Friday, October 13, 2006

Lost Girls

I've been meaning to write something about Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie's "Lost Girls" for a little while now. It's been about a month since I finished reading it but I wanted to wait until I'd been to a talk they gave yesterday hosted by Stewart Lee, who has already interviewed Moore before on the BBC Radio 4 programme, "Chain Reaction". The notion, narratively, behind "Lost Girls" is that Alice, from the adventures in Wonderland, now an aging woman, Wendy from "Peter Pan", now a middle-aged woman and Dorothy from "The Wizard of Oz", now a young woman meet up in an hotel in Austria on the eve of the First World War. Their relationship and stories are sexual in nature and the book is described by Moore and Gebbie as unashamedly pornographic. Many of the stories concern reminiscences of their differing sexual awakenings, taking elements from the original stories and transposing them to a more "realistic" sexual context, much as many do the opposite and fantasise their sexual past.

Moore and Gebbie's point seems to be that much that is contained within these original stories is dark and somewhat removed from the nominal innocence of childhood with which they are often associated. Beyond that, in many parts of the stories, it is easy to read sexual overtones without having to reinterpret very much. Stylistically the book relies on pastiche, either overtly such as the passages which directly reference Collette or Oscar Wilde and more subtly within the rest of the narrative. As Moore observed last night, the whole piece is a "massive contrivance" of style, narrative, character and detail.

As with all Moore stories much of the joy is in the detail. The way details are layered and woven throughout all his great work deepens the reader's experience as elements from one part of the story are referenced or alluded to later. Panels from one sequence may be echoed later and details within the frame or specific compositional techniques will often be reused to add emphasis. I am going to re-read "Lost Girls" once I've finished "Bone" and I expect to get much more from it on the second reading. Such is Moore's diligence in plotting and constructing his stories that new ideas, themes and concepts are revealed with almost every re-reading.

As with Moore's resurrection and reinvigouration of the super-hero genre in "Watchmen", "Lost Girls" is a deliberate attempt to make what Moore and Gebbie described as a "benign" pornography designed to appeal to both sexes regardless of orientation by delving deeper into the notion of sexual fantasy than the gynecological obsession of mainstream homogenous porn which contains nothing more than the hyper-real physical act itself, regardless of context, personality or imagination.

There is also a darker side explored. There are two acts of non-consensual sex described in the book, and these, it was explained, were deliberately written not to be in any way erotic. That these are interspersed within the rest of the book's panoply of sexual abandon and joy is shocking, but ultimately very revealing about out own imaginations and how we must distinguish fantasy, reality and the ways that the one may feed the other. That one person's desire can so dramatically affect the life of another is something that pornography never normally addresses, but as the whole lives of the heroines are explored their sexual histories profoundly inform who they become as women when we initially meet them. This was the aspect that affected me most. We are used to stories where an injury, or exposure to a horrific event such as war moulds, shapes and in some cases destroys lives, but the notion of sex having such an influence, which in reality it obviously does, is something that certainly mainstream porn and very little fiction of any kind deals with.

Visually and sensorially, the whole volume is sumptuous. The artwork is exquisite, not only in its delicious attention to detail, but also to the depth of the colour and the care with which the book has been bound. It feels like a special object, something that should be treasured. Books are often concerned with the content only; the book itself is merely a medium for transporting the content to the eyes of the reader. But in "Lost Girls" the sensuality suffuses the fabric of the tome itself. It feels special to hold and to read it. Melinda Gebbie's drawings, mostly achieved with layers of pencil crayon weave a spell of great power derived from her dynamic composition and her devastating choice of colours. The visual styles of the period in which the stories take place are lovingly and painstakingly reproduced to provide an enveloping visual context in which the narrative can unfold. Last night Gebbie emphasised how much of the awfulness of mainstream porn was in it's complete lack of attention on the environment in which the action unfolds. The majority of sleazy, sordid rooms in which much porn is filmed would not "make me feel like a goddess" she said. All three heroines of Lost Girls and their lovers could not help but feel divine, such is the beauty that surrounds them. As with Moore's densely woven narrative, so Gebbie adds intricate detail to every panel. These self-referential and externally referential layers of detail overwhelm the reader on first inspection. It would probably be possible to write a whole essay on each frame, such is the care with which it is composed, the style with which it is drawn, the choice of colours and the actual objects, scenarios and people that are so lovingly rendered within.

Lost Girls has been attacked by those who see any act of artistic sexual expression as sinful or wrong. It has been attacked by Great Ormond Street hospital, who currently own the copyright on Peter Pan though this has now been resolved according to Top Shelf's publisher. The upshot is that the book will not be published in the UK until 2008 when the copyright lapses. My copy was obtained directly from Top Shelf comics in the U.S. If you're in the UK I strongly suggest that you do the same. How a book of such beauty, power and imagination can be attacked as merely prurient is beyond me. It suggests that much of the sexual repression endemic in such socially conservative countries such as the UK and US is much more a reflection on our sense of self-loathing and denial of sexuality as a part of being human than it does on this majestic book. It has taken Gebbie and Moore 17 years to write, they are now engaged to be married, both admitting it would be impossible to write such a work with someone who was merely a collaborator. Their relationship influenced the book and vice-versa said Moore and that we have this monument to sexual imagination, exploration and sheer joy is truly something to treasure.



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