Illustration by Melinda Gebbie
Melinda Gebbie and Alan Moore spent 16 years working on their piece of pornography, a three book edition titled Lost Girls. A comic documenting the possible sexual liaisons if Dorothy of The Wizard of Oz, Wendy of Peter Pan, and Alice of the Adventures in Wonderland met in an Austrian hotel on the eve of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination and the outbreak of the First World War. It’s more than just pornography, it’s also intensely political, celebrating the human imagination against the torment and suffering of war. But it’s also political in its examination of sexual desire in a way that doesn’t objectify the characters, but equally doesn’t shy away from showing the inherent pleasure of human contact through fucking.
Alan Moore is one of the world’s best known comic creators, having written such defining works as V For Vendetta, Watchmen, The Extraordinary League of Gentlemen and From Hell. Since 1989 though, he has also been working on Lost Girls, developing J.M Barrie’s Wendy Darling, Caroll’s Alice and Frank Baum’s Dorothy Gale into adults and what the real world they inhabit would look like. With the recent release of Lost Girls in the UK and EU, after a year’s delay because of outstanding copyrights, it seemed a good time to talk to Alan Moore about his thoughts on Lost Girls: the potential controversy around the characters, the content, his own sexual boundaries and issues of magic and alchemy.
LH: Okay, the first question doesn’t really relate to any of your work – I grew up in and about Daventry near Northampton, and ran away to London pretty much as soon as I could, and I just wondered what it was about Northampton that kept you there?
AM: Well, that is quite a big question. Its partly because that’s where I was born. But that doesn’t really make a huge case either in your case, or the case of Alan Carr, who always send the best thing about Northampton was the M1.As I grew older I started to realise just what a fabulous, literally fabulous place, Northampton was. It’s a bit like old Baghdad out of Arabian Nights!There were miracles supposedly happening at the church that I passed at least two or three times a week to see my nan. Shakespeare’s King John was set at the end of the street where I grew up in, andhistory was incredibly present. In my current book Jerusalem I talk about how in the 8th or 9th century there was a monk who was over in Golgotha in Jerusalem at the site of the alleged cruxification and was digging around in the dirt. And he discovered what appeared to be an ancient stone cross. And he thought, ‘Hmm this seems significant, who do I get in touch with?’ But luckily at that point one of those helpful angels, who often appeared in the dark ages, turned up and said, ‘Yeah, you should take this and place it at the centre of your land’. So he returned to England carrying this stone cross. He got half way Horseshoe street in Northampton opposite what is now a billiards hall when he thought, ‘Well I wonder whether this is the place’, when the angel helpfully reappeared and said, ‘Absolutely, this is the spot’. So there is that, the angels and apparently god think that Northampton are quite important.
LH: In Lost Girls, you touched on a number of taboos. You obviously weren’t worried about it, but I was wondering now that it’s been out for a little while have you been interested in getting peoples reaction to the taboos that you raised?
AM: Well, I’ve been interested in their, largely, lack of reaction. We had some of the more transgressive, self-consciously transgressive American elements asking why we hadn’t gone out of our way to be more shocking. But it’s been the lack of reaction that’s been more surprising than any reaction we might have anticipated.When we were in the final stages of completing Lost Girls it had become obvious that we would be being published under a George Bush administration and in the wake of the recent paedophile hysteria that has gripped much of the West in recent years. And so we were prepared for the fact that there might have been what we call a monstering, which is where you open your door one Monday morning and you have the assembled masses of the tabloid press shoving microphones and flashbulbs in your face. But we’d been thinking about that for 18 years. And we were both entirely satisfied that we had sorted through every conceivable moral angle and that we could defend any level of attack that we could imagine.
But then we started to get an angeling, which rather threw us off balance. If there’s an exact opposite of a monstering we got it. We got wonderful reviews that commented on the problematic sexual aspects and didn’t try and sugar coat the book. There was a brilliant review in the Guardian, which has made us both completely unbearable to live with, which referred to it as a deeply moral work, which is exactly what we had hoped for. It seemed that the message of the work was getting through despite the notoriety of the subject matter.I think that most people have understood it in context. Most of the criticisms came from people who hadn’t actually read the book yet, but had heard some distorted version that made them imagine something like a seven year old Alice in Wonderland was going to be violated by a Jabberwock or something.
