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

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,, 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

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Interview with Alan Moore, Part 2

Huzzah! The PennLive version of the interview is finally up! It's considerably more readable than this edition, mainly because it's been copy edited a few more times and isn't truncated into two parts, so you might want to head over there and read that version instead. I won't mind.

Anyway, here's part two:

Q: I want to talk really briefly about the layout of the book cause it’s one of the things I found the most fascinating, especially the way each characters’ stories is arranged differently, with Alice’s stories being all ovals and Dorothy’s being rectangular and Wendy’s being these kind of stained glass windows. What was the thinking behind that?

A: Well, the fact that they were from different social backgrounds, that they were different ages, different body types and ... we wanted to make each of them as distinct as possible.

We gave them different ways of talking. Different attitudes. Different ways of thinking. I know that Melinda, she gave them different skin tones. She gave them all different dress sense. And we were trying to distinguish between them and we thought that one good way of doing that would be for each of their narrative strands to be approached differently.

So Dorothy, born out there in cornfields of Kansas, seemed to suggest wide panoramic vistas, so we went for those horizontal panels that typify Dorothy’s story. I think that Melinda used pretty much exclusively colored crayons on the Dorothy section which gave a certain look to the Dorothy narrative.

Wendy we decided that upright panels would look more restricted in a way and more repressed. That would also echo the upright bars of the railings in the park. And we thought that the silhouette panels at the top of Wendy’s pages, that worked well with the motif of shadows that we’d already established as part of Wendy’s internal landscape.

The Alice pages — again, much of Alice’s narrative seemed to be reflective. Having established the mirror as the main motif relating to Alice, we though it would work well if we had these pool-shaped panels, often with some reflected or symmetrical element in the visuals to constantly be harping upon that kind of mirror world that Alice is inhabiting.

We wanted to think about every aspect of this, the design, the pacing. We didn’t want to miss a trick. We wanted to do everything we could to treat these three characters as lovingly as possible and to express them as personalities as fully as possible.

That is one thing that is notably missing from almost any pornographic narratives: that the people in them are meat puppets, they’re not actual genuine human beings.

Q: And character would be one of the things that could actually be an erotic feature in a story.

A: Absolutely. This goes back to what I was talking about at the start of the interview, about how originally, I was doing characters such as Swamp Thing for the mainstream comic companies and where appropriate I would try to make them a rounded character by giving them a sexual dimension.

Now, the same thing in reverse applies to "Lost Girls." These are characters in a pornography. But what we’ve tried to do is give them other parts to their personality as well that are not necessarily to do with sex. And to make them into more rounded human beings so that they’ll seem real to the reader. Or at least hopefully so.

If you were talking about sex in real life, it’s the difference between an inflatable doll and a real person. That difference is the animation, it’s the personality, it’s the character of the person that you’re involved with. Which, I’m sure for most of us is every bit as important if not more important than what a person looks like. It seemed like those would be good values to import into pornography.

Q: Speaking of Alice, mirrors and reflection seem to be a recurring theme in the book, not just with Alice but in the sequences with Wendy and her husband where they’re both seduced and it’s laid out exactly the same way.

A: Well there are kind of symmetries throughout the book. We open and close for example with the mirror, with the whole chapter reflected in the mirror. Which was something that I thought of early because that would give us a neat set of bookends with which to frame the entire narrative and would give a nice sense of completion, especially if we built up the mirror throughout the whole book as a window into this fantasy world.

Then, I thought that seeing it shattered in the last chapter would probably be very visceral and perhaps quite upsetting if you think about what that mirror has come to symbolize.

I suppose that was an element that just arose out of the Lewis Carroll narrative more than the others but it struck me that in some ways fiction is a mirror of reality and the imagination, which was what we were talking about. All right, specifically the sexual imagination but we were talking about imagination and art and culture in general.

It struck me that culture and art and imagination are in some ways a reflection of our practical, material human reality. One is the mirror image of the other. One is perhaps the way that we’d like to be or dream of being or that we fear being.

Q: Well, that’s certainly true of pornography, which is kind of a fantasy world where nothing bad can ever happen.

A: Yeah, where we project our reflected images. That is another good point. The fact that you say that nothing bad could ever happen. I think that Neil Gaiman ...

Q: That’s who I stole that from.

A: In most pornography it happens in a kind of pornotopia, where there are no consequences. Whereas in "Lost Girls" there are obviously consequences. Sometimes devastating ones.

Q: And that’s what I found so fascinating about the book, the way you segue back and forth between these stories where real things happen and then into this fantasy world. It seemed like you were walking a real tightrope there at certain points in the book.

A: Also, it seemed kind of natural. I mean we’ve got Alice, who is kind of cast adrift in this world of the Red Queen and her perverse circle.

Alice is sort of dragged into this because she’s been destabilized and damaged to a degree by her early experiences. She’s not protected. She’s very vulnerable. She’s drawn into this further and further. And at the end she has to undergo a period in a mental asylum.

I’ve known people who’ve followed that arc. It is one of the consequences that can sometimes occur.

And Wendy’s sex games in the spinney get out of hand. And Dorothy’s sexual exploration of the men that she has available to her on the farm gets out of hand.

All of these things have different consequences. Some of the consequences you’d expect, some are perhaps ones that you wouldn’t necessarily expect but which kind of make sense. And these people have to deal with these narratives for the rest of their lives.

Until they’ve actually spoken them to other people, until they’ve sat down with the other women and told these stories they do not know they are not alone. And this is something that we felt very strongly about with regards the pornography that we were writing.

Generally art, real art, the purpose that it serves is that we look at and we see an idea that we perhaps have but have not expressed. And in doing so that might fulfill us alone. We feel that somebody else has had these ideas, somebody else has had these thoughts.

Now, traditional pornography has had the exact opposite effect to art in that it makes us feel more alone and wretched and lonely. We wanted in "Lost Girls" to be able do a pornography that could be purchased and read without shame, without stigma, you can have it on your bookshelves and it might even be quite hip, who knows? But certainly it wouldn’t lead to social ostracization.

I don’t know about Kansas and those states in the middle. It may lead to ostricization there. I’m not familiar with the territory.

If we could kind of do that then people perhaps wouldn’t feel so isolated as if they were the only one who had ever had this or that idea. Because I think that is the kind of thing that leads to the sort of isolation that I was talking about earlier where people’s sexual ideas can kind of curdle and go bad. Because of the isolation, because they’re so alone in all of that.

Q: It seems almost as if you start confusing the fantasy with the reality, you can get lost, to bring that up again. It’s the start of the problems.

A: That’s it, and if you’re on your own with no one that you can talk to, more importantly, if you could actually talk about these things with someone else then there wouldn’t be so much chance of getting lost or of confusing borderlines between where fantasy ends and where reality begins.

Which is fairly plain for most of us I think. As the guy in the book says, it’s mainly only psychopaths and magistrates that have a problem with the two.

Q: I see that all the time around here where they’re trying to legislate against violent video games saying they’re going to cause all sorts of real crime.

A: I was hearing a lovely track by somebody called Todd Snider the other day. It was a track called "The Ballad of the Kingsmen." And it was talking about how ... the Kingsmen had clearly had got no idea of the order of the verses when they recorded their 1950s classic ["Louie, Louie"] and yet that was blamed for being an incitement to all of the 1950s juvenile delinquency at that time, just as Marilyn Manson, Eminem and all the rest have been blamed.

You might think that in any halfway self-aware society people might, after a few of these dreadful things have happened, thought, is it something to do with society, rather than that disposable 45-rpm pop song?

Q: But that takes real work.

A: That does take work. It’s easier to ban a record or a book than it is to actually deal with the problem, the real problems that are at the root of all of these terrible things that happen from time to time.

Q: I was doing a story on a controversial video game that’s coming out at the end of the year, and the one thing the pr rep said to me was he never underestimates the cluelessness of the American politician.

