ImageSexT: A Roundtable on Lost Girls
Alan Moore, Lost Girls
Let's talk. After all, in my own review of Lost Girls I suggested that the single most important thing to do with Lost Girls was to talk about it. To this end, it seems only appropriate for ImageTexT to dip into that well again with four new essays on the book. As Alan Moore suggests, though, there is something about the erotic that goes beyond what can be accomplished with mere talk. After all, "talking about sex" has long been a metaphor for the pointlessness of discourse, compared to talking about, among other things, writing, music, art, religion, money, and LSD. On the other hand, Moore's characters spend an awful lot of time telling each other about their sexual exploits. Of course, this talk is, shall we say, inexorably paired with praxis.
But even the inexorability of this link between sex and talk shouldn't be surprising. After all, Lauren Berlant has made a substantial theoretical project out of the study of "a public sphere organized around sex and sexuality" (Berlant 80). The problem is, as Berlant's colleague Candace Vogler has observed, there is something inextricably personal about sex. As Vogler notes, people "miss something about verbal or sexual intercourse, which gets called intimacy" (Vogler 330). This specter of intimacy looms large over the entire discourse of sexual discourse. However political the personal is, the link between the intimate discourse and public discourse is far from straightforward. Or, to be crude about it, have you heard the joke about the cunning linguist?
It is Linda Williams, however, who offers the key to this binary of sex and talk. In Hard Core, she explicitly positions the filmed sex act as the latest in a series of attempts to "make sex speak" (Williams 2). Indeed, Williams is so enamored with the perverse power of visual perversity that she declines to illustrate her book with the images she speaks of, saying that "there is no getting around the ability of such images... to leap off the page to move viewers" (Williams 32-33). It is, then, a surprise that the list of truly great pornographic comics is so short one doesn't even get to debate what should and shouldn't be included. After all, the merging of image, text, and sex – what I will hopefully, forgivably call ImageSexT – seems the natural endpoint of all three practices.
We should, of course, note that the uncanny hold of the ImageSexT is at least moderately cultural, as Deborah Shamoon argues persuasively that pornographic comics aimed at women were able to take hold as a mainstream of Japanese comics because manga "already had a large female readership of comics and a genre aimed at them" (Shamoon 99). In other words, the strange triad of image, sex, and text seems culturally dependent on the already strange relationship of image and sex in American culture. This is, of course, a relationship so strange it made bedfellows of Andrea Dworkin and James Dobson with regards to the Meese commission and pornography, and it led to the bewildering "I know it when I see it" definition of pornography, which, of course, tries to foreclose the intervention of talk and text into the image-sex dyad.
The primal scene for ImageSexT is, of course, the Tijuana Bibles, which appropriated classic comic strip characters for sexual exploits. And Lost Girls follows gamely in that tradition. It does not, of course, mark the end of sex any more than R. Crumb, Omaha the Cat Dancer, or any other ImageSexT did. All three of our triad, in fact, continue gamely on. But all the same, there is something uncanny in the ImageSexT that worth exploring.
To this end, we are pleased to offer this roundtable discussion of Lost Girls. Instead, however, of the traditional formats – four separate essays on the topic or a thread of essays where the second responds to the first, the third to the second, and so on – we have adopted a structure that is, shall we say, more orgiastic. Each of our four contributors composed their essays separately. The initial drafts were then circulated amongst the contributors, and they were asked to revise in response to one another.
The result is an odd one – four entangled essays without clear points of origin or termination. Indeed, there is not even a clear order to the essays, nor is it always certain what the essays are responding to, since the drafts they respond to were themselves revised away. (Although they are in some sense ordered on the page, I encourage sampling in varying orders.) Despite this intermingling, however, the essays all have clear identities. From Charles Hatfield we get a perspective steeped in the rich knowledge of comics history one expects from him. From Kenneth Kidd we get an equally detailed look at the relationship between the text and children's literature. Meredith Collins provides a look at how Lost Girls fits into historical contexts of sexuality and pornography. And finally (or not, depending on what order you read them in), Chris Eklund offers a look at the intertwining of magic and sex in Moore's work.
Intriguingly, none of the participants seem entirely taken in by Lost Girls – Kenneth Kidd finds himself "more bored than titillated," while Meredith Collins suggests that the text frequently "derails into a pandering sexual utopia." Or, as Charles Hatfield puts it, "the project is a boondoggle." Even Eklund, who seems most credulous towards the possibilities of the text, seems to note a didactic tone in how the work is "structured as a magic ritual that uses the reader as much as it serves him or her." But despite what is, on the whole, a skeptical outlook on the text, all of our reviewers seem also to find a certain power in it. Even Hatfield notes that the text's failures are somehow spectacular, and Kidd seems, in the end, to zero in on a degree of arresting spectacle within the text, noting that the text "forces us to look twice" before making the traditional "I know it when I see it" judgment of pornography.
This method of judgment is, of course, hopelessly inadequate to the task. But this inadequacy seems, on the other hand, inevitable. The entire triad underlying the ImageSexT, after all, depends on a degree of ineffability, or, as Moore would have it, beyondness. There is always a certain lack that always demands more. The arresting power of the pornographic image demands more looking. The fumbling inadequacy of talking about sex demands more discourse. As for sex itself...
And in the end, that is exactly what the panel offers – more. And if five essays in less than a year about a single text seems a bit much, well, that seems almost perfect for Lost Girls. And if, at the end of the panel, there seems to be more to say, well, again, how appropriate. Of course there's more to say about Lost Girls. After all, talking about Lost Girls is like talking about sex: you're never quite done.
Berlant, Lauren. The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.
Moore, Alan and Melinda Gebbie. Lost Girls. Atlanta: Top Shelf, 2006.
Shamoon, Deborah. "Office Sluts and Rebel Flowers: The Pleasures of Japanese Pornographic Comics for Women." Porn Studies. Ed. Linda Williams. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. 77-103.
Vogler, Candace. "Sex and Talk." Critical Inquiry 24 (2).2 (1998): 328-65.
Williams, Linda. Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible," Expanded Edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.