AE: Tell me about the experience with your church, if you don’t mind.
TM: Well, I was raised mostly in the South, and my parents were Church of Christ, which is very conservative. When I started this comic book series, I started the gay theme as a loving tribute to my first cousin Ben who was gay and died very early on when AIDS came along. That’s what I was thinking of and dedicating my work to. â€¦ I had very, very strong convictions about this. I wasn’t doing something for the titillation factor.
People in my church, my acquaintances, would say, "What are you doing?" I’d say I was doing a comic book, and so they’d go read it and come back to me, shocked, and say, "What are you doing? There are gay people in here!" Well, yes. [Laughs.] "Well, why are you doing this? Where are you going with this?" And I’d say, "I’m going to write a story about what it’s like to be that way and all the prejudice, and these people have hearts and feelings, and look at the damage that’s being done here."
They’d respond, with "but, but, but" and all those reasons and excuses. Well, I wouldn’t back down, and eventually I was asked to step aside: "This is not appropriate; you’re not welcome here."
AE: That was more than a decade ago, just as the book was starting.
TM: Yeah, and it affected me permanently. I have never been able to look at church the same way since. At least on that level, I understand the struggle between gay people of faith and finding a place to worship.
AE: Religion and the church affect the characters in different ways.
TM: Yes, I have openly slammed the church and its bigotry many times. Francine has shut the door, but Katchoo is stronger in being able to handle debate and controversy. Francine has just been hurt over the years by a conservative upbringing that proved to offer her no comfort when she became an adult and had crises and questions.
It’s been rewarding to pursue two people with two different approaches, two different sets of issues, and see how they orbit each other in the story. Katchoo and Francine â€” they have their own issues, but the two circulate like the moon and the Earth, and it’s just amazing the picture they paint between the two of them on these issues.
AE: I understand you based Katchoo and Francine on archetypes, if you will, of modern women. Can you explain that a bit?
TM: The basic idea for Strangers in Paradise hit me when I realized how angry women were. I grew up having women on a pedestal and being turned off if I saw blemishes. Then as I matured, I slowly realized women were full-blown people with a full range of emotions, but having to live on a planet full of predators.
I began to see men and women as two different species trying to share the same planet. I began to see men as thick-skinned, unobservant, self-absorbed and giving nothing back to women on the level that women needed. The two really just do not complement each other. I guess it’s supposed to make a yin-yang, but most often it just makes a lot of friction.
Once I started to look at things that way, seeing women as â€” every one of them â€” as a walking volcano just ready to erupt over this frustration, just sick of the fear and miscommunication â€¦ once I got that in my head, I came up with the idea to write SiP, where love is a war, and here are two of the casualties: One of them is very brave and is going to be a survivor, and another one is just getting the hell beat out of her: Katchoo and Francine. Here’s how they handle it, all the damage that love and relationships do; here’s some examples of how men can be oblivious and inflict damage. I took a very radical view.
AE: It’s a really dark view of modern life.
TM: It’s the opposite of a love story. Everybody was looking for the mushy point so they could dive in, and I was more taking the attitude of, it’s every man and woman for themselves, and if you can find some partner in the middle of this chaos, God bless you. In my story, there’s an undercurrent that love is an incredible thing, and you never know where you’re going to find it. It may be found in your best friend, and if you can find it, you’re damn lucky.
To me, it does feel like everybody’s on the run today and trying to find someone who has been able to keep their bearings and build a loving home life. My story is about two people trying to do that â€” just build a loving personal life and home for themselves in the midst of all this chaos.
AE: Do you feel males are also casualties of the social system built around them?
TM: When I began, I was very one-sided because men screw up relationships and marriages and all that, but also they’ve screwed up the world. It’s men who build cities and bridges and bombs and .44 Magnums and rape and become serial killers and are most of the drunk drivers, et cetera. Once I started looking at things that way, it was just awful, so I had an agenda when I was writing.
But it didn’t take very long before I realized a lot of the readership of SiP is male, and the men I’ve met over the years who read the book and are pulling for the characters and really get it and really sympathize â€” they’re wonderful people. They’re out there; you just have to get involved with people to find them. If you just sit at home and watch the media, you’re going to think we’re doomed, but if you go out and get involved with people on a one-to-one basis, the good guys are out there.