So to bring that around to "Lost Girls," are you prepared, are you worried or concerned at all about any kind of fight or controversy you may have to go through with this book? Or do you feel like it’s not going to create that much of a ripple? When I talked to [publisher] Chris Staros, he seemed to feel as though everyone was behind the book.

A: That is pretty much the impression that I’m getting. I did some months ago before the book had come out, say to Melinda that, in a worst-case scenario, if there was a slow news week, if England got knocked out of the World Cup too early, or there was nothing else to put in the newspapers, then we might be subjected to what is referred to over here as a "monstering," which is where you get members of the tabloid press turning up on your doorstep with flashbulbs and long lenses and a sensational barrage of questions, or a barrage of sensational questions if you like.

But actually what seems to have happened is that — all right, the book isn’t officially out yet — but in the response of the people who have actually read it has been so favorable that I’m starting to worry that we might get whatever the exact opposite of a monstering is. Where you get an "angeling" or something like that. Where people smother you with praise.

Yes, there could always be any kind of backlash at any point. I know that at the moment over in America there is a case that the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund are fighting which concerns an image of Pablo Picasso painting naked. Which is historically accurate. If that sort of stuff can be attacked then yeah, I guess anything can be attacked.

I have heard of Wonder Woman posters being seized from some comic shops by enthusiastic law enforcement personnel who felt that a woman in a one-piece bathing suit was simply beyond the pale. That this was hardcore.

So because there aren’t any functioning laws upon obscenity that actually define what it is, then I suppose it’s feasible. Obviously Chris has talked to lawyers and they all assure us that "Lost Girls" would be defensible anywhere in America.

So we’ll have to see, but the sense that I’m getting from the response so far is overwhelmingly positive. I get a real sense that actually there’s a lot of people who have been waiting for something like this. I mean Melinda says that at the San Diego convention where apparently Chris sold out of the initial 500 monstrously expensive volumes that he flown into the country.

Melinda was the toast of the convention and was being carried around in a gold sedan and showered with tickertape, at least to hear her tell it. There were people coming up to Melinda who’d actually bought the book ... more women than men, including apparently one woman who’d come up the next day with tears in her eyes to thank Melinda for "Lost Girls." That’s a great reaction.

So anything could happen. When we included "Rite of Spring" at the end of the first book, we did so purely because of its dramatic meaning and the dramatic way that it carried, but since then we’ve thought there actually are at least some parallels between the "Rite of Spring" and "Lost Girls."

I’m not by any means associating Lost Girls in terms of quality with Rite of Spring, which was an absolute blinding masterpiece — at the same time they’re both productions that are largely about sex and death. These very primal themes. They’re both emerging at the beginning of their respective centuries. They’re both emerging into worlds where there are very taut political tensions that could explode into horrific war at any moment.

In the original performance of "Rite of Spring" you’ve got the audience going absolutely berserk and you had Najinsky — the great Najinsky climbed up onto his chair and was standing there amidst the seething mob and shouting "You are all stupid!"

So I suppose that I would hope people who might criticize "Lost Girls" will at least think about how this might look in the future. Do they want to be the prosecuting attorney at the "Lady Chatterly" trial who said "Do you want your wives or servants reading this kind of book?" and who has been ridiculed ever since for the incredible pomposity of that statement.

Would they like to be down in the foam-flecked baying audience of the Paris Opera, or would they like to be up there on the chair with Najinsky? It’s a stark choice, you know.

Q: It seems to me like it might be a test for comics. Comics have changed so much in the time period from when you started "Lost Girls" to now, I wonder, if there isn’t an outcry, doesn’t that say something about how the American and British public regard graphic novels and comics? They’re not this kind of lost, red-headed stepchild anymore.

A: I think that’s definitely true, whatever the response to Lost Girls is. It’s clear that whether they actually deserve to or not, graphic novels have come in from the cold. That’s by no means an endorsement of everything that has appeared in the graphic novel format over the past 15 years. I’d say that it perhaps if there was an outcry over this, perhaps that would indicate that comics are being taken more seriously. I don’t know.

One thing that I would observe is that considering that comics when I got in them were considered to be a children’s medium, I would remark that it’s been possible to do things in comics that I could not have done in any other medium. Except perhaps possibly prose.

I mean "From Hell," the comic book, was something that it would have been impossible to duplicate as a film. The very flat approach to the violence, whereas it works very well in a kind of almost sort of autopsy sense in the comic book. An almost forensic approach to the violence.

If that had been filmed and in color it would have been unendurable. It would meant something completely different. It would have meant to shock people with viscera. Whereas the comic book medium allows you to do something different with it. Just as it allows us to do something different with the sex in "Lost Girls."

I think perhaps if people notice just the capabilities of the comics medium as expressed in "Lost Girls" hopefully that might tempt people to try something a bit more ambitious.

Q: At the same time, in the culture at large and also in comics I’ve seen attempts at creating these sex-positive, for want of a better term, works. I know Fantagraphics has published more art flavored dirty books like "Dirty Stories" and "Small Favors" and I even saw a book last year called "True Porn" which was a bunch of people doing comics about their own sexual exploits.

A: Yeah, I think that there was a thing I can remember from a few years ago called "Real Sex" which was by Dennis Eichorn. And there have been some very interesting books in the past.

Obviously a huge hero to both me and Melinda is Robert Crumb, along with a lot the other people who were around at that point who were real pioneers of this kind of material and broken off a lot of the ground for us.

There are also some standout publications in the interim. I’m thinking of Guy Cowell’s "Doll" which was a mini-series from the mid-80s early ¤’90s that was intelligent and emotional in places. But I still don’t think there’s been actually anything that is quite as ambitious as "Lost Girls."

Q: No, definitely not.

A: And I think that extends further than just the confines of the comics industry. I am quite familiar with the history of erotic art and erotic literature or I have become so over the course of "Lost Girls" and I don’t think there’s ever been anything as ambitious as this anywhere in erotica, in the broader field of erotica rather than just comic books. I can’t think of anything else.

The Marquis de Sade, of course, even if his work is quite unpleasant a lot of the time he is a very important pornographic writer because he was probably one of the first ones who tried to use it as a kind of social scalpel or something.

But even the Marquis de Sade after I think 15 days of Sodom, he threw in the towel. He was bored after 15 days. After day 15 he was ready to pack it in. There’s very few sustained and structured pieces of erotica on any kind of scale, let alone the scale of "Lost Girls."

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.

We got a letter from Brian Eno a couple of days ago saying he’d seen the book and thought it was fantastic. If we never get another piece of good feedback on the book again I would die a happy man, knowing that one of my great heroes has enjoyed it.

Anybody who might object to it, they really should have done it earlier because we’ve done it now. If they’d objected at some point during the last 15 years, during which there were earlier comic book versions that ran for a couple of issues.

Q: Yeah, I think I have the original Kitchen Sink issues.

A: Yeah? You’re a lucky man. Few people have got that. This has been around for 15 years and if people had any serious objections they perhaps should have raised them before. It’s a bit after the fact now. I think this is one horse that has rather bolted. What culture’s reaction to that is, that’s up to culture.

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 of beneficial rather than a shocking and demoralizing experience.

Q: Are there any developments with the Ormond hospital?

A: I don’t know much about that. They have expressed some sort of concern. Chris has been looking into that along with copyright lawyers. As far as I understand it, the Peter Pan book is in the public domain in the United States at the moment and will be in a year over here. And as far as I have understood it, J. M. Barrie only gifted the rights to the stage production to Great Ormond. I might be wrong about that.

I know that Chris and the legal people that he’s got on retainer have been looking into all of this and probably Chris could give you a more coherent and lucid update on it than I could.

