guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

November 2006

Alan Moore & Melinda Gebbie, Lost Girls (Top Shelf, 2006); $75.00

by Jared Gardner

As the recent forum in The Comics Journal reveals, it is both easy and fun not to like Lost Girls. And for long-time readers of Alan Moore’s work, it is even easier to see in his undeniably self-indulgent opus a confirmation of his fans’ worst fears about his decline (and fall?). When placed side-by-side with Watchmen, From Hell or [insert favorite Moore work here], Lost Girls seems to serve a parallel function in Moore’s career to what Eyes Wide Shut served in Stanley Kubrick’s career. As with Kubrick’s deeply flawed final film, it is all too easy to read Lost Girls as the fantasies of a man in later middle-age obsessed with naked young bodies—desperately struggling to legitimize the desire to imagine such bodies in all kinds of torturous (and tortured) positions by channeling his fantasies through de Sade, Fanny Hill and Anaïs Nin. We could go even further with the parallel, as (like his fellow bearded countryman) Moore doesn’t get out much (to put it mildly). There is also reason from this limited sample to suspect that the creative minds of agoraphobic Englishmen don’t age as gracefully as their similarly-constituted New England female counterparts.

But unlike Kubrick, notorious for his maniacal control over all aspects of his productions, Moore’s works are never dominated by his vision alone. Perhaps the most consummate of collaborators in this most collaborative of arts (Spiegelman’s “platonic ideal” notwithstanding), Moore has demonstrated over the years a remarkable ability to write to and for his visual collaborators. (Compare, for example, the decompressed prose of
Promethea with the gothic marginalia of From Hell.) It would be a mistake, then, to read Lost Girls solely in relation to Moore’s career trajectory, and, in fact, when we start privileging the images a different book opens up to the reader.

The premise of
Lost Girls involves the coincidental (or is it?) meeting of three veterans of children’s literature in a glamorous Austrian hotel in the early years of the twentieth century. In the first volume, each woman tells her story in turn—one familiar story, but in all cases with a crucial difference. Here the magical worlds to which these girls were transported prove to have very worldly—and fleshy—landscapes. Dorothy tells of her erotic awakening during the twister that brought her to a magical new world of sexual awakening. Mary tells of her own (and that of her brothers) transformation, when a street urchin named Peter taught them how to “fly.” And Alice, the grand dame of the trio, tells of her voyages through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole of wild tea parties and opium-fueled orgies.

The issue of class is invoked in the text, as each of the ladies occupies a specific place in the hierarchy, with Alice—a “real lady,” as Dorothy never tires of saying—at the pinnacle. But the issue is handled with little of the precision and subtlety of
From Hell, as such distinctions are invoked entirely to celebrate their dissolution under the leveling gaze of desire. The second volume picks up with the predictable critique of middle-class repression, as we read a letter in which Mr. Potter (Wendy’s husband) recounts his blinkered vision of what is happening around him at the hotel. Meanwhile, we are treated to an orgy that passes like a chain letter from room to room, crossing class, gender, and other boundaries that Mr. Potter would presumably find unthinkable.

As the ladies continue with their stories, the whole of it inevitably starts to become a bit forced. From very early on, as Dorothy proclaims “Well, I’m sure not in Kansas anymore” while one of her admirers expresses his very sticky feelings for her silver shoes, Moore’s prose almost seems to be daring and provoking precisely the sniggering response he has received at the hands of many critics. As Dorothy seduces the farmboy counterparts for her fairytale adventures one by one, it does indeed become redundant to the point of wonder, and Mary’s tale of her adventures with Peter and the creepy voyeuristic Hook is only somewhat more creative within the context of its source text.

But despite the double-dare of the book’s larger concept—which has all the subtlety of a Tijuana Bible—the writing is frequently much better than an account of its “plot” would suggest. On a chapter-by-chapter basis, there are virtuoso performances that are as good as anything Moore has written: the Seven Deadly Sins chapter in volume 2, for instance, in which Alice slowly seduces the resistant Wendy while the text narrates each of the sins in turn, is terrific. And the following chapter, which traces the seduction of Mr. Potter by Dorothy’s beau juxtaposed with excerpts from
The Picture of Dorian Gray, is a clever exercise in the kind of reading-between-the-lines that the book champions in its readers. In the end, the problem for all who have found themselves drawn to such “inappropriate” readings of canonical and children’s literature (and who among us has not?) is that Moore ultimately sees only one meaning waiting to be mined by such energies. And like the orgasms that punctuate each episode, such exercises ultimately begin to feel repetitive and (at the risk of sounding like a Victorian anti-onanism tract) decidedly unproductive.

But in an important sense it is the
art and not the writing that is foregrounded in this book. From the little I had seen previously of Gebbie’s work, I expected to be underwhelmed at best. Compared with other collaborators from Moore’s long career, Gebbie is by far the least accomplished draftsman, and her style inevitably summons back memories of our earliest picture books. In fact her work is closer to the tradition of British children’s book illustrators—from Raymond Briggs to Chris Riddell—than it is to the styles with which most comics readers are familiar. But of course that is precisely the point. Like the Tijuana Bibles, the effect of Gebbie’s children’s literature invocations (in contradistinction to the endless parade of erections and vulvas) is one of both conflict and joyful remembering, both disturbing and disturbingly familiar. Unlike Moore’s script, which insists on a fairly reductive revision of what these stories are “really” about, Gebbie’s images open up a more complex set of readings. And her range as an artist, while subtle, proves to be much greater than one might first expect. She is able to channel with remarkable effectiveness—and without seeming forced or overlabored—the energy of many early 20th century artists, such as Matisse’s odalisques or the visionary work of Les Nabis. And despite such clever visual turns, Gebbie never loses her primitivist energy, which feels at once both an intentional homage to the naïve style of Henri Rousseau and a style that is most genuinely Gebbie’s own.

While Moore’s script suggests a fairly straightforward approach to literary decoding, the images open up more complex cross-pollinations between high and popular arts—one that preserves a necessary space for meanings that can’t, ultimately, be reduced to x=y. While Moore’s script seems to draw its deepest inspirations from the great tradition of 1970s, wherein random acts of cunnilingus will set you free and strap-on dildos might just change the world, Gebbie’s images suggest that meanings might be found as well in ornament, color and texture. These meanings are not so easily reduced to prose or translated into an occasion for yet another casual sex act.

The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914 brings the second volume to a close, and in the third volume the last inhibitions dissolve (I hadn’t actually realized there were any left, but apparently that only shows the extent of my repression) as the winds of war blow through Europe and the men withdraw from the scene, leaving the hotel to our heroines. The stories become more heated, furious, and (as with all good porn) dull. Captain Hook meets his fate in the cruel teeth of the vagina dentata that a newly empowered Wendy is able to summon to do her will; Dorothy’s Wizard behind the curtain is revealed to be her own father; and Alice gets rescued by her companions from behind the looking glass. The final pages, as the women leave for new adventures and the Nazis descend on the hotel, are stark and moving. They should remind readers familiar with Moore’s career of many good reasons to start the story over again, the sniggering and embarrassment out of the way—perhaps encouraged to read now below the surface of this below-the-surface reading. If
Lost Girls can survive its first readings—snickers and all—it will prove as rewarding and rich a book as any in Moore’s career, for which he will have every reason to thank his collaborator (and wife). And this is one book Moore can rest assured will never be made into a movie, at least not one that will be screened at a multiplex near you.