Thursday, August 31, 2006

Graphic Lit: Lost Girls


“It’s not what you think.”

That’s the phrase I find myself repeating again and again when attempting to describe the basic plot of Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s new, three-volume graphic novel, “Lost Girls.”

“It’s an epic, elaborate work of pornography involving Alice from ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ Wendy from ‘Peter Pan’ and Dorothy from ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ but it’s not what you think.”

Of course, to a small degree, it is exactly what you think. The sex in “Lost Girls” is quite explicit.

It is flagrantly hard core, with a little something to entice, or perhaps offend, everyone. Homosexuality, incest, shoe fetishes, bestiality and sex with minors are all, to one degree or another, depicted within these pages.

But those who fear, upon hearing such a synopsis, that the book would be some sort of low-rent, run-of-the-mill smut, or worse, degrade and damage beloved childhood characters, can relax. Moore and Gebbie are far too clever and talented to produce anything so base or obvious.

The fact is, “Lost Girls” is nothing less than a thoughtful, lush, dense and at times surprisingly touching examination of our sexual mores and our sexual imagination in particular. It’s a beautiful book that explores the fine line between fantasy and reality and what happens when we start mistaking one for the other.

Along the way it also takes time to examine the futility of war, the beneficial aspects of storytelling, the wonders of Edwardian pornography and Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” That’s just for starters.

The book takes place in Switzerland where, in the months before the onset of World War I, three women arrive at a rather posh hotel — the jaded and older Alice Fairchild, the repressed, respectable Wendy Potter and the rather headstrong Dorothy Gale.

Upon meeting, the three women realize they have much in common, particularly in regards to their adolescence. All three, it seems, had rather remarkable initiations into the sexual realm, in some cases quite horribly so. Most pornography concerns sex without consequences. “Lost Girls” is all about sex with consequences, sometimes serious ones.

As the three begin to tell their stories to one another (among other things), they are able to rediscover long-lost parts of themselves. Their tales, of course, bear strong resemblances to the stories we know so well, though they have been given a more modernized and sexualized spin. The scarecrow, tin man and cowardly lion, for example, are reimagined as Kansas farmhands.

Of course, when playing with characters from children’s literature, especially characters as beloved as these, cries of catering to paedophiles and worse are on the lips of many moral censors.

No catering is present here, which is not to say that such themes aren’t discussed. Issues of paedophilia and sexual abuse are dealt with here, but not in an irresponsible fashion.

Moore and Gebbie instead look at such problems with an admirable fearlessness. Often a moment of joyous ribaldry will be undercut by a rather shocking or sad sequence in the next chapter. They constantly fluctuate between the erotic and disturbing, often on the same page, constantly reminding us of the divide between the reality of sex and what happens in our imagination. As Wendy aptly puts it, “I could think about what I liked. That didn’t mean I wanted it to really happen to me.”

There are a few missteps (Moore’s fondness for wordplay grated on me at times), but perhaps that’s inevitable for a book this original and ambitious. “Lost Girls” is one of the best books Alan Moore has written, easily up there with “Watchmen” and “From Hell.”

Gebbie is the more unknown factor in this partnership, but her work is nothing less than sumptuous. The amount of effort she has poured into this book is staggering. My copy of “Lost Girls” was relegated to some grayscale photocopies, but I was in awe of how she constantly changed her style to fit the characters’ stories, and how the people looked like individuals and not porn stars. I can’t wait to see the book in actual full color.

The more I reread “Lost Girls,” the more impressed I am of what Moore and Gebbie have accomplished here. There are countless places where a project of this sort could have gone horribly wrong, but by having taken their time and not pulling any punches they have succeeded in creating a heartfelt masterpiece. I’m not sure you’ll find a better graphic novel this year.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

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