I don’t think it’s a major obstacle to me. I guess it might delay the distribution of Lost Girls in England. But England is a part of the world market and it will only delay it, it won’t stop it. I’m more or less just talking off the top of my head and don’t really know what I’m talking about. You’d be better off getting an informed opinion from Chris or someone.

Q: I can ask him, I still have his phone number. What are you working on now? How do you follow up something like Lost Girls?

A: That is a bit of a puzzler isn’t it? At the moment, and for the past 18 months and into the next 18 months, I have decided to write another novel. It’s going to be over half a million words long, which is gotta be pushing the upper limit of what you can actually get into one physical book.

How am I following up "Lost Girls?" The whole novel is a lucid, coherent and I hope entirely satisfying answer to where do we go when we die? So I’ve decided to solve the entire problem of life, death and mortality in my forthcoming novel "Jerusalem."

It’s completely mental. It’s the most personal thing I’ve ever written. It’s all about the place where I grew up and a lot of it’s about my family, with the names changed to protect the guilty.

It deals with a lot of issues of which life and death and human continuity are only one. It’s talking about poverty, it’s talking about race. It’s talking about history. It’s talking about Jerusalem. It’s talking about William Blake and Charlie Chaplin and various other people who are connected to this area by some unusual threads.

It’s gonna take me about another 18 months just to finish the first draft. Then I’m gonna have to go through it. I’ve got my very good friend Steve Moore who is editing it brutally and covering it with red pen as I go through it. Just correcting my sloppy grammar and my freewheeling Marx Brothers approach to dates and history and facts and things like that. By the time it’s in the readers’ hands it will all make some sense.

Q: What kind of comics are you doing? Anything more with comics?

A: Well, I’m pretty much out of comics with the exception of "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen." Kevin is just finishing "The Black Dossier," which is the last piece of work that will be emerging from Wildstorm/ABC/DC comics.

That is an idea which incidentally grew out of "Lost Girls." I’d such a good time working with previously established fictional characters in a pornography, I suddenly thought, "I wonder if this would work in an adventure story?" That was pretty much where "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" came from.

"Lost Girls" is an idea that has got a certain length. Once the women have told their stories that is the end of the book. Whereas "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," it’s limitless. And so, yes, we’re finishing off the "Black Dossier," which should be out by the end of the year. I finished it awhile ago, Kevin’s just doing the final sequences of it.

Then after that, probably through Top Shelf, we’ll be doing Volume III of "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," which will be structured a bit differently. It won’t be six 32-page comic books, it will perhaps be three 72-page comic books. so that we’ll be able to tell a complete story in each book so that it won’t be too tantalizing a wait between issues for the reader. But so that the three books will eventually build up into an overarching story comprising the third volume.

And after that there’s plenty of other things that Kevin and me could do. I know that Melinda’s working on an illustrated version of the William Blake piece that I did as a performance over here four or five years ago. A piece called "Angel Passage," which has been out on CD from Top Shelf but which Melinda wanted to do an illustrated version of that.

I know that Jose Villarrubia is working upon an illuminated version of a passage from my first CD. It’s a section of the CD which is called "The Book of Calculations." I know that Jose was doing an illustrated version of that that he’s working on.

So there’ll be things coming out in all sorts of forms I’m sure. Probably I will not be working in comics certainly to the extent that I have been again. That is the last of it for me. At the moment, it’s mainly "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" that is the ongoing comics project.

But that’s not to say that there won’t be others that will occur to me down the line, but at least for the moment and for the next couple of years that’s likely to be the main thing.

Q: Is it just that you want to focus on other things like the book?

A: Yeah. It’s partly that I am a bit fed up with the comics industry. I’ve had a hell of a time in those last couple of years with all that business over the "V for Vendetta" filming. It was an exhausting war of attrition [and] I’d rather be writing.

And also I think that the comics industry really if it wants to attract, if it wants to be talked about as a grown-up medium, then it ought to be a medium that will attract grown-ups, in terms of its right as an artist.

It ought to be a grown-up medium. It ought to grow up in its business practices, rather than have them still rooted in the prohibition era gangsterism of the 1930s. If it really wants to be an industry that’s proud of itself then it really shouldn’t go around alienating the talent that has actually lifted it up out of the quagmire.

That is obviously something that is not in my control. It is purely in the industry’s control. I think that having spent 25 years laboring within the comics industry, that has probably reflected better on the comics industry than it did on me. Probably the comics industry got more out of the association than I did.

While comics remains a medium that I love dearly and that I think has got immense ground yet to be broken within it, there are thing that I would much rather be doing. You reach 50 and the math starts to add up a bit differently. Whichever way you shape it, you’re certainly more than halfway through your life. So you have to think a bit more carefully about what it is you want to do and who it is you want to do it in association with.

And "Jerusalem," I’ve been working at it every day. I’m probably working harder than before I retired [from comics], but a lot more joyfully. I’m getting up to the quarter million word mark and it’s been a pleasure so far. I’m looking forward to getting it finished so everyone else can see what it is that I’m on about. It should be worth the wait I think.

Q: Two last questions and then I’ll leave you alone. I just wanted to get back for a minute about your collaboration with Melinda. You mentioned that she liked stories where there are three women. Why is that?

A: It’s just something that she found from her early self-penned work that she found that she had a facility for and that she enjoyed.

I remember one story called "My Three Swans" that I think was featured in "The Smithsonian Book of Comics." But she had done a couple of other pieces as well that had just got three women characters in them and I just thought that she’d like the dynamic. it just seemed to make stories live for her in some way. I don’t know if there’s anything very logical behind it.

As with my writing or with any artist’s work we sometimes don’t know exactly why a certain thing works for us and a certain thing doesn’t. I think it was purely that in her own early work she had always been attracted to that kind of a story, that kind of a dynamic. You’d have to ask her about that and I’m afraid that she’s not here at the moment.

Q: You talked a little bit about how the collaboration was a very new experience for you and I was just wondering if you could go in a little more detail. Was it a more enjoyable experience than say writing something like "Watchmen" or "Swamp Thing" where you had to do it all on your end first and then send the pages off.

A: Well it was a much more intense experience than "Watchmen" or any of the other books because of the nature of the work. Obviously if you’re doing a work of this nature then you have to be completely frank, about your ideas, your thoughts in a way that probably other partners in relationships might not ever necessarily reach that point.

I mean, this was how we started our relationship, with that complete frankness. And I think that our relationship and the comic book both benefited each other. I don’t think that there would have been the warmth that there is in "Lost Girls" if we hadn’t been partners in an emotional sense, opposed to just a collaborative sense. I also think that probably our relationship has benefited from the amount of exploring of ideas and concepts and talking that we had to do about some raw emotional issues in the course of this book. I think that the two of them have benefited each other greatly.

That was the most striking thing about working on the book. Yes, the fact that technically I worked upon it very differently, that was unusual. But I have modified my work methods before.

If someone were to ask me, I would say that the secret to a strong relationship is to collaborate on a sprawling, epic work of pornography together.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Interview with Alan Moore, Part 1

Hopefully by the time you read this entry, PennLive will have posted this entire interview on their site. It was supposed to be up there yesterday, but wasn't (sigh). You can, however, read my feature article on "Lost Girls" and the surrounding controversy here. You can also read my review of the book here.

Both articles will be posted here on the blog later this week for posterity's sake (PennLive doesn't archive anything). Part two of the interview will be up tomorrow morning.

Mr. Moore spoke to me for about two hours over the phone from his home in Northampton, U.K., and I thank him for taking the time to talk to me. Thanks also go out to Chris Staros for helping to set up the interview.

Q: I’ll start with the obvious question first. How did the book come to be? How did it get started?

A: Well, that is quite an obvious question. It’s got a lengthy answer. I suppose that it originally started with me having done a number of mainstream comic books in which I felt that if the character was going to be completely rounded, even if that was a character like Swamp Thing, then there should be a sexual dimension to the character.

