ImageSexT: A Roundtable on Lost Girls
A Magical Realism of the Fuck
What Lost Girls is varies according to perspective: among other things, it is an explication (and alteration) of the sexual undercurrents in the famous works of children's literature that it appropriates, a series of connections that Kenneth Kidd makes visible; a completely coherent part of Alan Moore's oeuvre as a comics writer, a continuity that Charles Hatfield demonstrates; and, a work in dialogue with both history and contemporary culture in many ways, as Meredith Collins shows. While agreeing with all three, I find it most important that Lost Girls is a sexually explicit work, and one that is intended to be sexually gratifying. Moore describes it as "intelligent pornography," a concept he clarifies in an interview with Bill Baker: "we have tried to do something which is accessible to both men and women, something that is not morally ugly, that is intelligent" (Baker 35).
What is the difference between pornography and other work containing sexually explicit content? It seems simple – pornographic and "erotic" work (the latter being a term generally reserved for prose and poetry) is offered specifically, though by no means exclusively, for sexual stimulation and pleasure, the same way other genres are offered for more nebulous goals, such as education, moral edification or "entertainment." Popular culture offers up (heteronormative) titillation in truckloads, and bad sex – "bad" in the sense of being unpleasurable for the characters, deliberately unaesthetic in description or even calculated to repulse the reader is common enough in "highbrow" literature.
I think it is significant that Lost Girls is a work of love, sex, and relationships in its creation, much like another one of comics' great story driven pornographies, Omaha the Cat Dancer, a character-driven melodrama notable for its anthropomorphic ("furry") characters. The human warmth and sexual heat of Omaha derives from the relationship of its creators, Kate Worley and Reed Waller, and the series declines after their breakup. Similarly, it is the decades long and continuing relationship of Moore and Gebbie that fuels the largely "good sex" narrative of Lost Girls.
Omaha is a carefully sex-positive book, in which sex is only and always depicted as healthy and normal, and sexual repression is decried as harmful. The only true perverts in the series are those who attempt to force their sexual mores on others. Lost Girls, unlike Omaha, acknowledges human sexuality as dark and troubled territory, especially for its early 20th century heroines. This form of honesty, jarring at times in conjunction with Gebbie's consistently beautiful colored pencils, is highly unusual in erotic/pornographic work, as it deflates sexual pleasure.
At the same time, exactly because of this introduction of credible difficulties and suffering both at the hands of sexual abusers (in scenes which are pointedly non-eroticized), and suffering as a more general result of being a woman and being a sexual being in the book's setting, Lost Girls becomes the rarest of pornographic works – one that tries to be ethically acceptable and appealing to progressive and even radical liberal readers, as well as to queers of almost all orientations. This is not to say that it deserves or will receive unconditional acceptance from scholarly readers – Hatfield offers an important critique of Lost Girls on the basis of its categorical valorization of imagination and its ambivalence regarding truth and fiction.
All pornography is philosophy, as it must assume or fundamentally redefine what power, pleasure, gender and the human are, and Lost Girls is no exception. In his introduction to volume 5 of The Collected Omaha, Neil Gaiman says that that Omaha is "simply a story where the cameras continue to roll while people take their clothes off and make love [...] making one wonder where all the sex has gone in the other fictions one reads or hears or sees." (5) He also claims that Omaha is "neither erotica nor pornography," (5) which is not entirely disingenuous, as the guiding philosophy of that book is that sex is normal (perhaps inevitable) and capable of being either deeply meaningful or casually pleasurable. Lost Girls is too sex-centric and otherworldly to allow for such a reading: it takes the other tact, elevating even casual sex to a plane of deep significance over and over again, making it the fundament and cement of identity and social relations – and, in doing so, producing an ethic and aesthetic that can only be described as a magical realism of the fuck.
Lost Girls cultivates this magical realism of the fuck both in literary and occult senses – the former emerges most clearly in the way Lost Girls lacks fantastic elements of the sort that characterize Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz. Instead of magic spells, physical transformations, and other worlds, Lost Girls has sex. Sex is magical, sacred, transformative in Lost Girls: if Peter Pan is a homeless boy who seduces Wendy, and Captain Hook a predatory pedophile with a crippled hand, it is the magic of sex and intertext that gives Wendy's story a transcendent pathos and a sexual heat that allows both Wendy and the reader to overcome the sordid guilt of the tale. The fantasy and the mundane are each lost in the wonder and terror of sexual discovery. Though some may consider this a perversion, Wendy's story in Lost Girls is much less creepy than the original because the subterranean sexual foment of Peter Pan is brought to the surface to be considered, its pleasures celebrated, and its pains mourned and healed. However, as Kidd points out, Moore and Gebbie have straightened out the story, denying the intense male homoeroticism of the original.
