It’s the age-old story: girl meets girl. Girl falls for girl. Girl is confused. Both girls meet guys. More confusion. A sinister cabal known to topple governments rears its ugly head. Suspense ensues. Tragedy results. Love conquers all. They live happily ever after. The end.
That, in a nutshell, is Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise, one of the most highly regarded self-published series of the past two decades. Terry started SiP in 1993, and the world of Francine, Katchoo, David, Casey, Tambi, Darcy, and—lest we forget—Freddy Femur, has delighted comics readers for years. The series ended in 2007 but lives on in collected versions. Terry moved on to create Echo and his current series, Rachel Rising. But it’s hard to say goodbye to the family, and Terry and his wife Robyn, who together make up Abstract Studio, are celebrating the 20th anniversary of SiP in a big way, as you’ll see during part one of our exclusive interview, which keys on Strangers in Paradise. Terry is a special guest at Comic-Con this year.
Toucan: What’s a typical day like for you? I ask this because, like clockwork for the last—I don’t know—how many years, you’ve been putting a book out pretty much every six weeks.
Terry: Yeah. The way I do it is I just don’t do anything else. I wake up and shower, eat breakfast, sit down at the drawing table and start drawing and then I break for the next two meals and then I draw until about 1:00 or 2:00 at night and that’s all I do until it’s time to go to a convention. So I live like a monk. The only room I really use in the house is the studio room. Even if I go to the kitchen to eat lunch, I won’t sit down because I’m so tired of sitting down. I’ll just stand up in the kitchen and then I’m in and out in 10 minutes and I’m back up there. So it’s not so much a job as it is just a lifestyle. And over the years Robyn has developed the same lifestyle with me. It’s just how we conduct the house and we’re just all about trying to make the business work.
Toucan: Do you have days when you concentrate on writing, or is it always drawing?
Terry: I try to write when I’m trying to jumpstart a book and I end up drawing a blank. So if I need a kickstart, I sit down with pen and paper or computer and I’ll write. But usually I just cartoon, meaning I have a scene in my head and then I’ll sit down to blank paper and make it happen, cartooning being writing as you draw. I will develop the scene as I’m drawing it. It’s a way of freeze-framing film, and you’re starting at it wondering what they’re going to say next and you have all day to figure out five or six panels of dialogue. So it works really well for me. That’s basically what I’ve been doing since I was 13: blank paper and just cartooning scenes. So this is what’s comfortable for me, I guess.
Toucan: With something like Rachel Rising, you know pretty much where you’re going to go when it comes to a long-term plan, right?
Terry: Yes, I do. I have the big beats figured out. I know where I’m trying to get to like a road trip. And typically what’ll happen is there’s a scene pause and it stays on the characters for a little bit. That’s where I’m cartooning because then the characters start getting into a rhythm; like if it’s two girls and they’re ping-ponging cleverness back and forth, that’s cartooning. That’s me just thinking while I’m drawing. But in terms of major scenes in the book and each scene accomplishing this or that, that’s the kind of stuff I have to figure out.
Toucan: You’ve used the word cartooning a number of times. Do you look at yourself as more of a cartoonist or as a storyteller?
Terry: You know storyteller has only come up . . . people have only accused me of that in the last year. Before that nobody knew what to say to me, so I always just said “cartoonist,” because what I’m doing is cartooning to me. In the grand sense when you go back and analyze this volume of work, it’s storytelling, but I’m really just a bricklayer. I’m doing it a page at a time and all that. So the mechanics of it, the day-to-day life for me is that I’m just trying to cartoon a page every day. The big picture, when you pull back and look to tell the story, that’s pretty cool, but I don’t identify much as a storyteller. I guess I identify myself as an eccentric person who’s spending a lot of time in a fantasy world, like a gamer.
Toucan: When you look back at all the jobs you’ve had, you were a musician for a while and then you went into video editing and then finally comics. As a musician you tell stories with lyrics, as a video editor you tell stories with images. Was all of this consciously or subconsciously training you to do comics?
Terry: Yeah, definitely because in the other two mediums it’s all about taking a lot of raw data and truncating it down to a tight message, whether you’re talking about lyrics or a 3-minute song or a solo, or in editing it’s all about taking hours and hours of footage and making the best 30 seconds out of it. So yeah it did. It was all the same thing for me. I think that the music helped me the most with words, with wordcraft, because I’ve written hundreds of songs and that’s all about trying to say as much as you can in very few words. Every word needs to be packed, and that really helped me in cartooning, because you have your limited space above their heads and the limited size of the bubble, and if I want to say something, I can’t afford to ramble on like a novelist. They have to speak right, distinctive, and succinct. It has to look like it’s casual, but actually every word is culled out and selected and packed with some sort of other meaning. And every double entendre I can pack in there I do, everything. I put in every Easter egg and subliminal everything I can, whether it’s in the words or it’s felt. That all comes from those other two disciplines. It’s the same thing you’re doing in there. I see it all as the same: creating is creating.