So this was something that I had done in a number of my comic works where it was appropriate. And I found myself thinking that it might be possible to actually do a comic narrative that was about nothing but sexuality.

I mean, it seemed to me that if most of the comics that were on the market at that time seemed to be about nothing other than fighting than it should be possible to do a lengthy work that was actually about nothing other than sex.

That was about as far as my thinking got for a number of years because it’s more difficult than it looks to come up with something that is actually erotic or pornographic and which does all the things that that sort of material is supposed to do but at the same time is intelligent enough to interest me in actually working on it.

So I had drawn a number of blanks. Then, sometime about 1989, there was a magazine proposed over here that was I believe going to be called "Lost Horizons of Shangri-La." There’s nothing of this since so I presume it never came out and it was "lost" somewhere.

They had asked me to do an eight page story for them. It was an erotic anthology. They had asked me to write an eight-page story for them. Unbeknownst to me they had also asked Melinda Gebbie, who was then working in London on the fringes of the comic industry, but she wasn’t working in a day job as an artist.

I think [author] Neil Gaiman had stumbled across her and he told me this and I had been an admirer of Melinda’s work for a number of years since seeing her early California underground comics in the ’70s and early ’80s. So I asked Neil if he could give her my phone number with an eye to collaborating with her upon this eight-page script for this proposed magazine.

So Melinda came up and visited for a few weekends. And we just talked about what we wanted to do with an erotic story and most importantly what we didn’t want to do, which was that we didn’t want to do anything that was like the pornography that was prevalent around us at that time. We wanted to do something which solved a lot of the abiding problems that pornography has, in that generally it’s an ugly genre. Ugly in all sorts of ways. It can be aesthetically ugly, it can be morally ugly, politically ugly.

So we actually wanted to kind of rethink the genre to a certain extent. And it took us awhile, thrashing it out; a couple of weeks. And then two half-formed ideas seemed to collide.

I’d had a vague idea that there might be some mileage in taking J. M. Barrie’s "Peter Pan" and actually reworking it as a sexual narrative. I think this was based upon the fact that Sigmund Freud had made much of the fact that dreams of flying were dreams of sexual expression and there were of course a lot of flying scenes in "Peter Pan." Which kind of sounds superficially clever but didn’t really go very far. It was difficult to see how that idea could turn into anything other than a kind of smutty parody of "Peter Pan," which was not really what we were after.

Melinda happened to mention that she always enjoyed in the past — when working on her own stories — working on narratives where there were three main women characters in some sort of dynamic balance.

And these two ideas kind of interbred and I suppose that I started thinking well, if Wendy from "Peter Pan" was one of the women in this three women set-up, who would the other two be? And immediately that led to thinking about Alice from "Alice in Wonderland" and Dorothy from the "Wizard of Oz."

And once we’d got that basic idea it was as if the light bulb switched on. It seemed like a really good idea, right from the start. Just having those three characters together in a single narrative.

And as we thought about it over the next couple of weeks, we realized just how good an idea it was in that in the original stories that those characters come from, what they have in common is that they’re all about girls who are suddenly plucked out of the regular world that they had known and placed into a strange fantasy landscape where all the laws of logic and reality seemed to be overturned.

And it struck me and Melinda that that was a wonderful metaphor for the way that most of us enter into our first sexual experiences. That to a certain degree, because sexual experience is one of the markerposts on the road between childhood and some kind of maturity, then it’s one of the points of which we mark the end of childhood.

So it seemed to us that perhaps these characters could stand as a metaphor for the way in which all of us — to a certain degree, when we first encounter sexuality, it is as if we’ve stepped into a world with unfamiliar rules, where all of the things that we’ve learned in our lives up to then no longer really apply. And where we’re surrounded by strangely motivated, even grotesque characters all of the sudden.

So it was very quick, the actual process of coming up with the whole story. I think that within a few weeks of having that initial idea, I’d pretty much got the whole story structure down, and by then it was very clear that this wasn’t going to be an eight-page inclusion in an erotic anthology. We’d realize that this was going to take a little bit longer and was going to be quite a bit bigger.

Neither of us knew that it was going to take 16 years. But if we had known, we would have still done it because we were convinced that this was a brilliant idea and would make for a brilliant book. That was our intention.

Q: Segueing into that, why did it take 16 years? Why such a long gestation period?

A: Well, there were a number of reasons, like for one thing we had three different publishers through no fault of their own collapsing under. I must add this was through no fault of Lost Girls either. It was just that the publishing industry in general in comics was going through a turbulent time during that period.

It also took us a long time to think this through and to make sure that we’d got it right. There were so many potentially wrong ways of handling everything. We wanted to be very careful, to make sure that every image was saying what we wanted it to say.

This involved an awful lot of conversation between me and Melinda where I would perhaps propose a scene, we’d discuss it and we’d discuss what we did or didn’t like about it. We’d revise it, we’d change images until we were both completely comfortable with it.

This was so that the book would stand a chance of being as appealing to women as it would be to men. I mean, actually writing pornography that will appeal to men is not a massive challenge if truth be told. But understandably, women have not traditionally been attracted to the overwhelmingly male pornography that is available. And like I said, that’s quite understandable.

So we wanted to make this something that would be inviting to both genders and to a broad range of sexualities as well. We wanted this to be kind of polymorphous, something that potentially could appeal to just about anybody.

That kind of process took us a long time. And also the actual art work took a long time because of the meticulous way in which Melinda approached it, with these layers and layers of colors for every skin tone. There’s a fair acreage of skin tones in Lost Girls. It wasn’t just that she wore out six boxes of pink crayons. There were greens and purples and browns and all of these other colors worked in there too. Which is partly what gives Lost Girls part of its golden luster, but it was a very painstaking procedure and it did take a long time.

There was also the settling into working together. I’d been used to working solely with men prior to that point because shamefully, there were not a great many female artists in the comics medium to collaborate with. That situation has improved. It’s probably still far from ideal. I hadn’t worked with a woman artist before, though that wasn’t a big problem.

What was potentially a problem was that Melinda had never worked with a scriptwriter before, in that all of her early underground comics had been self-written and self-drawn, which was very much the custom amongst the undergrounds.

So there was Melinda getting these huge scripts which I’m notorious for. A script for an eight-page episode of Lost Girls might be 24 pages. I think that kind of crushed Melinda’s spirit to a certain degree. She was just looking at these pages and pages of type and she wasn’t really used to decoding my panel descriptions.

So after a few episodes of this we asked if there was a better way of doing it. And what we came up with was a way which is unique at least in my experience of writing comics. It’s certainly something that I’ve never done before, which was that I would do thumbnails for each of the pages.

Which is something that I’ve never done with any of my other collaborators because they live in other towns, cities, often other countries. So I can’t sit by their side and explain to them that this deformed blob at the bottom right corner of a panel is actually meant to be the leading character’s head.

Whereas because Melinda was living here in Northampton I could actually explain my thumbnails to her. She could then go away and do the pages of finished artwork. And if she had added anything to my visuals — which she very often did do — then because I’d be doing the dialogue after the pictures were finished I’d be able to fine-tune the dialogue to suit a character’s facial expression or some element that Melinda might have felt like including. And so it was a much more seamless piece of work than a lot of my other collaborations have been. That said, it did take 16 years.

At the same time, I can’t think of a better time for it to come out than at the present moment.

Q: How so?

A: Well, if this had come out say seven or eight years ago, then it would have come out under a far more liberal Clinton administration. It would have come out during a period when the world, at least relatively speaking in comparison to today — was perhaps less war-torn. It wasn’t by any means a peaceful utopia back in the 90s but compared to today it wasn’t quite as bad as it is at present.

And I think that while "Lost Girls" might have received perhaps an easier reception, it would have been seen as much less controversial and perhaps even much less relevant.

