Strangers in Paradise Vol. 1: In Defense of Freddie

strangers-in-paradise-volume-1Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise is one of those comic series that I’ve always been vaguely aware of but never really bothered to look into.  I knew people really liked it, but I didn’t know why.  To be honest, I’ve now read the first two TPB and I still don’t know why people like it so much.  I won’t be reading any more of it than I already have.  I’d have given up sooner if it weren’t “required” reading for the Gender Through Comic Books MOOC I signed up for.

Vol. 1 is mostly about a breakup.  There’s a whole second plot that gets introduced in Vol. 2, which made the whole thing slightly more bearable, but Vol. 1 is just screwy relationship drama.

I have very little sympathy for any of these characters, who are mostly one-dimensional stereotypes.  (They get slightly more rounded in Vol. 2, but only slightly.)  Katchoo is a dangerous, man-hating, lesbian psychopath, who happens to be in love with her best friend Francine.  Francine, in turn, is needy, desperate, and with such crippling insecurities that she is apparently incapable of having a real romantic relationship.  They make a friend, David, when he basically latches onto Katchoo one day and follows her home like a lost puppy; he is the quintessential nice guy, and has a thing for Katchoo.  (Hurray, love triangles.)  And then there’s Freddie, Francine’s boyfriend, who dumps her in the first issue because she’s nuts, and…

(spoilers follow)

…then has to put up with being villainized, stalked, and assaulted for the rest of the book.

As the book opens, Freddie and Francine have been dating for a year.  Francine has, for the entirety of this year, refused to sleep with Freddie.  He, in growing frustration, has resorted to cajoling and begging.  (Sidenote:  It’s not clear if Francine’s prohibition applies only to penetrative sex, or if it’s a blanket ban on all sexual activity.  In the only scene where we actually see this play out, they are in bed together, but when Freddie tries to get some action, Francine tells him to go sleep.  When he presses the issue, she makes him sleep on the floor.)

Now, granted, Freddie’s no saint here; he’s clearly pushing the issue when she’s told him she’s not interested, and that’s not ok.

The next morning, Freddie wants to talk about their relationship.  THIS IS A REASONABLE THING TO DO, GIVEN THAT THEY HAVE BEEN TOGETHER FOR A YEAR AND THIS SEX THING IS PRETTY CLEARLY AN ISSUE THEY NEED TO DEAL WITH.  Francine brushes him off, saying, “Let’s don’t go into this again.  I thought we agreed to wait.”  Freddie, however, isn’t clear exactly what they’re waiting for.  He doesn’t understand Francine’s reluctance, and he’s frustrated by the whole situation.

So, finally, after a full year together, Francine gets around to trying to explain.  “I’m afraid if I sleep with you . . . it’ll ruin everything . . . and you’ll leave me like all the others.”  Freddie is incredulous — how could she possibly think that?  “I know how men are!” Francine cries.  “You all have this conquest thing!  Then when you get what you want it’s 1-800-SEE-YA!”  Then she proceeds to complain that she’s seen him looking at other women (skinny women), and how she’s not like those girls (because she’s slightly overweight), and she’s tired of getting dumped for those girls.

So Freddie, in what is frankly one of the most justified fits of anger ever, gets mad and leaves.  “Okay…  Let me see if I’ve got this straight…  You won’t sleep with me because then I will dump you for the nearest pair of plastic hooters I can find, right?!”


Let’s be real here.  They’ve been dating for a year.  By the time you’ve spent a year of your life with someone, I think you really ought to be past the point of worrying that he’s going to leave you the minute he gets in your pants.  And it’s pretty damned insulting to tell that person that you place so little trust in them and in your relationship.

I understand having insecurities, and sure, Freddie could arguably be more sensitive to those insecurities, but COME ON.  I want to sit Francine down and make her listen to (or read) Dan Savage for a day, because girl needs to hear some real talk.

Francine is clearly not in good working order.  Her insecurities are crippling her ability to actually have a relationship, and it’s really not fair to her partner — in this case, Freddie.

