Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie
Top Shelf Productions ($75)
by Eric Lorberer
Sequential visual narrative is an amazing art form, and it's quite possible that we are witnessing its golden age. Take for example the justly renowned work of British writer Alan Moore. His Swamp Thing re-invented horror comics, and his Watchmen remains the apotheosis of the superhero genre; V for Vendetta is a razor-sharp political fable, Promethea an intricate Kabbalah- and Tarot-fueled fantasia, From Hell a deliciously deliberate historico-mythic investigation. Even his somewhat lighter fare—the Superman pastiche Supreme, the police procedural Top 10, the pulpy mélange of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen—is exquisitely written, blending the childlike guilelessness we historically associate with comics with the adult aims of literature. But what separates Moore from just any gifted storyteller are a healthy respect for paraliterary texts and traditions—he raids them with the instinctive foresight and diligence of a squirrel burying nuts—and his ability to bring multiple strands of narrative and imagery into harmonic resonance, which makes his graphic novels as fugue-like as they are novelistic.
Moore's latest achievement, and a mighty achievement it is, is Lost Girls, which tackles perhaps the most slippery of the paraliterary genres, pornography. Clearly inspired by the verbose and often almost surreal excesses of Victorian erotica, Moore takes pains to show a panoply of bedroom activity—there are dripping pudenda, engorged members, and salacious activities at which they are put to use, all lovingly rendered by Melinda Gebbie (more on this later). Yet Lost Girls does more than titillate: it's a multi-layered tale of how real world innocence gets eroded as only Alan Moore would pen it, examining the complex psyches of its three titular protagonists through the lens of sexuality and throwing themes of family, war, and love into the mix.
Given Moore's penchant for revisiting the icons of fiction, the title characters aren't just any old lost girls, but ones whose art of losing we'll remember well from their legendary adventures: There's Alice, of Wonderland fame; Dottie, or "Dorothy Gale, from Kansas"; and Wendy from Peter Pan. We meet these three, now grown women, as they meet each other, on the eve of World War I. All guests of the Hotel Himmelgarten in Austria, they become libidinous Scheherezades, regaling each other with tales of their sexual awakenings and proclivities while indulging in more. Moore excels at imagining erotic corollaries for the standard fictional adventures of this trio, and leisurely unspools them for us—Dorothy's twister, for example, is depicted as her first whirlwind-like bout with masturbation, and her encounters with the Scarecrow, Lion, and Tin Man get rewritten as well, but not simply as gratuitous porn versions of the story we already know—instead, they deepen the portrait of Moore's Dorothy as a person, a grown woman whose background, family, and desires have all brought her to this moment. It's likewise for Wendy, the youth surrounded by boys who wouldn't grow up who flees into a loveless marriage of quietude, and Alice, indoctrinated into a surreally fetishistic lifestyle by unconventional (and often manipulative) adults.
The fact that up until now we only knew these women as children is indeed one of the great risks of the book—both politically and artistically. Turning these pages, it's not hard to imagine that conservatives who lack an understanding of how the imagination works will have a field day with the portrayals of incest and pedophilia Lost Girls necessarily undertakes—ignoring the hotelier's wise observation, as he reads a dirty-book-within-the-book, that its actors "are fictions, as old as the page they appear on, no less, no more." (One might even wish on Moore an obscenity trial à la Lady Chatterley's Lover or Lolita; like those books, his is undoubtedly a work of literature, and it would win.) On the other side of the divide, the richly textured correspondences between Moore's grown versions of Alice, Dorothy, and Wendy and their originating children's stories firmly cement the book as a literary tour de force but often preempt its pornographic charge—one feels impelled to use one's hand to take notes rather than gratify other desires. In other words, some readers will find this book too smutty, and others not smutty enough. But this isn't exactly a complaint—rather, it's further evidence that an extremely talented writer has written an extremely unique piece of work.
Adding to this complex dynamic is the visual aspect, of course. Throughout his career, Moore has been blessed with superb artists to realize his visions: Eddie Campbell's black and white artwork on From Hell, for instance, makes the story seem like both documentary and dream at once, while J. H. Williams III's formalist psychedelia realizes the heady goals of Promethea to perfection. So it is here: Gebbie draws on traditions including children's book illustration, Pre-Raphaelite art, and the naughty "Tijuana Bibles" to create the world of Lost Girls. Her designs are nicely varied, conveying the personal quirks of each erotic anecdote and living up to Moore's demanding structural intricacies, as in entire chapters seen straight-on in a mirror; she also presents the standard tropes of porn without a shred of coyness, and accentuates their playful variety (and realistic body-types) over only-so-many-positions boredom; and her use of color is especially sumptuous, adding to the cross-genre flavor that the publisher's equally sumptuous packaging suggests: carved into three hardcover volumes and elegantly slip-cased in a box of royal hue, Lost Girls begs the question as to whether it needs to be hidden from one's children and houseguests or displayed prominently on the coffee-table along with other prized art books.
Perhaps this is the goal to which all erotica aspires. Or perhaps not: the thing about the erotic, why it is infinitely maddening, is that it is infinitely unknowable. To paraphrase Wittgenstein on pain, I can imagine your orgasm, but I can't feel it for you. Neither of course can Alan Moore, but what he has done is offered you a story about it. Measure this truly graphic novel's success not in how hard or how wet you get while you read it, but in how "found," how self-aware, you, like Dorothy, Wendy, and Alice, feel by its end. If it's done its job as literature, and I think it has, you'll feel your whole being and not just your sex organs enlarged.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006