The greatest truism in comics is this: Simians sell. From monkeys to gorillas - Beppo, Grodd, Hit-Monkey, Gleek - fans are always interested in the exploits of their distant cousins. Terry Moore, creator of “Strangers in Paradise,” “Echo,” and “Rachel Rising,” understands the appeal.
“I drew a sketch one time of a girl holding a welder’s torch,” he said, “and I loved it so much I drew a second one, and I put a gorilla, a gas station and a motorcycle in the sketch. I showed it to Ian Miller, the colorist, and he said, ‘Everything I love is in this one drawing. You have a girl, motorcycles and a gorilla. If you did a comic like that, who wouldn’t read it?’”
This November, Miller’s question is answered when “Motor Girl” #1 arrives in stores from Moore’s self-publishing label Abstract Studio.
“That was years ago, and it just always stuck with me that that would be a fun book," Moore continued, explaining “Motor Girl's” genesis. "I was planning on doing it after ‘Strangers in Paradise,’ and I was planning to do it again after ‘Echo,’ but the other stuff came up instead. But now it’s finally her turn. Finally, the gorilla gets a turn.”
The gorilla - named Mike - is an important player in “Motor Girl,” but Moore reveals quickly that he’s also not real. Mike exists only in the mind of the series’ real protagonist, the titular Motor Girl. “Actually, the girl, Samantha - Sam - she did three tours of duty overseas,” he explained. “On the last tour, she was captured and held in solitary confinement for a year. The only way she could get through it was to develop this invisible friend of strength, and that’s the gorilla. So the gorilla is actually my Harvey - you know the famous story about the invisible rabbit for the guy who had the breakdown?
“This is actually a genre, the invisible friend like this as an adult. It’s a genre that I’ve always loved, but I wanted to put some sort of heartfelt stamp on it rather than it just being quirky and a comedy of errors. So I have that story, the plot that grounds the book.”
Lest you think the series is entirely heavy with Sam’s emotional torment, Moore quickly adds, “Then this extraordinary thing happens where a UFO comes and crashes in her backyard! That’s kind of the surface story. But the story is actually about Samantha and her invisible friend, and why she needs him, and threat that comes along that she can lose him - how she has to fight to keep her friend. That’s the basic story of ‘Motor Girl.’
“Once you establish the truth with Mike,” Moore said of the gorilla’s non-existence, “then you can ask, ‘Are the aliens real?’ That’s a story question. I can’t give that away.
“[Sam] raises the question in issue one, ‘Did that really happen?’ And then in number two, the question becomes very real. It’s just something really fun to explore and play with.”
Moore went on to explain “Motor Girl”’s overall thrust: “The premise is Sam works at a junkyard that is owned by Libby. Libby has money; she doesn’t need the junkyard. She’s just letting it be there for Sam. It turns out that this junkyard, there’s more to it than meets the eye. It’s going to be a center of conflict in the story. There’s a reason the UFOs were there looking for something, and they have their own conflict going on up in the sky. There’s triangulation there between the aliens, another set of aliens, and what Sam gets involved with. There’s another conflict with an aerospace firm - a division of Henry, and Henry is, of course, the company from “Echo” that was doing nuclear research. Henry wants this land for a reason that complicates it all too. So that’s a plot that develops in the story.”
And if all that plot isn’t enough, he adds, “‘Motor Girl’ is more of a psychological story, which I’m very interested in. These series are really about aspects of things I’m interested in - mortality, psychology and our culture. And science. Those are really all my big topics.
“If I keep following my heart like this, my next series will be about music.”
If it sounds like there’s a lot going on in “Motor Girl,” Moore also recognizes that. Not only does his plot have a lot of moving parts, but he’s giving himself a tighter deadline than ever to finish this series. “There’s a lot going on, and it scares me because I only have one year to tell the whole story. It’s not going to be a long series - I’m going to limit it to six or eight issues. It’s going to start hauling ass in issue two.”
Of course, Moore’s earlier works continue to echo (no pun intended) through his current comics work. “Can I also point out that Aunt Libby is from ‘Strangers in Paradise?' She’s Francine’s aunt. So it’s all one Terryverse. Every series has a ‘Strangers in Paradise’ character in it. In ‘Rachel Rising,’ Jet is from ‘Strangers in Paradise.’ She’s the girl who worked with Katchoo in her art gallery. And Joni, who bought this large painting that Katchoo did, her scene is actually in ‘Strangers in Paradise.’ In ‘Echo,’ of course, Tambi and the Parker girls come into play in the second half. It’s all one thing, all one world.
“It’s not so much conscious,” Moore admitted when the discussion turned to his ability to juxtapose the silliest slapstick elements with soul-wrenching personal anguish. “It’s not something I have to make a lot of effort at. It’s the way I’m wired. My point of view, which may not be great as a human being on Twitter, but it works when I’m a writer, is that the world is dark and soul-sucking. Terrible things happen in the world. But my characters are living with hope.
“So we have this bedrock of story that is about bad things happening. Like in all of our lives, so we can relate to that - whether it’s divorce or post-traumatic stress or whatever. But the character gets up every morning ready to try again. There’s this element of hope inside them. They’re not giggly and silly, like an old movie, but they’re not grim anti-heroes, like post-modern characters.
“After 9-11, I realized the arts is the best method for lifting up people’s spirits in tough times,” he explained, “so I decided all my work was going to have an element of hope to it. The story plots reflect our tough times, but the characters reflect the hope we all need. Like, ‘This is going to work out and it’s going to work out because I’m strong or because I have friends, or I love somebody or somebody loves me.’ That kind of stuff, the stuff that makes us smile.”
