October 2006

Jeff VanderMeer


Indian Comics, Lost Girls, Cute Litul Alien Murderers, and Four-Brained Scientists

Why Am I Doing This?

I grew up in the Fiji Islands, fed a steady and miraculous diet of Asterix and Tintin. As a country with a large Indian community, Fiji also gave me access to something even stranger and more wonderful: comic book retellings of the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and other Hindu and Buddhist epics. (In a way, they were the Indian equivalent of superhero comics.) I still have those (tattered, yellowing) comics in amongst the newer stuff, which runs the gamut from Enki Bilal to Chris Ware, Jim Woodring to Alex Robinson, Renee French to Moebius, Rebecca Dart to Jodorowsky (well, okay, so that last one isn’t much of a leap).

As an adult, I left comics for awhile, but not the world of art. I collaborated with several artists and illustrators for my own books, including City of Saints & Madmen and The Thackery T. Lambshead Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases (two projects that depend on a lot of interior art).

I came back to comics in my thirties to find that the best work still gave me all of the imagination, humor, beauty, ingenuity, and incredible art and storytelling I remembered from my childhood. Graphic novels and comics energize and excite me -- I often find them more compelling than my first love: novels -- and I can’t think of a better reason to write a column covering them.

The Lost Girls of Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie

For me, Alan Moore’s The Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and From Hell form a visceral trilogy of masterpieces created with an uncompromising intelligence and vision. Moore has, over the years, made it seem as if anything were possible in the graphic novel form.

In his latest endeavor, Lost Girls, Alan Moore and his collaborator Melinda Gebbie create a pornographic cornucopia that attempts to be salacious but moral, inquisitive yet responsible. In a way, Moore is like the director in Terry Southern’s novel Blue Movie who sets out to make “an artful erotic motion picture, with studio support and mass-distribution.” (terrysouthern.com)

Moore has chosen a very simple plot (perhaps too simple): Three women staying at a hotel in Austria on the eve of World War I become friends and then lovers. They share the secrets of their dark sexual histories against a backdrop of repression and liberation. Almost every possible form of sexuality is explored, all in the colored pencil textures and pastel hues of Gebbie’s artwork.

The women are meant to be (the real-life?) Wendy, Dorothy, and Alice from Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, and Alice in Wonderland. The bizarre coincidence that brought these three (fictional?) women to this particular hotel at the same time is left to the imagination.

In Lost Girls, all three have been stripped of their fantastical context. There’s a suggestion that Alice’s mirror talks to her (or she talks to it) and that Lewis Carroll, making an appearance as a pedophile, is inspired by Alice to write his books. But in general Moore presents the pasts of the three women as realistic explanations for the fantasy elements in those works. For example, Dorothy lives through a twister during which she experiences a sexual awakening. When she walks out into the ruined landscape, a damaged road sign now reads “OZ,” but she’s still in Kansas. Peter Pan is just an androgynous male prostitute and there is no Never Never Land other than the mental one in which Peter leads Wendy and her brothers into a sexual initiation. I often wondered while reading Lost Girls if Moore had so unhinged some characters from their fictional origins that they could no longer function as those characters in any meaningful way. I don’t think this is a niggling point.

More perplexing, given the already static structure of a frame mixed with memories of the past, is the relative lack of characterization in Lost Girls. Moore has chosen to let the women’s sexual histories serve as their entire background. Is Moore saying that for victims of sexual abuse, the whole world becomes about sex from then on? I don’t think so, but the practical effect of focusing solely on sex is to rob us of three-dimensional portraits of these women. (That Moore seems to recognize the possibilities of integration is evident from this Onion interview excerpt: “I think in the future, I'd prefer to take what I've learned from Lost Girls and follow that back into my other work. To include sex scenes alongside the adventure scenes and everyday-life scenes, as if they were all part of the same thing. Which of course they are.”)

But what about Lost Girls as pornography?

Gebbie’s art is supple and ever-changing, whether in the main sequences or parodying Victorian-era pornography. The softness of the colors makes the sex scenes more human and less mechanistic or harsh. The level of detail in backdrops is precise but not cluttered, with Gebbie able to modulate her effects to convey scenes of unease and horror. Her drawing technique proves better than I would have thought for conveying motion, so that her rendition of an orgy scene during a showing of The Rites of Spring might as well be in motion.

Often, too, the distance between her color choices and the events in Lost Girls proves effective -- for example, the flatter, less grainy style chosen for Wendy’s memories. As a work of art, Lost Girls is as flexible, inventive, and heartfelt as a good lover.

As for Moore’s story, the erotic set pieces demonstrate once again his mastery of the graphic novel form. At the beginning of book two, for example, Dorothy’s repressed husband writes to a colleague, his banal, blind-to-debauchery letter juxtaposed with riotous sex scenes that mischeviously undermine his account of events. Several of these set pieces work as erotica while being structurally innovative.

