complexly entangled dark days in the underworld continue to shockwave right up until the very end of the saga's 2000 pages. It's the juxtaposition between the series' frequently humorous love stories and Katchoo's incredibly violent other life which truly makes the saga such a compelling read.
From some 330 pages onwards (#4, LOVE ME TENDER, beginning with the five page superhero dream sequence drawn by Jim Lee) SiP kicks into high gear and truly comes into its own, opening with a fortysomething Francine who hasn't seen Katchoo in ten years... or has she. Moore plays with time from here on out: is what follows a flashback, or is the older Francine a flashforward to what might happen? Okay, granted, you can argue that this is simply retro-fitting engineered later in the series (after all, with LOVE ME TENDER originally appearing in 1997 it's unlikely Moore had the whole series mapped out for the remaining ten years of its run). Retro-fitted or not, it doesn't take away from the sheer scale of Moore's storytelling ambition.
Considerations of Moore's narrative achievements aside, and that of the incredible violence of Katchoo's other life, let's not forget the saga's humour. Make no mistake, SiP is hilarious, frequently coming from the personality clash of Katchoo and Francine's ex-boyfriend Freddie, but also from the many metaphorical dream sequences, featuring pastiches of Peanuts, Calvin & Hobbs, Disney-style fairy tales and the superhero genre, and even a sequence in which the series takes itself to task for the repetitive nature of the main characters' on-off relationship. Oh, and let's not forget Katchoo's lost weekend in Las Vegas!
Of course, it's the emotional weight of the characters' relationships which makes SiP so special. Like a candle burning at both ends, the characters exhaust each other physically and emotionally. All of them - Francine, Katchoo, David, Freddie and Freddie's new girlfriend Casey - are a train wreck: they break each other's heart. They move on, they move back, they unobtrusively slip into another's life, or steamroll right through it. They cross lines they shouldn't be able to go back from, only to realise they're soulmates who can endure more than they thought possible. Crashing and burning in the other's fire, but vitally still capable of emerging from the other side of the flames and - eventually - able to smile at each other and say, "We made it. We survived. We're still friends."
SiP is a story of twentysomething love, the most crucial decade of anyone's life to fall in love in, because everything in so heightened, everything is in the extreme, love most of all: all consuming, emotionally wrenching and "Omigod I'm ALWAYS going to feel this way and I can't stand it and I'm, like, totally going to DIE!" Love doesn't just burn bright during this decade, it's positively incandescent. Unsurprising, then, that it's this decade that takes up so much of SiP's pages, covering as is does friendship love, a parent's love, lover's love, break my heart and I feel I'm going to die love.
True, tearing up at the end of re-reading SiP there's a part of you that thinks, "God, to have it back. To feel that all consuming madness kinda love." But here's the thing (and, surprisingly, Francine probably understands this better than Katchoo, for all Katchoo's pragmatism) when someone wants to rekindle a relationship they think it's only a matter of getting back with a `someone'. But that's not true, because what you're really trying to do is get back to a `somewhen'. Even if, miraculously, the person hasn't changed (and if they haven't then it couldn't really have been love - love should always change you, else what's the point) that moment, that period, that somewhen in time is gone. It's realising this which made Francine initially let go of Katchoo during her wedding to Brad. But, like I said, there's a lot to smile about in SiP too: after all, love is supposed to be a joy, not something to be endured.
So, forget any reservations others might have expressed about SiP, and don't be intimidated by the vast number of pages - indeed, rejoice in it. You'll lose yourself in its all consuming love and it'll break your heart as it burns you up in its flames... but don't worry, for like Katchoo you'll emerge from the fire, renewed and revitalised. You'll survive.
[If you were to buy all 19 volumes of the original trade paperbacks it would set you back a hefty 200 quid - so this new omnibus edition is a steal!]