LET'S SKIP THE FOREPLAY and get to the point: 16 years in the making, Lost Girls, the latest graphic novel from Alan Moore, is pretty astounding. It's smart, it's bold, and it unites words and art as only the best graphic novels can. Something wholly original, Lost Girls has given small comics publisher Top Shelf Productions (jointly operated in Portland and Atlanta) respect as well as notoriety. For everything it represents—not to mention its own merits—Lost Girls is one of the few must-read books of the year.
It's also an unabashed work of hardcore pornography. And Alan Moore is totally cool with that.
A TALL ORDER
When it comes to comic books, Alan Moore is the writer. 1986's Watchmen, which Moore created with artist Dave Gibbons, is a dark deconstruction of superheroes; along with Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen ushered in a new era for comics, one in which once-goofy characters reflected genuine emotional, psychological, and social issues. Moore's other major works—1982's dystopic, anarchic V for Vendetta, 1991's From Hell, the more recent The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Promethea—have cemented his reputation as one of the best writers working today.
"One of the things that we wanted to do with Lost Girls was do a piece of shame-free pornography," Moore told me, speaking from his home in Northampton, England. "Something that was so obviously beautiful, that was so obviously of artistic merit, that it would not have an automatic backlash of shame and guilt attached to it."
The "we" is Moore and Melinda Gebbie, Lost Girls' artist, and the woman who became Moore's girlfriend over their decade-and-a-half collaboration on the project.
"We didn't want it to be like the majority of contemporary, erotic pornography," says Moore. "We didn't want it to be visually ugly, emotionally ugly, aesthetically ugly, politically ugly, and all of the numerous forms of 'ugly' that pornography is generally a master of. We wanted something that could theoretically appeal to people of both genders and a variety of sexualities—which was quite a tall order."
How Moore and Gebbie came about doing that was to create a story at once strange, straightforward, and complex: Bring together older versions of three beloved characters from children's literature—Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, Wendy from Peter Pan, and Alice from Alice in Wonderland—and then put them in some of the most sexually explicit and taboo situations possible. With Moore's versions of these characters cavorting at a resort in pre-World War I Europe, Lost Girls is partly historic, partly fantastic, and entirely pornographic. All that combined with Moore's nuanced text and Gebbie's storybook-style artwork? Yeah. That's a tall order.
THE BASIC JOB OF PORNOGRAPHY
"We wanted something that would work as pornography in that it would get people aroused, which is the basic job of pornography," Moore says. "But it would also work as people might expect any work of art or literature to work—that it would have all the same things that you can reasonably expect [from] a mature work of fiction. Something that would have things you don't find in pornography... like characters, and a plot. Let alone all of those fancy French things like metaphors and motifs. We wanted all of that stuff, but we wanted it in the right mix. It couldn't become too intellectual, too aesthetic an experience to actually be an arousing one."
Still, if anyone could do it, it was Moore.
"I consider Alan Moore one of the greatest intellects on the planet," enthuses one of Top Shelf's publishers, Portland resident Brett Warnock. Warnock and Top Shelf's other publisher, Chris Staros, are longtime Moore fans—and they were keen to publish Lost Girls, which had languished under false-starts and disintegrating publishing deals for years.
"Lost Girls in itself is so controversial and so difficult that probably the big companies would have stayed away from it, and the small companies couldn't have afforded to do it," Staros told me from Atlanta. "It's the kind of project we could take on."
"We spent eight hours—drinking tea, lots and lots of tea—and Melinda would turn over each page and Alan would narrate each page," Warnock says, remembering when he and Staros first met with Moore and Gebbie in Northampton. Afterward, Warnock and Staros' devotion to the project strengthened—though they were fully aware of the controversy that might come from a book that graphically depicts adored children's characters' various orifices.
"Our philosophy was that Alan Moore was so great that whatever happens didn't matter," Warnock says. "This book had to be seen."
