Sunday, August 23, 2009
by Alan Moore (writer) & Melinda Gebbie (artist)
What is the dividing line between erotica and pornography? Where can we find it? Alan Moore argues that the distinction is one of class pretension – the lower class has their pornography, the upper class their erotica. Furthermore, erotica is a subterfuge, a shadow play of appearance and intention. But pornography can pride itself as being a direct force, an elemental expulsion of the imagination. Pornography taps the vein, erotica dances around it. Cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard speaks of pornography as the event with no consequence. Pornography is the flashpoint- an alchemical moment that stands apart amidst the dull monotony of moments. It is no wonder, then, that the great science fiction writer, Samuel R. Delany, prefers to classify his later novels such as ‘Hogg,’ ‘the Mad Man’ and ‘Phallos’ as unabashed gay pornography. Not erotica, porno. The term should by no means be understood as derogative. If a work of pornography can be called base or dirty, it isn’t a slight, but actually a mark of its peculiar virtue. ‘Lost Girls’ is Alan Moore’s large-scale tribute to pornography and young adult fiction, assisted by artist Melinda Gebbie. We follow the female leads of ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ ‘Peter Pan’ and ‘the Wizard of Oz’ as Alice, Wendy and Dorothy investigate the boundaries of their sexuality at an Austrian retreat just prior to the outbreak of World War I. It’s an audacious work – as bold as it is bloated. But as hermetic as ‘Lost Girls’ may be, it is best viewed as a bridge. Let us see how ‘Lost Girls’ works as a transitional piece, as well as its greater implications.
Alan Moore’s career in comic books corresponds to two general movements – that of a deconstructive and then a reconstructive phase. Both stages depend heavily upon appropriation and irony. Moore’s deconstructive phase can (almost) be neatly contained within the first half of his career; he is here moving away from the established mode of genre in graphic novels. These early works push away from the genre specifications of superheroes (Marvelman, Watchmen, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?), horror (Swamp Thing), and even boy’s science fiction (the Ballad of Halo Jones). Sex is a reconfiguring device – Alec & Abby’s psychedelic yam assisted lovemaking in ‘Swamp Thing,’ the subsumed perversion of costumed heroes in ‘Watchmen,’ both defamiliarize old tropes. In Moore’s deconstructive works, the emergence of a sexual identity dismantles previously unquestioned elements of genre.
If the first half of Moore’s career is a movement away from a normative genre, then the second half, and particularly the late works, pushes to construct a holistic meta- or supra-genre to serve as a fictive umbrella under which all of Moore’s books fall. The mature works, ‘Promethea,’ ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,’ and ‘From Hell,’ reveal that the deconstructions of genre in his earlier work weren’t necessarily meant to defuse genres as much as to pool them together, or to position them as a web. Sex and magick serve as the unifying agents towards this consolidation. For a better understanding of the development of Moore in the latter half of his career, one should compare the issue of ‘Promethea’ in which the title character engages in issue-long sexual intercourse with Aleister Crowley-stand in, Jack Faust, to the previously mentioned issue of ‘Swamp Thing’ where Alec and Abby first make love.
Sex and magick, particularly a Crowley-derived thelemic magick, have both figured in Moore’s work from the start. But whereas in ‘Watchmen’ sex and magick serve as disruptive or explosive agents pushing the book away from genre, in the later ‘Lost Girls,’ sex pulls together the genre trappings towards a holistic world view – remember the Blazing World seen at the close of ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: the Black Dossier.’ The later projects still find their root in genre – ‘From Hell’ appropriates both historical fiction and conspiracy theory. You can see Moore drawing together influences and disparities, whereas before he was pulling them apart. I can’t place enough emphasis, here, on the importance of world-building in both speculative fiction and genre graphic novels – whereas there was a general fragmentation going on in the main wing of 20th postmodernism, progressive genre comics of the same era are concerned with pulling everything together.
And where does that leave ‘Lost Girls?’ Of his major works, it remains one of the more maligned. Those critics not instantly negative to the book are instead dismissive. It’s funny. I’ve noticed a hostility, either subtle or outright, of most comics bloggers towards Moore, where it is just as common to find the same blogger heaping praise upon Grant Morrison. Why is this? The thing is, both Moore and Morrison adore genre, it is simply a question of which genre we’re talking about. Whereas Morrison is willing to almost unconditionally congratulate the reader of superhero comics for his fannish devotion to the genre, Moore has made a career out of attacking those same fans’ convictions. On top of that, he has become increasingly enmeshed in the anachronisms of fin-de-scele writers such as Pierre Louys as his career has progressed. Alan Moore has moved closer and closer to the fringes, while Morrison has over the years gravitated towards the center. Moore is simply out of touch, and unabashedly so. But is this always a bad thing? Whereas both writers have their flaws, comics bloggers are more inclined to forgive Morrison’s fannish mugging and difficulty with characterization in light of his respect for well-loved tropes, whereas Moore’s heavy-handedness and boorish elitism goes under the gun.
