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August 23-29, 2006

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Melanie Gebbie

Richard von Busack talks with the 'Lost Girls' co-writer

TOGETHER with her partner in life and art Alan Moore, Melinda Gebbie has created the three-volume novel Lost Girls (Top Shelf, $75), an adult fantasy about a sexual summit meeting between Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy of Oz and Peter Pan's Wendy.

It is a sublime work—elegant pornography that took some two decades to see realized. Like the Victorian writings Moore used as inspiration, the polymorphous perverseness of Lost Girls transcends the bounds built in to the common array of porn. Just as mainstream fantasy gives us a lens to look behind the world and our motives, Lost Girls divines a purity behind our hungers.

Nobody says it better than cartoon mastermind Neil Gaiman: "It is one of the tropes of pure pornography that events are without consequence. No babies, no STDs, no trauma, no memories best left unexamined. Lost Girls, however, is all about consequences. It's also about more things than sex—war, music, love, lust, repression and time, to pick a handful of subjects (I could pick more)."

METRO: What was your background like?

GEBBIE: I grew up in Sausalito and Mill Valley. In Sausalito we lived on top of the hill under Hurricane Gulch. And then we moved to Mill Valley, among the redwoods. I was a very fortunate kid. Almost nobody lived there back then.

METRO: How did you end up in Europe?

GEBBIE: I've been living in England for 20 years now. I got involved with an Englishman, and then I went over to meet his parents. He had to go back to San Francisco. I stayed in England and worked on the 1986 animated film When the Wind Blows. [This was the film version of Jim Briggs' 1982 illustrated book for adults; a gentle, kind, we'll-get-by British couple slowly succumbing to the effects of fallout from a nuclear war.]

Afterward, I got back into comics by working on Strip AIDS, a nonprofit book against AIDS. There wasn't too much of a comic world to work for in England; it was much smaller than the American one. Mostly it was adventure stuff. There were some comics that were slightly sexy, but not too outré.

METRO: What about Knockabout Comics [home of the one and only Hunt Emerson]?

GEBBIE: Knockabout was good, but mostly they did importing from America. I met the Knockabout people and did some work for them, and I also worked at a small local English comics company. I'd met Alan Moore at a signing. We'd both been invited to work on an erotic comic a woman was working on. We went from an eight-page story in Taboo comics to the enormous three-part book Lost Girls is today. Less than one-half of the first book has ever been printed before, and the paper standard and reproduction make it a totally different animal.

METRO: How did you meet Alan Moore?

GEBBIE: I was in England in 1984, and I was watching TV with my then partner. It was an artist's program; they were saying, "There's this new fantastic comic, and they say it's a comic. But it's really not. It's really a story about our nuclear era, and the pre-apocalyptic fears. It's all those things and it's absolutely brilliant." And they reproduced backdrops from The Watchmen and had them back-projected behind the TV announcer. It was quite a dramatic-arts program.

I never liked superhero comics; I never read them. But I couldn't stop reading The Watchmen.

It was absolutely amazing. But half-way through I was scared; I thought, he'll drop me on the floor, he'll make me scared to read this. But The Watchmen ended beautifully on this reasonably optimistic note. I thought, "This guy's a master storyteller. He dropped me in the muck, and he brought me up again." And then I met him. Such a nice man, so natural and pleasant and easy to talk to.

METRO: As far as Lost Girls is concerned, were you a fan of Victorian porn?

GEBBIE: Alan's a huge fan of The Pearl. I haven't read an awful lot of Victorian erotica, but I feel what I have read is very well written.

METRO: I prefer it myself, not just because of snobbishness about the language, but because of the limitlessness of it. Here, within this realm where sexual expression was utterly forbidden, here's a fantasy world where everything is permissible. It's much less hidebound yet more playful than modern smut.

GEBBIE: The Victorians are a catchword for prudishness, but there was Queen Victoria's world, and then there was the libido under the surface. I think the English are much wilder in some ways that Americans.

METRO: Why did you both choose the time frame of 1914 for Lost Girls? What does that year mean to you?

GEBBIE: Well, it's a very close time to World War I, and there were some very interesting things happening during this period. It was also important to pick that particular year because in terms of when these women could exist. Alice would have been in her 50s or 60s, Wendy would have been in her 30s, Dorothy would have been in her 20s, if they were alive. When we first talked about the ideas, Alan said, "Do you have any preferences?"

He likes to work to his artists' likes, and stay away from their dislikes if possible. I had done a story called "My Three Swans" about three punk-rock girls. I really like the idea of three women. And Alan thought for a minute, saying he'd always really liked Peter Pan. So it was kind of this brain storm.

I also I enjoyed the little period between Victorian era and the more modern 1920s. The costumes are very special. The architecture is almost art deco for its premodernity, but it's also got the older things as well.

METRO: Which of the art styles you used was the most difficult?

GEBBIE: The Dorothy flashbacks required the most labor. First, I put down a layer Pantone pens and then I used colored pencils, and it's very, very time consuming. It's almost like knitting or something it really takes a lot of time.

METRO: The Marquis Von Bayros-style illustrations look particularly difficult.

GEBBIE: That nearly drove me around the bend. That tiny, tiny detail work in there? I could only do it 15 minutes at a time. I'd get up, take a breather, sit down, have a sip of coffee or tea and get back to it again [laugh].

METRO: Were the publishers particularly worried about the subject matter in Lost Girls?

