Sunday, February 22, 2009

Lost Girls: my (textually NSFW) review


To my parents: NSFW means not safe for work. It also means I'm uncomfortable with you reading it. Just throwing that out there.

I’m pretty sure that something can be considered both art and pornography, but I also tend to think those works end up doing at least one of those things poorly. When I picked up Lost Girls, I was told that it was Alan Moore’s graphic novel in which three iconic heroines of children’s literature, Alice, Dorothy, and Wendy, repeatedly get it on. For some reason, from that description, it still didn’t occur to me that this might be porn. I read it as a real graphic novel that seemed to have some major pacing flaws because nothing much was happening besides these broads going down on each other in various settings and contortions. Only after reading it did I discover that Alan Moore and artist-cum-wife Melinda Gebbie had always identified this project as pornography. That makes more sense, but it also brings up some complicated issues.

I was prepared to argue about its artistic merit, but after reading Moore’s remarks I thought, well, that settles that. Many of my complaints with it as a work of art seemed pointless when looking at it as a work of pornography. In Lost Girls, Wendy, Alice, and Dorothy meet by chance as adults staying in the same hotel in Austria on the eve of WWI. They bond over what is presented as their shared uniqueness, a mystery that needs to be unraveled: each had strange experiences as a child, strange dreams associated with sex. They work toward piecing together this mystery by sharing their stories and fucking each other a lot.

The concept itself is fascinating, and I was interested in the idea of expanding on these stories as allegories for the exploration of female sexuality, which I think is complex, wonderful, and scary. In the second book, the women each tell their origin stories—the stories of their first sexual experiences that occurred when they were between fourteen and sixteen years old. Dorothy jacks off during a tornado. Wendy fools around with Peter, a homeless kid she and her brothers had seen in a park. Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole involves following her father’s friend into her house, where he gets her drunk and molests her. So their introductions to sexuality are either through masturbation, fooling around, or forcible. Okay, that sounds like a pretty representative sample. But Moore’s portrayal troubled me. I didn’t trust a man to write the story I hoped to read, one that would explore the intricacies of female sexuality without completely fetishizing it. Despite their young ages, the characters are unanimously busty. They are drawn in form of the sexy-girl trifecta—the blonde, the black-haired girl, the redhead. Beyond this, I found myself objecting to Moore’s character choices. Dorothy is portrayed as a ridiculous hick in her dialect and mannerisms, which could be attributed to Moore’s Britishness. And Alice’s origin story didn’t sit well with me. I always thought of Alice’s descent into the rabbit hole as her own choice, due to her own inquisitiveness. Sure, Wonderland could be a disorienting and terrifying place, but I always imagined her with some agency in the situation that got her there. Regardless, the origin stories showed enough promise to keep me interested, and I couldn’t wait until the girls actually went to Wonderland/Neverland/Oz. At this point, I thought that the biggest problem with this portrayal would be equating these crazy fantasy lands with female sexuality. That’s a little extreme, because while sexuality is neat, it’s no psychedelic acid-trip crazy-world. Instead, one of my big problems with the portrayal is that within it, those faraway lands do not exist. It vaguely attempts to convey a metaphorical existence, but that doesn’t quite work. If Dorothy goes to “Oz” upon her first orgasm, when does it ever stop being Oz? Why focus on these three women at all? All they do in these stories they have to unravel is fuck a bunch of people in incidents that have parallels to those of their classical stories.

In light of the authors’ intent for this to be a work of pornography, my objections to its portrayal of female sexuality are pretty much moot. It is intended to be fetishized, not accurate or overly insightful. It makes more sense as porn than art, because it takes three fascinating stories and re-imagines them to allow for the maximum degree of erotic possibilities. For me, this was particularly stark with Dorothy’s story. What I loved about these three stories as a kid was that these girls traveled to magical, faraway places. In Moore’s re-working, these girls literally don’t go anywhere. Dorothy whacks off and has her first orgasm during the tornado (which leaves her house where it was) and proceeds to stay on her boring-ass Kansas farm and fuck three boring-ass farmhands that were sort of like the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion. You want to know how they got their brain, heart, and nerve? Dorothy fucked one guy, and he wrote her a stupid poem (brain). She fucked another guy, broke up with him, and he was sad (heart). She fucked another guy, and gave him the confidence to fuck other girls (nerve). These women had some sexy adventures, but Moore seems to rob them of everything that was special about them. It never addresses the “dreams,” which I thought was going to be their time in their respective faraway lands. For all I know, my mail carrier has had just as crazy, sexy times as these women. I don’t consider these characters sacred, and their likenesses have been co-opted for all kinds of pornography throughout the years. It’s just that reducing these fantastical stories to some girls who pretty much stay in their hometown and fuck a bunch of people is profoundly disappointing.

