August 8, 2014

The NSFW Files: "Lost Girls" by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie

The NSFW Files | A CCLaP essay series

(Once a month through 2013, CCLaP staff writer Karl Wolff investigates literature of a more carnal kind with The NSFW Files. Despite being erotic, is there literary value to be found? For all the essays in this
series, please click here.)

Lost Girls, by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie

Lost Girls
by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie
Review by Karl Wolff
Personal History: Alan Moore wrote an epic erotic comic. And Lost Girls also carried with it hints of controversy. As a longtime fan of Moore, I had to see what he did with this particular genre of comics.

The History: Published in 2006, Lost Girls is still too new to have "a history," at least in the same way as Story of O or Naked Lunch. Those two novels were controversial and shocking when they first hit bookstores, but have since accrued literary respectability and legitimacy with the addition of so many years. Lost Girls isn't even ten years old, therefor I will hold off on any premature announcements to its status as a classic.

The exact nature of the controversy is in its depiction of child sexuality. Without the proper contextualization, the words "child sexuality" comes across as shocking and horrific. This requires unpacking and seeing it within the narrative framework of Lost Girls. Moore and Gebbie have created a work that explores an erotic world based on the fictionalized lives of three protagonists from children's literature. Alice from Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, and Wendy from Peter Pan. Here is what Alan Moore has to say about this, "if we'd have come out and said, 'well, this is a work of art,' they would have probably all said, 'no it's not, it's pornography.' So because we're saying, 'this is pornography,' they're saying, 'no it's not, it's art,' and people don't realize quite what they've said." (quote from The Forbidden Planet International Blog Log). The whole art versus pornography conundrum, while saving the authors and readers the headache of legal prosecution, does little to solve the issue.

This is what makes the arts different from the sciences. Because of the slippery subjectivity of artistic intentions, reader reactions, and critical interpretation, things can get ugly when butting against the ferocious consequences of the law and psychology. Back when I began this essay series, I cited Susan Sontag's "The Pornographic Imagination." In Sontag's influential essay, she works diligently to support erotica and pornography as a legitimate literary genre. She also goes out of her way to avoid discussing either legal or psychological aspects of the works she selected. But (and this is key) the works she discussed were prose. Lost Girls is a comic, a medium built upon an interplay between words and image. It is these images where things get dicey.

At CONvergence this year I attended a panel titled "Fetishes: Gone Too Far?". During the discussion, one of the key points was the interrelated issues of controversy versus legality. Like William S. Burroughs, I hold an ideological position of "First Amendment absolutist." What this means is that I believe artists should have almost no restrictions in terms of subject matter. In a related legal case, Neil Gaiman went so far as to assert that comic book characters have no claims to legal personhood. Comic book characters do not exist in the same way that fictional characters represented by a film or stage actor exist. And in cases like these, where someone is prosecuted for possessing a comic where underage characters have sex, is a dangerous precedent. One shouldn't confuse moral judgments (what said person does with said comics) with legal writ. What is moral and what is legal isn't always a 1:1 ratio. This holds especially true in a multi-ethnic, multicultural pluralistic democracy like the United States.

But with any absolutist position, this has a number of caveats. This circles back to context, genre, and child sex. The First Amendment protects speech not acts. Lost Girls is work of fiction and, as such, is legally protected free speech. This isn't a how-to manual on how to solicit children for sexual acts. And even with the protection of the First Amendment, it is clear that the depictions are artistic renderings. When it comes to photographs or filmic representations, the context changes entirely, since that brings up a host of issues like age of consent, coercion, criminal enterprise, and more.

I spend a lot of space discussing the context and particulars because one should be able to read Lost Girls without fear of legal prosecution.

Despite the sensational subject matter, Lost Girls is a groundbreaking erotic comic that Moore and Gebbie use to explore issues of genre, history, and narrative.

The Book: Lost Girls centers its narrative around an Austrian hotel on the eve of The Great War. At the hotel we meet Wendy Durling, Dorothy Gale, and Alice Fairchild. As the story progresses, Wendy, Dorothy, and Alice recount erotic tales from their childhood. We see eroticized origin stories. Dorothy masturbates during a tornado. Wendy meets a strange boy in the park who initiates her (and her young brothers) into the world of adult sexuality. Alice engages in sexual escapades with a schoolmistress named Mrs. Redman (a sexualized version of The Red Queen). They continue regaling each other with their erotic autobiographies admist sexual shenanigans at the Austrian hotel.

In a way Lost Girls comes across like slash fiction, the sexualized version of fan fiction. This is relevant since Moore and Gebbie are using characters and situations from classic literature.

But Moore and Gebbie further complicate things. The hotel proprietor named Monsieur Rougeur lends the women The White Book, an anthology of erotic pastiches allegedly written and illustrated by such luminaries as Aubrey Beardsley, Guilliame Apollinaire, Oscar Wilde, and Egon Schiele. Near the end of Lost Girls, the specter of war hovers ever closer. Archduke Francis Ferdinand is assassinated and various European powers prepare an imminent war. The husbands of the three female protagonists leave to attend to the immediate crisis. The hotel is emptied but for Dorothy, Wendy, and Alice, and the lusty hotel staff. It is during this orgy that Monsieur Rougeur recounts his own origin story. He tells about his life as a master forger and pederast. In typical Moore fashion, the comic depicts three simultaneous storylines. The first is a story from The White Book; the second is Rougeur's life story; and the third is the present-day hotel orgy. But because Rougeur is a master forger, we don't know whether he is telling the truth with his story. And this relates back to the alleged authenticity of the art in The White Book. Lost Girls exists simultaneously as an epic piece of slash fiction and as an avant-garde exploration of narrative itself.

The very final scenes involve German soldiers breaking a mirror (a prop present in the prologue) and a slow pull back that reveals the entire narrative was a dream by a dying soldier in a trench. One recalls the endings of Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and : the common ending trope all these works had was that it had been a dream.

The Verdict: As I stated previously, I'm avoiding any verdict saying Lost Girls is a classic. Too early to tell. Although this will be yet another example within Alan Moore's oeuvre that scholars can puzzle over, dissect, and contextualize. Despite its controversial subject matter, it holds its own both within Moore's body of work and against other erotic comics.
Read even more about Lost Girls: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia
Coming next: The NSFW Files in book form! I'll have at least three more bonus essays and a concluding essay on erotica as a literary genre.

Filed by Karl Wolff at 9:00 AM, August 8, 2014. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |