Lost Girls (Expanded Edition)
Written by Alan Moore and Illustrated by Melinda Gebbie
2019 (Top Shelf Productions)
Graphic novels. The term covers a huge range of style, content, and genre, from Art Spiegelman´s Maus to The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller. Whether reimagining familiar characters or drawing upon history, these works are far more than "comics". They are exceptional stories with complex ideas and dynamic drawings, often creating rich dialogues between what one is reading and what one is seeing. A number of graphic novels could even be considered literature, for the depth of their content, the seriousness of their language, the maturity of their themes.
Even amongst other creators of graphic novels in the past thirty years, Alan Moore inhabits a realm unto himself. Especially with projects such as Watchmen, From Hell, and V for Vendetta, Moore´s storytelling wizardry seems to consistently go beyond the limits of what his contemporaries are doing. His restless intelligence, coupled with near-devotional respect from both fans and peers, provides Moore with the artistic freedom to truly make whatever he wants to make. Lost Girls, recently released in a new "expanded edition" featuring additional art and commentary, is not one of Moore´s most ambitious graphic novels, but is also his most controversial.
Created in collaboration with illustrator (and now partner) Melinda Gebbie, Lost Girls was sixteen years in the making, after it began as a series of short pieces in the independent Taboo in the early 1990s. Readers familiar with Moore will enjoy the multiple and intertwining narratives, as well as the range of visual and literary style on offer here. Made especially vivid through Gebbie´s brilliant art, Lost Girls reminds me of the work of James Joyce: just as that Irish writer´s prose displayed a breathtaking range of literary form and skill, showing the possible odysseys for language and literature itself, Moore & Gebbie´s graphic novel is no less extraordinary in terms of the linguistic and visual languages being deployed here. Just as Ulysses transformed the novel, Lost Girls is changing the graphic novel.
And pornography. Lost Girls is one of the most explicit works I have ever read, graphic novel or otherwise, containing even conceivable kind of sexual encounter one can think of--and then some. Upon its original release, numerous booksellers around the world refused to carry it, deeming it obscene or even possibly illegal for its depictions of child sexuality. To be sure, Lost Girls depicts in-depth various experiences and memories by the main characters of when they had sex while they were teenagers. Sometimes this was with one partner, sometimes with more than one at the same time; sometimes with someone of the same sex, other times, the opposite sex; sometimes with adults, and sometimes in non-consensual circumstances. To be clear: some portions of this graphic novel are uncomfortable to read and to see, but the depiction of sexually traumatic experiences is not the same as endorsement. Moore and Gebbie instead are doing something quite complex: creating one of the most highly pornographic works available, one that arouses and stimulates on a multitude of levels; as well as exploring with intelligence and sensitivity themes of sexual trauma, incest, healing from sexual abuse, and more. Any readers who are concerned that reading or seeing such material is too triggering should probably avoid opening Lost Girls entirely.
Moore and Gebbie´s primary narrative frame is set in the early days of the twentieth century, a liminal space of incredible transformation in the arts, literature, technology, and politics. Three adult women happen to meet by chance in an Austrian hotel run by a mysterious Frenchman, who has replaced placing a Bible in each room for his guests with his "white book", a volume of erotic stories and images he has selected from his private collection. Quickly, we learn that these three women are the adult versions of Alice (from Through the Looking Glass and Alice´s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll), Dorothy (from L. Frank Baum´s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz), and Wendy (from Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie). The trio quickly become friends, confidantes, and lovers, and spend their time sharing recollections about their own earlier sexual experiences and "awakenings" when they were children. While the bulk of the action occurs within the fictional world of the Hotel Himmelgarten, the women take a couple of noteworthy excursions: one to Paris to see the infamous premiere of the boldly modern ballet "The Rite of Spring" choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky with music composed by Igor Stravinsky, which ended in a riot; and the other to a remote island instead of attending the parade where Archduke Ferdinand is assassinated, and which sparks the First World War.
Structured into three parts, each one opening with a quotation from one of the three primary source materials, Lost Girls changes dialect, language, and script just as it changes the visual palette and vocabulary depending on whether we are in the present of 1913-14 of the Hotel, as well as whose memories are being recollected. For example, when Gebbie has Alice remember earlier sexual experiences by having all of the images being reflected by various surfaces--a pair of glasses, a puddle, a mirror, the surface of a doorknob. Moore has her speech written with more aristocratic formality, whereas he writes Dorothy in a more Midwestern dialect. What´s more, both creators of Lost Girls mine the original source material of Carroll, Baum, and Barrie for metaphor and analogy, transforming these familiar tales from children´s books into mini-parables about the early sexual experiences (good, bad, exciting, terrifying) of young girls.
But there´s more. The characters in Lost Girls (an obvious play on the Lost Boys of Barrie´s Neverland) also read excerpts from the "white book", the collection of pornographic illustrations and stories provided to every guest by the hotel´s owner and hedonistic host, Monsier Rougeur. This "book-within-the-book" of Moore and Gebbie´s graphic novel provides further opportunity for the authors to write and make art in the style of a range of artists from the period in which Lost Girls takes place--from writers Oscar Wilde and Collette to visual artists Egon Schiele and Franz von Bayros. The graphic novel itself becomes a kind of compendium of pornographic arts and letters, as well as how we use storytelling and art to make sense of our suffering, particularly pain from sexual trauma.
And perhaps this is what truly lies at the heart of Lost Girls. Particularly in part III of this graphic novel, the importance of imagination is emphasized repeatedly--not just in the context of the approaching violence arising throughout Europe, but also more broadly in terms of how erotic literature and art are important for one´s peace of mind, and especially as a realm to help process past sexual trauma or abuse. At one point, Moore and Gebbie make their point quite explicitly on a kind of "meta" level, by having Monsieur Rougeur read a particularly explicit sexual story to Alice, Dorothy, and Wendy while all of them are in the middle of an orgy with members of the hotel staff. The story he is reading to them includes incest and pedophilia, which causes repulsion by the three adult women. But Rougeur reminds them that his story (which we are reading within the larger context of Lost Girls) is fictional, that none of these characters are real (just as none of the characters within Moore and Gebbie´s graphic novel are real). He urges them (and us) to remember to differentiate between fact and fiction, between reality and art, and that allowing oneself the freedom to imagine is not only important for each human being, but necessary for our own sanity and survival.
Some readers may disagree by Rougeur´s thesis, and be just as repulsed as this graphic novel´s three heroines. For my part, I think Lost Girls is a tremendous artistic experience, and unlike most anything else I have encountered. The range of thought, ideas, and imagery with which Moore and Gebbie are operating is vast, and this graphic novel is equally complex as sophisticated, sexually arousing as well as quite uncomfortable in parts. While it may not be easy to read or to look at in some parts, Lost Girls is a work which commands serious attention. It also is not for the faint of heart.