LH: You were talking about the transgressive elements, and I was just wondering if there were any boundaries you weren’t willing to cross [with Lost Girls]?
AM: Some things we just didn’t feel were even potentially sexy. This has got to come down ultimately to our taste. Things like necrophilia or coprophagia or any of those more extremes we tended to keep away from, because they would have really altered the tone of what we were trying to create in Lost Girls. We tried to keep away from various areas, not all of them were entirely sexual; for example for the final chapter of White Book. We finally opted to make it as if it’d been done by that great master ‘Anonymous’. It was originally going to be poetry by Baudelaire – or a pastiche of his poetry – along with illustration by Félicien Rops who did the famous ‘Pornocrates’. But the thing is to make it look like Rops it needs to be very anti-religious and very anti-clerical, which we haven’t got a problem with, it’s just that wasn’t really what Lost Girl was about, and it would have been a bit of a red herring – an irrelevance.People have also mentioned that it’s quite light on bondage and S&M. It just didn’t seem to fit. Also there’s been such a plethora of bondage imagery since the late 1980s that we felt that it might have lost some of its kinky appeal. We were trying to explore ground perhaps a little less trodden, at least in this context.
LH: I was reading Lost Girls and it seems to me that the book that it most reminds me of is V [For Vendetta] I don’t know if you agree with that…
AM: Well, if I had to compare it to another book, I think it seemed to me that it was perhaps more like Watchmen in its intentions. In so much as it was taking a genre that was probably moribund and unhealthy and attempting to do something new with it. To use its dimensions but do it in a different way. But I suppose in the aspect of personal transformation, possibly, is that what you were talking about?
LH: Yes, and it was about the fact you’re celebrating human imagination and that being juxtaposed by the eruption of the war…
AM: I think one of the most important things is looking back at Lost Girls, now that we’ve had a chance to finish it and get a little bit of distance between ourselves and the work, we’ve noticed just how important that sexual and personal transformation and re-integration becomes upon some of the re-reading. It’s kind of like that with all of us to a certain to degree… When we were children when we first heard those stories for the first time we identified with the characters. They didn’t grow up: we did, we went through our adolescence. Our bodies changed shapes, our thoughts and desires and motives were all completely changed. And I think that if most of us look back on our childhood we have this constructed vision of ourselves as angelic, stainless, little golden souls who were innocent and pure, and used to watch Stingray on television. And then adolescence, puberty, they soiled us.
They made us embarrassed and self-conscious and shamed. And I think inside a lot of people, there is that feeling that they ‘re a completely different constructed person to the real them that existed until they were ten or 11, and they feel they’ve lost the boy or girl that’s inside them. I think that’s completely unneccesary. In Lost Girls, we’re saying that that idea of separation is illusory. You can never be separated except by your actions; believing that that’s the case. For me the most important panel in the whole book is that one in the penultimate episode where they’re having sex in front of Alice’s beautiful looking glass, and there’s a sort of obvious sexual pun on the phrase, ‘We’re coming together.’ But it’s talking about that moment of re-integration; that there is no need to think that any part of us is severed or lost. Especially by a thing like sex. It’s so completely ordinary and natural. Every organism does it. But we seem to have attached so much guilt and shame and negative importance to it that we seem to get ourselves into all sorts of psychological knots, which was one of the reasons that we did Lost Girls.
LH: Do you think in terms of sexuality being taboo it’s because of the fact that it still mostly happens in our own private sphere making it more difficult for people to talk about, or is it more than that?