The thing about "Lost Girls" is yes, it has a message that is very pro-sexuality and pro-sexual imagination, but just as strongly there is a very palpable anti-war message there as well. That sort of we tend to put the two side by side you know? The sexual imagination and war, which in many ways is a complete failure of the imagination. And which destroys so much of the culture that the imagination has struggled to create.

So yeah, these present times are I think ones which offer stark contrast [to] "Lost Girls" [so they] can’t help but really be more resonant than they would be in slightly gentler times. It feels like this is a book that is coming out at exactly the right time even though we could never have predicted that obviously.

Q: Spinning off from that point, a lot of people who haven’t read the book or who have concerns about it; a lot of stuff I’m seeing either in print or on the Internet, are concerned with the pedophelia and teenage sexuality and the very notion, the very plot of the book is kind of offensive to them. What do you say to someone like that as a defense or to calm irrational fears?

A: Well, if the whole notion of people having sex under what is currently the legal age of consent in their country really disturbs them or any depictions of that, then probably they would be best not to buy "Lost Girls."

But I would point out that I think this is a bit of a chimera really. It’s a bit of a will-o-the-wisp when you actually consider that however we would like things to be, the actual reality is that very often people actually begin at least thinking about sex as soon as they are of an age where their bodies are starting to change and with it their emotions and sensations. Nature doesn’t really pay much attention to whatever arbitrary age we have applied to this.

I mean in Victorian times, in the times when much of "Lost Girls" was set, I think that the age of consent was 12. I mean certainly there were 12-year-old working class children who were marrying and having children by then.

Now, I’m not saying that that’s a good thing. Throughout the world, the sort of age by which we recognize someone as being mature varies wildly. I would point out that we are not actually talking about anything real here.

I have referred to "Lost Girls" as a pornography for a number of reasons. One is that I found it was less pretentious than calling it erotica. Another is that it means something very precise.

As I understand it, pornography means writings or drawings of wantonness. Now, that doesn’t say anything about Polaroid pictures, or home movie footage. Or shared files of wantonness. It’s talking about drawings and writings, which seems to signal to me that this is taking place nowhere but in the imagination. No real men, women, children or horses were harmed in the manufacture of Lost Girls.

So would be OK, for example, to do a comic book in which children or young people were killed? I wonder if that would be more disturbing?

Q: It might be. I just got a book in the mail from a Japanese author called "The Drifting Classroom" which has children dying in it and it’s very disturbing.

A: Although I’ll bet that there’ll be less outcry. I didn’t see a huge amount of outcry over [the manga series] "Battle Royale." In fact I think that’s become quite a teen favorite.

Q: Yes, it is.

A: But of course that was only children being blown to bits. It wasn’t children in any way involved in sexual activity. There’s something a little bit strange there I have to say. But you know, each to their own.

Q: Getting back to the issue of pornography, I could see someone saying well, why be so adamant about calling it pornography? Wouldn’t it be politically smarter if you used a less charged term like erotica or adult fiction? Because pornography has so much weight on it as a term and has such a view of it as being this nasty, ugly thing.

A: Well, the way that I think of it is "Why wait for someone else?" I mean, I could have called it anything that I wanted. I could have called it adult fiction. I could have called it erotica or gentlemen’s reading material. But that would have just been waiting for someone else to call it pornography.

And, like I say, I have no problem with the word pornography as I understand it, as its dictionary definition stands. Not that we were looking for a fight with this. It was just that I wanted to be honest.

I could have called it erotica, but what that actually means is pertaining to love. Now, I doubt that any of the pornography that either of us has ever seen would seem to be more about romance than it is about physical sexual activity.

Q: Nor most of the erotica for that matter.

A: That’s it! It is more descriptive, it is more accurate and to some degree it is preemptive. It is not waiting for someone else to come along and call this pornography. It is saying, "Fair enough, this is pornography."

But what we are trying to do is to reclaim the term pornography. 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. That all of the objections to pornography that we considered — and we considered a great many of them — we have tired to answer and redeem in "Lost Girls."

Now, arguments that come from the Religious Right we have not addressed. Because those arguments are actually not coming from a standpoint that I can recognize as rational. It’s seems to me largely to be — and this is just purely my opinion I hasten to add — but it seems to me largely to be unfalsifiable nonsense. And that is not a position that anyone can have a rational debate on. And one of the things about debate is that it does have to be rational.

So we’ve not addressed any of those issues. We have however addressed most of the feminist arguments and critiques regarding pornography. Because those, even though many of them I didn’t actually agree with, they’re at least rational. They are at least putting forward ideas that can be challenged and discussed. We’ve tried to make this something which does not do all of the things that pornography has traditionally done.

And when we talk about say, you know, sex with minors in "Lost Girls," this has to be seen in a context of the fact that what we’re doing is we’re exploring the whole of the human sexual imagination. Clearly the idea of sex with minors is a very big part of that.

We’ve got magazines like "Barely Legal" on both sides of the pond. And yes, we are told that these are all sort of just young looking people who are in fact over the age of consent.

Whether that is true or not, I mean, we all remember Traci Lords. Most people, if they’re told that these people are over the age of consent, that makes it all right. Whereas the intention is obviously exactly the same as with anybody with pedophile inclinations.

This stuff has to be discussed. And I think that it’s important that we come up with a form of pornography in which these ideas can be discussed openly because there seems to me to be a way in which pornography functions in societies and it depends upon the relationship of those societies to their sexuality.

When you have countries like America and England. Well let’s look at the other side of the coin first. You’ve got countries like Denmark, Holland and Spain, where they have a very liberal attitude toward pornography, where quite hardcore pornography apparently is freely available in regular family bookstores and nobody pays it any attention because it’s so ubiquitous.

In these countries they might have their houses wallpapered with pornography. What they don’t have is anything like the amount of sex crime that we get here or in America. And certainly not the amount of sex crime against children. They look at countries like us and the U.S. with horror.

Now that suggests that there is some difference in the way we regard our own sexuality between sort of more liberal countries and countries like ours. I wonder if it might not be in our culture pornography mainly functions as a control leash.

We live in very, very sexualized cultures. Every advertisement on television, whether it sells cars or perfume or pop noodles is liable to be slathered with sexual ideas, sexual imagery. Now this is not just selling cars and pop noodles. Sex is also selling itself. It is increasing the sexual temperature of the culture if you like.

So when you’ve got somebody who has been inflamed by the sheer amount of sexualized material around them, [they will seek some sort of release]. In America, generally speaking, the moment that release has been obtained there will be inevitable feelings of wretchedness, self-loathing, shame, guilt.

Now this is a bit like a kind of a really sinister Skinner rat experiment where you’ve got the rat so that they will respond to the stimulus by pressing the lever to get their reward. But these Skinner boxes are wired differently so that the moment they get their reward, they also get their punishment, they get this electric shock of guilt and shame.

And I suspect that rats actually kept in those conditions would probably go a bit crazy after awhile. And I suspect in healthy cultures, pornography might even be providing some sort of vital safety valve, as evidenced by the lower sex crime figures of those countries where they do have a liberal attitude towards pornography.

It strikes me that if there was a way to sever that instant connection between sex and guilt then I think we might be healthier cultures because of that. I think that if we could actually own up to the sexual thoughts that may pass through our mind, realize that we are not monsters for having these thoughts, realize that these thoughts are in no way connected to reality, that it’s perfectly O.K. within the confines of your mind to think whatever you want.

And if you are in a culture that tells you that is not so, that keeps that pressure cooker lid on, then the only possible kind of relief is an explosion. An explosion into actual real violence of real abuse of real people in the real world.

So it strikes me that in some ways it is the very prudishness of our cultures and the shame-faced guilty way that we perceive sexual material that actually causes a lot of the sexual problems that we seem tormented by.

