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From Neverland to No Man's Land: Lost Girls

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Almost assuredly, it shan't snuggle beside Hustler at newsstands and booksellers nationwide, especially given its cover price of $75.

 

In Lost Girls, writer Alan Moore and artist Melinda Gebbie have crafted one of the year's most provocative and profound works. It in no way diminishes their achievement that they have done so in an art form long scorned as the purview of children and simpletons, the so-called graphic novel, and in a genre equally scorned as not just puerile but profane, pornography.

Those in the know here may shrug, reflecting on the existence of the Tijuana bible. The average Tijuana bible, of course, took the form of a cheap eight-page pamphlet in a period, the Depression, long before a few easy moves could send copious Net smut streaming to one's handheld. Lost Girls takes a far grander form: three slipcased, oversized hardcovers, together topping 300 pages, from Marietta, Georgia's Top Shelf Productions. Almost assuredly, it shan't snuggle beside Hustler at newsstands and booksellers nationwide, especially given its cover price of $75.

In one regard, of course, Lost Girls seemingly does resemble Tijuana bibles, which often showcased sexual spoofs of mainstream pictorial narratives (putting the strip into comic strip, as it were). Where Tijuana bibles shanghaied (say) Philip Francis Nowlan's Buck Rogers, Moore and Gebbie have appropriated three female characters from classic children's literature: Wendy from J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, Dorothy from L. Frank Baum's Oz books, and the heroine of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.

Still, that resemblance never surpasses the superficial. Where Tijuana bibles existed merely to titillate, Lost Girls operates at a frightfully intellectual level. Certainly, its creators subject their protagonists, assembled by chance both in adulthood and in an Austrian hotel on the brink of World War I, to all manner of libidinous adventures, among them congress both heterosexual and homosexual, voyeurism, fetishism, B&D, bestiality, and incest—Alfred Kinsey's Comics & Stories writ large. Moore and Gebbie do so, though, not solely to deconstruct Barrie, Baum, and Carroll but to explore why and how humans approach—and avoid—Eros in the Freudian sense.

Almost perforce, the Austrian founder of psychoanalysis warrants a sly allusion in Lost Girls. One would expect nothing less from Moore, one of the most protean talents ever to work in comics, perhaps the medium's deepest yet most dazzling writer as such, and one of the most memorable and influential writers in general of the past three decades. Unlike the pornographers to whom he has offhandedly and hilariously compared himself in countless recent interviews, however, Moore scarcely scants the darker half of Freud's Eros—Thanatos dualism, especially insofar as he maintains that a stifled longing for love, in whatever form, inevitably leads to death. In that respect, Book 1 of Lost Girls opens with a casual portent of war, and Book 2 closes with the assassination of Austria-Hungary's Archduke Francis Ferdinand at Sarajevo on June 28, 1914; Book 3, meanwhile, ends with an image at once martial, vaginal, and dreadful in its power.

Ably abetting Moore is Gebbie, a San Franciscan expatriated to the U.K. and, lately, Moore's fiancée. When she and the big, hirsute Brit debuted Lost Girls in 1991 in the fifth volume of Stephen R. Bissette's Taboo-then also serializing From Hell, Moore and artist Eddie Campbell's epic exploration of Jack the Ripper as the patriarch of the twentieth century—Gebbie instantly established the work's visual singularity, eschewing not only the clumsy hyperarticulation of most mainstream comics (to the jaundiced eye, adulterated Hogarth), but also pen, brush, and ink. Rather, she illustrated that first—pardon the phrase—seminal chapter in painstakingly layered colored pencil. That display of pastel bravura graces most if not all of Lost Girls in its final form, likely making it incomprehensible to those who consider laughably derivative ink-slingers like Jim Lee the acme of comics artistry.

Gebbie likewise handles with aplomb the task of imitating earlier artists. More specifically, Moore's script in places involves excerpts from the otherwise innominate "white book," an anti-Gideon Bible nestled in the drawers of the hotel's rooms. Those excerpts demand that Gebbie mimic such visionaries as Aubrey Beardsley, yet she does so with éclat.

Whether her and Moore's efforts spark prurient fires will, of course, depend on the individual reader; pornography, as an exercise in objectification, tends ridiculously toward the subjective. In a similar light, whether Lost Girls fires book-burning campaigns remains to be seen; even ultraconservative yahoos can do a quick groceries—to—outrage calculation where one copy of Lost Girls costs as much as five or six Dixie Chicks CDs.

Both varieties of literary arsonist will miss the point, it almost goes without saying. Moore and Gebbie's Lost Girls qualifies as neither lustful nor licentious but rather as luminous—potentially the preeminent graphic novel of the first decade of the new millennium.

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