SEX IS IN THE DETAILS
"It requires a lot of thinking, pornography—every last detail of it," Moore says.
One of the major things considered was the book's setting and theme. Taking their cue from the publication dates of Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, and Alice in Wonderland, Moore and Gebbie set the story in Europe, in the early 1900s—right before WWI.
"The outbreak of the first World War changed Europe—you might even say ruined it—forever," Moore says. "The first World War was very much an announcement of how the century was going to go for Europe, and for the broader world in general."
That setting provided Moore with the metaphor, motifs, and other fancy French things he'd need to tell a legit story.
"Being able to set all of this art and culture and sex and imagination against the backdrop of something as terrible as the first World War... that kind of gave us what was at the heart of the entire book," says Moore.
"At times when our leaders need us to go off and die by the thousands, the erotic impulse can be converted very easily—instead of an impulse to go out and have sex, it becomes an impulse to go out and die for no reason."
So when Moore and Gebbie envisioned the project, they saw it as something that would be erotic, but which would represent more.
"It would be a story," Moore says, "that was about something other than just the string of copulations that are entitled by the nature of being pornography."
THE FAILURE OF IMAGINATION
"Because it's Alan Moore, and because it's controversial, we anticipated some demand for this," Warnock told me. "And while we were hopeful, we really didn't expect the demand to be as high as it is." And demand is high: The $75, three-hardcover boxed set that is Lost Girls has sold astonishingly well. Top Shelf's first printing of 10,000 copies sold out on the first day of sale; its second printing sold out a few days later. With the book being sold at both comic book shops and traditional bookstores, Staros plans to have 40,000 copies in print by Christmas.
"We have not been able to allow ourselves to think about that," Moore replied when I asked how he and Gebbie thought Lost Girls would be received.
"For one thing, as we noted, it has taken 16 years. We had no idea what type of world Lost Girls would be emerging into. Say this came out eight or nine years ago, during the Clinton administration—when the world, at least relatively speaking, was perhaps a slightly more peaceful place—then it would have been seen as a different book, and I think it would have been seen as a lot less relevant."
This gets Moore started about why now is the right time for Lost Girls to finally see print.
"George Bush himself is nothing new," Moore says. "I mean, he is a bit out of the ordinary for world leaders, but essentially, he is nothing new. But the dampening and deadening effect that he and the people he's associated with seem to have had upon Western culture—that disturbs and alarms me. So with Lost Girls, we can make a statement that is very much pro-sexuality, pro-art, pro-the human imagination—and it's very much against war, which I perceive as the utter failure of the imagination."
Moore elaborates: "War obliterates works of art. It obliterates the landscapes that painters have drawn inspiration from. It destroys poets and painters and musicians before they ever had a chance to do anything—before anyone ever found out they were poets and painters and musicians."
A DESPISED GENRE
"To some degree, I did approach Lost Girls, in its initial stages, as I approached Watchmen: Let's look at this despised genre," says Moore. "Let's see what the things are about it that people will like, what are its main tropes and gimmicks and ideas, and is it possible to do something that stays within all of the formal boundaries that define pornography, or define a superhero story—and still do something which is completely different and takes the whole genre into a new place."
And, to at least some degree, Moore feels that he and Gebbie succeeded.
"With Lost Girls we reclaimed the word 'pornography,' so that it wasn't a word that conjured up these grisly gynecological visions, these kinds of meat puppetry that most pornography is involved in," he says. "There hasn't been anything like this before, and you can see why... because it's very tricky. There are so many ways to get it wrong, and as far as we could see, there was only one way to get it right."
And for Top Shelf, Lost Girls is an unexpected success. "Lost Girls is probably the most special book we've ever done," Staros says. "It deals with sexual freedoms, free speech, anti-war messages, things that Brett and I truly believe in. And when it pushes an envelope like that and takes a stand, it's something that a publisher wants to do. Especially when it's got a name like Alan Moore behind it, it's gonna be a work of art, and it's gonna be groundbreaking."