Which is a shame, as the later works of Alan Moore are a fascinating, if occasionally tedious, minefield of pastiche, sexuality and thelemic unity. Moore’s dedication to pornography remains both his crutch and his greatest strength in these works. ‘Lost Girls’ is a peculiar work in his oeuvre, in fact it might even be a representative one. 16 years passed between its first appearance in a 1991 issue of Stephen Bissette’s ‘Taboo’ and the publishing of Top Shelf’s 2006-collected edition. As such, the book is a Rosetta stone for Moore’s output following the dissolution of his working relationship with DC. Both ‘From Hell’ and ‘Lost Girls,’ works begun at roughly the same time and both anthologized in ‘Taboo,’ share Moore’s desire to detach himself from the depiction of superheroes, either in a deconstructive sense or any other. But ‘Lost Girls’ also looks forwards - the first seeds of ‘the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’s shared universe can also be seen in the sexual entanglement of Alice, Wendy and Dorothy’s fictive dreamworlds.
‘Lost Girls’ is set at the expensive Austrian resort of the eccentric dandy, Monsieur Rongeur. A former pimp and forger, Rongeur is the author of a scandalous erotic anthology, referred to as the White Book. He leaves a copy of the book in each of the rooms of his hotel. Many of the aesthetic homages of ‘Lost Girls,’ such as an imaginary Egon Schiele and Oscar Wilde collaboration, can be attributed to Rongeur and his notorious White Book. Most of Rongeur’s guests flee the hotel following the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, leaving Alice, Wendy and Dorothy to cavort with Rongeur and the hotel staff in a sumptuous orgy. As the participants of the orgy swoon to their climaxes, Monsieur Rongeur offers a tidy summation of Moore’s philosophy regarding pornography – “Pornographies are the enchanted parklands where the most secret and vulnerable of all our many selves can safely play… They are the palaces of luxury that all the policies and armies of the outer world can never spoil, can never bring to rubble… They are our secret gardens, where seductive paths of words and imagery lead us to the wet, blinding gateway of our pleasure, beyond which, things may only be expressed in language that is beyond literature, beyond all words.”
Pornography has traditionally existed outside literature – much like genre fiction. Pornography, then, occupies a curious position where it may express with words what word cannot, or perhaps are forbidden to, say. Can words reach their own limit? Can words express their specific limit – the breaking point of a language? Pornographic prose is a perfectly soluble fluid, the paradox of it is that it allows a corporeal quality beyond language into the text. Imagination is Alan Moore’s philosopher’s stone, the permissive entryway into a realm beyond boundaries. Does this also, as Baudrillard hints, mean a space beyond consequences?
Rongeur reads Alice, Wendy and Dorothy a pornographic tale written in the style of Pierre Louys. Wendy protests, “It’s an exciting story, but the children, doing things with their own Mother! I mean, I have a son myself, and I’d never never of..” To which Rongeur interrupts, “But of course you would not, dear Madam. Your child is real. These, however, are only real in this delightful book…” Is Rongeur’s statement devaluing the fictive reality of storytelling - keeping it at a safe and manageable distance? Or is Rongeur perhaps doing something else. Is he in fact privileging storytelling the ability to render reality – a reality relegated to the confines of the book, but a reality nonetheless?
The Louys pastiche ends with an entire family engaged in a massive orgy and the admission that “Surely there can be no happier clan in all of Christendom than mine! I thank God for the institution of the Family, founded on nothing save for fucking and its endless consequences.” Consequence, here, is something of an irony, as the only consequence of sex for the husband and wife of this story is the potential for future sexual partners. Monsieur Rongeur replies that “Incest, c’est vrai,it is a crime, but this? This is the idea of incest, no? And then these children: how outrageous! How old can they be? Eleven? Twelve? … except that they are fictions, as old as the page they appear upon, no less, no more… You see, if this were real, it would be horrible. Children raped by their trusted parents. Horrible. But they are fictions. They are uncontaminated by effect and consequence. Why, they are almost innocent.” But then, in the next chapter Rongeur discusses the years he spend as lover and pimp for a prepubescent boy and girl who may have been his children. Rongeur himself is guilty, even though he is himself a fictive creation.
This complexity of the complicit in ‘Lost Girls’ is one of the books most fascinating elements. And one of its greatest strengths. Alice admits to the psychic trauma done to her when she was sexually molested as a child. It has haunted her into adulthood and will never leave her. Wendy and Dorothy also express the guilt and hurt carried from their childhood sexual awakenings. Moore and Gebbie maintain this subtext of consequence throughout ‘Lost Girls.’ There is a tragic naiveté to the sexual idealism of the three protagonists. Dorothy asks, “You don’t think we ought’ve been gone sooner?” To which Alice replies, “Absolutely not. Sod the war. Finishing our stories was more important. More of a victory.” Yet the final page of the graphic novel is of a dying soldier, who may very well be Dorothy’s lover Rolf, lying on a bomb-pocked battlefield with his guts splayed out on his belly. Is there an extent to the body? To the imagination?
NEXT: Walter Benjamin's Illuminations.