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ImageSexT: A Review and a Response

By Charles Hatfield

I want to defy / the logic of all sex laws… – Beck

Writing about sex is probably the most underappreciated of the several subversive things Alan Moore has done in, and to, the comic book since going professional in 1979. Speculative and erotic ruminations on sex have run like a quartz vein in Moore’s work from early on, and the fact that people haven’t taken much notice of this – that they haven’t devoted a lot of time to talking about the sex in Swamp Thing, for example – is one of the more puzzling quirks in the reception of Moore, both within and without the cloistral world of comic book fandom. More recently, Moore has rather obviously, and with obvious delectation, explored the connections between sexuality and magic. You can see this repeatedly in the superheroic Promethea (1999-2005), Moore’s epic collaboration with artist J. H. Williams III, which, while transforming costume comics into a primer on occult and esoteric lore, features one of the more headstrong moments in Moore’s oeuvre, a tantric initiation between the titular heroine and Jack Faust, an older, a much older, man, in fact an erstwhile “supervillain” (issue No. 10, dated October 2000, collected in Promethea Book 2 in 2003). Later, as Promethea‘s final Apocalypse closes in and every familiar thing begins to unravel, Moore and Williams again use images of sex to show the collision and yes, intercourse of different realities: sex is cosmic.

For that matter, you can see Moore’s fearless explorations of sexuality even in the costumed police procedural Top Ten (with artists Gene Ha and Zander Cannon), a series about a precinct full of superhumans in the interdimensional city of Neopolis. The series’ final issue (No. 12, October 2001, collected in Top Ten Book 2 in 2003) depicts the cops’ righteous pursuit of a band of costumed pedophiles while also implying, approvingly, that the precinct captain met and fell in love with his own lifelong partner, an older man, while still underage. (Relevant backstory may be found in the later Top Ten: The Forty-Niners, 2006.) The story even hints warmly at an interspecies romance between a human woman and talking dog. In the popular League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, meantime, Moore and artist Kevin O’Neill have archly recast elements from Victorian pornography, in keeping with the book’s premise, that is, its continual use of characters and plots from nineteenth-century popular and literary fiction. In the League‘s second volume (2003), they even dare to bring protagonists Mina Murray (Bram Stoker’s) and the much older Allan Quatermain (H. Rider Haggard’s) into an awkward erotic clench. A ghastly climax in that same volume involves Mr. Hyde’s rape, then murder, of the treacherous Hawley Griffin (Wells’ Invisible Man). Tender and consensual, illicit and dangerous, cruel and violent – all this sex goes some way toward showing that Moore, Stephen Bissette, and John Totleben’s celebrated “Rite of Spring” (in Swamp Thing No. 34, March 1985), in which a vegetable god and a human woman share rhapsodic, hallucinatory intercourse, was no fluke.

For Moore, sex has always been tied to power, fear, need, and every other human quality. Readers may recall, for instance, the kindly exploration of fetishism and impotence in Moore and Dave Gibbons’ postmodern superhero apocalypse, Watchmen (1987). One of the signature images there is of woman and man (superheroes both) foregrounded in an erotic embrace while a mushroom cloud looms behind them. The Nite Owl, a character apparently rendered impotent by fear – that Cold War-conjuring cloud – finds that donning his superhero costume reignites his sexual ardor and his zest for life. Moore seems to have intuited a connection between rapture and terror; for him, sex conveys an awful, awesome, sublimity. In Swamp Thing No. 60 (May 1987), the title character is ravished by an otherworldly plant intelligence, a cybernetic-botanical organism that uses the Swamp Thing to impregnate itself – in fact destroys him in a rapturous act of “fusing.” Evoked by the dizzying, delirious collages of artist John Totleben, Swamp Thing’s rape inspires a heated meditation on sex and death, ecstasy and annihilation.