Now let’s transition to examine the pornography label. Moore was quoted as saying something along the lines of how he wanted to raise the standard of pornography, show that pornography could be intellectual and interesting rather than just seedy and covert. That’s something I can get behind, I guess. I haven’t eliminated that Moore’s identification of his work as strictly pornography is a sort of ruse. Had he called it erotic fiction, for instance, there would be a great deal of outcry about it actually being pornography, and devoid of artistic merit. In calling it pornography, its artistic reception can only go up. But acknowledging it as porn, something intended for people to get off to, creates problems of its own.

There’s an advantage to creating something that technically isn’t porn, but people get off to nonetheless. I think of it as the National Geographic effect. By identifying it as porn, you lose the discreetness and acceptability of having some art that you just happen to privately wank to. However, Lost Girls isn’t something you would be ashamed to have on your bookshelf (unless someone opened it), which is exactly where my friend was keeping the copy I borrowed. In that case, it’s legitimizing porn, which seems to at least partially be Moore’s intent.

I will say that I thought Gebbie’s illustration was beautiful and thoughtful. However, to identify this as porn, rather than art, the authors have dug themselves into a hole with the depiction of child sexuality and incest, and it really is extensive and detailed. There are special protections for art, but if this is for the purpose of high-brow wanking, is it even legal to include children? And if it’s pornography for pornography’s sake, wouldn’t that kind of be, um, embarrassing for the consumers to acknowledge they’re whacking off to extensive incest? The book even contains a discussion of pornography that’s somewhat inconclusive. During an orgy including hotel staff and the three women, the owner of the hotel reads an erotic story about two children being seduced by their mother and father. Wendy objects to the story because she has a young son, and the hotel owner explains that the story is fine because the children are fictional. If it were real, it would be horrifying, but they don’t live beyond this story, and will never have to deal with the physical and emotional repercussions of their actions. The hotel owner is actually supposed to be the author of the story, along with several other erotic pastiches that appear throughout the book. He later reveals that he began these stories when he was living in Paris, fucking two children who may have been his. This casts doubt on his assertion that the story is harmless fantasy, as if the book is asking, “What about YOU, reader?” But it’s true that porn is the single remaining medium that openly embraces stereotypes in the form of fantasy, and continues to accept blatant sexism and racism. After all, you can’t help what gets you off. This is why I think art and porn will always, to some degree, be at odds. They can’t be judged by the same standards. If I saw a ridiculous caricature of a Hispanic maid in a movie, I would be outraged, but if I saw it in porn, I would just shrug and shake my head. I can’t really attest to its effectiveness as pornography, but reading Lost Girls as a work of literature, I became easily bored and disappointed.

4 Comments:

Blogger Amanda said...

I found this review extremely interesting... the question I have is should I attempt to "read" this graphic novel? Even though it is actually pornography? I love the way you are able to disect it... but just curious about whether it'd be worth me to read, since I'm very interested in human sexuality as well. P.S... two things... watch "Son of Rambow," a wonderful, funny movie, and a dramatic film, "Towel Head," both worth watching, one enjoyable, one difficult to see but good nonetheless... anyhoo... yeah.

6:03 PM  
Blogger archipelagic said...

Hmm. For you, it might be worth a read, but only if you could borrow it or get it from a library (one of the college libraries might have it, but probably not the public library). It's actually a set of three books, and graphic novels are really expensive. On Amazon, it only goes as low as $65, and I think Zachary paid over a hundred bucks for his.

4:31 AM  
Blogger Claytonian said...

Moore makes everything brilliant

5:22 PM  
Blogger archipelagic said...

See, that's the impression I was under as well, but it's not the case here, in my opinion. He certainly gets a free pass to do whatever he wants from anyone in the comics scene, though.

3:03 AM  

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