Moore and Gebbie on the Edge
Two giants of comics put the graphic back in graphic novels with 'Lost Girls'
By Richard von Busack
If comic-book fantasies lead to dark deeds, as Seduction of the Innocent's Frederick Wertham, used to insist, then why am I not a costumed archvillain yet? "Fiction and fact," comments the epicene M. Rouger in Lost Girls. "Only madmen and magistrates cannot discern between them."
Worries of comic fantasies feeding real-life imitations may well rise again with the August publication of Lost Girls. It's self-declared pornography by Alan Moore (V for Vendetta, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) and his partner in art and life, Melinda Gebbie. Comicbookresources.com poled direct-sales comic-book stores in America and the U.K., asking whether they would carry Lost Girls, with its occasional images of underage sexuality. Some are including themselves out. You can smell the telltale odor of hot potato.
There are likely to be test cases, tabloid stories and obscenity busts. Moore and Gebbie are challenging the boundaries of adult comics in their three volume fine-art reprint of Lost Girls ($75, Top Shelf), which has never been released in its full form before.
The boxed set, as sumptuously packaged as it is thoroughly smutty, is made with harmless intent. As Gebbie told sucidegirls.com, "I just wanted to bring the princessy, joyous, luxurious Knights of Scheherazade thing back into it, all my fantasies, which include '30s and '40s musicals and any love story I've ever enjoyed."
When a pair like Gebbie and Moore get together, it means elegance in metaphorĺ─ţsample the botanical "aromatic sepals" or the aquatic "cerise manta" for the vulva. (That sort of poetry ought to soft-boil a lot of hardons.)
Still, this isn't lacy erotica; the duo gazes on those parts and how they work. More alarming, Moore and Gebbie displays a lack of concern for what's considered the clearly marked borders of sexuality. For instance, the pair images the Lost Boys of Peter Pan as literally sexually active boys.
Putting the Graphic Back in Graphic Novel
In this elegantly mounted work, Moore and Gebbie put the graphic back into the graphic novel. Reading Lost Girls, head swimming a little, one remembers the bursting vividness of the first underground comics when they came out. One remembers the essential surprise of them, how they argued that fantasies of making love were as valid as fantasies of combat. But underground comix were bulbously silly, sometimes deliberately ugly. Lost Girls is illustrated in jewel-like colored pencils and ink. It's as if the Vladimir Nabokov who wrote Ada collaborated with Winsor McCay.
The place is the Hotel Himmelgarten "on the Austrian border." In the spring of 1914, three well-off ladies of leisure befriend each other. Sapphic, white-haired Lady Alice Fairchild has just arrived from the colonies in Africa. The matronly Wendy Potter, a middle-class Londoner, arrives with her dullard husband Harold, an armaments engineer. Lastly is the naïve, but not virginal, Dotty Gale. Gebbie seems to model her on the silent-movie sex symbol Clara Bow.
During the weeks they spend under the care of the manager, M. Rogeur, the three ladies discover they share a ravenous sexual appetite. They also have a taste for fantasy and an uncertainty of where fantasy began and reality ends.
Anyone ought to recognize the three behind the flimsy masks. Alice is the aging remains of the child who went down the rabbit hole. Dotty is the adult version of the farm girl who went up the tornado. And Wendy was once lured out the window by a boy named Peter.
Their adventures are different versions of the ones chronicled by the firm of Baum, Barrie and Carroll. Gebbie and Moore decide that Alice was a product of private Victorian girls' schools and Belgravian orgies, such as could be learned about in The Pearl, the clandestine Victorian magazine of "voluptuous reading."
Dorothy works her way through three muscular farmhands of little brain, little courage and little heart. And Wendy leaves a consensually incestuous nursery in favor of the wilds of a city park, where there lurks and plays the street-Arab Peter. "A drainpipe-scaling roughneck," Lady Alice calls him.
The fantasy begins with a mirror and concludes with a rifle butt shattering glass. Gebbie and Moore chose their vantage point of 1914 with a purpose. The archduke is about to be slain. The Great War is about to break out. And the Freudian world is stirring and about to wake, about to shine its light into the caverns of fantasy. With Freud comes the irrevocable law: There is no such thing as a fantasy without consequences, or without deeper meaning.
As an illustrator, Gebbie straddles the cusp between Victorian and modernist eras. On a women-only picnic, augmented with opium, Fauvist colors break out like a sudden storm; the ladies transform into jungle-colored beasts. Sometimes the angles of the Himmelfgarten turn distorted, Cubist.
Alice, Dorothy and Wendy augment their pleasures with a book-within-a-book circulating in the Hotel Himmelgarten. "The White Book" is based a little on the English decadent periodical The Yellow Book. The illustrations within this Weiss Buch allow Gebbie to pastiche a number of artists.
She assays the spidery paganism of Aubrey Beardsley and the mottled green-gray passions of Egon Schiele. Another artist Gebbie appropriates is the little known Marquis Franz von Bayros—a vintage pornographer of exquisitely delineated libertines.
She also imagines Alphonse Mucha designs for a series of stained-glass windows honoring the Seven Deadly Sins. Moore's caption to Gebbie's window suggests how Envy relates to the matter at hand, sex: "I envied what you were, that I could never be: the one spread pierced and worshipped under me."
I've never had a chance to write about Gebbie's memorable debut, a Last Gasp comic from 1977, Fresca Zizis. It's a comic book from San Francisco in its most impertinent era, back when it was afire from punk rock and androgyny, right before the hammer of AIDS came down. As a cartoonist, Gebbie had a hard laugh at the indignity of women needing men. She excelled at satirizing the hairy male chumps of the day, like the bearded, snout-faced lecher on the back cover of Fresca Zizis drooling over his Hawaiian shirt.
Like S. Clay Wilson—the big-time underground artist Gebbie could most be safely likened to in 1977—she made genitalia the star of the show. But she wasn't interested in Wilson's Punch and Judy games between bikers and demons. In her stories, there was near horror and off-kilter cuteness: ravenous beast-women and Campbell's Kids-faced dollies warbling "Just a Gigolo." She included a dream sequence that cleared to reveal the loss of her father: "Your death was useless. Cherish me."
Freedom of the Imagination
Moore, of course, is Moore, the most respected comics writer alive. He's risked his reputation by finding out whether people mean it when they talk about free speech. In a long interview in Comic Book Report.com, Moore openly claims the harsh word "pornography" as opposed to the gentler "erotica."
Moore defends Lost Girls on the grounds that cultures with lots of porn often have less to fear. We hear this a lot, but can we believe it? The United States has scads of porn and still doesn't have safe streets, as opposed to Denmark where there's even more loads of porn and a woman can bike at night unmolested. Porn may not be part of the safe-society equation at all.
However, Moore and Gebbie are on easier-to-defend turf when they argue for the freedom of the imagination. Lost Girls calls porn "the enchanted parkland where the most secret and vulnerable of our many selves can play."
With Lost Girls, the two authors argue that sexual fantasy is but one other form of fantasy—and as respectable as any.
The artists have one other point. It's made through reference to the world war simmering outside the refuge of the Hotel Himmelgarten. Yes, Lost Girls seduces the innocent within the reader: the innocent, that is, who can never understand why soldiers go off to war, when there are beds that need to be filled and sheets that need to be spoiled.
As Elvis Costello sings in his antiwar song, Lost Girls demands: Why do we go on shipbuilding when we could be diving for pearls?
Melinda Gebbie will appear Aug. 2, 6-8pm, at Lee's Comix in Mountain View, 1020 N. Rengstorff Ave. (650.965.1800). Adults only to this signing, please.
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