Sexuality, then, is not a new concern for Moore, but rather a constant. Lost Girls, however, is something else again. A collaboration with artist and life partner Melinda Gebbie, Lost Girls is an unreservedly pornographic (Moore’s own word) three-volume novel that comes at sex and sexuality directly, without first winding through other genre territory. Unregenerate smut, is what it is. What’s more, it’s knowing smut, the kind that happily plays around with and exhausts all the clichés of the genre while self-consciously reflecting on and testing the boundaries (?) of smuttiness. It does all this by recasting three archetypal “girls” from much-loved children’s books as the endlessly horny, unashamedly self-exploring, and giddily ingenious goddesses of a gemlike, microcosmic world. These three – lifted from Lewis Carroll’s Alice, L. Frank Baum’s Dorothy, and J. M. Barrie’s Wendy – are voluptuaries who do just about every erotic thing imaginable to each other and to lots of other people (well, not everything: to be fair, nothing that inflicts genuine, lasting pain, nor anything, as Tof Eklund says, violently coercive). They are the three queens, the dísir, of a decadent, heatedly sensual paradise: “girls” whose putative innocence has been here transformed into an ecstatic but companionable lust. Throughout much of the novel they prod and eat and frig each other, in and out of dress, to near-distraction, while somehow managing also to regale each other with elaborate, absurdly filthy stories, confessional and reflective tales that constitute their sexual autobiographies.

Lost Girls, then, sets out to be dirty – and succeeds spectacularly. Or, rather, it would succeed, but for its very elaborateness and air of calculation. On finishing it, this reader felt, if not a sense of satiety and collapse, then a bemused sense that the entire project was transparent and obvious as well as exhausting. Granted that a certain obviousness is to be expected in pornography: we know what it’s “for,” and the genre thrives on our knowingness. Yet Lost Girls feels like a too-determined, indeed relentless, exercise in leapfrogging the genre’s limitations. Oh, there is genius in some of its parts, but the whole is florid and over-insistent, a cloying, airless distillation of Moore’s mannered, deliberate, and would-be subversive style. The premise is simple, and probably familiar to most readers of this roundtable, but here goes: the three titular “girls” find themselves together in an Austrian resort, the Hotel Himmelgarten, on the unsuspecting eve of World War One. Quickly they strike up a sexually venturesome acquaintance. The older, worldly-wise Alice, now a ravenous lesbian and frank libertine, spurs the others on. Fittingly, Alice goes by the ironic title Lady Fairchild, a sobriquet that manages to conjure history, romance, and fetishism all at once (try Googling the name); unfortunately, this title also reminded me of the so-named puppet from Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood of Make-Believe: a comic quintessence of fairy-tale hauteur. The three women’s fantastical, inexhaustible sex play eventually expands to include the hotel manager – an effete sensualist named Rougeur – and his compliant staff, both women and men. Also involved in this circle of sex is a young Austrian military officer – in fact Dorothy’s first partner – and a stuffy, misogynistic ship manufacturer – Wendy’s distant husband, and secretly another of the Austrian’s partners.

As it turns out, the Himmelgarten is purposely an erotic retreat, established by Rougeur for the continual, embodied satisfaction of sexual fantasy: a place where “everyone [can] act how people do in fictions. In romances” (Chapter 23, page 5). To this end, Rougeur has created (and left in the hotel’s rooms, like erotic Gideon Bibles) copies of a so-called White Book, which includes smut by, or smutty forgeries of, Beardsley, Wilde, Schiele, Apollinaire, Mucha, etc. This Book-within-the-book, meant to “excite [the] imaginations” of the guests (23:6), serves as provocation and counterpoint to many of the encounters that occur later in the novel.

