Life in Black & White

Terry Moore doesn't look like what most people would consider to be the stereotypic comic-book artist. At 39, that age of receding dreams, he's soft-spoken and possessed of a mild countenance and modest stature that he himself says makes him look like an accountant. He lives in an upscale house in West U with his office-manager wife and two kids. At his day job he edits commercials and music videos on a fancy computer.

But most every night, home from work, supper eaten, a few sitcoms consumed with his family, Moore ascends to his attic retreat to dream up and draw the exploits of two strong women named Katchoo and Francine for a self-published comic book he's titled Strangers In Paradise. Set vaguely in Houston (some of the backgrounds may look a touch familiar), Strangers In Paradise was the hit of this summer's San Diego Comic Convention -- the convention of the year for comic-book types. Moore was the only alternative artist -- i.e. artist who doesn't do superhero-dominated comics -- nominated for the convention's newcomer-of-the-year award. He's even been getting offers about optioning off the movie rights to his stories and characters.

Not that the acclaim was all that surprising. Though Strangers in Paradise debuted only last November, and has had only a three-issue run to date, it's already become the buzz of the comic book industry. In Subliminal Tattoos, a magazine that keeps track of such things, SIP was ranked in the top ten nationwide in sales in the black-and-white comic category. Moore's original print runs have now sold out, so he's compiled the three issues into a trade paperback -- called The Collected Strangers In Paradise and subtitled, with a bit of optimism, Volume One -- and, this month, is launching the first of the ongoing, bimonthly Strangers in Paradise series.

"September, October, November are going to be my coming-out time to the fans," Moore says. "Even though I've been out for a year, a lot of people will just now discover me."

It's a nice, quick rise to fame for Moore, a native Texan who entered the comic book field less than two years ago after being encouraged by a teacher at a life-drawing class. Strangers in Paradise's down-to-earth plot follows the exploits and traumas of roommates Katchoo and Francine, who Moore conceives as two extremes of the '90s modern woman: Francine is continually lovelorn and downtrodden, while militant Katchoo embodies what Moore describes as the "Schwarzenegger version of women's rights." Why Katchoo is so bitter we won't find out until the fall releases, but she's already taken out some of her aggression on Francine's jerk boyfriend.

All this makes Strangers in Paradise a breed apart from the mainstream spandex-and-fisticuffs school of comic books. Although there have been other slice-of-life comics such as Love and Rockets, Moore's work has its own distinctive warmth and freshness. SIP may even be a harbinger of styles to come, according to Diana Schutz, editor-in-chief of Dark Horse, one of the comic industry's "big five."

"He's telling stories that I as a 39-year-old woman want to read," Schutz says. "The traditional consumer base for comics is the 15-year-old adolescent boy who's reading heroic fiction. Terry is broadening the boundaries of the medium by providing stuff that's interesting to humans at large. He is telling stories that are grounded in real life, that are fraught with emotion and humor -- those are all rare in the comic-book field, but those are the sorts of things that would appeal to, let's say, a civilian reader."

If Moore's characters aren't typical, neither is his seemingly quick success. "If I didn't know better, I'd be looking in the stores for back issues of his work he had done before this," says Paul Grant, a long-time contributor to the comic press. "It was that mature and that fully fleshed. It had none of the telltale signs of somebody's first work."

Although Moore loved to draw as a kid, he gave up comics at age 13, and didn't look at the genre again until four years ago. Describing himself as the cliche artist-wannabe, Moore says he spent years drawing at his kitchen table at night. Moore had studied in Dallas with Disney animator Dick Ruhl, and was all lined up to go to L.A. and become a Disney animator himself, but pulled out when he heard how little animators are paid. But that period shows in his work, especially in his acute sense of comic timing and in his characterization; his people seem to live and breathe without falling into "let's bore our readers to tears with panel after panel of whiny, half-baked existentialism," as one industry review put it.

"If I have, like, the skyline of Houston behind the characters, I'll just whip that out, I don't care," Moore says. "But if I want to have a certain expression on a face, I'll spend 20 minutes redrawing and redrawing and redrawing. One of the things that really helped me with that is the Disney training. They want all the expressions in the world out of two saucers and a couple of dots for eyes .... I wanted something that we could actually identify with and get to know and like, just like regular people. But I wanted to stretch reality, wide faces, and have people react just like they always imagined they'd react, but in real life they always control it instead of...," Moore flashes his hands out above his head and yells, "-- YOW!!" His face settles back into its mild, friendly demeanor. "I want-ed everybody to act like that."

Moore was coached through the ABCs of comic-book success by Jeff Smith, whose self-published, funny-animal comic Bone is the best-selling alternative comic in America. Smith told him not to go with the major comics publishers, but to keep the business, the control -- and the potential profits -- to himself. The preliminary issues of SIP were printed through Antarctic, a San Antonio company. Now, Moore finds self-publishing both affordable and fairly simple. "Anybody who has the desire is really able to publish themselves and get the comic book out there, unlike any other business," he says.

Still, visibility counts, and Moore is using at least one of the major comics publishers -- DC and its Vertigo line of more mature comics -- to get his name out to that part of the comics audience who've never heard of him. Moore is contributing a drawing to the Sandman: Gallery of Dreams, a collection of illustrations based on DC/Vertigo's popular Sandman comic, and collaborating on an 11-page story with respected (and unrelated) comics writer Alan Moore. If everything goes according to plan, all the attention and work should surface at once, giving Moore more visibility than ever before. The first issues of SIP had a print-run of around 3,000; the new SIP series will have a print-run of closer to 10,000 per issue. And the Sandman Gallery will have a distribution in excess of 80,000.

But despite all the planning and pathos that's gone into SIP, it's not, surprisingly, Moore's heart's desire. He reserves that honor for a story based on a dream he had when he was 18. This comic tale would be about an ordinary fellow who slowly realizes through the psychoanalysis of his dreams that he was midwife to the world we live in. That he was a god, but was deposed. And that he's been parted from his lover, his soul mate; to be reunited, he must remember her name.

"Just talking about it, oh, I get excited," Moore says. "I'm waiting to put all my heart and soul into it -- it's like waiting until Christmas." Moore hopes to get to his dream comic after SIP runs its course, whenever that is.

It's a bit curious that after all his talk about wanting to be different, Moore's dream strip is a more typical magical fantasy.

But given Moore's non-cliched take on urban life in Strangers In Paradise, who knows what might come out of his head? For the moment, Moore is holding tight and waiting for the SIP bandwagon to start rolling, beginning with his Sandman Gallery drawing.

"Hopefully somebody is a Sandman fan, sees the comic and likes it, says what else has this guy done, and they'll go find Strangers in Paradise and buy it," says Moore. "I hope, I hope. Could life be that easy?


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