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ImageSexT: History, Pornography and Lost Girls

By Meredith Collins

Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie have taken on the unique task of writing and drawing a text that stands at the intersection of comics, pornography, and aggressive political commentary – all while evocatively setting the work in Europe at the cusp of World War I. What complicates the period of the work is the enormous amount of time spent in flashbacks during the storytelling sessions of Alice, Wendy, and Dorothy – characters from beloved children’s classics. These flashback segments make up the majority of the text, giving it a complicated set of regions and time periods to articulate successfully. Each woman’s sexual formation and awakening, in its own place and time, drives Lost Girls through its pornographic plot arc. While showing a fascinating adeptness with several cultural moments, the text becomes both Victorian and modern in its overall pornographic nature.

Both author and artist show an awareness of and engagement with the pornography, either written or visual, of the cultural moments in question. Investigating the creators’ interaction with late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century pornography enriches our experience of the text. Most directly, Moore and Gebbie show their involvement with period pornographic styles and tropes through the book of pornography the Himmelgarten Hotel shares with its guests. This text within a text is made up of parodic vignettes in the styles of very famous authors and artists that the admitted pornographer and hotel owner Monsieur Rouguer insists are genuine. Here Gebbie and Moore tread a careful line because they blend different levels of textual involvement in one very examined artifact of the Lost Girls world. One segment of the compilation transforms Aubrey Beardsley’s last work, Venus and Tannheuser, from a titillating suggestive work into fin de siècle porn. They later invoke period artists’ idiosyncratic styles without adapting specific works. Here the versions of Wilde, Schiele, and Mucha among others demonstrate a very particular form of cultural knowledge. By showing us this multi-layered version of pornography, in which period characters read and use pornography of a slightly earlier era, we get a richer understanding of the Himmelgarten Hotel’s world without Lost Girls being derailed from its pornographic purposes.

The more prominent text-within-a-text aspect of Lost Girls comes from its storytelling. Each of the main characters shares her sexual history as part of a sexual and emotional community-building with the other two. These separate narratives show noticeably different aesthetics and fulfill different tropes of pornography; between them Lost Girls covers themes of adolescent sex, rape, homosexuality, bisexuality, group sex, incest, bestiality, drug use, masturbation, and power discrepancies. Chris Eklund finds that some of these objectionable sexual scenarios are not at all eroticized, but like much pornography Lost Girls shows the elusiveness of that term when selectively used, because the audience actually does the eroticizing, while the text merely presents a sexually varied buffet. Like many pornographic works the sexual content blurs, if not eradicates traditional lines of acceptable and forbidden behaviors. The text makes some scenes more and less comfortable for readers, but provides such a range that it is difficult to say that the text allows anything to happen that it does not include as part of its carnal fodder.

Like we see in much written pornography, the activities within each character’s history seem to progress from breaking fewer to more taboos. Each story, however, has its own register of sexual shock value. Alice’s first story is that of being molested as a young girl, whereas Dorothy discovers masturbation in her first episode. While the stories center around sexual incidents, and the characters find each other’s stories erotically inspiring, these tales are not typical pornography in that they are not without character, consequences, or context. Alice’s story begins, for instance, not only with a more objectionable sexual incident, but also with a more tenuous connection to reality and with an inclination towards surrealism and fantasy that we see in Alice’s own storytelling voice. Kenneth Kidd focuses his interpretation on the Alice segments, and particularly on the disputed figure of Lewis Carroll through the unproven claim that Alice’s molester represents Carroll. His analysis provides interesting connections to both modern scholarship and Freud, but does not deal adequately with Alice’s roles within Lost Girls. Beyond her stories themselves, Alice’s style carries over through both speech and action, revealing the repercussions of her extended sexual formation through her unusual attachment to her antique mirror and a more theoretical attachment to doubles and unreality: “I rather prefer Plato’s view… the ideal is the thing; the world beyond fiction’s mirror, that is the true world… and we are but the faintest of reflections grown pale beneath the glass” (16). The stories that our main characters tell do not only provide sexual material, but also slowly and tantalizingly reveal the inevitably sexual explanations for the characters’ own curiosities and behaviors, as we have seen here with Alice.