The story goes on: Dorothy, Wendy, and Lady Fairchild tell each other of their erotic experiences, which mirror, albeit in rationalized form, the fantastic events of Baum’s, Barrie’s, and Carroll’s classic, otherwordly tales. Wendy’s Peter is here played by a young, almost feral male prostitute who initiates Wendy and her brothers sexually; Capt. Hook then becomes a fearsome sexual predator (as well as Peter’s john). Dorothy’s encounters with Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion, and Wizard are reimagined as earthy sexual couplings in farmyard and field, climaxing with an extended incestuous episode with her father (that is, Uncle Henry, but also the Wizard). Alice’s journey beyond the Looking Glass becomes, here, her formative sexual experience: a scarring encounter with a timorous, bespectacled pederast – as Kenneth Kidd notes, modeled on Carroll – who plots to get her alone. This encounter precipitates Alice into a life of same-sex libertinism and opium addiction, which positions her ideally as Lost Girls‘ mistress of ceremonies. As the story moves along, each of the three women unlocks her secrets and comes to recover, or own, some dark, nagging part of herself: Wendy, trammeled in a loveless marriage and given over to bourgeois prudery, shares the secrets of her sexual initiation and becomes (predictably) happier, more fulfilled, more imaginative and sexually intrepid. Dorothy confesses to her incestuous affair with her father and surrenders the shame of it. Alice overcomes, to a degree, her loathing of men. She also acknowledges, sort of, the dissipation and dependence that come with opium addiction (though the novel nonetheless happily depicts the occasional bout of opium smoking). Each of the chapters devoted to one of the women’s tales features a fantastical, full-page splash, a climactic money shot that spells out the correspondences between the source texts (Carroll, Barrie, Baum) and Moore & Gebbie’s re-envisioning: we see Alice plunging into a mirror’s surface, Wendy “flying” with (and jerking off) Peter, Dorothy coupling with a Lion, and so on. Gradually the World War closes in – Franz Ferdinand is assassinated and war breaks out at the end of the second volume – yet the women remain at the Himmelgarten, telling their stories and luxuriating in ever-more-ingenious sexual play; as Meredith Collins notes, the novel’s ambition and erotic intensity vault ever higher. Finally the women leave the hotel, just before the soldiers arrive. Even as war intrudes on their idyll, Alice muses that, somehow, a part of her has been “rescued” through her ménage a trios with Dorothy and Wendy (30:3).

It should be pretty clear by now that Lost Girls follows a pattern familiar from pornography: woman’s transformation from stuntedness and repression to a liberal, companionate, and utopian sexual openness. This well-worn trope, here exalted to new heights by Moore and Gebbie’s earnest intention of creating a new breed of pornography, helps account for the didactic air that Elizabeth Sandifer and others have found in the work. Apparently, it’s not enough that Lost Girls should be thoroughly about sex; it also has to offer a larger spiritual or psychological rationale, a vision of sex as imaginative, liberatory, and, dare I say, improving (as Meredith Collins observes, the novel aims for the miraculous and empowering). Because of this sincere determination, Lost Girls ends up just barely skirting a kind of middlebrow earnestness, in spite of the radical obscenity that Moore and Gebbie so clearly intend and that the third volume extravagantly delivers (pederasty, incest, bestiality, etc.). This earnestness is reinforced by the novel’s deluxe, three-volume packaging, which not only fits hand in glove with its willed Decadence but also lifts, or attempts to lift, the project out of the neighborhood of other comics and most pornography, into a more rarified realm inhabited mainly by readers willing to pay the asked-for 75 dollars. (This is a handy way of dead-arming the merely curious or censorious: at 75 bucks, bluenoses need not apply.)

Lost Girls is, as expected, not only an oh-so-gorgeous but also an ingenious piece of work. Many of Moore’s preoccupations are in evidence, and the obviousness of some of them suggests that the novel is like the light of a star in the sky, giving us a glimpse of something already well past: the Alan Moore of fifteen years ago, when the project began. There are, of course, ironic dalliances between text and image, in which verbal narration, often naïvely obtuse, brushes up against a sequence of, er, revealing images. This sort of thing is carried on at length, at times running to whole chapters, recalling the sustained, achingly self-conscious parallelisms in, for instance, Watchmen. Chapter 11 is a good example, taking as its spine a letter from Wendy’s husband, Potter, and juxtaposing images very much at odds with his way of thinking. Weaving through the chapter in the form of a voiceover, the text of Potter’s letter makes painfully clear his intolerance, masculinist rigidity, and plain misogyny. At the same time, a daisy-chain series of sexual encounters unfolds visually via an archetypally Moore-ish nine-panel grid: bellboys, bellboy and maid, maid and Alice, Alice and Dorothy, Dorothy and Bauer (the Austrian soldier). One airy coupling follows another. Once Bauer makes love with Dorothy – to the intensifying accompaniment of Potter’s letter, full of ironic, unintended double entendres – he goes off to the hotel’s Turkish bath, where he spies on Wendy and masturbates (Wendy has not yet come to the sort of sexual openness that would allow outright coupling). Finally Potter himself, once Wendy returns to the room they share, becomes excited by Wendy’s presence and by reading Rougeur’s White Book and so retires to the bathroom, where he masturbates to the book’s homoerotic images even as his letter signs off. These images – aha! – replay the bellboys’ embrace at the start of the chapter (which depicts Rougeur painting, using the amorous bellboys as models). This sort of structural elegance is also characteristically Moore, from the fixedness of the grid to the circling, recursive design of the narrative – all of it mindfully constructed to create, as so often in Moore, a tensely balanced, microcosmic world and a near-ritualistic sense of patterning. A certain knowing reflexiveness creeps in, also typical: in a moment of self-acknowledging playfulness (one of many), Moore has Potter liken the hotel and its intrigues to “a painting or an illustrated tale for children. One of those tales where everything coils around in circles” (page 8). Sigh.

Such self-referential bits are frequent in Lost Girls, as the novel often incorporates pages of ersatz Beardsley, Wilde, etc. (with art expertly mimicked by Gebbie). Again, the technique is recognizably Moore’s: long-time readers will recall, for example, the interpolated comic book, Tales of the Black Freighter, within Moore & Gibbons’ Watchmen. There a lengthy pirate tale runs within, and as ironic counterpoint to, the action unfolding in the main narrative, informing and commenting on that narrative while at the same time deepening the history (including the publishing history) of Watchmen‘s fictive world. Here, Rougeur’s White Book serves many purposes: it accompanies, perhaps inspires, and in effect shapes certain episodes; it enables the exploration and pastiche of various art styles, for example Beardsley’s and Schiele’s (thus enriching, as Meredith Collins suggests, our sense of the novel’s world); and, perhaps most importantly, it allows for self-reflexive meditations on, and a defense of, pornography itself. Rougeur defends his White Book as fiction, “uncontaminated by effect and consequence” (22:5), even as he reads aloud a lavishly obscene tale of incest credited to Pierre Loüys and Franz von Bayros (a sort of Art Nouveau take on R. Crumb’s infamous incest farce “Joe Blow”). This is not incest, Rougeur says, but the idea of incest. Pornographies, he declares, are fictive playgrounds, “enchanted parklands where the most secret and vulnerable of all our many selves can safely play…palaces of luxury that all the police and armies of the outer world can never spoil…secret gardens…” (22:7-8). (As Kenneth Kidd points out, this “garden” reference is deeply fraught for celebrants of children’s literature.) Rougeur’s celebration of porn’s fictiveness and playfulness echoes Alice’s earlier reference, in her journal, to pornography as a ritual in which “anything can happen” (20:3). There’s a sense of ritual magic here that will be familiar to anyone who knows Moore’s recent output. “Fact and fiction,” Rougeur muses, “Only madmen and magistrates cannot discriminate between them” (22:4).

Ironically, though, this defense of porn-as-fiction comes as Rougeur screws a hotel maid who, he says, is only thirteen years old; therefore, he owns, he is guilty of something. The moment leaves us unresolved on a key point: Is Moore’s script in fact seeking to destabilize the distinction between fact and fiction, or is he simply adverting to Lost Girls‘ own fictionality, playfully winking at the reader as if to acknowledge that, hey, of course none of this is “real”? This ironic, metafictive defense is perhaps necessary – an inoculant of sorts – since the excerpts from the White Book that accompany this passage, as well as the episodes that follow soon after, further ratchet up the novel’s happy perversity to the point that almost no ethical constraint or “sex law” goes undefied (for example, Dorothy will soon recount her affair with her father). But the fact/fiction distinction belies the utopian thrust of Lost Girls: its desire to heal and actualize as well as screw around. The tale seems to suggest that sex of all sorts is a healing – a theme underlined by both Chris Eklund and Meredith Collins – not only in fantasy but in fact. Though the women do express some misgivings about, say, pederasty, incest, and rape, Lost Girls doesn’t take those misgivings very seriously. What’s more, the novel’s contrast between the Utopia of the Himmelgarten and the gathering horror of war – a stacking of the decks on Moore & Gebbie’s part – valorizes sexual freedom in fact, not just in fiction.