Alice's and Dorothy's stories are transformed with less difficulty, but this magic is not confined to the lost girls' sexual histories. It is just as much a quality of the present of the narrative: the strange prescient time right before the start of World War I, the fantastic château with its uniformly oversexed staff, even the metanarrative relationship between the obscene little white book of "fabulous fakes" in every room of the château and the physical instance of the erotic pastiches in Lost Girls. There is a pornographic magic to the intensity and resilience of every character's libido, to the suspension of normal decency in favor of a world in which observation is dependent on desire, and a good fuck has the ritual power to not only ease minds but to unwind past traumas and heal injured souls. Some of the sex scenes, including a fabulous ménage a trois in a theater box are situated such that they pass over, just barely over, into the imaginary or the magical. Others, such as the congress of Wendy's and her husband's shadows, in defiance of their nearly sexless relationship, are truly magical and not merely anticipatory.
Collins says of the sex in Lost Girls that "it is crucial not only that sex can hurt or heal, but that these characters are more than appropriately-orificed mannequins." She is correct on both points, but her association of sex as healing with Freud is, though historically apropos, problematic if considered in terms of the work that the book does. There is a key similarity here between the sense of work in the occult sense, as Moore has used the term to describe a spell or ritual, and the Deleuzian anti-Oedipal sense, in which the book's work is the product of the assemblage of desire within. Both these conceptions of work are productive and social, unlike the Freudian understanding which is characterized by perpetual lack.
All of Moore's recent comics and other texts that are intended to function as magical "workings" or rituals, perform the work of making something metaphysically real though a work of imagination and communication, as with the culminatory "there because we say She is" that births the Angel Highbury at the end of his psychogeographic spoken-word piece, The Highbury Working. Here I have to note a point of disagreement with Hatfield, who compares Lost Girls mostly to Moore's early work, especially the "sex" issue of Swamp Thing. In doing so, he slights the directional shift that occurs in Moore with his declaration (after Swamp Thing, V for Vendetta, and Watchmen) that he has become a practicing magician.
Lost Girls is an extended work of sex magic – the second aspect of the magical realism of the fuck, or the "real magic of the fuck," if you will. And it may be Moore's best work of this period, in no small part because it has the self confidence to simply do magic rather than explain magic, as in Promethea and, to a lesser degree, From Hell. The story is structured as pornography – with a new strokeworthy scenario never more than a few pages away – but it is also structured as a magic ritual that uses the reader as much as it serves him or her.
The three principle characters of Lost Girls are framed as if they were the female leads of Lewis Carroll's, J.M. Barrie's and Frank L. Baum's stories, but they are not. Each one tells the others her own sexual history in ways that frequently allude to those stories, and Gebbie's art depicts these histories "realistically" at times and in the full crazed regalia and style of Alice in Wonderland et al. at others. But none of those stories exist in the world of Lost Girls, so there is no internal motivation for these allusions. Lost Girls is not an adaptation; it hardly even seems fair to call it an appropriation. It is an evocation – a shamanic activity that links these injured characters to powerful stories with happy endings. Much of what has happened to Alice, Wendy and Dorothy is, in mundane terms, traumatic, sordid, and even nightmarish. The White Rabbit is a predatory pedophile, as is Hook, and the Wizard of Oz is hardly better, being less pedophilic and less predatory, but also Dorothy's own father.
The lost girls are just that – lost, hurt, broken in various ways. Alice, who has arguably suffered the most, has only recently been released from confinement in an asylum. So, where in Lost Girls does the generally positive and hopeful atmosphere, the characters' ability to surmount their past trauma, come from? It is latent in Gebbie's art style, but it comes in part from the very same familiar children's stories that the book subverts. Again, neither Peter Pan nor any of those other stories exist in this diegesis. The power of those stories exists for the characters but only in the reader. The power that heals the characters in Lost Girls, that makes their healing credible, is the power of the reader's belief in The Wizard of Oz, as well as in Alice and Wendy's stories. This is not as radical a reading as it must at first seem. A basic dictum of chaos magic, a school of occultism that has influenced Moore, is that there is no functional difference between a god and a beloved character, between a spell and a powerful idea.
Moore does not hesitate to consider fictions as real – it is practically axiomatic in his recent work that the characters are intended as "true fictions." They are real to us, and we are real to them – the point is made with variable degrees of subtlety and lack thereof repeatedly in Promethea, as, for example, in Promethea: Book 3 when the god Hermes says to Promethea "I'm saying that some fictions might have a real God hiding beneath the surface of the page. I'm saying that some fictions might be alive..." (72). Comfortable, happily-ever-after associations of the stories of Alice, Wendy and Dorothy, a set of associations that does not exist in Lost Girls, is a strength that the characters must draw from the reader.
