NOTE: The following article is intended for mature audiences.
The time is 1913, with the specter of the First World War about to descend upon Europe. The place is a resort hotel on the Franco-Swiss border. Three very different women meet there by chance and discover that they have something in common: each of them experienced a major turning point in their past that changed them forever, a cataclysmic event that triggered their sexual awakening, and they need to share these experiences with each other, both in telling and experiencing, in order to come to terms with them, in order to heal and move on, even with the world around them about to erupt into the first great war of the Twentieth Century.
If this wasn’t already heady enough, the women are figures we already know: Lady Alice, the silver-haired aristocrat with a long history of scandal behind her, is Alice from Lewis Carroll’s books “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass.” Wendy Potter, respectable wife of a staid middle-aged businessman, is Wendy from J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan.” And Dorothy Gale, the free-spirited young American tourist seeing Europe for the first time, is the heroine from L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz.” The books are the stories that changed these women’s lives, reinterpreted through the prism of sex, where the original stories themselves become subtle metaphors for sexual awakening.
This is the premise of “Lost Girls,” the latest graphic novel from the pen of Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie, which looks set to be more than a major publishing event this year when it’s released from Top Shelf Productions. The book is also unashamedly pornographic, a Molotov Cocktail thrown into the arena of the cultural debate about Pornography and free speech.
While some people might decry the taboo sexual acts, they ignore the fact that “Lost Girls” is a dense literary and postmodernist work. Even the most salacious-minded reader would eventually begin to notice that there is, in fact, a story and several themes being explored in the 330-page graphic novel. In fact, the sex may be less interesting than what it is being used to say.
In order to fully appreciate “Lost Girls”, the reader ought know a certain amount of literary and historical knowledge, to be familiar with “Through The Looking Glass,” “The Wizard Of Oz” and “Peter Pan,” because the graphic novel is deconstructing and commenting on these classic children’s stories and reconstituting them as overtly pornographic allegories about adolescent sexual awakening, the power of fantasy, Sex as Power, and Sex as a means of coping with trauma and as a means to heal. It also overtly identifies itself as not reality, but a fantasy, mere words and drawings featuring fantasy characters rather than real people or real acts. And it also acknowledges that part of the appeal of Pornography is as a means for the reader to thrill to fantasies that transgress social taboos like incest without actually committing any such acts in real life. It follows a well-established tradition in European Pornographic Literature dating back several Centuries, including the works of the Marquis de Sade, full of far worse fantasies of rape, domination and outright brutality, to those written under assumed names by gentlemen (and some ladies) for gentlemen. Moore has also cited the use of Pornography as a safety valve and a means to safely explore thoughts and impulses.
I interviewed Alan Moore and artist Melinda Gebbie at length about Pornography, Politics, War, Literature, Art, and all the ideas that generated “Lost Girls,” and the controversy that book might trigger. What follows is the first in a three part interview that covers lots of ground in 11,000+ words.
“It’s one I’m quite prepared to defend,” Moore told CBR News. “It’s not something we threw in just for sensationalism’s sake. It is all very well thought through. We could not really claim to be addressing sexuality if we refuse to either acknowledge what is a major theme in the current debate on Sexuality, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to go away, and it’s something which is apparently dangerous to even talk about, and yet it’s something that needs talking about.
“In countries where pornography is readily available, such as Denmark, Holland, Spain, they have much more widespread pornography than we do in England or America, but they also have far less children raped and strangled and thrown into a canal,” continued Moore. “You might come to the conclusion that pornography is something that has been with us since the Venus of Villendorf, and has quite an important social function. We need to talk about this stuff because these are very much the demons of this particular culture at this particular time. You don’t have to go very far across the world… I mean, which state was it where Jerry Lee Lewis married his thirteen-year-old cousin? The idea of Children, which was basically a Victorian construct, is regarded very differently to the way we regard it to the West. This is not an argument that it’s okay to have actual sex with actual children, because one of the reasons why I decided to refer to this as a work of pornography is, yes, it is provocative, and it’s kind of defiant, but it is exact. Pornography is ‘paintings or drawings about wantons.’ Now it doesn’t say anything in there about photographs or films or shared files of wantons or children or anything else. I think a line has to be drawn between the sexual imagination and any attempt to materialize that in a photograph or whatever, and that is something that should be and is covered. We have perfectly adequate existing laws regarding coersive sex, whatever the age of the person concerned. Whatever urges there are out there are in our sexual imagination. And it seems to me that is a thing we fail to explore at our peril, if we allow shadowy, unexpected corners of it to remain where it is and never look inside them, and we end up with pretty much the type of society we’ve got now, where there is a fanatic outcry at anything suggestive involving a child where there is complete apathy at the number of children who are blown up everyday in the world’s war zones. Yeah, they only had their limbs blown off, but they haven’t been touched sexually. That is something that is worth looking at.