So, finding any ethical mooring in Lost Girls is tough. Moore & Gebbie come close to suggesting that anything goes, but there are disquieting moments of ambivalence and irresolution (understandably, as the sex in the book leaves few proclivities unexplored). These moments are disquieting because they are minor admissions of guilt that, ultimately, are not allowed to upset or even to make compelling dramatic sense within the novel’s utopian world. Perhaps Moore and Gebbie deserve credit for dredging up some darkness; yet, my colleagues’ reviews to the contrary, I don’t think Lost Girls deals with those dark moments persuasively. Whereas Chris Eklund sees the novel as charting “troubled” territory and daring to depict “credible difficulties and suffering,” I see it as more consistently delivering what Meredith Collins calls “a pandering sexual utopia” (a remark that belies Collins’s own claim that the novel deals honestly with the consequences of sex). If Lost Girls, as Kenneth Kidd argues, simultaneously “attests to trauma and celebrates erotic power,” it does so by slighting the consequences of the former and exaggerating the healing efficacy of the latter.

It seems to me that, at bottom, the novel is a paean, not to embodied sexuality, but to the imagination – in other words, it’s a de facto sequel to Moore & Williams’ delirious Promethea (never mind that Lost Girls was conceived first). Once again, as in Promethea, Moore is intent on celebrating imagination as a positive value in itself. For Moore, imagination cannot ever truly be turned to dark or inhumane ends; rather, everything dark or inhumane results from a failure of imagination. So we are told, in the end, that war is not only a “frightful perversion” of but an infringement on imagination, destroying “all the art and architecture, the fields of flowers and young people’s dreams” – in short, as Alice says, “All the imagination” (30:3). The few moments in Lost Girls during which the imagination is clearly turned to the purposes of gross selfishness, aggression, power-mongering, willful humiliation, and out-and-out destruction are too easily nudged aside and forgotten. Lost Girls rather wants us to believe that every rotten thing results from the stunting of the imagination, never from its indulgence. This is not a faith I share.

It’s up to Gebbie to anchor Moore’s imaginary flights and, at the same time, enliven his frequent didacticism. This she does with the best comics work she has ever done. She gets beyond the initial stiffness of the work (and the stiffness of her earlier underground comix) to a fluidity, grace, and delicacy that are positively glowing. Her repeated variations of medium and technique, as the novel filters through the different viewpoints of Alice, Dorothy, and Wendy, reinforce the script’s metafictive emphasis on subjectivity and sheer fantasy: each character has her own palette and indeed something of her own visual style. So too Gebbie’s pastiches (Beardsley, Schiele, etc.) are persuasive, placing the work well within the context of the oft-seen, the familiar, and the downright decadent. Clearly, the script often called for a fixed point of view and certain repeated framing devices, so as to distinguish the perspectives of the different characters; Gebbie, though, brings to the work a level of sensual beauty that belies the script’s schematic rigidity. Her intelligence, delicate hand, and art-historical chops are much in evidence. In flagrante delicto, her characters aren’t simply fleshly; they’re downright ruddy. Dorothy’s cornfed Midwest glows roseate and warm, a soft bath of colored pencils. Wendy’s savage recollections are crisper, less yielding, with sharp, inked lines; Alice’s are more garishly decorative (and consistently delivered in oval panels, like storybook cameos). Chapter 10, which depicts the Paris premiere of Stravinsky and Nijinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring (in 1913), is a color-filled tour de force. Though some comics readers may be put off by the knowing Aestheticism and floral ornateness of Gebbie’s drawing, or the seeming stiffness of figures too self-consciously posed, these are in fact qualities that the scenario absolutely demands.

Thankfully, Gebbie’s sensuousness partly offsets Moore’s script, which is predictably and compulsively patterned. Here Moore demonstrates abundantly his trademark ingenuity, his way of searching out overarching designs and his ingrained, one is tempted to say obsessive, understanding of how comics can work. The careful structuring is there, the architectonic sense of form, the constant control of point of view, and, of course, the arch text/image juxtapositions, here adding up to (and this again is in character) a kind of ideological prodding, a teasing, questioning, or hoped-for subverting of received views. The book aims to destabilize assumptions through an eminently stable, classically balanced structure – we are in Moore country, after all.

