Long regarded as one of the most intelligent and influential writers to have ever worked in graphic novels, British author Moore's works include Watchmen (the only graphic novel in Time Magazine's list of the top 100 novels of the 20th century), Swamp Thing, From Hell, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and V for Vendetta, the last four of which have all been adapted as films — though often in ways that have left Moore fulminating at the Hollywood machine over the liberties it's taken with his work. As a result, Moore's effectively squashed any future film adaptations of his work, though he continues to be one of the comic industry's most creative and prolific artists.
The release of the three-volume erotic graphic novel Lost Girls marks the culmination of 16 years of collaboration between Alan Moore and illustrator Melinda Gebbie.
We caught up with Moore on the occasion of the publication of Lost Girls to discuss his thoughts on contemporary and historic attitudes toward sexuality, why he labels Lost Girls as pornography and not erotica, how working together on Lost Girls enhanced his personal relationship with artist and fiancée Melinda Gebbie, and why he will only work with Georgia-based publisher Top Shelf.
City Paper: Lost Girls seems, at its core, to be an exploration of human imagination.
Alan Moore: Absolutely. By the very fact that we chose three famously imaginative characters as our leading ladies, we were trying to signal that this is very much about the human imagination and set entirely within its domain. That is one of the things that took us sixteen years, having to sit down and look at the major elements in the source material and thinking about how to decode them into a sexual narrative that didn't seem to be too much of a reach, so that perhaps the readers would have a sense of déjà vu when reading the work. They may never have imagined this particular sexual telling as part of the narrative, but because we're all so familiar with those stories, there will be familiarity at the same time as a sense of surprise and strangeness.
CP: The stories that Dorothy tells of the straw man, tin man, and lion should particularly evoke that sense: you present them as different sorts of young men a girl on the farm would be likely to meet and explore the ways that sexual experimentation shifted their feelings toward one another and themselves.
AM: I probably only realized after the fact that in those three characters, a lot of the female readers are probably going to find at least one ex-boyfriend.
CP: In researching Lost Girls, you read a great deal of Edwardian and Victorian pornography, as well as that of other times and cultures. What can the pornography of a given time or culture can teach us about the people who lived then or there?
AM: That tends to depend upon the quality of the pornography, although I suppose you could draw meaning from even the basest material. You can see an awful lot about prevalent attitudes regarding gender and to a certain degree, how women and men are regarded relevant to each other. Some of the Victorian and Edwardian pornography is frankly unpleasant: there are far too many deflowered virgins. At the same time, it is possible to come across works of Edwardian and Victorian pornography that are quite surprising in both their literalism and their intelligence. Pornography is, at least in part, a history of dissenting voices. Probably one of the most important pornographers of all time- though we don't give a lot of space to him in Lost Girls - is the Marquis de Sade. He used pornography as a kind of satirical weapon for political purposes. Unfortunately, his work is not terribly interesting. It's a bit repetitive and boring in a lot of instances but you can see how, with de Sade, you do start to get this satirical voice gravitating toward pornography as a means of expression.
CP: I would like to discuss some of the artists, in particular the nineteenth-century illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, who you researched while putting together the story for Lost Girls. Beardsley's own life -- he knew Oscar Wilde and was there when Wilde was prosecuted -- was marked by conflict.
AM: He was almost destroyed by the prosecution of Oscar Wilde. A number of people who were only remotely associated with Oscar Wilde were demonized after the Wilde trial. The Yellow Book [a British literary journal of the 1890s with Beardsley as art editor] was wiped off of the newsstands simply because Wilde had been seen rushing from his front door to a Hansom cab, when the story broke, carrying what I think was a copy of Huysmans Against Nature, which had a yellow cover. And so the idea that yellow books were somehow scandalous percolated over, caused the decline of the Yellow Book, and also meant that nobody would even employ Aubrey Beardsley. Except for the remarkable and heroic Leonard Smithers, who is one of my pornographic idols in that he immediately and bravely started a new magazine called the Savoy, which took on a lot of the Yellow Book's illustrators and contributors. Smithers, although he was regarded as a vile pornographer by the establishment of the day, was one of the people who kept most of the Decadents - people like Ernest Dowson and Aubrey Beardsley -- alive. I don't think he made a huge profit out of it but God bless him. You know? I mean, the whole decadent aesthetic was under attack in the wake of the Wilde trial and he was standing up for it by putting his money where his mouth was.