“At the same time, we are ignoring the genuine horrific physical abuse that is happening to children in places like Iraq or Sudan or any of the other hotspots of the globe. We are also demonizing any reference to child sexuality. We are denying that children actually have a sexuality, which I think probably doesn’t jibe with our personal sexual experiences. Children have a sexual imagination from the age of four or five, and at the same time, as we have all this outcry, we also have a society that covertly is sexualizing children, and is using children as a form of sexual currency. The Spice Girls can have every 8-year-old in the country wanting to really, really really want to zig-a-zig-ha, without having any idea what that phrase means – not that I have either. You’ve got this sexualization of young children in their ‘pornstar’ T-shirts and this is apparently okay, as is having a magazine called ‘Barely Legal,’ where you’ve got models the publisher promise are 18, and that isn’t really the point. The point is they look very young. So the impulse in the mind of the reader is exactly the same, it’s just got this veneer of respectability that no laws are apparently being broken.
“So you can get these really unhealthy undercurrents building up in society, encouraged by our culture, and they can erupt in really unpleasant ways. Whereas, perhaps, if we can look at those urges in the safe arena that is afforded by pornography in the form of writings or drawings about wantons. That is just one of the issues that can be talked about. What are we actually feeling here? And is it okay to think about things? Is it possible to police the sexual imagination? No, I don’t think it is. Wouldn’t it be more healthy and more useful to actually admit that sexual imagination is a very powerful force in all of our lives and society, and to actually come up with some kind of forum in which it can be discussed? Now, yes, I suppose that sex manuals or books like ‘The Joy of Sex’ are a forum in which sex can be discussed in a very antiseptic, unpleasant and clinical manner, which is completely alien to the way that most of us think about sex and sexuality.
Whereas, in pornography, or at least pornography as we have attempted to construct in ‘Lost Girls,’ it can be done a very sensuous, beautiful, meaningful, powerful way which can be discussed. And given that our society is basically hypocritical at the core of its attitude towards Sexuality, given that it doesn’t seem to be trying to come up with any other way that these things can be talked about. Also, it’s so subjective. You know, back in Victorian times, a hundred years ago, poor children in the East End of London – this would be at the time in which Alice and Wendy’s stories are set – children were getting married at the age of 12. And were being forced to move out of home and bring up their own babies. And it was kind of the sentimentalization of childhood that came about because of the high rate of infant mortality, because so many of the poor darlings were dying of croup on the doorstep, that we came up with this fabrication of what childhood is supposed to mean, which is contrary to any real experience.
“Childhood is a frightening, savage time that is awash with emotions that are probably more powerful than any that we will ever have for the rest of our lives,” continued Moore. “It’s a savage landscape, and it has got everything in it. It has got terror, it has got sex, it has got everything that, as adults, we try to protect children from. And we know from our own experience that you can’t protect them from it, and that is the world in which they live.
“In this country at the moment, we’ve had actual witch-hunts and complete moral panics, where people attacked the home of a pediatrician because not only did they think that a pedophile would be advertising that fact upon their brass doorplate, but they haven’t even bothered to read beyond the first four letters. This is the kind of fabric of society, and you’ve also got a lot of the anti-pedophile mobs here as well as running pediatricians out of town and waving Union Jacks. Over in America, you have a different relationship with your flag over there. Generally over here, if someone’s waving a Union Jack and it’s not a football match, it’s probably the British National Party or one of the affiliated organizations. As if patriotism has got anything to do with pedophilia… So some ugly things come to the surface and they need to be addressed. Because this whole area brings up such a fear that if just by being a pediatrician you’re liable to attract a hostile attention, then you can see why people would prefer to keep quiet about this. That is all the more reason why something has to be said. And to be said clearly, and to be articulated in such a way that it cannot possibly be misunderstood.”