Curious behavior in this text often seems to be a Freudian symptom of unresolved emotional repercussions from negative sexual situations. This is a highly unusual move within pornography. Instead of giving us a wholly sexual and idealized world, Gebbie and Moore confront us with a complex but thoroughly sexual world in which sexual acts have the power to affect the lives of participants and others. It is crucial not only that sex can hurt or heal, but also that these characters are more than appropriately-orificed mannequins, and that their pornographic world is more unusual for their ability to experience hurt and healing.

As well as experiencing emotional consequences from sexual encounters, Dorothy, the most modern of the women, thinks about physical consequences too. During all her sexual escapades, save one, Dorothy makes sexual decisions to lessen the risk of pregnancy. For example, early on she discusses briefly her desire to substitute oral sex for penetrative sex, specifically to prevent pregnancy. In her later segments men consistently practice withdrawal as a preventative measure when they choose vaginally penetrative sex. In the stories of their childhood, neither Alice nor Wendy consider such consequences, but their sexual encounters do not involve so many potential fertile couplings, since Alice’s adventures are primarily lesbian, and most of Wendy’s are interruptive or fantasy. Even indirectly dealing with the physical risk of pregnancy removes Lost Girls from much pornography of the text’s particular eras; again, the authors are not showing a typical pornographic reality in which sex carries neither risk nor consequence. Dealing with physical consequences modernizes the text, and despite no contraceptives appearing in the series, Moore and Gebbie show an awareness of the time that has passed since the setting of Lost Girls. Modern authors would have a near impossible time depicting a previous era’s notions about fantasy sexuality, for our AIDS-aware culture has engraved the consequences of sex forever into our minds. The text recovers a sense of playfulness within this rubric when nearing its last segment: Alice, while being penetrated with artificial members, humorously begs her female partners not to impregnate her (91).

Lost Girls has many strengths that result from Moore and Gebbie developing so complex a form, but at times the text loses its balance and derails into a pandering sexual utopia. The miraculous changes the women feel after sharing the darkest of their secret experiences is sometimes too much. Chris EklundCharles Hatfield, and Kenneth Kidd explore the text’s faults more fully and find them more problematic, but we agree that the focus on therapeutic or emotionally restorative sex and sexual confession interrupts the text’s potential for radicalism. Alice’s story exhibits this shortcoming most clearly. Sexual orientation was a rarity within Victorian pornography because homosexual behavior was just one within a catalogue of taboo acts, no more and no less identity-related than having sex with the very young, the racially othered, or one’s family members. Moore and Gebbie modernize the text by making Alice strongly lesbian, but ultimately revealing her lesbianism as an emotional result of her past, and therefore curable. After confessing the fullness of her sexual deeds and misdeeds, she feels ready to experiment with the male hotel owner. The tone during this scene and a few others becomes forced and artificial, conforming to many negative pornographic stereotypes even as the content consistently attempts to separate itself from pornography’s meaningless escapades. Here Wendy explains to Dorothy why she must confess her incestuous desire, and how doing so will benefit her: “There’s different possibilities now …We can’t disown the girls we were. We can’t… let them remain lost to us” [emphasis Moore’s and Gebbie’s] (78). The text escalates in its intensity and ambition, as does much pornography, but instead of each climax acting as a deferral and inspiration for the next, Lost Girls takes its plot out of the realm of the sexual and seeks emotional, empowering climaxes for its main characters. Hatfield’s point that Lost Girls simultaneously attains significance, but in a larger way fails to achieve its goals shows considerable perception, but takes a pessimistic view when summing up the text. Moore and Gebbie’s failure to evade the near ubiquitous pitfalls of pornography does not make the work a failure within that genre.

Nonetheless, Lost Girls loses its steam when Hotel Himmelgarten becomes the lair of soldiers after war has diffused the pornographic world. Moore and Gebbie jolt the reader into the hotel’s new state by not translating the soldiers’ German. While potentially interesting, this abrupt change is not developed thoroughly enough to be genuinely communicative either within the story or extra-textually. This final episode weakens an otherwise multifaceted treatment of pornography, children’s literature, and late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century sexual culture.

Otherwise, Lost Girls shows us how interestingly a text can use Victorian and early twentieth-century pornographic tropes, while adapting the pornographic world to include elements of characterization and consequence that enhance the resonances of this work for modern readers. As other reviewers have stated, Gebbie and Moore challenged themselves to write this text and hope to challenge their audience, but overall have created a work that is more perhaps more fitted and polished into its varying periods and genres and less disruptive than they had imagined.

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