Toucan: How did you get into comics? Were you a comics fan as a kid?
Terry: Yeah. It was one thing that I always did in my room and with friends. I was lucky enough to always have a couple of friends that could draw as well, and we typically bought comic books and read them together and copied them. Things kind of really took off when I was about 13 and we discovered the more flippant relevant comics like MAD magazine, Creepy, National Lampoon, stuff like that, that made us laugh as teenage boys. And then that actually encouraged me to cartoon, as I went through my teenage stages. You know how you go through all those stages? Cartooning was a good thing for each stage because of whatever angst or anger you were going through that year, there was a cartooning outlet for it. The more angry and sullen I got as a teenager, the more I got into Robert Crumb and dark comics and all that. There was always some sort of cartooning outlet available to help me vent and live and find an identification. As you keep doing that over a few years, by the time you get into high school all the people know oh, there’s more. He’s lousy at football, but he can draw. So it was that kind of thing; I had that identification even as a teenager.
Toucan: I think most people today don’t know what a great package National Lampoon was at that time. You had all these personal strips in the back by people like Bobby London and Shary Flenniken and B .K. Taylor and it was totally different than anything else you could get, even different than MAD magazine. I can see how you can look at something like that and it would seem to be a beacon for doing really personal work.
Terry: It was. It brought out the desire in me to do work that was not just jokes but more personal, even if it was humor based like [Flenniken’s] Trots & Bonnie. I mean those cartoonists had a huge influence on me because I could identify. I realized that each of them had accomplished something that really appealed to me. I didn’t have the language for it at the time, but I look back at it and what was appealing to me was that they developed avatars for real life. [And when it] sucked, they could go and draw Dirty Duck and have it do all the stuff you can’t do in real life. And as a frustrated young man that’s as good as it gets.
Now I think cartooning and music were great places where a lot of angry young men went and turned their lives around. If it hadn’t been for music, a lot of my musical heroes would have ended up in jail. So I think it really helped. I love the era that I grew up in. We had our own music, we had our own cartoonists, we had our own magazines. It was really cool. Still today, I’m 300 years old and I’m still living the same way I did then. I still wear the same clothes and the same cheap tennis shoes and everything. You know it’s just really cool.
Toucan: Yeah, but the question is, are you still angry?
Terry: No; if you’re my age and still angry that’s a sad situation.
Toucan: At some point you were a musician and then you became a video editor and you got basically to the point where you were done being a video editor and you decided to do comics. Originally you wanted to do a comic strip.
Toucan: Why did that appeal to you more than comic books?
Terry: Because I thought of comic books as beautifully drawn illustration works and those big long stories and I had always worked in one or two pages or in strips. Everything I’d done was either ripping off Peanuts or ripping off one-page National Lampoon stuff. When I look at comic books, it was Neal Adams and Jim Lee and Will Eisner and I thought, I can’t draw like that. That’s like looking at American illustration art and it’s hard to imagine doing what James Montgomery Flagg did or Howard Chandler Christy did. I didn’t relate. I didn’t connect. So I thought it was for other people, but I felt like I had a sense of humor and I knew that if I got the right set of characters it would work and I could roll, but the problem was finding the characters. So I spent five years as an adult trying to develop a comic strip that I could make a business out of, but my head was on wrong. Everything I did was derivative, and the more I talked to editors and syndicates and asked the ideas of other people, the more messed up in my head I got in terms of not being able to come up with an original thought. You get so lost in the comic strip business and everybody’s got a dog or a boy or parents, and next thing you know they’re all saying you need to come up with something like that. It really messes your head up. And then the two guys that I love the most, Bill Watterson [Calvin & Hobbes] and Berkley Breathed [Bloom County], I was shocked to find that both of those guys had zero respect for comic strips and zero respect for other cartoonists and all that. And I realized that I had problems. My problem was that I loved them all too much. I loved Bill Watterson’s work. I loved his brushwork. I wanted to know what paper he used and I loved Berkley Breathed and I wanted to see pictures of him traveling to the Antarctic and he bought a speedboat . . . really. Maybe if I get a speedboat I can come up with Bloom County. So you get all fanboy-ish. I was too much of a fanboy to do anything original, and eventually I realized that that was a serious problem.
Toucan: You had a point where you rediscovered comic books, right?