In “Lost Girls,” the debauched hotelier does explicitly say that this is a fantasy, it’s made up, that these are not real people committing real acts, which would be a crime.
“That was a bit wicked, though, I remember writing that and he goes on to say, ‘Now Heidi, here is very real! And what I am doing is terribly wrong! But Pornography is innocent!’ This is a little arch, but I was trying to make a point.”
As a work of Pornography, I suggested that “Lost Girls” also follows a basic tenet of the genre, which is the thrill of vicariously experiencing something taboo or transgressive.
“Well, exactly. It would have been cheating if we didn’t, wouldn’t it? If we couldn’t offend anybody, then how could it be a transgressive work of pornography? We would have been rightly accused of having done something that was a literary work, which dodged the real issues that it set out to address. No, I think that’s certainly true. Victorian pornography provided a useful template for ‘Lost Girls.’ For one thing, yes, some Victorian pornography is every bit as vile and unpleasant, like deflowering virgins. Yes, it is unpleasant, some of it. Some of it is also surprisingly enlightened, where characters will break off during an orgy to deliver a speech on sexual politics or sexual etiquette. And where all of the characters seemed to be polymorphous as opposed to the kind of standards in most heterosexual pornography today, where all the women are bisexual and all the men are heterosexual and that’s the way God wants it. In heterosexual male pornography, you have homosexual or bisexual women, but ‘none of that gay stuff because it’s not the type of thing men would be interested in,’ which is not true in Victorian pornography, which to me seems a lot healthier for it. So that was something that we wanted to apply to “Lost Girls.” We looked at the pornography of the past and decided what was wrong with it and what was kind of admirable about it, and tried to import all of those values that we responded to.”
ON THE CONNECTION BETWEEN SEX AND WAR
I noted that the men in “Lost Girls” don’t always come off very well except when they’re having sex. Mr. Potter, Wendy’s husband, has the personality of an archetypal pompous English dullard, but becomes vulnerable and sympathetic in the moments when he has sex with the Austrian officer Rolf.
“And he immediately backs away into his previous calcified position, because it’s too much for him,” said Moore. “It’s talking about what some people’s response to sex is. Certainly, by the very nature of the three characters in the book, it was probably going to be more from a female point of view than a male point of view. There is an imbalance being addressed there, where most other pornography has been exclusively from a male point of view and largely for a male audience, whereas we were concerned about wanting to do something that was not gender-specific or even sexuality specific. We were willing to do something that was genuinely polymorphous which would appeal to women, so it was not a problem that we got a lot of the book from the points of view of the three women. But there is a range of male characters, not all of whom are unsympathetic. I mean, not even Harold Potter (interestingly, we notice we are therefore the first people to have used the name ‘Harry Potter’… I wonder whether we can successfully sue JK Rowling, but we probably won’t bother), he’s a rather poor, strangled creature at the bottom of all the bluster. You’ve got the genuinely decent and likeable Monsieur de Rogeur, who is, at least in the story of his own life that he tells, one of the most reprehensible characters, although I don’t actually believe him. He’s just making it all up to titillate himself. As might, indeed, any of the characters.
“With the women’s stories, we’ve only got their word for it. You’ve got Rolf, who is a perfectly nice, decent shoe fetishist, until he gets his call orders at the end of the book, at which point you start to see the relationship between these people’s sexual behavior and their behavior when they’re gearing up for war. The energies of sex that are derailed and redirected into the energies that it takes to go into some foreign hellhole and blow people up or get blown up yourself. A lot of the language of warfare is incredibly sexual, and a lot of the ways we treat modern warfare is very sexual. I can remember prior to the bombing of Libya back in the Eighties, there was probably a CIA-originated rumor that ‘Yes, Gaddhafi was a transvestite.’ When America was ticked off with Iran at the end of the Seventies, during the Iranian hostage situation, it was said that the Ayatollah Khomeini was a homosexual and pedophile. It’s always like we have to feminize the enemy before we can screw them. Some of the returning bombers at the American airbases over here when interviewed, they were talking in the most sexual terms. They were talking about what a great screw it was, and how ‘we shot our rockets right up their backsides,’ completely unaware of the language they were using and what it said.