Tonally, the book is characteristic of Moore in another, more disquieting sense: the wavering between humane empathy and dispassionate observation that so often marks Moore’s longer, more elaborately crystalline works. The lead characters are observed well but often distantly, as if from arm’s-length. Despite its entire focus on sexuality, the book misses the lusty momentum and unintended, breathless, fumbling comedy of sex, which is to say that it catches the characters up in a narrative design so deliberately architected as to deny the awkward spontaneity of how people fall in and out of the clinch. No wonder the book’s aesthetic is so consciously, willfully, Decadent: a certain stylization of image and character is needed to sustain and justify the clever, jewel-like elegance of Moore’s microcosm. That’s why the novel’s sex, for all its larking, envelope-pushing variousness, has in common with most pornography a knowingly performative rather than intimate character, a sense of willed playfulness if not strained ingenuity.

So, what can we say about Lost Girls, finally? Certainly critics and scholars will study it; certainly some of those who actually read it to its end will be offended by it, while others will find it a clever and welcomely subversive metafiction. Many who merely hear about it will be offended by the very idea. But, to be honest, the novel’s revisionist and erotic take on Alice, Wendy, and Dorothy isn’t that radical. This kind of take has already been prepared for – even in comics, where revisionist if not erotic treatments of Alice and Oz are common to the point of dullness. The Alice books in particular, as Kenneth Kidd here points out, have been variously parodied and extrapolated from: in literature, in comics, in games and cinema, ad nauseum. This is not new, and indeed Lost Girls may find its most ardent admirers among scholars of children’s culture for whom the idea of an eroticized childhood, or implicitly erotic children’s stories, is quite familiar. One waits for further studies that will dutifully ravel out the matter, for example studies that will patiently link Lost Girls to the scholarship of James Kincaid. Here Kidd anticipates this move by invoking “Victorian child loving” and reading Lost Girls as itself a reading of the repressed in children’s literature, that is, a response to the uneasiness, ambivalence, and “oft-sordid afterlives” of its canonical source texts. Calling Lost Girls “perversely faithful” to said sources, Kidd seems to clear the way for Chris Eklund’s claim that, somehow, Lost Girls is “much less creepy” than the originals, presumably because it replaces putative innocence with a forthcoming knowingness.

Unfortunately, as a novel Lost Girls strikes me as fundamentally unpersuasive. It seems to me that Moore & Gebbie have trouble getting beyond the titillating “novelty” of reinterpreting their source stories pornographically, and I can’t escape the feeling that, for all its smarts, handsomeness, and high hopes, the project is a boondoggle. Moore’s avowed purpose as a pornographer doesn’t sit well with his intrusive self-awareness and his confessed desire to elevate the project to a whole new level. The result is a lofty example of meta-porn, a vaulting, ambitious work in which, absurdly, the characters still speak in creaky double entendres and still display a constant, rutting appetite for sex, beyond the endurance of almost anyone. “Intelligent pornography,” indeed – the book is too obviously thought-out, too rigged, thus predictable. What’s more, its scope is arguably too large for sustained erotic interest: taken chapter by chapter, its formal clockworks and heady atmosphere may sometimes be entrancing, but ultimately the novel’s sheer length vitiates its erotic power. The formal gambits that served Moore well in V for VendettaWatchmen, and From Hell are here overwrought and obvious, like a parodic distillation of Moore’s earlier work, and the febrile microcosm of the Himmelgarten soon gets suffocating.

We’re left in a curious position. Truthfully, we can say that Lost Girls is a major work, by virtue of its authors and by virtue of the watershed that it has become for its aspiring publisher, Top Shelf Productions (whose calculated risk here has thus far paid off handsomely). It’s also “major” by virtue of its potential to provoke students of children’s literature and its testing of the graphic novel’s putative new respectability. In addition, the book’s ravishing imagery, a life’s-work of surpassing beauty and nuance, calls for appreciation alongside Gebbie’s earlier comix (hopefully future readings will resist the temptation frankly yielded to above, that is, the urge to emphasize Moore’s designing hand at the expense of Gebbie’s). Yet from a novelistic viewpoint, I think Lost Girls obviously, spectacularly, fails. It fails to do something genuinely subversive with the art of pornography, that is, it fails to tell a credibly human story. Instead of such a story, it offers a baroque monument to the idea of sexual-cum-spiritual freedom – pursued naively, unrelentingly, and at exhausting length.

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