CP: Aubrey Beardsley died very young, of tuberculosis, which, in his day, bore a lot of the same social stigma that HIV/AIDS bears today. It's hard to imagine having lived through all that in so short a time and also having created so many enduring works of art. Didn't he ask, on his deathbed, for many of his drawings to be destroyed?
AM: He asked Mabs, his beloved sister, Mabel Beardsley to burn Lysistrata and all his obscene works. Depending upon how scurrilous your imagination tends to be, there is at least a case to be made that Mabel was perhaps the only real love of Aubrey Beardsley's life. But if I read the 1890s right, there was also a kind of tuberculosis chic going on: the whole idea of the stricken poet. Aubrey Beardsley, with his gloves and his blood-splattered handkerchief, I suspect that he must have cut quite a dash with that haircut. Beardsley, on his deathbed, saying to Mabel, "Burn Lysistrata and all obscene works," is the basis for our pastiche of Beardsley in Lost Girls. We reasoned that since Lysistrata and all the obscene works that he mentioned were already in print at the time and she clearly didn't destroy Under the Hill, that there might have been further chapters of Under the Hill that she smuggled out in defiance of her brother's last wishes. It's a kind of tragedy that Aubrey Beardsley, dying so young, should have his last thoughts associated with guilt and shame, trying to deny his erotic imagination.
CP: His conversion to Catholicism likely weighed in heavily.
AM: That probably is true. It's surprising how many artists of incredible stature have their work bowdlerized either at their own instigation or at the instigation of well-meaning others after their own death. One of my great heroes is William Blake, the greatest visionary artist that this country has ever produced. When he died, well-meaning acolytes persuaded his widow, Catherine Blake, to destroy a lot of his erotic illustration and writings because they felt that it would impair the reputation that they were so keen to establish for this pure, angelic visionary. Apparently, they decided early on that visionaries shouldn't have any genitals, that they should be as sexless as angels. Whereas William Blake had grown up in a stew of various esoteric cults who, I believe, encouraged a kind of mediation that seems like it was heavily cross-bred with very strange masturbation fantasies. Sexuality was obviously a big part of the religion. These were ideas that would have influenced Blake as he was growing up. From his surviving marginalia, you can see that he had a very healthy libido. And there is something criminal in the idea of these wonderful artists feeling that they must censor their work. There are a lot of people these days, even people who are perhaps quite prudish, who would love to see some of the William Blake writings and illustrations that were burned.
CP: Right. And if you look at many mainstream religious traditions, those ideas attacked most fervently tend to be exactly those that place mankind within the context of nature: sexuality, evolution, anything that points to us not being, as you mentioned, angelic.
AM: This, specifically, I tend to blame on Saint Paul. He was one of the first people in Christianity to cause this division between the body and the soul and to suggest that the doings of the body were somehow base or evil and an obstacle to the furtherance of our spiritual being. We've got quite a lot to thank Saint Paul for, looking back on it. Two thousand years later, we obviously have quite a few of his ideas kicking around when they have long outlived their usefulness.
CP: Going back to the writers and artists, what were some of the more contemporary influences for Lost Girls?
