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August 07, 2006
Alan Moore leaves behind his Extraordinary Gentlemen to dally with Lost Girls


By Dorman T. Shindler


After making a name for himself in the British independent comic-book scene, Alan Moore first gained attention in America—and began what would become a contentious relationship with DC Comics—when editor Len Wein hired him to help revitalize Swamp Thing in the early 1980s. Moore immediately drew critical acclaim for his smart, mature writing and plots.
Given carte blanche, he created one of the seminal works of his career for DC Comics in the mid-'80s: Watchmen, a series that dealt with corrupt government officials and superheroes that were far more complex than any portrayed in comic books before that time. It was, says Moore, "an attempt to see how much complexity could be worked into a kind of comic-book narrative." In addition to a Harvey Award and a Jack Kirby Award from the comic-book industry, Watchmen also won Moore a Hugo Award, a first for the comic-book industry. Along with writers like Frank Miller, Moore has been celebrated as one of the scribes who first brought thoughtfulness, depth and much-needed seriousness and respectability to comic-book heroes.

Although he had a now-infamous split with DC Comics over their treatment of him and his coworkers (the artists) on titles bearing his name, Moore (at right with Lost Girls artist Melinda Gebbie) was unable to escape that company's clutches. The rights to subsequent works for other imprints, like America's Best Comics—titles like V For Vendetta, Promethea, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Tom Strong and Tomorrow Stories—were bought up by DC Comics, leaving Moore embittered and bewildered but wiser about the ways of the world of commerce. (Photo credit: Top Shelf)

In recent years, Moore has been more careful about whom he sells publishing rights to. Lately, he has been working on the completion of a second novel (which he expects to clock in at around 100 pages) and overseeing the final touches on a project that has been near and dear to his heart for more than 16 years: Lost Girls, his new graphic novel created with Gebbie, is Moore's attempt to bring legitimacy to the genre of pornography. While that might seem like a doomed effort in today's conservative climes, Moore is, after all, the man who helped lead the way in a revolution that changed the comic-book industry.

During a recent telephone interview from his home in Northampton, England, Moore spent some time talking about puritanical attitudes, Victorian and Edwardian erotica and Lost Girls, which will be published by Top Shelf Comics ($75, hardcover) in August.
All of your work is created with a nod to works and traditions that came before you. Not many writers—in any medium—are aware of their predecessors or the literary history made before they were born.

Moore: That's a tremendous shame. Certainly, from the earliest work I did in comics, I was aware of the tradition I was working in. You do get the impression that an awful lot of the people who are currently working in comics probably don't know much about comic-book history that goes back beyond the 1980s. You have to know what came before [your work] before you can plot a way forward. I have always in my work tried to combine progressive elements with traditional ones. In America's Best Comics, for example, there are some really splendid examples of that. Things like Tomorrow Stories. We were being progressive and doing experimental things, but in a context, a kind of format and characters that people would feel familiar with. And I think that makes for a very interesting way to move forward: to have a vehicle that people are going to feel reassured with, but then do something extraordinary with it that they've never seen done before, and in that way push the medium forward.
Speaking of pushing the medium forward with familiar things: Lost Girls may be one of the few mainstream graphic novels to address the issue of pornography so explicitly.

Moore: It's funny, we seem to have a marvelous tradition of erotic art, and a not so quite marvelous tradition of people getting upset about it. It's an ongoing dialogue, I suppose, that cultures have with themselves. Certainly it seemed to us [Moore and Gebbie] that sex, as a genre, was woefully under-represented in literature. Every other field of human experience—even rarefied ones like detective, spaceman or cowboy—have got whole genres dedicated to them. Whereas the only genre in which sex can be discussed is a disreputable, seamy, under-the-counter genre with absolutely no standards: [the pornography industry]—which is a kind of Bollywood for hip, sleazy ugliness.
I think many of us in America have always felt puritanical attitudes toward sex were something we invented.
Moore: It certainly is an American attitude, but I think it's one that is prevalent all over the world: It's okay to show people being killed or killing. It might be less so in the body of Europe, but I don't think it's the case in England. England has a reputation of being an uptight, spinster sort of nation, I'm sure.