AM: Well if any of us have been involved in any violence, that’s not usually a big public thing. It’s usually in a back alley or a living room or whatever. And yet we don’t seem to be so embarrassed about talking about violence. Most of us, if we’re going to be operated upon, or we’re suffering from some serious illness that’s a very intimate, personal thing; and yet we lap up ER. So it does seem that sex, for some reason, is put into a special category all on its own where different rules are applied to sexual material than would be applied to any other form of material.I’ve mentioned several times during the course of talking about Lost Girls that although there have been questions about the say sex between minors in Lost Girls, they have sort of implied that we were inciting paedophilia. That paedophiles might be going out and spending all this money for a beautifully produced art book, which actually has very mild material, in comparison to what they would be used to presumably. But the thing is that during the course of writing From Hell, I was never asked whether I was inciting people to disembowel East End prostitutes. I know that’s a bit flippant but I think the point still stands.
We do put sex in a special category, and I’m not entirely sure why but I tend to blame everything on monotheism.It tends to go back to the early church I think. If you look at some of the decoration of the early churches there used to be a lot of overtly sexual material in them because it was an assured crowd puller. So you could have these pictures on the wall and say, ‘Here’s two wicked people performing an act that if you were to perform you would surely go to hell for’. Even if you were to become aroused by it you were committing a sin. So it’s brilliant; you’ve got people being given pornography but also being given the message that if they’re decent people they’ll feel ashamed for having even looked at it. And I think thats the beginning of this perhaps even lethal catch 22 begins.We are bombarded with sexual imagery, at the same time we are told that we are subhumans if we in any way aroused by it. That was a kind of short circuit that we were trying to break with the Lost Girls. We were wanting to do a piece of pornography that even in the most high minded Guardian reader could not initiate feelings of guilt or shame, or think of themselves in any way unworthy for buying or reading this material.
Despite all the church’s attempts, we are obviously allowed to run riot in our imagination if we see fit. You cannot police the imagination. You cannot police desire. All you can do is give people ultimately destructive complexes about the way in which their imagination tends. It won’t stop them imaging those things, it will just make them feel progressively more horrible about them, and themselves. And ultimately with some people it might lead them in to a very dark and furtive corner where they’re very isolated and what might have originally been completely harmless flights of fancy might tip over into something that is more unpleasant or dangerous. Well that’s my theory anyway.
LH: What were your feelings on taking other people’s characters and developing them because its something that you’ve done quite a lot in your work?
AM: It is. Though Lost Girls was the first time I’d ever done it in quite this way. We started Lost Girls in 1989, and prior to that I had been given ongoing comic characters on the understanding that I would revive flagging sales or would redesign the character and make it work. But the third time I ever actually deliberately took characters from other works and tried to put them together was in Lost Girls. In the early weeks of talking about it I was putting a half baked idea that involved a sexual decoding of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan based on nothing more substantial than the fact that Sigmund Freud said that dreams of flying were dreams of a sexual nature and that there’s a lot of flying Peter Pan.
What can I say, it was a pretty dumb idea. That was when Melinda contributed her idea of, ‘What if we made it about three strong women protagonists?’ Which led me to thinking, ‘Well if Wendy from Peter Pan is one of them, who would the other two be?’ And straight away we had Alice and Dorothy.From that moment, the juxtaposition of those characters seemed like one of the best ideas I’d ever heard. I could suddenly see all of these possibilities about how we could take these three stories and turn them potentially into sexual histories, where we could use the symbols from those books and make them mean something else than what their authors intended. And after we’d been working on this book for a few years and realised how much fun it was to do a pornography based on these fictional characters, it rather dim wittily occurred to me that I could maybe do the same thing with an adventure book. And that was where the idea for the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen came from. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is some bastard love child of Lost Girls. But you know, it’s probably parentage to be proud of. It’s certainly a lot of fun.There’s something very exhilarating taking a character like Alice and thinking it through. Thinking, ‘Alright, what might this child have grown up to be?’ For example I tried to make Alice’s dialogue, whilst very arch and sophisticated, have that kind of curious dreamy logic to it that Carrol’s little girl had in her dealings with things. Alice is not a drug addict in Lewis Carrol’s story. But then again she does seem remarkably open to anything with ‘Eat Me’ written on it whatever the consequences, and hanging out with the hooped smoking caterpillar made famous in the Jefferson Airplane song ‘White Rabbit’. Of all three books, I always thought that Alice in Wonderland, whether deliberate or not, was the most psychedelic and resonant with the drug experience. Making Alice fond of laudanum did seem kind of appropriate.