“It’s no accident that the people we send off to war are people at the peak of their sexual abilities,” continued Moore. “They’re people who have got a lot of energy which nature wants them to put into having sex. It’s very easy to switch it around. It’s not entirely a male patriarchal thing. One of the books that I read in my research for ‘Lost Girls’ was ‘Sexuality during the Great War.’ Just from the title, you could tell that this was written after the First World War and before the Second. It’s got some very interesting chapters. It talked about female complicity in war, and the sexuality of wounds. It said that the one that that attracts women more than a man in uniform was a man with a bandage, a man with some not-too-terrible disfigurement or injury. And of course it was the women who sent men to war and turn away the cowards, and extended their sexual favors more to a man in uniform than a man who hasn’t got one. Very interesting book. It says that sexuality was a huge issue during that period.
“I think that obviously, in ‘Lost Girls,’ it takes place in a fabulous location, a kind of erotic hotel, it’s kind of bubble, as are the locations of pornographic stories, like a chateau or usually a place separate from the world in which other rules could apply, and we’ve got this wonderful little chateau which not only represents Sex, but represents the sexual and pro-life imagination as exemplified by Art Nouveau, and the decadence of the setting. It’s about all the things that are really good about Life, whether it’s expressed artistically or sexually or whatever. And it’s this wonderful, fragile little bubble right at the junction between Switzerland, Germany and Austria. We just wanted to make this wonderful location that was a safe place for sexual ideas and then that would make it all the more stark when we see Europe collapsing into the First World War. It would give an idea of how much is lost in any war, any conflict. We all know the world lost a great poet in Wilfred Owen. He was one of the ones that we heard about… he was one of the ones that got something published before he died. How many other Wilfred Owens went to their graves at this moment? I’ve said elsewhere that we realize that the message of ‘Lost Girls’ was ‘Make love, not war,’ we could have saved ourselves a lot of trouble and just bought ourselves one of those badge-making machines. But at the same time, here’s a message that is worth reiterating and worth exploring beyond that simple statement. Why should we make love and not war? What is the connection between love and war?”
Indeed, at the end of the story, it’s clear that the sex and the stories the women shared has been something cleansing and healing, and they are able to not only leave the hotel, but to escape the narrative before the war comes in and blows everything up. After they leave, German soldiers invade the hotel, pent up on sexual energy and violence, and set fire to the room the women shared. It is presented as a violation of this sacred space that the women had shared, a defilement.
“We weren’t even trying to present the soldiers unsympathetically. They were out in the cold, they’re probably going to get killed, they may well never have sex again. They’re not very bright, they’re in a horrible situation and they’re just behaving like soldiers do,” said Moore. “The breaking of the mirror, I found that very powerful,
because it’s come to mean so much. It’s come to represent the lens through which all our fantasies or desires are reflected. It’s the glass behind which Alice gets part of her psyche trapped during that incident that happened when she was young. And also in the penultimate chapter, when you’ve got the three women having sex in the room in front of the mirror and there’s one panel where one of the women announces that they’re together, and in the mirror you can see their reflected child-selves. This is what all storytelling has been for, you want to reach this point of integration, where the child-self and the response to sexuality which we deny, set adrift, we say, ‘Alright, that was when I was younger, this is my adult self…’
“I think a lot of us get distanced from our own feelings, our own sexuality, our own selves. And I think our sexuality is a really powerful tool when it comes to dividing us and making us self-conscious or afraid or in denial. You’d think in a healthier society we wouldn’t have these problems, which aren’t the biggest problems in the world. The world has got plenty of problems that are bearing down on us right at this moment at an alarming rate. None of them really involve our sexuality except in those areas where our sexuality has gone badly wrong, mainly through the societies that we set up to contain it. So that was certainly one of the things on our mind when we put this thing together.”