Terry: It was at that point. When I hit the wall and I realized I’m not going to get over this and I looked at comic books and saw the self-publishing movement. They were basically taking strip work and doing 20 pages of it. And I think the first thing I saw was Cerebus. And in Cerebus, instead of having 25 scenes like a Batman comic there was just two scenes in the entire 20 pages. And he took his time and me being an editor I looked at that and I thought well, hell I can do that. I can put a girl in a room with a cigarette and figure out something for her to do for 20 pages. I mean I could make a comic book now in the self-publishing movement. So I went back home and I went through all my strips and I threw all the derivative influence in one stack and then I threw any strip that had an original thought or a character in another stack and the original stack was very small and almost every page had a Francine or Katchoo or a David type character on it. So I thought of starting with those three and one day I just drew this scene where they’re all in a living room together and as I was drawing I was thinking about their lives and who they were and how they talked to each other. And the magic epiphany thing happened as I was drawing it and by the time I finished, I no longer saw characters, I saw people. The minute I saw them as people the whole world opened up, my life changed. I stopped being a fanboy cartoonist and started thinking for myself and started writing about these people and fleshing out their lives and living with them, like you hear writers say. And when I did that it all just opened up for me. I mean it’s amazing. It was like a floodgate, and man that was it, I was off and running. It was a major deal. The turning point for me was when I stopped thinking of characters and started thinking about people.
Toucan: Strangers in Paradise is almost impossible to categorize. It’s a comedy, it’s a romance, it’s a thriller; it’s funny, it’s tragic, it’s heart warming, it’s shocking. If you had to pitch it to Hollywood or another publisher in one short pitch, what would you say?
Terry: I’ve never had a good answer for it and that’s why it’s never worked out in Hollywood because nobody’s been able to come up with that answer. I’ve seen some readers Tweet something and I’ll think, ooh, that’s a great sentence about it. And it’s usually something along the lines of, oh god I can’t even remember but it’s usually, they mention love, that it’s a love story. But if you say love story, guys start thinking about pink things and chick movies and Meryl Streep. So that’s a dangerous word to say. The reason Strangers in Paradise is not optioned is because nobody can explain it in 2 minutes in a business meeting. So it’s a real problem. But it’s like The Sopranos. What is the plot to The Sopranos? What’s the plot to The X-Files? Well, there isn’t a single plot. There’s just kind of like a foundation and a way to live with characters for a long time, like Castle. There’s a different plot every time. And I kind of did that too. I’d go through and the next 12 issues will be about they go to Vegas. The next 12 will be they’re in high school and that’s kind of how I did it. I thought I was going to do Strangers in Paradise for the rest of my life like Blondie and I would have, if the sales kept up.
Toucan: When you came up with these characters, did you know the back story of someone like Katcho,o which is complicated and dangerous and not at all what it appears to be at first glance. Did you know all that was coming or did it just kind of evolve?
Terry: No, it was fuzzy in the miniseries. What I based Katchoo on was girls I’d always grown up with in high school and in the band. In high school there was always the girl who was oddly cute, not gorgeous, but she was cute. She wore jeans and the same clothes the guys did and smoked with us in the smoking area. She was comfortable around guys. And then in my band days, I knew this bartender named Cookie in Dallas and she looked like she could bench press her weight but she was cute and she hung out with the guys and she was just kind of a different type of girl. She wasn’t the babysitter type. So I was thinking about those kind of girls for Katchoo—that Katchoo was one of those blue jeans/hiking boots girls—but she had a tender heart and if you hooked her up with the babysitter girl it would be very interesting I thought. So that was kind of the dichotomy that appealed to me about that pairing. But I thought in terms of okay, sometimes those girls get into big trouble by hanging around with guys they shouldn’t be around and I thought that was Katchoo. I thought she nearly lost her life a year or two ago and she’s kind of hiding out from all that. And then as I started the series I thought I’ve kind of insinuated all this stuff that Katchoo is a badass but I haven’t actually shown her doing anything badass. So time to start paying up and that’s when I started introducing things one at a time and as I developed it, it just started coming to me. I wasn’t a chess player who had it all figured out in the beginning, because I worked on it for 14 years. I mean, you can’t have 14 years figured out.
Toucan: But that’s the great thing about it: like you said they become people, but they also take on a life of their own.
Terry: Well, that happened and it was an amazing thing because for instance you asked about my working process. There were a number of times where I would write a script and then I would sit down to start drawing it and halfway through the opening page as I’m drawing the girls talking to each other and saying that first or second line, the other girl comes up with a better quip. So I go with it. And then the other girl comes up with a better retort to that, but it implies something else and now it’s changed every page. Now I have to change the story. So I had to throw my script out because I’ve got a much better story going and the girls just kind of prompted it themselves, once I opened their mouths. There’s been a lot of times where I’ve wasted time writing out a script and had to throw it out because I thought of something better on page one or two and you got to go with it.
Toucan: So doing that for 14 years and by my calculation 107 issues, do you have a favorite storyline or a single issue that’s the one that you look back on and say this was the best?
Terry: I had a very romantic notion about Katchoo in the beginning. It was kind of based on when I was driving by a corner and it was really bad weather and it was drizzling out, and there was a girl standing there and she was really cute and it looked like she was waiting for somebody. My car went on and that was all I got. And I thought who would she stand out in the rain waiting for. Girls like that don’t wait in the rain for people. And that was my whole premise for Katchoo, which is this girl should have the world on a plate but life is hard and when she finally gets somebody and she has to go after them and work for it, that was worth writing about. It’s no fun writing about somebody if the world comes to them. But if somebody had to go for something and it’s not necessarily what they’re used to doing, I find that very romantic that she had to, she fought hard to try to win Francine’s heart and it took a long time, and then she had to fight hard to get the most out of her relationship with David when she realized that may not be permanent. Those kind of struggles of the heart, that was easy to write about it. There was a lot to write about there. And I think everyone around the world can identify with stories about people who are struggling with heartfelt issues, a struggle with the heart. Everybody’s been in love and had to work for it. So it’s something that resonated with people.
Toucan: When you live with these people for so long in your head and then you stop writing and drawing them how do you get them out of your head?
Terry: You don’t. It was like breaking up The Beatles. I really was depressed after a while. At first I was relieved that I didn’t have the deadline and then it was well, gosh Katchoo doesn’t exist if I don’t get up and draw her today. So I would spend days without Katchoo and Francine in my life. It was an adjustment, it really was. It was like a real-life separation. It’s hard to understand that if you haven’t spent 16 to 18 hours a day with them like that. It’s like the Wilson thing. It’s the Wilson Syndrome. Whoever you spend the most time with is who you’re totally involved with.
Toucan: Oh you mean Wilson from the Tom Hanks movie, Castaway.
Terry: It was “my only companion” situation. So you cut that off voluntarily and there’s an adjustment that has to be made. After a while I settled down to okay, they’re still with me and I was drawing enough sketches and everything to kind of keep it going. So now I have this fantasy in my head that I know where they are. They’re in Santa Fe where I left them and I keep mental tabs on them to make sure things are going well for them. That’s how I have to do it.
Toucan: 2013 marks the 20th anniversary of Strangers in Paradise. What are your plans for the return of Francine and Katchoo?
Terry: Well, the obvious things were a new image to celebrate the year. So we came out and drew a new image of Katchoo and how she looks today and we made a T-shirt out of it and a print that we’ll have and they’re really cool looking. The big news is that we’re brining back the Strangers in Paradise Omnibus. In 2007 to mark the end of the series I came out with a very limited-edition hardcover box set of the entire Strangers in Paradise series, but it was a limited print run and it sold out immediately. For years people have been asking for that to come back, and we have finally bitten the bullet and anted up and we’re going to print up a bunch of box sets, but they’ll all be in soft cover this time so the price point will be much lower and there’ll be a lot more available. We’re making a much bigger print run. So a soft cover Strangers in Paradise Omnibus box set is what we’re going to have out in July debuting at Comic-Con.
Toucan: Wasn’t there some talk about a novel?
Terry: I am working on a novel, but I’m not meeting my deadline on it so I’ve shelved it for right now to make sure that I get the Omnibus out and the other SiP big book I want to print this year, which will be at the end of the summer. That’s the Strangers in Paradise Treasury, which is a big, thick, full-color, coffeetable book of behind the scenes—the making of Strangers in Paradise and where they all come from. One of those wonderful compendiums that just collects all the factoids about the series. I actually made a Treasury that covered the first half of the series. It came out through HarperCollins. They printed the book but they never told anybody. So very few people have actually seen it. I thought I have the rights back to that, so I thought I’m going to finish that book. [The new edition] covers the entire series and all of the one-shots and everything. We’ll put it back out this year to celebrate the 20th anniversary, and we hope to have that out by September or October in time for the holiday season.
Toucan: Was there any other character from Strangers in Paradise that you ever considered spinning off into a series? I know that Tambi showed up in Echo at one point.
Terry: Yeah, Tambi is the most logical choice because she has the Parker Girls. For a couple of years people were asking me to do a series on the Parker Girls, just them alone, and that would be a fun series to do. I’m still thinking about that idea. At one point somebody approached me about a TV series on the Parker Girls which would be kind of sensationalism. But I think that would be a good series.