Does he know she's a total ditz!? She reads cheesy romantic novels! She thinks CNN is unbiased!
Tropic of Desire
--Freddie Femur, upon hearing that Francine is engaged.
, the tenth Strangers in Paradise
trade paperback, begins with the inventiveness that had been lacking in the Big Six
storyline, and ends with a development that some readers found a bit too
Title: Tropic of Desire (Issues #39-43 of the third series)
Author: Terry Moore.
"You're a Loser, Freddie Femur!" (#39) ranks among Moore’s best efforts. Until that point, Femur had been a joke and a plot device, a high school doofus turned high-powered attorney prone to self-serving behaviour and macho posturing. In this issue, we finally see Freddie’s inner self, and Moore reveals a credible character without sacrificing the laughs. Ingeniously, Moore explores Femur’s psyche through the medium of comix. The story begins as a pastiche of Charles M. Shulz’s Peanuts. The style morphs as Freddie’s reverie continues, and imitates (among others) Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes and Walt Kelly‘s Pogo. Pogo Possum even makes a brief appearance.1 Finally, in a nearly wordless conclusion, Freddie—- drawn in Moore’s own style—- returns to his empty apartment and sits alone on the floor with a beer.
The various storylines continue. We catch up with Francine through pages of quietly moving artwork and an overly-long monologue. She contemplates her forthcoming wedding and has an interesting, believable conversation with a pastor. It’s clear that Moore doesn’t share the Reverend Biddle’s world-view, but he presents the character with integrity. David, meanwhile—- who is expressly Christian-- seeks out the church as he confronts his recent lapse into violence. Katchoo struggles with her feelings for Francine, and Casey visits, after having an amusing encounter with Pat, a long-unseen minor character. Significantly, Moore lets us know that the Big Six are no more; he’s buried that problematic plot.
Then, a twist has the readers questioning everything that has come before.
The trade paperback concludes with #43, an issue which shocked many readers, and prompted lively debate about the future direction of the series. Moore knew what he was doing, and the next issue clarifies matters. Original readers had to wait for the next issue, however, and the trade paperbacks likewise put the puzzle and its solution in separate volumes.
In #42, Francine sits down with her fiancé, Brad, and her mother. She tells them that she loves Katchoo, and has to explore the possibilities of that relationship. The next issue begins in a publisher’s office, with the now-grown Ashley Silver. Ashley is Francine and Brad’s future daughter whom we’ve previously seen in sequences set roughly a decade after the current storyline. She has written a novel called Strangers in Paradise, which her publisher considers promising, though somewhat far-fetched and repetitive (fair criticisms). Over the course of this issue, we see a future where Francine and Katchoo have become lovers and raised a daughter, and the entire criminal plot (in an apparent nod to reader criticism) is a fantasy of Ashley’s. The story then flashes back to the school play that opened the saga. In this version of things, Katina and Francine have, in fact, known each other since grade seven2, Katina is apparently not a victim of sexual abuse and together, the girls overcome Francine’s horror regarding her notorious debut. Katina makes an anachronistic joke about the internet3, and the issue concludes with laughter and an enigmatic "End of Version One." Not surprisingly, many fans were offended by the apparent refutation of a fictional reality in which they’d invested years of interest.
Moore actually resolves the problem neatly, but not until the next issue, collected in Brave New World.
1. Harry Potter also appears, but this has less to do with the ongoing pastiche of comic styles, and is in the manner of the amusing but largely irrelevant cameos that had been commonplace in earlier issues.
2. Early on, the series stated that Katina and Francine met in the seventh grade, but later issues showed that they did not meet until they were High School seniors. A later issue will reconcile the discrepancy.
3. What is an anachronism in SiP? Moore uses the conventions of comic books; he lets time pass and his characters age at a slow rate, so that only a few years have come and gone between the characters’ 1995 debut and these 2001 adventures. However, the topical references reflect each issue's year of publication. This creates temporal anomalies, especially when the story flashes back to high school. If one counts from the first issue, Francine graduated in the mid-1980s; if one uses Tropic of Desire as a starting point, she finished school in the late 1980s. In either case, it’s highly unlikely that 17-year-old, working class Katina would be making a "dot com" joke.
I call attention to this seemingly trivial detail because, in light of future developments, the reference to "lookatme.com" does not appear to be an error. It's a clue.