AM: My other favorites, outside the Victorian and Edwardian pornography are Olympia Press volumes from the 1950s and '60s, when Maurice Girodias was giving publishing room to a lot of beat generation writers, often anonymously. With these also you can see a sort of dangerous satirical edge creeping in. Or the eight-page Tijuana Bibles that were prevalent in America in the '30s and '40s -- a lot of them were very simple, basic pornographic narratives told in crudely drawn pictures. Some were better than others but, at the same time, they were quite interesting because there were sexual parodies of existing newspaper characters that in some ways prefigured Harvey Kurtzman's later Mad comics irreverent stories. More importantly, there seems to have been a whole sub-genre of Tijuana Bibles that were devoted to gangsters such as Baby-Face Nelson - real, living, gangsters of the time who were seen as figures of immense sexual potency. So there is a kind of politically dissident voice creeping into something as crude and basic as the Tijuana Bibles: the glamorizing of antisocial figures. This makes the Tijuana Bibles a kind of precursor to the American underground comix [sic] of the 1960s, which were also a huge influence. There you can see, particularly in the work of someone like Robert Crumb, the same impulses that must have occurred to the Marquis de Sade when he was banged up at Charenton. You can see this urge to wed pornography to satire and to social satire. Certainly, those early American undergrounds were a huge influence on me. And Melinda was part of that scene so obviously it had a vast effect upon her as well.
CP: Crumb is definitely an example of someone who turned his own society's hypocrisy back upon itself -- kind of held that mirror up to it.
AM: In this culture -- and by that I mean the UK, the USA, and a lot of countries across Europe - we have wall-to-wall pornography available to us, but we do not have a healthy attitude toward it. In contrast, countries such as Denmark, Holland, or Spain - where pornography is fairly ubiquitous and therefore almost unnoticed - seem to have a different attitude. What they don't have is the immense amount of sex crimes, particularly sex crimes against children, that we suffer from in our culture. It strikes me that this seems to be the case because, in our culture, we have pornography shackled to guilt, shame, and embarrassment. And we are incredibly over stimulated because everybody uses sexuality in advertising and in the media. When somebody, understandably, seeks relief from that perpetual over-excitement, they probably are going to reach for pornography as the most immediate and readily available form of that relief. Then, immediately as that relief is achieved, they will be visited by thoughts of self-loathing, guilt, shame, wretchedness, loneliness; very unpleasant feelings. It strikes me as like a badly wired B.F. Skinner box -- like a behaviorist experiment where, yes, you give your laboratory rat its stimulus in the form of, say, a Britney Spears video, Hit Me, Baby, One More Time, with her dressed as a schoolgirl. And once the rat has been stimulated, it will press the pornography lever for its reward, and it will get its reward and, immediately, it will get its punishment: a shock of shame, embarrassment, and self-loathing. I think what tends to happen with people in our culture is they find that cycle almost unendurable. This shock of punishment and guilt, I think, tends to drive some of us into some very dark and private corners where we're isolated with our own fantasies and where those fantasies can fester and become pathological. In countries like Holland or Denmark, it seems that pornography is able to work as a kind of pressure valve. Sexual tensions that are building up can be released harmlessly because they have a fairly natural relationship with their pornography. We tend to lack that pressure valve so don't get harmless releases of steam. We get nasty, messy, explosions where someone has blown a gasket and done something terrible. This has only been occurring to me since I've been doing these interviews, to be perfectly honest. Different notions have been coming up, which is probably a good thing.
CP: Back in the 1950s, the comedian Lenny Bruce often commented on that sort of thing. About how, in our society, we have this ideal put before us - who we 'should be' - an ideal that really bares no relation to the person each of us really is in the context of life.
AM: lenny Bruce was another huge influence. There is one bit I remember where he is talking about the difference between pornography and erotica. And he's talking about how Lady Chatterley's Lover, that was erotica, but Last Exit to Brooklyn, that was pornography. And he was saying, I think, that it depended upon whether you could tear up a piece of ass with class. Lady Chatterley's Lover could tear up a piece of ass with class, so that was erotica. Whereas ugly, poor, ignorant people having sex, as in Last Exit to Brooklyn, that was pornography. That quote was probably one of the reasons why I so doggedly stuck to describing Lost Girls as pornography. After Lenny Bruce said that, I tended to see the term erotica as a bit pretentious and class-based.
CP: One of the major themes of Lost Girls, being set in an idyllic resort just prior to the beginning of World War I, is the stark contrast between the sexual imagination and the destructiveness of war and violence. In fact, in another interview, you described war as the ultimate failure of imagination. By that measure, many world leaders must seem rather unimaginative.