Q: Well, let me talk about that for a minute in the context of "Lost Girls," because certainly the issue of fantasy versus reality seems to be one of the major themes of the book. And I think you go about it in a really fascinating way which is to kind of flip back and forth between the erotic and the real life with the characters, starting with the sequence where Alice starts to tell her initial story where she’s molested in the beginning, which is a haunting, very haunting sequence.

A: It’s not presented arousingly.

Q: No. It’s quite disturbing.

A: It’s one of the two examples of actual abuse in the book. Of actual nonconsensual sex in the book. The other one is the rape of Tinkerbell or the Tinkerbell-like character in the Peter Pan narrative.

This is presented as something which is appalling. And yes, with Alice, what we wanted to suggest was that this was something that is done to her and it shatters her psyche. It has a tremendous effect upon her and the rest of her life. And almost everything springs from that.

Now, I don’t think that is — all right it’s described in fantasy terms, but I don’t think that that in and of itself is unrealistic.

In fact, one of the best reactions that we’ve had so far to "Lost Girls" was from this journalist over here, a friend of ours. She’s very much involved with the sexual politics scene over here. And she had read one of the blotty, gray and white photocopy editions that I’m sure you squinted at as well.

And she was very impressed with it and she was talking with a couple of friends of hers who were both women. She was talking to them independently. But they were both women who had been sexually abused as children. And she was talking to them about how the three protagonists in "Lost Girls" seemed to have taken elements of their early abuse or early sexual encounters and to have reworked them into a kind of distancing fantasy. And apparently both of these women independently said "That’s exactly what I did. And I shall really look forward to seeing this book."

Now, all right, everybody who is unfortunate enough to have been in those circumstances has got a different story and they’ll have a different reaction. And I’m sure that there might be a lot of people who would have a negative reaction to "Lost Girls."

But in that instance I felt to a certain degree vindicated. I felt that we had treated all of the material here as sensitively as we could. And as with as much compassion for the characters as we could.

In the scenes like the one you mention, it was important to us that we didn’t make those scenes erotic. That there were scenes being not at all arousing about nonconsensual sex of any kind.

Q: It was a quite shocking sequence actually, because I came upon it after I had been reading these erotic trysts and then Alice starts telling her story, it was a 180 degree reversal. And when I kept reading the book and got to the sequence in the hotel, where the proprietor tells his story and you have that marvelous sequence where you have the erotic story going on up top and then he’s telling his story on the bottom.

A: I think that one of the women present is commenting upon the erotic story that he is reading out and saying "But isn’t this wrong, this is people with children" and "This is a disgrace, this is horrific."

And he replies, "Well if these children were real of course you’re right, it would be monstrous. This would be a terrible thing. But these children aren’t real. They are purely in this pornography that I am reading to you. Now, I am real and this young girl who is servicing me is only 14 so I am doing something that is very, very bad. But the pornography is innocent."

What I was trying to say in my muddled, roundabout fashion was that of course the material that is purely in the mind, how can it be anything other than innocent? Especially when contrasted with the stuff that we’re seeing on our televisions every day of children being carried limp and bloody out of rubble. These are real children in a real world.

With "Lost Girls" we hoped to have a sense of perspective on this. There is nothing as terrible as war. And whatever our current moral panics might say, even child molesting is not as terrible as war. And the imagery and the concept of child molesting is certainly not as terrible as war.

That is not to say the abuse of children is not terrible. Of course it is. The abuse of anybody is terrible. I don’t know if sexual abuse is more terrible than any other kind or whether it’s because we seem to apply a huge amount of power to the sexual realm. Like the whole idea of rape as a fate worth than death.

I remember talking to Kathy Acker, the late, lamented Kathy Acker about that issue. I remember her saying that she had been raped and she says "You go home, you have a wash, you feel kind of messed up for awhile but you’re glad that you weren’t killed." There is no fate worse than death.

What we wanted to do was actually raise these issues so that they can be discussed in an actual, rational way by adults. What does it mean when we have one part of our tabloid press howling for the blood of paedophiles or anyone who lives at the same address that a paedophile used to live at, which is what happened over here when they started publishing the addresses of paedophiles. Or anybody who is in a profession that perhaps sounds a bit like paedophile if you’re really, really stupid, like pediatrician, one of whom was run out of town by an anti-paedophile mob in England after a tabloid newspaper campaign.

Now on the one hand we’ve got the tabloid press doing that, on the other hand we’ve got the tabloid press eagerly involved in the sexualization of children. Pictures of the 14-year-old princess Eugenia and her younger sister on the beach in revealing swimwear. Gloating remarks about the swelling chest measurements of the then 15-year-old Charlotte Church on the same page as they were lambasting the brilliant and vitriolic comedian Chris Morris for his "Brass Eye Special," which was a show lampooning the paedophile hysteria.

And of course with the Spice Girls, everybody liked Baby Spice. They all liked Britney Spears in her school girl uniform.

Q: Well over here you’ve got Web sites devoted to ticking down when Mary-Kate and Ashley Olson will turn 18. Or take your pick of the teen pop starlets. There’s a real unsavory atmosphere towards it.

A: Melinda and I have not created these ideas. 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.

As it stands at the moment, the only two possible arenas in which those ideas can be discussed are contemporary pornography, which is ugly and vile for the most part. Sort of seedy happenings on distressed looking sofas and strip lighting that looks like it’s been set up for brain surgery.

That’s on the one hand. On the other hand you have the clinical and asexual sex manual. And I don’t think that really either of those areas are ones that we traditionally think of if we’re thinking about our own sex lives.

So it struck us that pornography potentially could be a new form of pornography. A more liberated form of pornography could provide something that was invaluable in discussing these ideas and not giving them a chance to — because they are so hooked up with guilt and shame — just slink away into dark corners where they can fester and become something genuinely toxic on a personal and a social level.

Now of course there are still a lot of people who will not like the idea of "Lost Girls," and that is perfectly fine.

Q: Well, you were saying how it could open up discussion but I can see a lot of people — and not even the idea that it’s porn but just that as soon as they hear that it’s Alice Dorothy and Wendy they’re gonna go "But those are children’s books" and they’ll shut down right there.

A: Well there have been a couple of people who have said that when they first heard about the book they imagined it was gonna contain distressing scenes of an eight-year-old "Alice in Wonderland" involved in sort of horrendous sexual activity. As anybody who has read the book will tell you that is not the case.

All of the three main protagonists are teen-agers who are sexually mature. Whether they might be under the age of consent today or probably over the age of consent for which those books were written, which those stories were set, is kind of immaterial. They are young women. They are not children.

And with regard to anybody who feels a love and attachment to those characters and fears that we may have degraded or debased them in "Lost Girls," I would like to say that I doubt that there are any bigger admirers of those three books than me and Melinda.

Q: Yeah, I felt reading the book that you had a real admiration. In some ways the characters feel closer to Baum’s work or Carroll’s work than some of the Hollywood adaptations.

A: Well that was what we went for. We know those characters. We all know those characters. We read about them when we were very young and very impressionable. They’re part of our childhood. They’re part of us. So we wanted our characters to be as faithful as they could to the originals, emotionally and intellectually.

Alice has still got that slightly dreamy, surrealistic turn of thought. Alice is also semi-addicted to laudanum. But again, that is, while there was no suggestion that Alice was addicted to drugs in Lewis Carroll original, it is a rather drug-saturated text. Alice was certainly swigging down bottles labeled "Drink Me" and wolfing down cakes labeled "Eat Me" and sort of talking to hookah-smoking caterpillars as Jefferson Airplane remarked. It struck us that it didn’t seem entirely out of the question for our portrayal of Alice.

We portrayed Dorothy as, she’s probably the most adventurous and bold of the three and the most in charge of her own destiny. I mean, any problems with Dorothy, she’d probably strode boldly into them herself. She’s very headstrong and she’s very adventurous, which I think is in keeping with Baum’s original.