GEBBIE: We've had four publishers, not including Top Shelf. ... People who said, "I'll do it, because it's Alan Moore." Alan thought it would be nice to help the sales of Taboo magazine along, which is why we were first doing Lost Girls in eight-page increments. It kept the costs down, doing it in black-and-white. Then Kevin Eastman's company Tundra came along—this is 16 years ago, we're talking about. I'm not clear on the details. Kitchen Sink offered to print Lost Girls, and then they had financial problems. And then the project was just in limbo. We were half-way through the book. Alan said, "Never mind, hang on to the artwork, and maybe someday, somebody can publish it."

And then Top Shelf's Chris Staros did his "Staros Report" where he listed his 100 favorite comics, and put Lost Girls on it, even though it only appeared in two little issues. He came to visit us at one of the comics conventions. He told me it would be a life's accomplishment if Top Shelf could publish Lost Girls.

He said, "We're the smallest comics company in the world probably, but we're really determined. If you trust us with Lost Girls we will do the best we can by you."

I said, "Well, Chris, I have a dream. I want it in a lavender slipcase with gilt lettering. in a three-volume set in color-coordinated spines on archival-quality matte paper with top printing values."

Chris said, "It'll probably cost a lot, and we can probably get some people to invest in it and we'll put their names in the front of the book and see what happens. At any rate, if that's what you want, that's what we'll do."

He was true to his word. He's one in a million. Not a single publishing company in the world would have done this—not Praegar, not Adams, not Phaidon, certainly not Marvel or D.C.

METRO: What worries me is that Top Shelf is located down there below the Bible Belt in Georgia. They seem like a natural target for local prosecutors.

GEBBIE: Chris is geared up about that; he's very protective about the book. There's already been some kerfluffle, someone jumping on one of the details of Lost Girls.

METRO: The detail of underage sexuality, is, as you say, a detail; it's not what Lost Girls is about. When it occurs, it really occurs as dreams within dreams. Do you have any idea why the United States is especially fixated on a horror of underage sexuality?

GEBBIE: I don't know—I'm asking you here—is it something to do with Homeland Security? I'm not promoting that any child should look at Lost Girls. Still, I don't think children are harmed by erotic pictures if the intention is good. ... When I was 8, I found my father's pictures of Bettie Page in her underwear on a rump-sprung couch. I used to think, "I like her, she's pretty. I bet she's a princess. She has princess hair, and she looks really happy." I didn't think anything else with it. If models look happy, and they're not in a scary environment. ... Children are only concerned about things that are going to hurt them. In Walgreen's there's all these mercenary magazines with pictures of children being blown up or beheaded. No one seems to worry about children finding them.

METRO: I'll buy that. Sneaking through my parents' Playboy magazines at my house when I was a child wasn't nearly as scarring as seeing the Vietnam or Watts riots photography in full crimson color.

GEBBIE: I'm always amazed at the dichotomy between the morbid impulse and the libidinous—the morbid impulse is completely accepted.

METRO: It's true in cinema. Watching that incredible gorefest crucifixion in The Passion of the Christ made me think of the old Lenny Bruce joke: "I'd rather that my daughter watched a stag film than [previous hit cruciflick] The Greatest Story Ever Told. Someday she's going to need to learn how to make love, but I don't want her learning how to crucify the messiah if he shows up."

GEBBIE: This is having an effect everywhere—displays of unmitigated unthinking violence. We all want the same things—we may have ideas of ferocious independence, but we're quite similar. We all want respect, and we want to feel love, and no one wants to feel bad about the drives we were given as whole healthy humans.

I first got the idea for Lost Girls when I was about 9 or 10. I didn't know anything about the world, but I'd heard about sex. My mother had given me these American Medical Association books, "Mating and You," it was called. I showed it to my little friends. And we were all horrified. I thought: Sometime when I am a proper adult I will find this beautiful book that has been made to answer all my questions. It'll tell me about sex, and it will take away all my fears and make me happy and tell me everything I need to know. I won't have to guess. ... And there was no such book about sex, but there is now. And I never knew I was going to be the one to illustrate it.

METRO: What would you say to people who tell you, "If you were a parent, you'd know why we were so worried about this kind of book."

GEBBIE: I know a fair amount of parents, and I've talked to some on the pre-publicity wave in England. One man who worked for one of the big-name magazines said, "I stand behind the book completely. I have a 7-year-old child, and I love the book, but I wonder if I should hide it from my child."

I was very concerned about mothers coming and saying to me, 'You horrible woman! My child has been sullied by that book.' Anyway, Lost Girls is always sold sealed. I said to Chris, no one is allowed to look at it in the store. Top Shelf by name, Top Shelf by nature. It's absolutely only to be seen by request. No one can look at it without buying it first, and they have to be over 18.

METRO: Alan Moore has embraced the word "pornography" for Lost Girls. Apart from the fact that the more polite word erotica often translates as "something that's not quite as sexy as it ought to be," are you more comfortable calling Lost Girls porn than erotica?

GEBBIE: I think it's important that we call it pornography, so that if someone else calls it that, we can say, "And your point is...?" I believe "pornos" was a Greek word that means joy. It's a bad word, in terms of what it becomes—like what we call "grumbleweeds" in England, meaning magazines found under bushes.

Men have been made to feel quite wretched about having a sex drive, and there is a standoff between men and women about representations in sexual art. Women are very sensitive about being loved, and they worry, are they adequate? I don't think it's ever been a question that women don't want to be interested in sex. But women need to know that their partner appreciates them. I want women to look at Lost Girls and feel like the goddesses they are. And I think men have forgotten their magic as well.

METRO: What are you going to do now?

GEBBIE: Alan has been giving performance pieces, never to a large audience, about William Blake.

METRO: Father of the comic book!

GEBBIE: Alan has recorded the performance, which is available through Top Shelf. I'm planning to illustrate a version of it. ... It'll be square bound, with poetry on one side and illustrations on the other. ... And it won't be for D.C., and you can quote me on that!

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