This healing takes its course through a lot of sex and a lot of frank discussion. If the "sex magic" emotional healing of the characters in Lost Girls draws its power from a source in the reader, the book is also a ritual to heal the reader of sexual trauma, to convince us, to awkwardly paraphrase of the words of Marvin Gaye, that sex is something that's good for us. In Lost Girls' appeal to politically liberal-minded readers, good sex is divorced from shame and guilt. Similarly, traumatic, harmful or forced sex is divorced from pleasure. Unlike Victorian erotica, mainstream American pornography, and Japanese hentai, where rape, thinly veiled rape, or other forms of coercive sex are often presented as both pleasurable for the victim and eroticized for the scopophilic pleasure of the consumer, the only acceptable reason for sexual intercourse in Lost Girls is a mutual "want to," and that mutual "want to" is treated as the only justification necessary to do whatever is mutually desired.
One such scene contains a beautifully seductive double narrative of male homosexuality pairing Harold, Wendy's English husband, and Rolf, Dorothy's sometimes-lover, a Prussian soldier, alongside one of the book's many erotic pastiches, this one seemingly written by Oscar Wilde and illustrated by Egon Schiele. A more shocking scene comes from Wendy's memory: she "plays mother to" (jerks off) all of the lost boys, apparently as foreplay with Peter. As a magician, Moore knows the power of taboo – and of taboo breaking. Moore and Gebbie break certain taboos, and draw the lines of others, in the name of sex as a healthy, healing practice.
The mutual "want to" acts as a magical law, similar to Aleister Crowley's "do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law" and even nearer to the Wiccan adaptation thereof: "An it harm none, do what thou wilt." Moore and Gebbie's formulation becomes "an they want to, do who thou wants to." Thus, normally (or perhaps nominally) heterosexual characters have homosexual sex, and even the story's only committed homosexual character, Alice, engages in sexual activity with a man – allowing him to eat her out before penetrating him with a strap-on. In Lost Girls, bisexuality of some degree is the norm among men and women: in accordance to the magical law, it must be for anyone capable of desiring members of both sexes.
Childhood sexuality also becomes necessarily permissible, so long as one admits that sexual desire does not wait for a legal coming-of-age. All masturbatory fantasies, even those of rape, are necessarily permissible, as with Wendy's fantasizing about being captured by Hook and his crew, while actual rape is equally intolerable, as when Wendy is actually threatened by the hook-handed pedophile. Even Dorothy's incestuous relationship with her father is allowed, and presented as pleasurable – at first. The caveat to the law of mutual "want to" comes in the way that true libertinism can destroy relationships and scar psyches – Dorothy's relationships to her father and stepmother are irreparably damaged. Dorothy suffers the consequences of her actions, but the new taboo against repression is stronger than the old one against incest. Conversely, the consequences of lawbreaking are staggering: Lost Girls posits a uniquely male tendency to sublimate sex into violence as the cause of WWI. Harold and Rolf are judged harshly because each puts his national loyalty ahead of their mutual desire for each other. Given how much spontaneous sex the new law of the mutual "want to" results in, it would be a miracle that no-one in Lost Girls becomes pregnant or contracts a disease, but that is one taboo of the pornography genre that Moore and Gebbie elect not to break. Collins rightly points out that some attention is given to preventing pregnancy, a step up from most Victorian erotica.
In the end, Lost Girls is exactly what it sets out to be – an outstanding and cerebral fuckbook. What sets it apart as "intelligent" pornography is not what it does outside of titillate, but what it seeks to titillate; not what it is outside of sex, but what it finds in sex. It is indiscernible and probably irrelevant whether sex is intended as a line of flight to somewhere else or if sex is intended to become purely sex. It works as both a therapeutic redemption though sex and as a redemption of sex and pornography, to the degree that it works at all. Whether it works is, as with all pornography and all philosophy, a matter of the audience's desires, sexual and otherwise.
Baker, Bill ed. Alan Moore Spells it Out: on Comics, Creativity, Magic and much, much more. Hong Kong: Regent Publishing Services Limited for Airwave Publishing, LLC, 2005.
Moore, Alan, J.H. Williams III, Mick Gray et al. Promethea: Book 3. La Jolla, CA: America's Best Comics, 2002.
Waller, Reed and Worley, Kate with James Vance. The Complete Omaha, Volume 5. New York: NMB Publishing Inc., 2006.