And Wendy is every bit the kind of prim little mother of Barrie’s book in that she comes from a very middle class and repressed sort of Victorian world.

Q: And, of course, the three are at different stages of womanhood too.

A: This was very handy. When we first worked out that we were going to have these three characters in the narrative, we tried to work out a kind of spurious timeline for them, based upon publication dates of the original books. And we found that that gave us Alice as the oldest of the three and Dorothy as the youngest, Wendy somewhere in between.

To have a time period in which our main narrative would be set, in which Dorothy would not be too young, nor Alice too old, we found that gave us a time period around 1913, 1914, as the best possible window, which was very useful in terms of how we set the book and how the themes emerged from it.

It also gave us these three different ages of women. They’re from three different social backgrounds. Alice is an aristocrat, Wendy is from the middle classes and Dorothy is from a rural blue collar farming background. They’re three different body types as well for that matter.

And we wanted to do this because in most pornography, sex seems to be the domain of the under-25s only. And everybody has got to be buff and conform to the current standards of physical beauty. And that is not how real sex is. So we wanted to make "Lost Girls" something that was a bit more inclusive.

Q: Let’s talk about the timeline for a minute. You bring in World War I and "The Rite of Spring" and those kind of cultural issues that are going around that period. What was the thinking bringing those issues in? You talked about war and how it’s the opposite of imagination, of pornographic imagination.

A: Well, as I said we wanted "Lost Girls" to be a pornography and yet at the same time to be able to do the same things that any work of literature or work of art would do. That meant that it would have to have characters and a plot and themes and even fancy French sounding things like motifs and metaphors. And it would have to have a meaning.

Now, when we started looking at the timeline for a period when these women could have met when, as I say, Dorothy wouldn’t be too young nor Alice too old, and we started to see that it was around 1913, 1914.

And this was really suggestive because we realized that Stravinsky’s "Rite of Spring" had cause riots at the Paris Opera in 1913 less than 12 months before the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, which of course led to the entire first world war.

With the benefit of hindsight, it looked to us very much as if "The Rite of Spring" or the reaction to it rather, as a kind of premonition of what was going to happen in Europe. It was an indication that Europe’s heartstrings were at a very dangerous pitch. If something like Stravinsky’s "Rite of Spring" could spark the reaction that it did, then it looked to us that it was almost prefiguring the kind of primal conflicts that would come.

When we realized that this was the kind of time period that "Lost Girls" was taking place against a backdrop of, we thought of the first world war, that pretty much set the tone for the remainder of that century and probably a great deal of this one. It a blow that Europe has probably never completely recovered from.

It was sort of an apocalyptic time and we thought what better backdrop to set this kind of delicate art nouveau erotic fantasy against? What starker contrast could you hope for?

So we decided to place it in an imaginary art nouveau folly of a hotel, in the Boden region which is an actual region that is exactly on the borders of Austria, Germany and Switzerland, with the borders of France about a short ride away.

So that struck us as being right at the heart of Europe, at this point in time when everything was just about to explode and we thought it would serve to make the human sexual activity and the human sexual imagination and the art and culture represented in the hotel, it would serve to make that seem much more fragile and much more precious and tender and it would also serve to make the war look every bit as brutal and ultimately pointless as it genuinely was.

Like I say, we could not have asked for a starker contrast. It gave us, if you like, the message of the book, which we realized fairly recently was actually, "Make love, not war." And if we had gotten ourselves one of those badge making machines 16 years ago we could have probably saved ourselves a great deal of time.

But in that 16 years and 240 pages we have perhaps unpacked that basic concept a little bit and we’ve explained why you should make love or think about making love rather than thinking about making war.

Q: Just getting back to the themes because I think the book is about more than that. Reading the book, it seems like the story is also about these three, and correct me if I’m wrong, women who’ve been either been abused or who have had really awkward or painful early sexual experiences. And through meeting and telling each other their stories are able to heal themselves.

A: Absolutely. As the title suggests, they’ve lost part of themselves, which is something that probably happens to all of us.

That when we eagerly enter into the jungles of adolescence lured on by the promises of all these wonderful new delights that are soon going to be available to us, we don’t realize at the time that there’s a kind of trade-off involved. That we will not be the same people at the other end of that process as we are going into it. And that perhaps our golden glowing childhood that will end. We will have different information. We will have different agendas. We will not be those people that we were.

And in the cases of Dorothy, Wendy and Alice, who have had pretty cataclysmic entries into the sexual world, it struck me that in the course of "Lost Girls" it’s by telling each other their stories, by actually talking to these other women, in a way that they’ve probably never been able to talk to anyone else, that enables them to kind of reintegrate with these lost parts of themselves, as you say, to heal themselves.

There’s a scene towards the end where we have the three girls in front of a mirror in a sexual configuration and in the mirror they are their childhood selves or their teen-age selves.

And there is a sexual pun where one of them says "We are coming together" which is talking about it in a sexual sense, but it is also talking about reintegration of these parts of ourselves which we’ve lost or discarded or misplaced that we can connect with them again. They’re not dead. We need to reintegrate with those parts.

In Wendy’s case her entry into the world of sexuality, although she has been the strongest and most triumphant of the three women, in how she dealt with her assailant if you like, has been such a frightening experience for her that she pushes sexuality away into the shadows and launches into a fairly sexless marriage as a way of avoiding this dark, wild territory that she had stumbled into and had a very narrow escape when she was younger.

Yeah, a lot of us, for various reasons, we distance ourselves from our sexual imagination, through fear, through shame, through guilt. It probably is one of the most pleasurable parts of us and in a world that is so beset with painful things, it strikes me that we would perhaps all be a little bit happier if we didn’t make our sexuality one of those painful things with which to inflict harm upon ourselves.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

A sad state of affairs

So I was in my local comic shop today, picking up the new volume of Promethea I had ordered awhile back, when I came upon a rather sad sight. A young boy of about six or seven was terribly upset because he had saved his money to puchase a Daredevil comic, Daredevil being his favorite hero currently. Trouble is, the storeowner didn't really have any Daredevil comics suitable for a six year old. I haven't followed the character lately, but I can imagine how grim and gritty Matt Murdock has gotten over the years. Heck, I wouldn't want my kids reading the Frank Miller stuff at that age.

Anyway, this poor boy was terribly upset and crying and the storeowner (who I shall call Jim because that's his name) was frantically seraching for something suitable and not coming up with anything. Eventually the kid had to settle for something else (I think it was the Flash) and go home rather dejectedly.

Now, for those who may be thinking that Jim may have been overreacting, realize that the boy didn't have his parents with him. It was an aunt or babysitter or some such thing, so I can perfectly understand Jim's reluctance. What retailer wants an angry parent barging into their store a few days later asking what the hell kind of material does he sell to kids with the knives and the bleeding and the violence and whatnot. And yeah, there are the Essential collections, but remember, the kid was buying. I doubt he had saved $20.

But boy, what does it say about the current state of affairs that a six-year-old couldn't find a suitable comic pamphlet featuring his favorite superhero in his local comic shop?

Other than that, I don't have much in the way of news. Dirk was supposed to debut the new Comics Journal site yesterday, but it looks like it's still on hold. On a more positive note, it looks as though Penny Arcade is going to be made into an actual godhonest game. Gloryoski!

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

VG REVIEW: Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth

Square Enix, for PlayStation Porta­ble
rated T for Teen (fantasy vio­lence, language, suggestive themes, use of alcohol), $39.99.

When "Valkyrie Profile" first came out for Sony PlayStation in 2000, it was pretty much ignored due to the debut of PlayStation 2.

Since then, critical acclaim and strong word of mouth have made the game a much-sought after item, to the point where it garners high prices on sites like eBay.

Now Square Enix has seen fit to bring the game back for a second go-around, this time for PlayStation Portable (a PS2 sequel will arrive in stores next month).

