Sunday, July 08, 2007

Lost Girls: Volume I

I’m as big a fan of Alan Moore’s work as anyone. He’s done more than any writer to change peoples’ perceptions of what is possible within comics, and paved the way for the Vertigo revolution that gave us Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Garth Ennis and Warren Ellis, and from them, we got the newer generation of prominent writers, like Brian Bendis and Brian K. Vaughan. Alan has always seemed to have a somewhat contentious relationship with the medium and its readership. He’s been in a feud with nearly every major publisher and has “retired” from comics countless times. But, he keeps coming back to do great stuff, so it’s easy to overlook his sometimes frustrating behavior.

Moore has been pretty quiet since the end of ABC comics a while back, but he did release one major new work, Lost Girls. I bought the book shortly after it came out, but didn’t get around to reading it until now. After reading the first of three volumes, I’m not particularly impressed. It seems to indulge all of Moore’s worst tendencies, and is generally devoid of any real characters or emotional engagement. The goal was to make a legitimately erotic book, but it comes off as a really pretentious piece of pornography. If pizza delivery existed in the 1920s, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the pizza guy get into the action in one of the later volumes.

Alan Moore very rarely uses entirely original characters, instead he draws on archetypes and reinvents them to suit his own thematic purposes. The one major exception to this is likely Big Numbers, but I haven’t read it, so I can’t say for sure. Watchmen, Promethea, Supreme, From Hell, all these works draw on archetypes that are part of our cultural mythology and forces us to look at them from new perspectives. The most obvious reinvention of existing characters was League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which reimagined a variety of literary characters into an 18th century superhero team. This book does essentially the same thing, taking three characters from classic childrens’ stories and bringing them together for a variety of sexual escapades.

I guess my central problem with this setup is that it’s too obvious in making the subtext. Yes, you could read all these stories as sexual allegories, but as we see each of the characters retell their stories as discussions of their first sexual experiences instead of the fantasy based stories we’ve come to know, it seems to miss the point. You could read those stories in that way, but in making the subtext text, I think Moore takes some of the magic away from what happened there. For someone who’s so interested in saluting the power of story in Promethea, it’s odd to reduce the whole of Oz, Wonderland and Neverland to a sexual experience. Now, it’s possible he’ll better reconcile the dual nature of the experience in the later volumes, but right now, he seems to be puncturing the mythology rather than contributing to it. And ultimately that feels a bit juvenile. The tornado in Oz works well, but having Peter Pan be some guy who comes into the room and starts an orgy is just goofy.

Now, this wouldn’t be a problem if the book worked better on its own terms. With League, Moore took existing characters, but made them his own. Here, the characters are fairly shallow. They each have some basic characteristics, but there’s not much complexity or emotional engagement.

The central reason for this is the book’s structure. Moore is notorious for creating restrictions on himself, like the use of the nine panel grid on Watchmen. Here, each chapter is eight pages, which makes the book feel like more a series of short stories than a fully realized continuous work. All the breaks take you out of the reality and prevent you from engaging with the characters on a long term basis. And that’s even with the fact that I’m reading the chapters consecutively.

And, within each chapter we’ve got a sex scene. While the sex scenes are pretty sexy, with great art by Melinda Gebbies, they don’t do anything more than regular porn because we don’t have real attachment to the characters. If they had developed the characters first, then moved into sex scenes, it would have a more wholly satisfying work. I’m thinking of something like The Dreamers, which works because you learn to care about these people, then they move into their sexual enchantment.

I think of porn as analogous to comedy or horror. In each of these genres, you’ve got a central to goal, to either arouse the audience, make them laugh or scare them. But, that’s not enough to make a good work. In the best kind of works like this, you should not only satisfy that basic desire, you should also make something that works on a story level, and I don’t think this book does that. Or at least it doesn’t in the first book, we’ll see what volumes 2 and 3 have to offer.


Jacob said...

I didn't think it got any better, frankly.

All your comments are spot on although personally Gebbie's art makes my eyes bleed - her anatomy and perspective is just so off, and not in the sort of way that makes me think it's a deliberate artistic choice. And even if they did, they wouldn't work as porn for me at all, with all the horribly cropped close-ups of GIANT BEAVER WITH TONGUE or whatever - it zooms past erotic into the realm of just sort of gross and disturbing, like the low-rent porn mags they sell at truck stops. Seriously, just getting one of those French Metal Hurlant artists like Milo Manara would have improved this about ten thousand percent, since they can draw porn that actually feels erotic.

And yeah, even though these things ideally should not matter, it was hard for me to ignore the stench of nepotism - I can't pretend not to notice that Gebbie only gets work in her boyfriend's comics.

But all that pales in comparison to the disappointment that is the story. The problem I had is that I read Moore's interviews, where he's all "these children's stories are a metaphor for sexual awakening, which is a metaphor for the loss of innocence, which is a metaphor for World War I" and I was like "okay, that sounds cool" and then I open the book and that's all there is. Like, all the depth and richness and subtext was just gone and in its place was Alan Moore paint-by-numbers. The narrative games and word/picture ironies and all the other devices he deploys seem here sort of tawdry and shopworn instead of innovative. I'm beginning to wonder the unthinkable, namely if Alan Moore has run out of things to say. And that's a sad feeling.

- Oh, before I forget, one other thing. While you're right about Moore liking to reinvent other peoples' characters, he's done more original work than just BIG NUMBERS and FROM HELL - Eddie Campbell's illustrated a couple chapbooks of Moore's spoken-word pieces (SNAKES AND LADDERS and THE BIRTH CAUL), which are both fabulous, and there's a graphic novel Moore did with Oscar Zarate in the late 80s called A SMALL KILLING - about a middle-aged British yuppie, the end of communism, and abortion - that's just incredible, and easily in my top three of his stuff. I don't know if it's in print or not, though, but you should seriously try to hunt one down if you can.

Also also: you like Buffy, Battlestar, and Babylon 5, so have you checked out Doctor Who? The third season just ended in the UK and it was glorious. I am informed that unscrupulous individuals may have uploaded the entire series to dot co dot uk, but as a law-abiding individual I of course know nothing about these things.

Patrick said...

Yeah, it's the fact that we're so constantly hit with sex scenes, it becomes just like porn, which is so devoid of emotional involvement, it becomes solely mechanical. I wouldn't say Alan's lost it, I just think this project plays to all his worst instincts.

As for From Hell, I'd argue that's a reinterpretation of a piece of cultural mythology. As he discusses in the book, Jack the Ripper the man himself is less relevant than Jack the Ripper the icon. So, doing a revamped Jack the Ripper isn't too far off from doing a revamped Superman.

And Doctor Who is in the queue. I'm watching Deadwood now, but when I'm through that, Doctor Who is next. I've heard such great things, I'd imagine it'll be like Battlestar where, after watching the first couple of seasons on DVD, I found it hard to believe I hadn't watched it sooner.