Welcome to Image30, Comic Watch’s celebration of three decades of Image Comics! Throughout 2022, each week we’ll take a look back, chronologically, at the comics that built the publisher into the powerhouse it is today, and changed comics forever! In doing so, it’s our hope to paint a clear and definitive picture from a finished product perspective how the company originated, grew, evolved, and changed into the diverse juggernaut it is today.
Image30 Chapter 18:
Strangers in Paradise
A complex slice of life, LGBTQ-themed comic about a love triangle that would eventually morph into a crime drama is probably the last thing anybody expected from Image in 1996-97, but Strangers in Paradise was an immediate smash, even if it did only last with the publisher for eight issues before returning to creator Terry Moore’s Abstract Studios for the majority of its run. Even by WildStorm’s Homage imprint standards, SiP was a huge departure from house style, with nary a cape nor cowl in sight. It wasn’t an action-driven comic at all (although eventually, action would most definitely be had), but rather the ongoing story of two women who love each other very much. Though deeply devoted friends, Francine and Katchoo couldn’t be more different from one another in terms of their life expectations, and what they need from each other – or other people – in a relationship.
Moore had originally envisioned Strangers in Paradise in the mold of a newspaper comic strip, but found he wasn’t cut out for the gag-a-day routine. That’s a very deep blessing, as SiP‘s long-form narrative didn’t lend itself to that sort of choppy, short-form format. Originally telling Francine and Katchoo’s story in a three-issue miniseries at indie publisher Antarctic Press in 1993, the initial style of the book was more of an homage to screwball romance comics and movies of yesteryear: Katchoo loved Francine romantically; Francine reciprocated, but platonically. When the series began, she was in a relationship with the chronically cheating Freddie Femur, (who could best be described as essentially a can of Axe body spray given human form), and suffering from deep insecurity regarding her weight. Eventually, Katchoo revealed her true feelings for Francine, but Francine, having never been in a queer relationship before, was initially hesitant before eventually finding the confidence to follow her heart. And although that relationship wouldn’t work out, Francine and Katchoo’s deep and complicated feelings for one another would continue to be the cornerstone of the series.
Sound complicated? You bet. And that’s not even getting into the eventual reveal of Katchoo’s background as a prostitute and her involvement with a crime syndicate; the bisexual aerobics instructor left unable to carry a child due to childhood anorexia; Freddie Femur’s eventual obsession with Francine once he realizes he can’t “have” her anymore that defined “toxic masculinity” before anyone else had coined the term; the born-again Christian David Qin on a permanent guilt trip over having killed someone; and his sister Darcy, who has a borderline incestuous fixation on her brother and runs an all-female crime syndicate called the Parker Girls.
To say that Strangers in Paradise was a quantum leap forward for queer representation in the 1990s is a gross understatement. In the 1980s, queer characters were lucky to get any media representation, and when they did, it was usually done in hushed tones. By the ’90s, “the gays” were more present, but were typically portrayed as gross “shrieking f*g/man-hating d*ke” stereotypes. So for Terry Moore, a cishet straight white man, to come out swinging with a no-frills, no-strings-attached portrayal of sexuality, romance, love, and fidelity between two women without ever resorting to any kind of OTT male gazing or softcore porn as a crutch, was a huge step forward for representation in any medium. Maybe it was the fact that fewer finger-wagging conservatives were looking at comics by this point (they had moved on to censoring music lyrics), but Moore was able to expand considerably more on queer narratives than anyone else at the time by his own volition more than anything else. This was a story he wanted to tell, and no one was telling him he couldn’t.
That faith in himself paid off. Strangers in Paradise‘s second volume, self-published through Moore’s Abstract Studios and running thirteen issues, turned the narrative volume up to eleven, deepening the various relationship subplots, and fleshing out a wealth of new characters as well as introducing a new crime subplot that changed the stakes entirely when it was revealed Katchoo had a pretty serious criminal background, and her former employer was looking to get her back into the fold. The work paid off: SiP and Moore won an Eisner for Best Serialized Story in 1996, and eventually in 2001, would win the GLAAD Award for Best Comic Book.
All of that keen, positive press got Jim Lee’s attention, who wooed Moore to bring his creation to Image for greater exposure and a wider audience under his Homage imprint. Lee knew a sure thing when he saw it, despite SiP‘s night-and-day difference from anything else WildStorm was publishing. Strangers in Paradise volume three, from Image, launched in late 1996 to much fanfare and industry support. Moore, though, was unhappy with his arrangement with Image, and after just eight issues, returned his comic to Abstract Studios and the world of self-publishing. Francine and Katchoo’s story would eventually conclude in 2007 with issue ninety, written and drawn without compromise by Moore in every issue.
Although in the grand scheme of things, Strangers in Paradise was only a brief blip on Image’s radar, it was a hugely important one. It showed the publisher had skin in the self-published game by providing Moore an opportunity to create on a greater scale, and treated him with the respect due thusly as the comic’s creator/writer/artist all in one. But it also reflected the shift that was taking place at the company in the latter half of the ’90s: less the action-beefcake tropes that had initially defined it, and more a home for creators to be themselves, free of expectations other than for them to bring their work to the fore and tell their best stories. Not to mention the multilayered and nuanced LGBTQ representation, the importance of which – particularly during that time period – cannot be overstated enough. And from start to finish, through three distinct publishers, Moore was absolutely in control of his baby. What began as a humorous screwball comedy became a dense, multifaceted reflection on life, love and how neither rarely provide any easy answers or clean solutions.
Moore would go on to produce other notable works, including Echo, Rachel Rising, and Motor Girl, but Strangers in Paradise stands the test of time as his masterpiece. Never mired in the mainstream, it was always Moore’s vision, stylistically distinct in every way. All creators should be so lucky. That that luck briefly included Image in its journey is perhaps happenstance, just one chapter in a larger story, but it represents an inflection point for the publisher on its journey from where it had been to where it was going. And the industry has been better for it.
NEXT: Image brings another indie powerhouse into the fold as Matt Wagner’s seminal MAGE volume two begins!
For Chapter 1: Youngblood, click here.
For Chapter 3: Savage Dragon: click here.
For Chapter 5: ShadowHawk, click here.
For Chapter 8: 1963, click here.
For Chapter 11: StormWatch, click here.
For Chapter 12: Spawn/Batman, click here.
For Chapter 14: Astro City, click here.
Chapter 15: Bone COMING SOON
Image30 Chapter 18: STRANGERS IN PARADISE Brought Much-Needed LGBTQ Representation Mainstream
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