On the eve of World War I, an aged Alice checks into a Swiss hotel, carrying with her a large looking glass. Next door, Wendy, still reminiscing over Peter Pan, lies side by side with her dry, buttoned-up husband. Later in the night, Dorothy, her long red hair from her days in the Land of Oz cut short into a flapper-girl bob, rents a room of her own. The three women, all sharing a childhood seeped in fantasy, take a liking to each other and become fast friends. In Alan Moore’s new comic book epic, Lost Girls, Dorothy, Alice and Wendy precede to masturbate, suck, screw, tickle, buck, lick, caress and, yes, even fist each other over the course of three volumes as Europe dissolves into chaos around them. The women share the intimate secrets of their childhood fantasy worlds, which as they are evoked come more and more to resemble complex coping mechanisms, flights of exploration, imaginative discoveries of the body and dangerous gambits with the murk of desire. The illustrations, all wonderfully conceived by Moore’s wife Melinda Gebbie, often hearken back to artists of the period like Egon Schiele and Alfonse Mucha. The fantasies interweave Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allan Poe and the erotic booklets of Victorian-era England and Europe. The women wax philosophical about war, politics, maleness, the family, lesbianism, youth and, of course, imagination, and the plot revels so thoroughly in their sexual play that the line between reality and fantasy obscures and eventually fades completely away.
Alan Moore, if you have not yet heard, is the reigning master of contemporary comics. His graphic novels Watchmen, V for Vendetta and From Hell are commonly cited as among the most literate and creative comic books available, and his serials such as Top Ten and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen are continually top rate. For those of you who have not been reading comic books since you were 12, a brief summary of recent events is necessary to appreciate the importance of Moore’s new pornographic epic.
Comic books, back in the days of yore, when men stood tall and women were chesty, belonged to super heroes, pre-historic warriors, samurais, cowboys, urban killers, motorcyclists on fire, humanoid reptiles, universe crushers, bullet-eaters, outrageous breasts, slick young sidekicks, secret identities and trembling, threatened civilians. Adventures were brief, plot twists abrupt, facial expressions exaggerated and evil consistently defeated again and again and again. In the late eighties, a disgruntled underground that had been seething and bubbling since the seventies broke into this shimmering world of male energy and everything got a lot more complex. Superheroes began to question their “underlying motivations” and developed “emotional insecurities.” Grant Morrison’s Animal Man focused on the conception of reality inherent in the comic mentality. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman toyed with Jungian archetypes and the philosophical interplay of concept-gods. Sam Kieth’s The Maxx explored the tattered landscape of a homeless superhero’s subconscious. Yet the reigning king of this foray into the dark side of fantasy was inarguably Alan Moore. A known kook, Moore resisted the mainstream fiercely, issuing acid declarations of dissatisfaction with the standard tropes of the Marvel and DC universe. As a 15 year old, I revered him as a genuine artist, one who took the fantasy available in comics and ran off into the wilderness, yammering mystically and pawing at his wild beard.
Recently, in the past six or seven years, comic books have taken a strange turn with the emergence of the Graphic Novel. The term which was once used to refer to collected editions of long-running series is now reserved for bookish, adult material which leaves the realm of the superhero far behind in order to focus on people, employment, puberty, parenting and…I shudder to say it…relationships. These comics are not, as you might suspect, the logical progression from the complexity of Moore’s revolution, rather they are a product of aspiring novelists who grew up reading comics. Usually these Graphic Novels are about comic artists. Usually they feature fights between the artist and his girlfriend. Often there are extended scenes of the lonely artist masturbating. No joke. These Graphic Novels are the daily bread, as well as the poster child, for a growing community of hip cosmopolitan graduates who want to read literature without seeming too adult. I loathe these fools. I hope they all stub their toes real hard. The bankruptcy of spirit that these comics embody marks the death knell of creativity in one of the last remaining mediums to encourage the inner child to shine forth in all of its glory. Which brings us to Lost Girls.
Moore’s Alice, who when we meet her is a wizened, grey-haired libertine, recounts her childhood as one of forced sexual confrontation leading quickly to lesbian prostitution and a fierce opium dependency. In one particularly disturbing scene, she is forced to spend a weekend between the corpulent bodies of two mentally challenged twins, Moore’s allusion to Tweedledum and Tweedledee: “they made me sleep with my face in one of their crotches, so that I’d lick their mephitic holes in the morning, or when they woke at night needing to pee.” The imagery of the fat twins hearkens back to a consistent trope in Alice’s recollections, that of reflection and symmetry. In her first tale, the young Alice focuses on the mirror as her tutor (read Lewis Carroll) touches her. “All that I could see was Mother’s mirror, there across the room. Inside me fingers fluttered, strange birds in a deep salt pool, their movements making ripples I could neither name nor own. The birds moved faster, caught up in a race.” Alice reaches out towards her own reflection. “I fell, and from the hole’s far end she fell towards me, half bare, hair like wild rape, white lace petals opening about her skinny legs. His hand was hot between my thighs. I made pretence that it was hers.” The twin Alices grapple with each other, seeking refuge and solace and, strangely, somewhat disturbingly, pleasure in the ministrations of her tutor.
The adult Alice considers herself “half-mad,” for she cannot imagine sleeping with a man, preferring as a matter of course the sexual company of women and girls. As an interpretation of Carroll’s work this is fascinating. It has long been a consideration of any adult reading of his books to question his obsession with the young girl. To imagine his elaborate creations as sexual advances is no stretch, but then to perceive Alice’s flight into a narcissistic fantasyland as an emotional response is to read into Carroll’s own action, his own appetitive appeal, a pained comprehension of Alice’s dismay. It hearkens back, or forward, to Humbert Humbert’s acute awareness of Lolita’s crisis, the true sin at the heart of that book. Alice’s later struggles with forced lesbian encounters allow Moore further room to explore this surreal terrain of numb trauma and intense pleasure. After finishing one of her stories, Alice asks if Dorothy is “enjoying these accounts of very young girls in actually rather frightening circumstances?” “Yeah. I sure am,” Dorothy says from between Wendy’s legs, “It’s just so dirty!”
And in this response we find the thesis of the whole bizarre project. The pleasure of delight and entertainment, which Moore argues finds its highest expression in the erotic, does certainly exist even in the face of “actually rather frightening circumstances.” Comic books have, believe you me, always contained a great deal of sex, whether explicit or tucked into a spandex costume. Rippling biceps punching through bricks and snatching up damsels is as loud an expression of pubescent energy as you could ask for. To challenge the comic medium, then, at its base level, would be to bring this sensual appeal to the forefront, to create a comic that is not erotic but blaringly pornographic, and to expose this raw nerve to the full force of human drama. The pivotal event of Lost Girls is the execution of Archduke Ferdinand, and the comic ends with the glistening, fleshy entrails of a soldier in the trenches. Yet the mystery of the imagination, wrapped up as it is in desire, fear, enchantment and delirium, is as much a function of life in wartime as in childhood. “My dear,” Alice says to Wendy at one point, “beautiful and imaginative things can be destroyed. Beauty and imagination cannot. They blossom, even in wartime.” This appeal to the necessity of imagination and fantasy could not come at a better time, in my opinion, and indeed Lost Girls is at heart very in tune with Thomas Pynchon’s latest book, Against The Day. Both works challenge the notion of the serious, the adult, the mature, etc. Lost Girls is, in my opinion, a resounding smack in the face to all of these Graphic Novels, and as such is no less than a triumph for comic books.
If you don’t feel like paying $75 for a three volume porn comic, I’ll let you peek at my copy. I have it tucked away in my boudoir. Just knock before you enter…