Finding myself back on the streets, I devoted my time to getting lost in books, focusing all my energy on escaping into the power of the written word and the rendered image. Part of the value of escapism is that one often encounters unexpected moments of revelation and catharsis. I don’t believe that there are many people who would turn to a comic book for guidance on how to deal with trauma or repressed emotions. Yet, unlike so many comic book writers, Alan Moore always succeeds in doing the unexpected… even when adhering to his own formula.
Alan Moore‘s works had touched upon sexuality long before Lost Girls. One of the more common criticisms against Moore’s writing is the abundant occurrence of sexual violence. In Saga of the Swamp Thing, Moore shows the villainous Anton Arcane, having possessed his niece’s fiancé’s body, engaging in a form of incestuous rape with his niece, Abigail Arcane. While done for shock value, at least predominantly, this melodramatic revelation felt very real and an appropriate amount of time is given to showing the psychological effects of this supernatural and sexual trauma. In his deconstruction of superhero tropes, Watchmen, Moore depicts an attempted rape by a violent sociopath called the Comedian, after which his intended victim still remains infatuated with him and begins a short-lived relationship with him. This was a powerful and truthful episode in a comic book series that sought to address uncomfortable realities while specifically acknowledging that toxic relationships and emotional dependency are real things. In V for Vendetta, Moore shows a young woman about to be assaulted by government agents, but they are stopped by the titular character V, a masked vigilante and terrorist. This is a rather poignant and realistic episode that aims its sights on corruption of authority and abuse of power and how they are often embodied in attacks on young women. Then there is Moore’s epic erotic saga, Lost Girls, which really should have been more controversial, but wasn’t, much to Moore’s dismay.
The premise of the graphic novel Lost Girls may at first sound exploitative and kitschy, and to a degree it is, but there are some dark, powerful, and thoughtful depths to this work of graphic literature that set it apart from other works by Moore and the vast majority of comic books. Lost Girls is an erotic graphic novel, a pornographic fantasy with literary roots, focusing on the sexual adventures and misadventures of Alice from Lewis Carroll‘s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Wendy from J.M. Barrie‘s Peter Pan, and Dorothy from L. Frank Baum‘s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. On the surface, these three characters seem to only share the basic tropes and traits of the young prepubescent woman who goes on a fantastical adventure of learning in a magical other land, then returning to her own world with some newly acquired wisdom. In this sense, one can see clearly parallels with other coming-of-age stories, but the hallucinogenic quality of their adventures hints at more profound psychological symbolism, and Moore utilizes this to explore the realm of sexuality. Within the pages of Lost Girls, Moore and artist Melinda Gebbie detail a series of cheeky, lurid, shocking, provocative, and surprisingly impactful sexual encounters with these three women. Their stories range from early masturbatory practices to incestuous abuse, from orgiastic goings-on at private schools to group sex with neighbours, and all of this is set against the backdrop of Europe and America in the years leading up to WWI.
Lost Girls is unabashedly sexual, hyper-sexual even, and therein lies the greatest difficulty in explaining it in a way that doesn’t simplify its graphic content or its lofty cerebral aspirations. The story, and therefore also the images, feature fictional children and adults engaging in behaviours that most real-world adults would blush at, and it acknowledges that sexual desires, fantasies, and activities are an essential part of the human animal’s development. Where it wades into murky waters is in its exploration of the difference between fantasy and reality, fiction and fact, desire and action. On the one hand, the narrative acknowledges that we all have thoughts and desires and fantasies that we cannot act upon, because it would be wrong to do so and harmful to others. The story also acknowledges the effects of trauma and how they can create either healthy or self-destructive behavioural habits. On the other hand, the narrative goes so far in elaborating upon these thoughts, indulging these desires, and envisioning these fantasies that it does feel almost as though it is an endorsement to act. At the very same time, a correlation is made between nationalism and violence and sexual repression, and these two disparate ideas together feel at odds with one another.
Where Lost Girls excels is in addressing the effects of childhood fantasies, imagination, trauma, memories, and how our collective experiences shape our later preoccupations in adulthood. This is true whether one is looking at sexuality or not. For people who experienced a great deal of childhood trauma, the way that the past is viewed tends to be dualistic, and nostalgia is perhaps less sweet and more bitter; the delineation between reward and punishment less obviously defined, the juxtaposition of pleasure and pain, pride and humiliation, comfort and unease all the more alluring and confusing. The characters here know that they are characters. They know that they are shaped by their experience and that their experiences are fictional, which means they can react to them in ways that realistically would not be appropriate or healthy, and yet exploring their desires to react to their experiences is very healthy. As a reader we’re reminded that we are also just like characters in books, but unlike them, we can decide how we will respond to the circumstances beyond our control. We are reminded that we have the ability to change our stories by changing what we do and who we are as people. Moore and Gebbie understand this and tread this thematic line like tightrope walkers. They understand that they are telling a potentially dangerous story, and they remind the reader of this, that it’s all make-believe, and that you can put the book down at any time that you feel challenged or discomforted. This is something that isn’t present in most pornography or in most fiction. The safe word is built in to the medium, which means that between the covers there is as much safety to explore as there is risk of arousal and the need to sate such arousal, and that makes the graphic novel unique.
The following is a journal entry I wrote in the moments before falling asleep in the back of a parking lot. As such, it’s a bit dreamy and meandering, but I think that I expressed a certain vulnerability and hope that was quite special. Whatever words or images had lifted me out of my emotional slump managed to get me through the day.
“There are rare, precious moments in life when you find yourself unexpectedly and deeply moved by a work of art, by a piece of music, by the flickering images on a screen, or by the simple eloquence of words on paper. Sometimes these moments are forever ingrained in our memory. Other times they are fleeting, gone before we can reach out and grasp their weight and significance. They are like perfect storms of internal thoughts and emotions and external stimuli; two forces coming together in rapturous conflict, and for a moment, leaving us in a delicately blissful or agonized state of total cognizance. They are moments of clarity. I could not, if I tried, recall each of these instances. They are waspish, flighty, like tendrils of mist that wrap themselves around you and then depart, and all without warning. Others still are less than subtle and descend upon us like thunder; leaving us shaken and branded by the experience. In writing this I find myself somewhere between these two sets of responses and I cannot be sure to which side my pendulum shall find itself after the final swing. What I know is that in this moment, I feel, though all-too-briefly, that I am a whole human being, tiny and perhaps insignificant on a cosmic level, but not inconsequential in the material and ethereal immediacy of now. And that is of tremendous comfort as I go to sleep in this park, concealed beneath the shadows of a large elm tree, homeless and yet not broken; a survivor. Thank you, Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie.“
I endured. I survived. I came out the other side of it. My circumstances did not and do not define who I am. Ultimately this realization that what happens to us need not become who we are is the lasting message of Lost Girls. So, maybe none of us are lost, but instead we’re exactly where we’re supposed to be in that moment of our personal evolution.