‘A colossal achievement’ – Lost Girls by Alan Moore & Melinda Gebbie

lgammgStarted in 1991 and written intermittently over the intervening years, Alan Moore’s collaboration with artist Melinda Gebbie is quite an experience. Packaged in a slipcase that contains three lavish volumes, Lost Girls is, broadly speaking, something of an examination (or evaluation) of the distinction between what is pornography and what is erotica. Or at least that is what all the reviews tell you. If you were to pick up the slipcase, however, and skim through each volume quickly without pausing to take a closer look at what it is you’re seeing, what you’ll see is nakedness. You’ll see men and women and men and men and women and women and occasionally small groups and sometimes, yes, even children, involved in all manner of sexual shenanigans. Having spoken about Lost Girls with various people who aren’t familiar with either Alan Moore or graphic novels, this description is enough to confound a good few people. Sexual shenanigans involving children hoist this book beyond the pale for a lot of people. It doesn’t matter if you mention De Sade or reference Moore’s Promethea – which shares a similar breadth of range and scope to Lost Girls – or even attempt to discuss the theoretical ground Moore and Gebbie tread. When you then go on to skate over the surface of the book – when you learn that the story of Lost Girls revolves around three women, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, Wendy from Peter Pan and Alice from Through the Looking Glass each of whom meet up in an Austrian hotel on the eve of the first world war – this too upsets people. A guy in the comic store I frequent told me that Lost Girls’ publication in the UK was held up as a result of Gt Ormond Street’s reaction to Moore’s treatment of Wendy. You can maybe glimpse just how inflammatory the book is… But to concentrate on how inflammatory the book is creates a false perception as well. (And so despite the fact that you have to know, roughly, what to expect before you approach the book, if you approach the book the way that people approached, say, David Cronenberg’s Crash when it finally gained a cinematic release – ie if you walk as if on eggshells, a prurient peg upon your nose – you’ll do the book a disservice).

So we’ll start over. If you take the beautiful purple slipcase offof your book shelves and slip the first volume out of the box, you’ll be introduced to Alice, an old lady engaged in a conversation with her reflection in the looking glass in her hotel room (an old lady who has, it seems, been abandoned by her family, an old lady still given to the joys of unladylike behaviour). We will witness the arrival of Dorothy, a brash young American girl straight off the farm, as the saying goes (a young lady who hooks up with a soldier, Captain Rolf Bauer, and enjoy a little – shall we say – mouth to mouth resuscitation in the grass outside the hotel before the night is out). And then of course there is Wendy and her husband Harold (a typically English married couple who have long abandoned the joys of the flesh but who each are consumed in their own way by the effects of said repression – a great early scene sees the couple unpacking while their shadows engage in both oral and anal sex). Alice and Dorothy gravitate toward one another and soon Wendy joins their orbit – from which point, the book propels you and each of the characters through the gamut of sexual permutations, whilst at the same time allowing each of the lost girls themselves to tell their stories – stories we, as readers, mistakenly believe ourselves to be familiar with (the retelling of which is the real heart, kernel, call it what you will, of Lost Girls). Dorothy, for example, did find herself alone as a hurricane whipped about her house, but the hurricane didn’t whip her to Oz literally speaking. The hurricane served as Dorothy’s sexual awakening (she thinks she is about to die so realises she ‘could do what the heck [she] liked’ – so her hand wanders between her legs, where she discovers she’s ‘wetter’n June in Seattle’…) From here on in, Dorothy discovers the world anew and, in the days and weeks following the hurricane, makes a whole host of new friends (and you might be able to glimpse the cowardly Lion and the heartless Tin Man among those men she chooses to roll in the hay with).

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Similarly, Wendy – her lost boy is an urchin, a common scamp, given to feeling up boys and girls in the park. Peter turns Wendy and her brothers on to a whole new set of experiences and it isn’t long before Wendy and her brothers and Peter and Peter’s sister are all getting jiggy with it (as the expression goes). Sometimes, Wendy admits, it can feel like she’s flying… Alice’s story takes child abuse as a jumping off point (a clerical friend of her father abuses her as a little girl) before embracing a swinging Sapphic set that wouldn’t look out of place in an early novel by Sarah Waters. There is far more to the story (to the stories) than what I’ve glibly recounted above. And to talk about Lost Girls in terms of the story does yet another disservice to the book (but it’s a disservice that reveals my own founderings): Melinda Gebbie has fashioned a book quite unlike any Alan Moore has wrought before. Her art (which sometimes pastiches others and is sometimes as bright and true as any startling and original thing) is rich and evocative and lustrous and lusty. I say that it reveals my own lack, though. It may be (I’m sort of sure it probably is) that the art nods and winks to the illustrations used in the original Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz and Through the Looking Glass – I can’t say as I know for sure. All a novice like me knows is that the art changes from chapter to chapter and – for each of the lost girls – certain styles are prevalent. Certainly as Lost Girls proceeds, becoming steadily ever more filthy, the dichotomy between porn and erotica is brought very much to the foreground – with the hotel proprietor reading from a book he allegedly commissioned others to write and illustrate for him (a book that tells a story involving a family who like nothing better than rutting with one another or whoever is handy) as Wendy, Alice and Dorothy fuck him up the arse with a strap-on and dissect the story they’re being read.

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But, of course, there is still more to Lost Girls than even this. I’ve only made my way from one side to the other once – and if ever a book called for repeated readings this is surely it. I’ve failed to mention the dismal cloud of war, the sense that this is a world coming to an end just as those participants (and note: participants not observers) finally come to understand their own place among things and in relation to one another. I have also overlooked an interesting point Neil Gaiman raised in a recent review of Lost Girls (Neil suggested you read the book slowly, taking a break between each of the chapters to let the story settle – and he has a good point, it can be overwhelming particularly by the time you reach the third volume.)

Let’s just agree among ourselves that I can’t do the book justice. Then, with all of my failings noted and passed over, we can agree among ourselves that:

Any Cop?: this is a colossal achievement, a work of considerable art and artifice, a book that demands to be read (deserves to have attention lavished upon it as Wendy, Dorothy and Alice lavish attention upon one another) and reread and reread and reread. PW

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