After Freddie walks out, Francine’s roommate/best friend Katchoo comforts her by telling her that all men are assholes.  “You do what’s right for you . . . and if he has a problem with that, tell him to go jerk off,” is her advice.  She’s not entirely wrong, sure.  Francine does need to do what is best for her, and if she’s not ready to have sex, she shouldn’t.  But a relationship is a partnership, and it’s about more than just your own needs and wants.  And neither of these two women seem willing to recognize that.  Where’s the negotiation and compromise that ought to happen as part of a relationship?  Hell, where’s the communication?  Instead, the message here is just, Freddie is an awful person because Freddie dared to have sexual desire for his girlfriend.

After Freddie leaves, the status of the relationship isn’t really clear.  Is this just a fight?  Or does Freddie’s walking out and cancellation of their anniversary plans signify the end of the relationship?  No matter, Francine isn’t ready for the relationship to be over.  She calls him and leaves a message suggesting that she was planning on that night being the night, because it was their one-year anniversary and all, and apparently that’s the arbitrary boundary where a man goes from being sex-fiend to decent human being.

Then, in an effort to win Freddie back, she shows up at his work dressed in only a trench coat and undies and barges into his office, only to find him mid-coitus with someone else.  Now, in my opinion, if Freddie thinks they’ve broken up at this point, he really ought to be free to pursue whatever casual sex he feels like having.  Francine is upset and embarrassed  and that’s totally understandable, but I’m sorry, her behavior in showing up like this is still all a bit crazy-pants.  And clearly there was some communication breakdown about whether this was a break-up or not, and, granted, that’s really on Freddie, since he was the one who walked out.

The next day, Francine calls him up again, and they agree to meet in the park to talk.  Francine tells Freddie how sorry she is, and she wants to start over.  Freddie declines the offer; he’s done with this relationship.  “Look, I know you love me and I love you… I’m ready to trust you now, really!  I can make you happy!” Francine insists.  “I know what makes you happy!  I know what you want, what you need . . . and I can do it!  You know I can!”  In other words, she’s prepared to have sex with him now.  But again, it seems to me that this is all pretty insulting.  Come on, Freddie, you just want to get laid, right?  You’re just in it for the sex, right?  I’ll give you the sex if it’ll make you come back.  She seems to think that the reason Freddie walked out on her was because of the lack of sex, when my reading of it was that it was really much more about the lack of trust.  I wouldn’t want to have a relationship with someone who was still convinced, after a full year, that I was just in it for the sex, either.

Freddie walks away, and Francine goes batshit and rips all her clothes off in a public park and starts screaming, “I can’t believe I let this happen to me again!  I loved you!  I trusted you!  I was ready to give my life to you! . . . And all you wanted was a piece of my ass!” despite all evidence to the contrary — she clearly didn’t trust him, and he just turned down her offer of sex.

And all of this happens in the very first issue.

Issue 2 begins with a recap that informs the reader, “Last issue we discovered that Francine loves Freddie, but he just wants in her pants!”  This clearly seems to be the narrative that the author believes he is writing, but it just isn’t borne out by the characters’ actual behaviors.  Francine isn’t ready to have a relationship, and Freddie is, in my opinion, entirely justified in distancing himself from the whole wreck.

In issue two, we see Freddie engaging in more casual sex and being a bit of a drunken jerk to the lady he’s brought home with him (who turns out to be a hooker), but again, he’s ended his relationship with Francine, let’s maybe just leave him alone, shall we?  Nope.  Katchoo shows up at his door, puts a gun in his face, slaps him around, and (with the help of a walking bull-dyke stereotype) ties him to a table and threatens to castrate him with an electric kitchen knife. In the end, Freddie winds up naked, in clown makeup, tied by his wrists and hanging in the window of a shop, with a magnifying glass pointed at his nether regions.  Seem like a reasonable punishment for his transgressions?

The guy is seemingly supposed to be the villain of this piece, but I had a lot more sympathy for him than I did for the two main female characters.  Seriously, these ladies are nutso.  Not charmingly quirky.  Not girl power awesome.  Just straight up insane.  They’re a danger to themselves and others.

Strangers in Paradise Vol. 1 is a relationship-gone-wrong revenge story, but the revenge is all out of proportion to the supposed wrongs.  And I still say, based on what we see of things, it really wasn’t Freddie who was really doing most of the wronging in this relationship, anyway.