Wednesday, August 30, 2006

'Lost Girls' feature story

It's still up at PennLive, but I thought I'd take the time to get the main story up here as well. Review of Lost Girls will go up tomorrow.


Alan Moore wants to be very clear about what his new graphic novel, “Lost Girls,” is exactly.

It’s not erotica. It’s not adult fiction. It’s not even “gentlemen’s reading material.”

It’s pornography, pure and simple.

“It is more descriptive, it is more accurate and to some degree it is pre-emptive,” said the author from his home in Northampton, England. “It is not waiting for someone else to come along and call this pornography. It is saying, ‘Fair enough, this is pornography.’¤”

Normally, such declarations would raise little attention beyond a raised eyebrow or a snort of derision. But Alan Moore isn’t just any writer.

The co-creator behind such acclaimed comics as “V for Vendetta,” “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” “From Hell” and “Watchmen,” Moore is regarded as one of the greatest and most beloved authors in the industry.

Creators from across the entertainment spectrum, like Joss Whedon, producer of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” cite him as a tremendous influence on their own work. And no less an authority than Time magazine recently included “Watchmen” on its list of the best 100 English novels of the modern era, the only graphic novel to make the cut.

So when an author of that stature publishes a massive, dense work of pornography, people take notice. Even more so when the three main characters in the work are Alice from “Alice in Wonderland,” Wendy from “Peter Pan” and Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz.” 

Porn as art? 

“Lost Girls” is a sprawling, 264-page epic that comes packaged in a slipcased, three-volume set with a cover price of $75. Moore worked on the book with his fiancee, Melinda Gebbie, who provided the art, over a 16-year period.

Their goal was to create a sexually explicit book that you wouldn’t be ashamed to display on your shelf, Moore said.

“What we are trying to do is to reclaim the term ‘pornography,’¤” Moore said. “We are hoping that through ‘Lost Girls’ we can show that it is possible to do an ambitious and lengthy work of pornography that has all of the things that one would expect from any piece of literature or work of art.”

“Any major work from Alan Moore is significant,” said co-publisher Chris Staros, whose Top Shelf Productions is handling the book. “This falls into the pantheon of a very small group of instant classics.”

The book takes place in the months before World War I, in a posh hotel in Switzerland. There, three women — Alice, Wendy and Dorothy — meet, divulge their sexual histories and engage in a variety of erotic trysts.

The book has received rave reviews in many quarters, including The Village Voice and Publisher’s Weekly, but, as one might expect, it has also drawn a fair share of controversy and criticism, especially since it explicitly portrays a variety of sexual taboos, including incest and pedophilia.

Moore and Gebbie handle such material sensitively in the book, but that might not be enough to satisfy some.

“Melinda and I have not created these ideas,” Moore said. “What we’re trying to do is talk about them because we think it is important that they be talked about. And pornography is a wonderful vehicle in which to talk about those concepts.”

Last June, representatives for the Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, which was given the copyright to “Peter Pan” in J.M. Barrie’s will, questioned the book’s appropriateness and argued that they needed to give permission before the book could be published in the United Kingdom.

Whether or not their permission is needed is a bit murky — it is unclear just how much control over the property they are able to exercise.

Regardless, the hospital could only delay publication until 2008, when the copyright would expire. In the United States, however, the book is in the public domain. 

Betting the farm 

Top Shelf, a relative small fish in the small pond of comics, is betting a good deal on the success of “Lost Girls,” with the first two printings costing in the realm of $300,000.

“It is a very big investment, but it looks like it will pay off,” said Staros, adding that initial orders have exceeded first printings. “I was never really worried. I know if we hawked it properly, it would sort of look after itself.”

Though concerned about any sort of backlash the book might receive, Staros is quick to alleviate any concerns.

“They [critics] just haven’t seen it yet. The context its frightening in the abstract,” he said. “When they see it they’ll realize what Alan has done is brilliant and beautiful and nonoffensive. Once you read it, it is fairly easy to embrace.” 

Wary retailers

The question, of course, is will retailers actually embrace it?

According to Staros, Amazon.com, Border’s, Barnes and Noble and other big-name retail outlets, as well as many smaller shops and libraries, are planning to stock the book.

“Most retailers who are on the fence either haven’t seen it or are working off of the rumor mill,” he said.

Of the five comic shops in the area, all but one were planning on stocking the book, and the one not doing so was quick to add that the only reason was that no one had requested a copy yet.

Many of the local shops said they were cautious and were ordering copies only if customers came in and requested the book. All stressed that such material would be stored behind the main counter or in an otherwise unobtrusive area of the store.

“I’m more than happy to order it, but I don’t want some lady from church to put me out of business” said Ralph Watts of Comics and Paperbacks Plus in Palmyra.

His concern is legitimate. In the war over free speech and censorship, comics shops tend to be an easy target, with retailers often bearing the brunt of irate parents and district attorneys.

Recently, for example, the reference book “Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics” was removed from the San Bernardino County Library because of nudity.

More significantly, in 2004, Georgia comics retailer Gordon Lee was arrested for accidentally giving a minor a copy of a comic containing images of Pablo Picasso painting in the nude. The case is still pending, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit group dedicated to defending First Amendment issues, has spent $40,000 so far defending Lee.

Staros, who is the president of the CBLDF, said he is more than willing to fight for the book in court should it come to that.

“I am concerned about [censorship],” he said, “but the book’s right to exist far exceeds any concern I might have.”

For the most part, local comic retailers, though cautious, aren’t very worried about being the opening salvo in any potential war against “Lost Girls.”

“I don’t think that would happen here in this area; that’s just a vibe” said Bob Newbury of Cosmic Comics in Susquehanna Twp.

In fact, the high price of the book, and that bigger stores can offer better discounts, might be more of a factor for retailers than the book’s content.

“When customers can get [the book] for what we pay for it on Amazon, why would you order it?” Newbury said.

For his part, Moore is extremely pleased with the book and the positive reception it’s been getting in the press.

“We’ve done the best that we possibly can on this, and people’s reaction to it is entirely up to them, but I hope that they might give it a chance, and they might find it was a beneficial rather than a shocking and demoralizing experience,” he said.

“Someone was gonna do it eventually. Someone was going to attempt it eventually, to do this kind of sustained, ambitious piece of pornography and have it also be a piece of art. I’m just incredibly smug that it was me and Melinda.”

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

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