Has the term "Adult Bookstore" become a euphemism twice over? Obviously, the signage serves as respectable code for "pornography shop," but do people get their heavy-breathing material out of books anymore? With live, streaming sex acts available to anyone with a modem and a credit card, seeking pornography via prose seems so quaint as to be almost innocent.
In the graphic novel Lost Girls, acclaimed comic book writer Alan Moore and underground illustrator Melinda Gebbie attempt to reclaim erotica for the literati. To be published later this summer, the three-volume hardback edition of the work that has had comic book fans on tenterhooks for 15 years is already being pre-ordered through Marietta's Top Shelf Productions. The early installments were initially serialized in the 1990s anthology series appropriately titled Taboo, which also printed the first chapters of Moore's Jack the Ripper epic, From Hell. But only about 20 percent of Lost Girls has seen the light of day before now. Lost Girls arrives as a work of eccentric genius, at times earthbound by its lascivious formula, yet capable of flights of sensual fancy.
In Austria in the early 1910s, three women chance to meet at a luxurious hotel. Gradually, we notice that their backgrounds and sexual experiences bear striking parallels to the experiences of three of the most famous characters in children's literature, all grown up. Wendy from Peter Pan represses her passions in a loveless marriage to a much older Englishman. Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, once again far from Kansas, tours Europe as an earthy but wide-eyed recovering farm girl. Alice from Alice in Wonderland, an aristocratic lesbian older than the other two, pursues a discreetly decadent lifestyle.
Moore has few equals in literary mash-ups. On the lighter, more boyish side, he crafted a Victorian superhero team from the likes of Mr. Hyde, Capt. Nemo and the Invisible Man in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Moore's command of comic book vocabulary made League virtually the storyboard of the greatest escapist movie you could imagine -- which makes the awfulness of the 2003 film adaptation one of the unexplained mysteries of our time.
In League, like V for Vendetta, Watchmen and other landmark comic book works of the 1980s, Moore not only pushed the stylistic possibilities of comics as narratives, he re-imagined superheroes and other fantasy figures by applying grown-up themes and concerns to emblematic characters typically beloved by adolescent males. It's probably no coincidence that his explicitly erotic venture focuses on the female fantasy life -- and that it's virtually his only major collaboration with a woman artist. You could call Lost Girls' female ménage á trois a League of Erotic Gentlewomen.
Lost Girls' use of famous literary figures already has stirred up controversy. London's Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children claims to hold the copyright to Peter Pan and J.M. Barrie's other characters, but whether it can interfere with Lost Girls is open to dispute.
In the book, the women become friends and, gradually, with echoes of Scheherazade, begin exchanging stories of youthful sexual awakenings. Each recounts a history that closely parallels adventures in Oz, Neverland and Wonderland, respectively. While these works have long inspired adult-oriented interpretations (Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" immediately comes to mind), Moore reveals keen instincts for the ways that pubescent reveries and classic fantasy tales can turn into a dreamy, Freudian blur.
Lost Girls' sexed-up vision of topsy-turvy fantasylands proves frequently clever. Dorothy, caught in the "twister" and fearing her death, pleasures herself through the gale and afterward discovers a new world -- or at least, a new way of looking at the old one. Alice's Sapphic encounters at a girls' boarding school parallels Lewis Carroll's garden of live flowers. Her fondness for opium evokes the poppy fields of Oz and the hookah of Wonderland's caterpillar. When two women entwine in a 69 position, one of them remarks, "We must resemble people on a playing card" -- bringing to mind the Queen of Hearts.
In one of the story's most poignant sections, Wendy and her husband engage in mundane chat in their hotel room, unaware that their shadows are assuming obscene positions, as if expressing their repressed desires.
Gebbie's art has the fluid quality of watercolors, worthy of the ripe hues of hothouse flowers or possibly storybook illustrations. Compared to the obsessively detailed artwork of Moore's other collaborators like Watchmen's Dave Gibbons, a softness defines Gebbie's style, with one image all but melting into the next.
At more than 250 pages, Lost Girls has enormous ambitions, and includes pastiches of highbrow 19th-century smut recalling Oscar Wilde, Colette and others. As a genre, however, pornography suffers from a fairly rigid set of rules. Since every eight-page chapter builds to at least one sex act, the plot and dialogue become increasingly repetitious -- there's a separate chapter for Dorothy seducing or serving men who represent her Oz companions, as well as the Wizard. It's like Moore and Gebbie become slaves of their outline, trying to find parallels to nearly every scene in their source material. Instead of growing more and more curious, Lost Girls' sexploits can become mundane, like a forced march through the Kama Sutra. Even the deliberate, storybook simplicity of the artwork becomes a little dull.
The book's hedonistic ethos becomes particularly troubling in its nonjudgmental presentation of sex involving underage characters and blood relations. But in each of the women's flashback stories, the pleasure principle goes too far, and loss of control has dire consequences. Alice suffers a mental breakdown, accompanied by imagery from "Jabberwocky." They don't renounce sex by the book's end -- far from it -- but they learn to apply more wisdom to their pursuit of abandon.
The book also draws complex implications from the time and place of its setting. Archduke Ferdinand's assassination transpires in the margins of the story, with the book's third volume taking place on the eve of World War I, the beginning of the end for Old Europe. Lost Girls implies that the 20th century's great wars (and presumably its technology as well) will have disastrous effects on people's relationship to their imaginations. The book's last volume features an erotic text piece that's less flowery and more anatomically graphic than the previous ones, suggesting that erotica's golden age is passing, and that the bloom has left the rose.
Lost Girls' ideas about literature and history may not always gel, but they prove that the book has more concerns than what goes on below the belt. Destined for cult esteem rather than crossover success, the book consummates its desire to explore the cerebral aspects of naughty reading. Lost Girls suggests it may be time to make a little room for adult books up on the shelf, as long as they're out of reach of kids.