I think that Wendy, at least when we first see her, is very much the prim little mother of Barries’ book. Whereas Dorothy has some of the brash adventurous quality that typifies Frank Baum’s Dorothy. Part of the fun was taking credible liberties with these characters whilst keeping them consistent with the originals. The same goes for the LOEG. Our Mr. Hyde is enormous in comparison to Stevenson’s version. Then again in the final chapter of Stevenson’s book you’ve got Dr. Jekyll worrying that Hyde seems to be getting bigger. So our interpretation is an extrapolation. It wouldn’t be any fun at all if you could just take these characters and do whatever you want with them. The fun for me is to try and keep them true to their original roots even if you are taking them to some far away and unexpected places.
LH: I was wondering what your thoughts on copyright were. All of those characters were out of copyright except of course Wendy, which gave you problems with Great Ormand Street Hospital…
AM: Yes, they wrote us this very nice letter thanking us for being so patient. My feeling about copyright is that there’s such a thing as fair use, and just because all of the copyright lawyers who are employed by the big companies are actually paranoid, doesn’t mean that I don’t have the right to exercise fair use. In the earlier books of the League it wasn’t so much of a problem because most of those characters being Victorian they’d passed into public domain. As effectively had the characters in Lost Girls. No one’s exactly sure what kind of rights JM Barrie gifted to Great Ormond Street Hospital. From what we’ve heard it was quite possibly just the theatre rights, for the stage play. But there’s obviously no point in the pornographers versus a children’s charity. That’s only going to play out one way in the popular press. So no, there weren’t really copyright problems with those things.
Even in the first book of the League we were able to have an oriental doctor who’d arrived in Limehouse, but he’s never referred to as Dr Fu Manchu because Sax Rohmer didn’t have the simple human decency to die until 1959, so it was still in copyright. But there are ways around it. People nowadays are so clued up on the trivia of all these characters and if they’re not, it’s a click of a mouse away. So you can fill your books with arcane references, or oblique references to copyrighted characters and let your readers work it out, without ever going into problematic copyright territory.But violating the copyright of some big anonymous publshing corporation? Yeah! If I can get away with doing it I probably will just for spite and devilment.
LH: Yes, I suppose I asked the question for ulterior motives; because my understanding was that Halo Jones has never been continued because of copyright issues relating to 2000AD not allowing you to finish it.
AM: With almost everything I’ve ever written, the copyright is not in my hands. And I’ve just said to these people, ‘Okay you can alienate me forever by hanging on to a couple of pieces of work I’ve done for you’, but it tends demonstrate what the people running the comics industry are like. They can’t write. They can’t draw. And they aren’t even good at being tyrant businessmen.If I thought they were stealing small change, and large change, from generation after generation of creators in order to build a giant laser to blow up the moon, sitting there with their white hats dropping people into the piranhas, then I might have a little bit of sympathy. A little bit of regard. But they are shit at everything they do. They’ve no idea how to run their businesses. This is why the comics industry has been going down the toilet since before I was first involved in it. Its descent has been checked by a scattering of decent work. But at every turn the publishers have managed to ruin whatever advantages they might have gained. And at the current moment the pamphlet format of comics is pretty much defunct. The only things that seem to be making any money are the hardback and softback collections, and if it’s books that are making the money, then I suspect you’ll soon get big book companies realising that you perhaps stand to get more returns from a graphic novel than you do from an old fashioned novel. If those kind of publishers enter the market, I’m not saying they’ll be a huge amount better than the current publishers, but I think they’ll at least be a bit more competent and I think they’ll abide by the practices of their own industry which is slightly less gangster influenced than the comics industry. So hopefully you’ll get better behaviour, some better work coming out from better treated creators. But we’ll see.
