BOOKS ‌ Graphic Sexuality 

Comic icon Alan Moore's new graphic novel promises to unhinge critics

Lost Girls [Buy Now]
Written by Alan Moore, Illustrated by Melinda Gebbie
Top Shelf Productions
64 pages
$75

In October 2004, U.S. Customs seized a shipment of Slovenian-published English language comic books known as the Stripburger anthology at the port of Charleston, claiming that the comics — which included political parodies of "Richie Rich" and "Charlie Brown" characters — constituted copyright infringement and therefore weren't protected by First Amendment guarantees of free speech.

The U.S. came out the loser in the lawsuit that ensued, brought by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a non-profit organization for defending the First Amendment rights of writers and artists. But it was only one skirmish in an ongoing battle. Inevitably, somebody somewhere will be debating legal action this month over the newest work from comic book legend Alan Moore, whose new, three-volume graphic novel, Lost Girls, hits shelves this week. Moore, equating "erotica" with pretension and snobbery, prefers the term "pornographic" to describe the work. Regardless of the descriptive used, Lost Girls does not simply allude to sex, it shows it, full on: on, in, out, then in again.

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), 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 quashed any future film adaptations of his work, though he continues to be one of the comic industry's most creative and prolific figures.

The release of the three-volume Lost Girls marks the culmination of 16 years of collaboration between Moore and illustrator Melinda Gebbie.

Each panel in the books is meticulously layered in colors that reinforce the emotional charge of the scene and dialogue. The landscape of the human sexual imagination is what the two explore and, in gorgeous, hand-colored illustrations, these acts are portrayed in full erotic glory, body on body. What distinguishes the work from being nothing more than beautifully illustrated smut is the care and attention paid to the characters and their story. The reader is carried along as they grow and learn, discovering truths about themselves and others, shedding secrets and finding comfort in discovering that they are not alone.

Moore and Gebbie's publisher, Chris Staros of Marietta, Ga.-based Top Shelf Productions, has taken care to see that Lost Girls was fully vetted to preclude any potential cries of obscenity. "Lost Girls is a work of art with an enormous amount of literary merit," he says. "It's a book that would be very difficult to attack along those lines and, at the same time, it will be a real beachhead for free speech."

Staros has long been a firm defender of the First Amendment rights of writers and artists. Top Shelf is the American agent for the Stripburger anthologies seized by U.S. Customs here last year. Though the anthologies were later released, Staros continues to takes an active role in the safekeeping of his industry by serving as president of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

The story of Lost Girls centers on three very familiar women — Alice, Wendy Darling, and Dorothy Gale, of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and The Wizard of Oz, respectively — whose refictionalized lives converge at the Hotel Himmelgarten, an Austrian resort, just prior to the outbreak of World War I. The story unfolds in layers: the characters share stories — in the style of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales or Boccaccio's Decameron — even as they "interact," in multifarious and creative ways, with one another in the frame tale. Other layers of the story are predicated on a miscellany of Edwardian and Victorian pornography that the proprietor of the Himmelgarten has provided in each room for the guests. Characters read to one another, intertwined in bed, reflecting on their sexual histories and the strange imprint left in the transition from childhood to adulthood by the awakening of the sexual imagination.

Left alone with a friend of her father, Alice's sense of the world and its rules is shattered, cast contrariwise, and she finds herself lost in a world where the normal rules of logic — of how adults are supposed to act — no longer make sense.

The twister, for Dorothy, is both real and metaphor: alone and frightened during a storm, she discovers a way to overwhelm her own senses simply by reaching down.

Peter and the lost boys run unsupervised through the parks, and Wendy becomes part (though never fully) of that world. It is a far freer place, but also one of danger, where an elderly predator with a misshapen, hook-like hand waits.

The first book ends with the 1913 Parisian opening of Stravinsky's ballet Rite of Spring, considered a watershed moment in erotic arts, and the second book closes with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand — casting a pallor over the final chapters, as any reader even casually acquainted with history should know what comes next. The final pages of the third book mark the washing away of the idyllic. The fantasy is brought to an end as Alice's mirror is smashed under the butt plate of a Mauser rifle.

On many levels, Moore's Lost Girls is an exploration of the imagination in whole: the vividness and multiplicity of the sexual imagination contrasted with the cold and unimaginative brutality so often seen in war. What awakens the imagination — makes us want to create and share? And what stifles it, snuffs it out, causes us to stop thinking and turn against one another in hatred?

For Moore and Melinda Gebbie, Lost Girls has been more than a project. It has been a life's work and it has brought their lives together as a couple.

Gebbie, having worked for many years in the San Francisco underground comix scene in the 1970s, understands well the importance of free speech and the value of speaking from the heart when presenting subject matter. Growing up in the tail end of the 1950s, she recalls her own early search for a book that presented sexuality honestly and openly. "I felt there should be a book that explains sex, makes it all make sense, and makes you enjoy finding out about it," Gebbie says. "And, of course, there wasn't anything like that; only strange, sad, kind of heart-wrenching dreary and rather frightening stuff.

"There's never been much room in American culture for personal joy, the actual just human stuff that we can enjoy," she adds. "There's only been shopping and group activities that require financial expenditure."

A recent trip to the U.S. to visit friends in San Francisco made her understand even more the need for books with an affirming, honest approach to sexuality and life.

"Things have noticeably gone downhill psychologically for everyone," she says, noting that her last trip to the States prior to this was pre-9/11. "People feel uncomfortable, and they don't talk loosely about what is going on."

"There is no better time to do a book like this than now," Chris Staros says. "Because the book takes such a stand for sexual freedom, free speech, and the difference between fact and fiction. I hate to let everybody in on it, but sex is kind of what has kept us on Earth all these thousands and thousands of years. It's something that Western society has always had a repressed view of and I don't think that's natural."


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