The eight-year delay had a significant impact on his plans for the characters from that first sketch. "At the time, back then, it was going to be this simple, straightforward, after school movie about a girl who worked on Indian motorcycles and wanted to enter a competition, and win enough money to do something. It was a two-dimensional idea. Now, after living in my studio all this time, I require a lot more of a story. The psychological story that I’m delving into is far more fascinating. So yeah, it’s a better story now that I waited, for sure.
“The grand plan is to do ‘Motor Girl’ through 2017,” he said. “2018 is the 25th anniversary of ‘Strangers in Paradise,’ so 2018 will be all about that book.”
Is this the “Strangers in Paradise” novel first mentioned back in 2012? Moore demurred. “I’ve stopped promising the novel, but it is something I am desperate to do. What I’ve found is that I’m not able to do comic books on a deadline and get a novel written at the same time. It’s going to have to be one or the other, because I just throw myself into something. I get too absorbed on one track. I’m not good at multitasking.
“But I want to do a ‘Strangers in Paradise’ novel so that I can get into more realistic, adult material, instead of it having to in the requirements of the comic book medium. I would like to tell a more realistic story about it. It allows me to get into things that I can’t do in a comic book. The thing about a comic book is you have the images that are so strong, and people never forget the images. You can write about things that you don’t want to show - that’s the difference. So a novel can be more liberating in that sense. It’s something I want to do.
“Plus, as I get older, I think about how many more years can I draw before it turns into a bunch of chicken lines. A novel is a lot of material. Do I think I have fifteen more years of drawing to do another ‘Strangers in Paradise’ epic? I don’t know. All I have to do is fall down and hit my head and there goes my drawing hand. I feel the clock ticking, so I’m desperate to get these labors of love done. I still have several labors of love stories I want to tell. I’m working hard to make sure I get them all done. And that’s one of them.”
As of now, 2018’s “Strangers in Paradise” return will be “a limited story,” Moore said. He hasn’t figured out an issue count yet, but expects the series to run for one year and be collected into a single trade paperback.
Despite his concerns about how long his drawing ability will remain, “Motor Girl” looks like vintage Terry Moore artwork. “I’m doing ‘Motor Girl’ different. Each book, I’ve tried to make the art style a little different,” he said. “‘Strangers in Paradise’ was drawn with a brush, so everything is smooth and feminine. ‘Rachel Rising’ was drawn with a bit pen, so everything was kind of jaggy and frenetic. Just so it has this subliminal impact on you.
“With ‘Motor Girl,’ I switched over from a smooth paper to a rough paper, and went back to brush. So it’s a little more cartoony and a little less shiny and pristine, in terms of blacks and things like that. So it can have just a little more of an animated or cartoon feel. I needed a break from the intense art I was doing on ‘Rachel Rising.’ It was so hard to make my deadlines, to get a ‘Rachel’ book done every six weeks with all that line work. ‘Motor Girl’ is giving me just a little bit of a reprise from that.”
The comic book industry and market have evolved incredibly since Moore began self-publishing Strangers in Paradise (after the first three issues, in 1993, came out with Antarctic Press). With more book publishers possessing their own boutique graphic novel lines and more outlets for personal, creator-owned comics, Moore remains independent, though not for reasons you might guess.
“I don’t need to have control of it all. I would love to have a business partner, a big publishing gorilla, somebody that has a big footprint in the industry. Because obviously, I’ve reached the maximum of my reach as one person. I can get to my readership and that’s it.
“The problem is that publishers, when I have this conversation with them, basically, they just want to come in, take what I’m doing, and take half of the money. And there’s no promises. They say, ‘Well, we’ll print a ton of books and put it against your income, and we’ll talk about you a lot,’ but that’s it. That’s the only guarantee they have. Otherwise, they’re just taking half the money. That’s not an enticement at all, because I already have my publishing routine set up. I don’t need anybody to print my book. Nobody needs a publisher to print a book for them; anybody can print a book, and you can get it into a store. So there has to be more to it and I’ve never gotten that call of destiny, that ‘Hey, we love you stuff and we want to give you this huge check up front!’ That’s the dream of every writer I guess, but it rarely happens. I certainly haven’t had that offer. That’s why I keep working.”
Over the years, Moore kept a toe in work-for-hire comics, with notable runs on “Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane” and “The Runaways.” Although he hasn’t done as much work for hire lately, Moore isn’t averse to the right project. One particularly special moment came recently when he illustrated his son’s first comic book story for BOOM!’s “Power Rangers Annual.”
Moore happily said, “That was fun. I’m friends with the guys at BOOM! anyway, with Alex Galer, Ross Richie, and Shannon Watters. Great people. My son approached them on his own. He loved the Power Rangers growing up - he still does. He submitted this idea, and they said, ‘Wow, we want to do that.’ I asked if I could draw it, so that I could be involved in his first published work. I just thought that was kinda cool, like passing the torch. So that’s my son’s first published comic book story and it was an honor to draw it.
“It was a good story, because he does back story, where somebody came from. If you’re into a character, you love that. I had to do a lot of visual research. I submitted my first pencil draft, and they said, No, the sword has to be like this, the costume like this, the boots like that. (laughs) You have to be very exact when you’re drawing these characters! I’d probably get kicked off Iron Man!”
Outside of that foray into the Power Rangers-verse, Moore says, “It’s all Abstract Studio stuff at the moment. My pals at the other comic book publishers have an open-door policy to do some projects - I’m really desperate to do something in the Archie world, because it’s one of the first books I ever read and loved. It’s one of the reasons I’m in comics is because of Archie. So I really want to do that, but right now, I’m scrambling to meet my own deadline. We’re doing a lot of traveling and everything, so I haven’t been able to get that in. The desire is there - a strong desire to do that.”
But for now, Moore’s fans will have “Motor Girl” to sate their needs.
“Motor Girl” #1 is currently available from Abstract Studio.