I brought up the literary antecedents like Michael Moorcock’s novel “The Brothel in Rosenstrasse.”
“Now that’s a good book,” said Moore. “I’ll tell you what that book in turn reminds me of, that was ‘The Balcony’ by Jean Genet, where you have an unknown country, a war that’s getting closer, and you have a brothel.”
In Jean Genet’s play “The Balcony,” the inhabitants of a brothel indulge in role-play fantasies while a revolution rips through the outside world, and in Michael Moorcock’s novel “The Brothel in Rosenstrasse,” an aristocrat and his sixteen-year-old mistress retreat to a fin-de-siécle brothel for a sexual idyll as a war edges ever closer to their doorstep.
“Yeah, particularly the Genet piece, although I’m second to none in my admiration of Moorcock, but with the Genet piece, those are certainly influences. I suppose it’s kind of obvious, really, a juxtaposition of such stark opposites, and it’s not just Sex and War, because they’re not necessarily opposites, but I think the sexual imagination and war are much more diametrically opposed. War, I still believe, is a complete and utter failure of the imagination. It’s when everything else has been abandoned or hasn’t worked. It’s what destroys the imagination. It set back the progress of the human imagination. It took decades to culturally repair. We’re not actually talking about Sex in ‘Lost Girls.’ Otherwise we would not have chosen three people who are obviously imaginary as the main protagonists. We are talking about sexual imagination. It’s probably the most important part of sex. Even the physical act is not so much the meat mechanics of bodies, which is on the crude, functional level. The main thing going on, the most complex thing going on is the meeting of different people’s sexual imaginations. It’s mostly what’s in our heads. This is the biggest part of sexuality, probably, and we get these two things confused so easily.
“One of the other quotes from ‘Lost Girls’ is from the scene with Monsieur de Rogeur, which he talks about reality or fantasy, it’s only magistrates or madmen who cannot tell the difference. That’s a simplification of it, but I think it’s a good point that it’s perhaps more than magistrates and madmen that have difficulty in telling the difference between the imagination and the act. And why should this only be in terms of sex? Nobody during the course of my writing ‘From Hell‘ ever would have suggested I was either somebody who enjoyed the idea of disemboweling prostitutes, or somebody who was recommending that people should disembowel prostitutes. We don’t seem to have much of a problem in distinguishing between fact and fantasy except when it comes to sex, and I’m not entirely sure why that is, why we make a special case for sexuality. It’s okay to show murders in most of our great art, it’s perfectly okay to show how life can be ended, but there is something suspect in showing the ways in which life can be begun, or just showing people enjoying themselves. That, it seems, has a deeper connection for us than violence does. I don’t quite understand why we make that distinction, and it’s probably because most of our sex lives are imaginary, and that makes it more difficult for us to distinguish between sexual fantasy and sexual reality. We’ve got this entire mental construct that we bring to every act of sex. It’s about how we are looking, how our partner is looking. It gets very self-conscious. Mostly, we have learned our sexual moves from books, the pages that our dads’ paperbacks fell open at, and we learnt it from mild softcore sex films that we happened to see while we were growing up, and bad Harold Robbins novels. That is probably the only place where we learn our sexual manners and sexual behaviour. Pornography has always been with us and always will be with us, and nothing’s going to change that. The only question is, ‘Is it going to be good pornography or is it going to be bad pornography?’ And given that most pornography is very bad indeed, it would seem that it’s probably about time that people make a serious effort to reclaim this despised genre. It’s not like there’s been any great shortage of artist who made great pornography, but they didn’t sign their name to it.