LH: You seem to have a good relationship with Top Shelf Productions…
AM: Well they’ve done us proud with Lost Girls. Chris originally approached us and he asked Melinda how she thought the book would look when it was finished, which was disastrous because Melinda had got very baroque imaginings of what the finished book should look like, with the slipcase and gold embossing. So she told him all of this stuff, he swallowed hard and said, ‘Well, we’re only a small company, and I can’t promise I’ll be able to do all of that’ but he’d certainly give it his best! And he certainly did. The final hurdle was when he had chosen the highest quality, most expensive paper that the printers had offered him and it still wasn’t quite what he wanted for Lost Girls. And he saw a stack of paper in the corner of the printers and asked, ‘Well what about that?’ And the printer said, ‘Well no, we haven’t offered you that, because that is far too expensive, it’s archive quality. It’s only for really, really special jobs and it’d double your printing costs’. And Chris went for it! He risked everything, because that is essentially what a small publisher was doing, risking everything, his personal well-being and security just because he believed in this book to that degree. For me that shows such commitment that I don’t really need to look for any other publishers as long as Chris is prepared to have me, we’ve found a happy match.
LH: Do you have any other comics in the works then other than League volume three?
AM: That is about the only comic. I’m pretty much out of the comics industry, although not out of the medium. The stuff that Kevin is doing on the third League is just brilliant. But that is more or less all that I’m doing in the comics medium. There is the Bumper book of Magic that I’m doing with Steve Moore and a host of wonderful artists, also for Top Shelf. It’ll be – I hope – a no nonsense and very entertaining guide to magic, what it is, how to do it, its entire history and hopefully done in an entertaining and informative way that I don’t think has been tried before because I think previously they’ve been too interested in conjuring a spooky gothic aura around themselves.
LH: Are you still excited by the comics medium?
AM: For my own purposes, it’s one of the media that I like to express myself in and I’m still excited by the possibilities. But I have to say I don’t really read comics anymore. My disgust for the industry has meant that there are very few I can read without mixed feelings. And also, to tell the truth the comics field seem a bit moribund. On one hand at the Frank Miller extreme you’ve got these incredibly violent and gung ho narratives that are being churned out in a reflex action; a right-wing reflex action. On the other wing where you have the more sophisticated alternative comics. I find that they’re beautifully, stylistically realised and conceived but at the end of the day it tends to be people in the richest and comfiest country in the world talking about their emotional problems. I mean there are obviously exceptions like Joe Sacco who are talking about something more important.I read a film review of Sin City which said it was ‘teenage and Neanderthal’, which I thought was pretty accurate. Well you couldn’t accuse the artists at the other end of being Neanderthals, but on the other hand their expressions of angst and emotional hollowness still seems teenage to me. It seems that the industry at the moment is stultified by on one half what people thought was hip in the 1980s, and the on the other a group that never really found its direction after the late 1980s. It’s now more than 20 years later.
I suppose it’s fairly endemic throughout modern culture; it seems everyone thinks that all the great ideas have already been had, which is what people have always felt until they’ve bothered to come up with some new ideas. And most of the culture around me seems like a retread of something I enjoyed more first time around. I can get nostalgic for the psychedelic of the 60s, or the doom glitter of the glam period. But I would have thought that people living today should be able to demand their own culture suitable to their own times, and they should have artists and muscians who are willing to do the work of providing it for them. But I don’t see much of that at the moment. And in the comics industry, it seems like people have found a golden rut where they can repeat the same riff from now until the end of their career. I don’t see people trying to make use of the medium in novel or previously unimagined ways. And alright, not every story has to be a brashy, technical piece. But I’d like to see it now and again. It’s what I liked about Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman, where they sometimes had a really beautifully timed technical riff that just left you gasping. Or some of the early twentieth century Sunday cartoons. I don’t see anyone trying to surpass them. The field, if it’s moving at all, is moving in entirely the wrong direction, so I’m bailing out. The comics medium as I practice it will continue to be an important part of my life I’m sure, but the comics industry – I haven’t looked at it in years, it’s too painful for one, and too boring!
More information on Lost Girls and future books by Alan Moore can be found at www.topshelfcomix.com
You can see an amazing piece of design Melvin Galapon did for the printed version of this interview here