Nothing could be further from the truth. If you actually look back at British culture, you find the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales and most of the plays of Shakespeare are filthy! They are full of innuendo. There was a huge boom in English pornography during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. British pornographic magazines like The Pearl; The Oyster. Though it is less true lately, I think the reason, historically, that repression has always been so intense here is precisely because the British are essentially very bawdy.

Then, of course, you have things like the "Lady Chatterley trial," which was actually quite a blow for liberating the sexual ethics of this country [England]. In opposing Lady Chatterley's Lover [the novel by D.H. Lawrence], the kind of establishment attitude was laid bare when the prosecuting attorney said, "You would not want your wives or your servants to read this book." Which was kind of saying: "We're all men, and we're upper-class men. So we can be trusted to read this without becoming depraved or going on a rape spree. Whereas, of course, people of weaker character, the lower class, women, black people, people who are closer to savages, they couldn't be trusted with it because it would probably inflame them!"

And that is generally the argument against pornography. It's not depraved the person who passes judgment on it (it's generally a he), but he assumes it would corrupt and deprave weaker minds.
Were there ever any worries about censorship when it came to publishing Lost Girls?

Moore: Well, when Melinda Gebbie first arrived in this country, she was greeted by good old-fashioned British book-burning, in which one of her comic books that had been published in San Francisco had been seized. Melinda had to appear in court, defended it the best she could, and the judge decided that all the copies should be burned. We're both kind of fairly seasoned with dealing with outcries of various sorts. So we never thought for a moment what the reaction might be; we just did the work of art that we needed to do to fulfill our purposes and to make the piece of work we wanted to see in existence. And we really didn't think about anything else.
I read that you've been working on Lost Girls since 1991—is that right?

Moore: No, it started in '89 or '90. It's gone through two or three publishers who collapsed under it. There have been long stretches where it's just been done on faith because we knew it had to be completed. We've been working on it for 16 years. There was a period where the first two or three chapters were published in a magazine called Taboo. That collapsed. Then it was published by Kevin Eastman's Tundra publishing, which then sold it to Dennis Kitchen and Kitchen Sink, which then published a couple of issues of a kind of a comic book of Lost Girls, which didn't represent it in the way that we would have liked it represented. But for the time it was probably that—luckily over the last 15 years, printing has come along remarkably, so that now it is possible to actually reproduce the sort of color effects that Melinda has achieved.
Did you steep yourself in Victorian-era pornography and such when researching the book?

Moore: Yeah, the amount of research I had to do on this project—it was really a strain. I really don't like most modern pornography, and most modern pornography is photographic. I find that I gravitate more toward illustrations or literature. I did read a number largely from the Victorian and Edwardian period. I read a sampling of Victorian and Edwardian pornography which I thought was surprisingly good. It was very human, very pleasure-centered. And often you'd get quite startling chapters where, in the middle of an orgy, most of the characters suddenly break off to have a discussion about sexual morals, sexual etiquette. Discussions of how women should not be forgotten—views that actually sound very advanced for the Victorian period.
You touch on a lot of taboos in Lost Girls, and most of us have the ability to get aroused by quite a bit of it.

Moore: The thing is, unless we can talk about that mechanism of arousal, freely, then terrible things can happen. One of the things that—when we were still doing Lost Girls—I was aware of was the fact that certain countries in Europe, Holland, Denmark, Spain, have very liberal laws regarding pornography. Hardcore pornography is available in every family news agency. What they don't have is the appalling amount of sex crimes, particularly the number of crimes against children.

Now, you could draw from this that perhaps pornography is providing an important valve, or a kind of forum, in which these ideas can be aired. And I think that if we were going to be true to our brief, which was the conditions we'd set ourselves, to write something that was genuinely pornographic and which explored the limits of human sexual imagination, and obviously things that figure in the human sexual imagination, there's quite a lot of things, but incest is something which obviously casts a shadow ... Sigmund Freud—who I've not got the greatest of respect for, but he's still the prevailing viewpoint in terms of human sexuality—he says that all sex is sublimated incest. I don't agree with that, but it certainly means you have to discuss the subject if you're going to explore pornography—because pornography certainly explores those areas.