“There was a wonderful illustration I was looking at the other night, it was by somebody like Doré or Daumier or someone like that, just a very simple little sketch called ‘The Peasants at Home.’ It was a picture of an old, scrawny man with a beard, his nightshirt pulled up around his waist, his plump 50-ish, 60-ish wife bent over in front of him, both of them have contented smiles on their faces, in a squalid living room, and both of them have beautiful, contented smiles on their faces, because you know that they are having tremendous fun, it isn’t costing them anything, and they are at that moment having as much fun as any king or queen could have. And it’s a great statement about the leveling power of sex and sexuality, and it’s by a wonderful artist, and I’ve never seen it included in the main canon of that artist’s work. It’s just reproduced in a
little Taschen compendium of erotica. It’s a great shame. I mean, Sir William Blake was one of most angelic artists and poets that England’s produced. When he died, well-meaning followers completely excised all of the erotic work that he’d done and all of his pornographic marginalia, because they didn’t want people to get the wrong idea about William Blake. They more or less secretly castrated his work. They probably did it with the best of intentions, probably didn’t want to upset a potential audience for his work, something like that, but why must these often very tender pieces of artwork be damned, consigned to this grubby under-the-counter genre, where there is something foul and in a miasma hanging over the very word. That is another reason for stubbornly calling this work pornography, because I wanted to reclaim the word. Now, if it was Oscar Wilde who wrote ‘Teleny’ – I very much doubt it was – Oscar Wilde’s style was incredibly epigrammatic. Writing the pastiche of Wilde was very difficult because he was such a smartarse. Oscar Wilde was a complete master. It probably isn’t Oscar Wilde. If it was, he didn’t put his name to it. The same goes for most of the great works of erotica. It’s very seldom that you get someone like Pierre Louys, who hated literary fame, and spent the last 20, 30 years of his life writing pornography simply because it was unpublishable. There’s an integrity to that I can admire. An awful lot of wonderful erotic artists were simply too afraid, even poor Beardsley, on his death-bed, asking poor Mabel to burn ‘Lysistrata’ and all his obscene works. And they’re marvelous! I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to think the world wouldn’t want to be deprived of them because of Beardsley responding nervously to the moral pressures of his time. The moral pressures of his time, looked back on from a more enlightened future, were simply wrong. The moral pressures of his time were what destroyed Oscar Wilde and everybody and every publication that Oscar Wilde had been associated with. I can see why Beardsley was nervous, but he shouldn’t have been, because he’d done nothing wrong. If that applies to 1820, it certainly applies today.
“It’s the gulf that exists in any time, some more true than others. There seems to be an awful and unquestioned wave of repression, and a tokenism, in the best sense of the word. I was reading something written by the Vatican astronomer — it’s been a long time since I found myself agreeing with anything said by the Catholic Church — and he was talking about how it’s important that Religion should embrace Science, because Science is the only thing that keeps Religion from falsehood, and gives it a clear grasp of reality as opposed to Creationism, which is a kind of paganism. I was impressed by that, because it echoed something I said myself a few days before. ‘Paganism’ is a pegorative term that means ‘rural.’ ‘Oh, those are country gods. Those are the kind of gods who are worshipped by people who screw their livestock and marry their sisters.’
It was a way of dismissing anything that was rural. Gods from the sticks. Actually, fundamental Christianity, at least as I understand its American manifestation, which is its major manifestation, the Bible Belt and the Farm Belt, these are not two separate belts we’re talking about, are we? So, fundamental Christianity, paganism, and a particularly dangerous form of paganism, seems to be going unquestioned because of its fire and vehemence. Nobody wants to get on the wrong side of a big, angry, unreasonable beast. But the thing with big, angry unreasonable beasts like National Socialism in Germany in the Thirties, you kind of have to get on the wrong side of them eventually, because they’ll just eat everything. It is important to occasionally wave a red flag in front of them and see what they do. They might trample you, they might devour you, but it’s the only way that you can ever keep them in line.
“So there is a provocative aspect to ‘Lost Girls,’ or a defiant aspect. We’re not out to shock. We’re not out to upset people. We’re simply out to make a statement as clearly and honestly and beautifully as we are capable of doing. And like I say, if this book had come out back in the day, it would have been in a completely different context that it probably would have seemed like a different book. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Despite the setbacks and the misfortunes, it is very timely. I shall be looking forward to seeing what everybody else thinks.”
Return tomorrow for part two of our conversation with Moore and Monday for part three where Adi talks at length with artist Melinda Gebbie.