However, Lost Girls is as much a commentary on sexuality and pornography as an artifact of pornography. For this reason, readers will be simultaneously turned on and disturbed by the book. Many times the erotic act is stimulating, while the context provokes a “I shouldn’t be reacting this way” response. This technique allows Moore to engage both heart and head, and it does give all three women more depth than they would have had otherwise. (Otherwise, they’re just delivery systems for nontraditional sex.) As the women tell their stories, Lost Girls gradually becomes a tale about the price of sex, the price of coercion, and the attraction of abusing power in personal relationships. (Although a case can be made that Lost Girls is about this subject from the very beginning, given the interplay between the three women.)

At one point, in the middle of an orgy, while examining a book of pornography, the hotel manager says:

You see? Incest, c’est vrai,  it is a crime, but this? This is the idea of incest, no? And then these children: how outrageous! How old can they be? Eleven? Twelve? It is quite monstrous… except that they are fictions, as old as the page they appear upon, no less, no more. Fiction and fact: only madmen and magistrates cannot discriminate between them… You see, if this were real, it would be horrible. Children raped by their trusted parents. Horrible. But they are fictions. They are uncontaminated by effect and consequence. Why, they are almost innocent. I, of course, am real and since Helena, who I just fucked, is only thirteen, I am very guilty. Ah well, it cannot be helped.

There’s a lot going on in this speech. The hotel manager isn’t real, either, so we can take pleasure in the salacious nature of it all without feeling ashamed of our reaction. But Moore provides just that extra level or layer so for a second we’re thinking: The manager’s blasé about committing a crime. And then the cycle of thought (or, rather, one possible cycle of thought): Is thinking about such things a crime? Maybe not, but can’t someone hurt another person just at the level of the imagination? Isn’t that part of what inequality, sexual or otherwise, all about? And is Moore telling us we might as well disregard the pain of his protagonists and just revel in the sex? (But isn’t it just the manager talking?) To what extent is he letting the reader off the hook by stating this? Or is it more of a kind of taunt, Nabokov-style: We all know this is a fiction, but if I do my job you’ll still be horrified at what happens to these characters?

Lost Girls is a vehicle for sex and ideas about sex that overflows with intelligence and feeling but didn’t always work for me. Toward the end of book two, I began to be bored by the sex scenes, especially the lesbian scenes between the three women. I found my attention drifting in part because of the stilted dialogue in some of these scenes, but mostly because they become narrative and artistic time-wasters between gradually revealed backstory. At times the backstory couldn’t hold my attention, either. And the denouement, tying into World War I, just seemed an end rather than an ending.

However, despite these reservations, Lost Girls is always alive, it deals with subject matter that isn’t always given this kind of emphasis, and it takes serious chances. Ultimately, Lost Girls rewards a serious (and not so serious) read, but I’m conflicted as to whether it or not it belongs beside Moore’s best work.

(For more information on Lost Girls, Wikipedia has an excellent entry with dozens of links to other material.)

Lost Girls by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie
Top Shelf Productions
ISBN 1891830740
264 Pages

Alien Flotsam

A short mention of two new books seems in order: A.L.I.E.E.E.N.: Archives of Lost Issues and Earthly Editions of Extraterrestrial Novelties by Lewis Trondheim (originally published in France in 2004) and Rumo & His Miraculous Adventures by the German cartoonist Walter Moers.

At first A.L.I.E.E.N. seems like a cuter version of Jim Woodring’s Frank, but it soon turns bloody and the cuteness provides a startling counterpoint to the violence (like using vacation guide language to describe a death camp). Ultimately, though, A.L.I.E.E.N. conveys a sense of innocent optimism even as, wordlessly, little round bird creatures are being nailed to trees and fuzzy bear creatures, brain sad frog creatures and yet other strange cuties don the skins of fallen friends to avoid capture and a good braining. Did I mention that each vignette in the book ties in to the next, even though this is not immediately obvious? A.L.I.E.E.N. is by turns fun, creepy, and horrific, with a wonderfully clockwork structure.

Rumo by Walter Moers isn’t really a comic or graphic novel, but this rolicking adventure -- half Douglas Adams, half somebody much more surreal and dark -- would be much diminished if Moers’s darkly whimsical illustrations had been left out. Rumo the Wolperting travels his way through a strange world populated by shark grubs, debonair dinosaurs, robot armies, and scientists with four brains. The opening sequences are as horrific as anything from Stephen King while later scenes will make readers laugh out loud. All of this insanity is anchored by the lovely detail of Moers’ drawings.

A.L.I.E.E.E.N.: Archives of Lost Issues and Earthly Editions of Extraterrestrial Novelties by Lewis Trondheim
First Second Books
ISBN 1596430958
96 Pages

Rumo & His Miraculous Adventures by Walter Moers
Overlook Press
ISBN 1585677256
684 Pages

Next Time

The November column will feature a review of The Best American Comics 2006, edited by Harvey Pekar, a short interview with Rebecca Dart, the genius behind Rabbithead, and a peek at the comics bits of The Best American Non-Required Reading 2006, edited by David Eggers. Among other bright and shiny things.

Contact Info

Send complaints, compliments, concerns, and rambling rants about how wrong I am to: vanderworld at hotmail.com. (I’ll assume you don’t mind being quoted in this column if you send me something.)

Send materials for review to Bookslut and to me at POB 4248, Tallahassee, FL 32315.