And one of the things that we were trying to do with Lost Girls, as well as create a world of pornography, was to create a work which looked at pornography and stood in it, in the form of the white book that we have running throughout the narrative. Which is left like a Gideon Bible in everyone's hotel room drawer, which is a fictitious anthology of erotic writings and drawings by some of the great artists and writers of the last hundred or so years.
You both did an excellent job of recreating Edwardian erotica.

Moore: Thank you; we spent a lot of time on it. Melinda has got a fantastic facility for adapting other artists' styles. Partly the white book was so we could show that off, and partly it was so we could pay tribute to people like Gerde Wagner, Beardsley and all of the others, including "anonymous," who was one of the most prolific erotic artists and writers; I don't know how he did it. He lived for such a long time! We felt obliged to deal with those areas, all the time keeping in mind that what we're talking about here is purely the human sexual imagination. We're not talking about sex: We're talking about the sexual imagination. And it's funny: It's not that I'm hoping to provoke this, but I am expecting that there'll probably be some dissident voices raised. We've been thinking about this for 16 years, so I'm confident I've got all of the arguments that are necessary.
Was Lost Girls a jointly imagined project?
Moore: It was very much a sort of joint chemistry. I'd always thought: Would it be possible to do a piece of erotica that is artistically satisfying as well as satisfying in a pornographic sense? And I'd expended a lot of energy thinking about this, but it had never come to anything.

I'd had a vague idea about a sexual version of Peter Pan. Based on the fact that Freud says dreams of flying are dreams of sexual expression. And there are a lot of flying scenes in Peter Pan. It's a very simple, kind of lame-assed metaphor. But it was a starting point for the idea. It didn't go very far, because I couldn't think of anything that wouldn't have been just a crude, smutty parody of Peter Pan—and there have plenty of those, I'm sure. And it was basically when I came into contact with Melinda [that the project came to fruition].

We spent a couple of weekends talking over ideas, not necessarily getting very far. I probably mentioned this clunky idea about Peter Pan again. Melinda mentioned that she always doing stories that had a dynamic of three women interacting. That somehow collided with the Peter Pan idea, and I suppose the logic went, if Wendy from Peter Pan was one of the three women we're talking about, who would the other two be? Of course, Alice and Dorothy are obvious names once you've gotten to that stage. We eventually came up with a sort of a rough timeline, where it seemed that there was a kind of an optimum window of two or three years where Alice would not be too old and Dorothy would not be too young. And it seemed that those years were around 1913 and 1914.

That, in itself, suggested lots of story possibilities. What was going on historically then? Well, you've got the first performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, which was attended by a riot, because it so shocked people. Then, within a year after that, you have the Archduke Franz Ferdinand shot, which precipitated the first World War, from which Europe has probably never recovered, and which was a cataclysm the like which we had never seen as a species. And which was also a grim pointer to the way the rest of the 20th century was probably going to go. We began to see how using these three girls, and a kind of sexually decoded version of their narratives, we could say an awful lot about the human sexual imagination—about the human imagination in general.

We wanted to give this book everything that an ordinary piece of literature would have: We wanted to give it characters and settings and themes, and motifs and metaphors and fancy stuff like that. And we wanted it to have a meaning amid all of the couplings and copulations. We wanted to have a human meaning that was serious and powerful and relevant to people's lives. And the sort of brooding buildup to the first World War gave us just that. Because what we're talking about in Lost Girls is the human imagination, of which, really, you couldn't have three better symbols than Alice, Dorothy and Wendy, who are perfect symbols of fantasy, the imagination and all sorts of things.

If we're going to have a narrative that is about the human imagination, then it seemed interesting to counterbalance that with this terrible outbreak of war—which is the absolute failure of the imagination. War is the opposite of the sexual imagination. All of the culture, the sense of joy and beauty that is represented in the girl's narratives—that is all suddenly something very precious and very fragile that has got this immense machinery of war bearing down on it. We thought that those seemed like big enough themes to actually make this something that—yes, is a pornographic book, self-avowedly—but there is no reason why a book of pornography should not be drawings or writings about wantons, as I believe the word originally means. There's no reason why it shouldn't be arousing and yet also be talking about important issues, about serious human things.