AM: How much imagination does it take to say, "Look, that guy over there has got some land or resource that we want - let's go get a bunch of guys together and go grab it?" Even the cavemen did more imaginative stuff than that. Look at the paintings at Lascaux. I do think that war is generally a complete failure of the imagination. It's when you couldn't think of any better way to do something than by wasting thousands or millions of lives. And also, war is toxic to the human imagination as a phenomenon in itself: the sheer amount of potential artists, poets, inventors who died in the trenches at the Somme before they ever had a chance to write their first poem, their first novel, or first theorem, the amount of culture that is simply destroyed by the onslaught of war. We don't have to look very far in the past to what was happening in all the museums in Iraq in the early days of this war. The oil wells were being guarded but the museums, which contain artifacts going back to Babylon and Ur -- treasures of the ancient world - weren't. War destroys so much culture that it is actually toxic to the human imagination, which is our greatest faculty. And the accomplishments of the human imagination are what we look back upon when we're trying to reassure ourselves about how good a job we're doing as a species. If we look around at the mess we're making of the world and think, "perhaps humans are scum," and we need some reassurance, we look back at our literary, artistic, scientific, and humanitarian triumphs. These are the marker posts by which we measure civilization. It's not our campaigns, wars, and genocides. Those are the low points. Those are the things we would prefer to brush under the carpet because we're ashamed of them. So it does seem to make a pretty stark contrast, one that was fairly central to the whole message of Lost Girls. That it was all about this stark contrast between creativity and destruction, between sex and war.
CP: You've mentioned before that you've more or less cut ties with the American comics industry with the exception of Chris Staros and Top Shelf. What's different about Chris and Top Shelf?AM: I'll tell you what Chris Staros is, and I'm sure that you, being from Charleston, will appreciate this. Chris Staros is a Southern gentleman of the old school. He is an extremely moral, genuine, and warm human being. And in saying this about Chris, I'm not excluding any of the other people at Top Shelf. I think that Chris has got a fantastic team. He has been so responsive to our every spoiled child whim regarding Lost Girls. Well, all right, when I suggested that we actually have the book perfumed, he did the research - a credit to him - but he found out that there wasn't really a way that we could do it without risking getting the paper stained. But he gave it a shot. He was very anxious to do this exactly as me and Melinda wanted it done and I think that he probably extends that to all of his creators. He is somebody who loves the medium. Top Shelf has produced some wonderful things that probably wouldn't have found a home easily otherwise. They have been scrupulously fair with all of their contributors, which is all that I ask for. This is the thing that has alienated me from almost everything else in American comics. I see it as a sort of a deeply flawed industry with some deeply flawed individuals working in it.
CP: Mainstream comic book companies don't have the best track record with creator rights, historically.
AM: That's true. And it is unusual to come across someone like Chris who, while he doesn't promise you the Earth financially, because he is a small publisher, you know that if he is making anything on these transactions that you are going to be making something. That you are going to get your fair share. He will not be taking an obscene amount for the publisher's end and leaving the creators with nothing. Chris is a gentleman in every sense of the word and I feel really confident that he'll be one of the only people in comics that I shall be actually working with in the foreseeable future, you know? This even may extend to projects outside comics as well. Chris very well might end up publishing at least a limited edition of me novel when I get it finished.
CP: You collaborated with Melinda Gebbie for sixteen years on this project. How did the work and your relationship affect one another?
AM: In some ways, the book and the relationship had an almost symbiotic connection. One greatly enriched the other. I don't think it would be possible to create a work like this unless you were in some sort of creative, meaningful relationship - because that brought an incredible amount of emotional warmth to Lost Girls. It tended to make us as diligent in our relationship with one another as we are with our work, which is very diligent indeed. And also, from the very start, this project required a level of complete frankness with each other and with the reader as well. We've had to say, "Yes, this is an idea which excites me in some way," potentially an embarrassing thing to admit to anybody - let alone to an audience of thousands and thousands of readers. So we were being completely frank about our sexual imaginations with one another right from the word go. And there are a lot of people who can go through entire relationships without ever having achieved that kind of honest communication.