Redubbed "Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth," the game sports new CG cut scenes but basically remains the same role-playing game that came out six years ago.

The plot centers on a young Valkyrie warrior named (you guessed it) Lenneth, who is charged with forming an army to battle alongside the Norse gods at Ragnarok, the ultimate, apocalyptic showdown in Asgard.

To do this she must scour the countryside for fallen fighters, who, at the time of their death, have the opportunity to be "drafted." Each soldier has his or her own back story, which isn’t to say that the stories are always interesting or coherent.

Once she’s gotten a group together, Lenneth must then train these combatants by having them battle ugly monsters in forests, swamps, caves and other dark, dank places.

Training doesn’t just involve grinding up levels (although there’s plenty of that here too). You also have to teach them new skills and alter their "traits" so they become more herolike.

Once a warrior is fit to head to Asgard, you send them on their way and start on other recruits (battle reports from Asgard will be sent to you periodically).

As the above description suggests, "Valkyrie Profile" is a multifaceted game that’s a cut above what passes for most rpgs these days. Its complexity and novelty makes it tremendously appealing, despite its age.

Which is not to say there aren’t problems, the biggest of which being that the game doesn’t do nearly enough to guide the player through its various intricacies.

I never was sure, for example, when was a good time to send my warriors up to Asgard. Is there some sort of level that’s ideal?

For that matter, where do I go to get equipment for my characters? What’s the deal with the magic gems that drop sometimes in battle? And why isn’t Odin missing an eye? For a complex role-playing game, "Valkyrie Profile" is maddeningly vague about its details.

Despite that, it’s still a game worth playing, especially if you missed out on it the first time around. In a time where rpgs play like they come out of the same factory, "Valkyrie Profile" has character. And that’s not something to be regarded lightly.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

VG REVIEW: Chromehounds

"Chromehounds" Sega, for the Xbox 360
rated T for Teen, $59.99.

"Chromehounds" throws a good deal of exposition, political allusions and other extraneous detail at the player.

But what the game essentially is about is shooting the bad guys before they shoot at you.

I know, I've just described every video game since the age of the Atari 2600, but more than any recent game I can think of, "Chromehounds" throws a lot of unnecessary paint on what is a pretty simple formula.

"Chromehounds" is what as known as a "mecha" game from From Software, which is known for that particular niche. Mecha, for the uninitiated, is basically a genre that involves piloting enormous tanklike robots.

"Hounds" attempts to add a bit of reality to the proceedings by imagining an alternate Earth where the Cold War never quite ended and constant struggles in Eastern Europe led to the development of war machines known as "Hounds."

As a hired mercenary working for various warring factions in this region of the world, you spend most of the single-player aspect of the game learning the different roles that Hounds play on the battlefield (sniper, soldier, scout, etc.).

This part of the game is pleasant enough; controlling the Hounds isn't too difficult, although it can be hard at times to locate the enemy or figure out where you are on the map. And while the mechs themselves look impressive, the landscape is arid and sterile.

But the biggest problem with the single-player version is it's too basic, too uninvolving, too slowly paced to maintain interest.

As soon as I completed a level it quickly faded from my mind. And while the plot parallels certain current events, it's far too dryly told to raise so much as an eyebrow.

Clearly, it's the online component of "Chromehounds" that's designed to attract most gamers. Here, you can build your own Hound using parts acquired in single-player mode (and purchased online) and enlist in an ongoing virtual battle known as the Neroimus War.

Here you sign up with a squad and attempt to seize territory for whatever oddly named country you happen to represent.

Obviously, this is not a game for those with a limited attention span.

"Chromehounds" is a game that requires a good deal of time and patience. What you get out of it depends entirely upon what you put into it, as the saying goes.

If that sounds intriguing to you, and if you've got a strong Xbox Live connection, then "Chromehounds" might prove to be rewarding. If not, however, you're better off with something a little simpler and faster-paced -- say, chess.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Monday, August 21, 2006

Graphic Lit: The Drifting Classroom

Much thanks to everyone who commented, linked to or emailed me about the Gilbert Hernandez interview. Your kind words were most appreciated.

Today's post is actually from 2 weeks ago and ran in the Patriot-News on Aug. 11.

Here in America, we love our horror, as stalwart icons like Freddie Krueger and Jason Voorhees can confirm.

Our love for all things gory and gruesome, however, is perhaps surpassed by that of the Japanese. As evidenced by such films as "The Ring" and "The Grudge," scary stories go a long way to slaking audiences' thirsts in the East.

This is especially true in manga, where horror stories draw a big crowd of fans, young and old alike. And in the horror genre, no author is held in higher esteem than Kazuo Umezu.

A true Renaissance cartoonist, Umezu has penned romance stories, humor (the incredibly popular "Makoto-Chan"), been a TV personality and even fronted a rock band (their hit single was "Diarrhea Pants Rock").

But it's his horror tales that have won Umezu the most acclaim. Until recently, however, few of his works were available in the U.S.

Dark Horse stepped up to the plate recently with its "Scary Book" series, of which two volumes are currently available (a third is due in stores at the end of the month).

"Scary Book" collects some of Umezu's short stories so far, most of them early works that don't really display the author's knack for surrealism and psychological horror.

Now, however, Viz Media has come out with the first volume of "The Drifting Classroom," easily Umezu's most beloved and well-known manga. It's a series that puts to shame the safe, hackneyed material we label as "horror" here in the U.S.

Originally serialized from 1972-74, "Drifting Classroom" tells the story of an elementary school that is suddenly and inexplicably wrenched from its small town and placed into a bizarre, nightmarish wasteland.

With no explanation available for this dislocation, panic starts to set in, not just among the students, but among the teachers as well, and it quickly becomes clear to sixth-grader Sho that he and his friends will need to fight not just the alien landscape, but faculty and fellow classmates to survive.

Whereas most Western creators would pull their punches in depicting children in peril, Umezu is fearless. These elementary schoolkids are not just injured, they are stabbed, trampled, fall to their deaths and, in one stark sequence, left for dead by cowardly adults. And you know, upon finishing that first volume that things are only going to get worse.

All of this is informed by Umezu's love for comics. The way he frequently paces a sequence, starting with a mid-level shot, slowly zooming in close and then pulling back to a two-page spread, is nothing short of stunning and goes a long way in explaining why Umezu is called the "Stephen King of Japan."

Though stark and grim, "Classroom" is not without humor and remains a masterful bit of storytelling. In many ways, the series can be seen as Umezu's warning to kids. That sinking feeling you have in your stomach is right, he seems to be saying. Your parents do lie to you. Adults don't always have your best interests at heart. They're just as clueless and lost as you are.

We're all just drifting.

Other scary books

"Museum of Terror Vol. 1"
by Junji Ito

Dark Horse, 376 pages, $13.95.

After Umezu, the only other Japanese horror artist known on these shores is Ito, whose "Uzumaki" garnered some acclaim.

"Terror" is a new, ongoing series collecting Ito's work. The first volume deals solely with his "Tomie" stories, Tomie in this case being a young woman whose beauty and cruelty drive men to commit murder, usually hers.

Tomie, however, always finds a way to come back and exact revenge. This is nice, gruesome stuff, sure to send a chill through the spine of anyone foolish to read it late at night.

"Dragon Head Vol. 1-3"
by Minetaro Mochizuki

Tokyopop, 232 pages, $9.99 each.

This masterful, apocalyptic manga concerns a horrible train wreck in a tunnel that leaves only three teenage survivors, one of whom is slowly losing his grip on sanity.

As the three try to survive and find a way out of the tunnel, there are suggestions that things might be even worse on the outside. Was the crash just a random accident or part of an even more horrible catastrophe? Mochizuki's thrilling story will have you desperate to find out the answer.

Copyright The Patriot-News 2006