I wrote this review for Adult FriendFinder magazine, but for some reason the publication got delayed, so the reprint rights only recently returned to me. Enjoy!
by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie
Top Shelf Comix, ISBN 1-891830-74-0. $75.00.
It's not just that it's surprising -- although it is. The first printing of "Lost Girls" -- 10,000 copies -- sold out in a day. The second printing, also of 10,000 copies, sold out in advance two days later. The day the book went on sale, it hit Amazon.com's "Top 20." And it's gotten passionate rave reviews, not just from the adult press, but from places like Publisher's Weekly, USA Today, Kirkus Reviews, Variety, Booklist, and many, many others -- and from individuals ranging from Neil Gaiman to Brian Eno to Susie Bright.
A pretty surprising response for a book of pornography -- and even more surprising given that it's essentially a big, beautifully-made dirty comic book.
It's not just that it's groundbreaking, either -- although it is. I've been reading (and writing about) adult comics and graphic novels for many years, and not only have I never seen anything like "Lost Girls" -- I've never seen anything that comes close. "Lost Girls" is a full-length, three-volume, adult graphic novel that attempts to be both pornographically hot and artistically substantial... and that overwhelmingly succeeds at both. Now, I've seen excellent work in adult comics before -- fun dirty comics with good stories and good art, comics that gave me new perspectives on sex while they were making me shove my hand in my pants. That's not new.
But I've never seen anything this ambitious, with this much labor lavished on it -- Moore and Gebbie spent sixteen years on the project. And I've never seen an adult graphic novel with anywhere near this much depth and breadth. "Lost Girls" has single-handedly raised the bar on dirty comics and graphic novels, destroying with a single stroke every snarky, dismissive assumption about what the genre can do. It's profoundly important for that reason alone.
And it's not just that it's ravishingly beautiful -- although it absolutely is. A hefty, hardbound, three-volume deluxe boxed set printed on thick, archival paper, the book is a sensual treat just to pick up and hold. Then when you open it up, the sensual treats pour out like a river. The elegant, luscious color art, influenced by Victorian and Edwardian illustrators of all genres, is both finely detailed and lush. And the exquisite beauty of the art takes the explicit images -- explicit, excessive, wildly promiscuous, profoundly filthy, often perverse images -- and makes them seductive and intriguing, like an upper-class courtesan or a handsome rake.
Yes, "Lost Girls" is all these things -- surprising, groundbreaking, stunningly beautiful. But it's also -- and perhaps most importantly -- all these things... while at the same time remaining blindingly hot.
There is way too much erotica in the world that's artful and touching but completely forgets to grab your cock or tickle your clit. "Lost Girls" isn't among them. Co-creator Alan Moore ("Watchmen," "From Hell," "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen") has said flat-out that "Lost Girls" is not erotica -- it's pornography. It's a story about sex, not love. And it's clearly meant to get you off on almost every page. The first-rate storytelling and superb artwork are in service to the lewd, sybaritic sex ... every bit as much as the smutty sex is in service to the story and the art.
In fact, the art and the smut aren't separate. They're intricately entwined, each supporting the other. This isn't one of those art-smut books that alternates between plot and sex scene, plot and sex scene. Not only does the smut not conflict with the art and the story -- there's never a hint that they should conflict. When you read "Lost Girls," the all-too-common idea that porn can have quality or heat, but never both at once, seems like a fading memory of a truly ridiculous bad dream.
Gosh, I've told you all this stuff about how great the book is, and I haven't even told you what it's about! "Lost Girls" is a re-imagining of three characters from classic children's stories: Alice from "Alice in Wonderland," Wendy from "Peter Pan," and Dorothy from "The Wizard of Oz." All grown up now, Alice, Wendy, and Dorothy meet at an elegantly decadent Austrian hotel just before the start of World War I. The three women -- a decadent and seductive older Alice, a repressed and conventional middle-aged Wendy, and a young, adventurous, exuberantly horny Dorothy -- soon discover that they have similarly bizarre sexual pasts. In the midst of seducing one another -- along with the hotel staff, other guests, and anyone else they can get their hands on -- they tell each other their histories... illustrated, of course, in full detail.
I won't spoil things for you by telling those stories here. I'll let you discover them for yourself. What I will say is that each of the stories is inspired by the children's book it's based on. Wendy does her sexual exploring with an innocent band of lost urchins; Alice does hers with a dizzying cast of fascinating but often selfish or cruel characters; and Dorothy does hers with an assortment of farm hands in sore need of brains, heart, and courage.
And when entwined with the women's present-tense lives and explorations, their histories become more than just porny flashbacks. They become complicated ballets of the shaping of sexuality, sagas of sexual trauma and sexual healing, with the women's libidos becoming stunted or nourished or twisted -- or a little bit of all three.
On a purely smutty level, of course, the sexual images in "Lost Girls" are intensely compelling -- a diversely perverted medley of lesbianism, heterosexuality, bisexuality, bestiality, foot fetishism, orgies, sex toys, sadomasochism, dominance, role-playing, game-playing, and more, with a side story of male homosexuality thrown in for good measure. But both the sex and the story are made even more compelling -- and more erotic -- by the fact that, despite the sybaritic fantasy world the women lose themselves in, the sex doesn't happen in a vacuum. Sex is a powerful force in "Lost Girls," with the power not only to create the ecstasy of a moment, but to drive and shape an entire life. Unlike so much porn that somehow dismisses sex even as it places it center stage, the sex in "Lost Girls" is never trivialized. It matters.
And that, all by itself, makes it a rare and important piece of work.
Now, before you go running to the bookstore with your credit card in hand, there's something important you should know about "Lost Girls." And that's that it depicts underaged characters having sex.
Frequently. It's not just in a scene or two -- it's all over the book. In fact, it's one of the central themes of the book: how sexual experiences in youth can shape not only your adult sexuality, but your entire adult outlook on life.
Now, I happen to think that "Lost Girls" deals with this subject tastefully and thoughtfully, in a way that acknowledges the sexuality of minors without exploiting it. And when I say "minors," I'm not talking about five-year-olds -- the underaged characters in "Lost Girls" are, for the most part, in the fifteen-to-sixteen year old range, not legal in most states but not children either. More importantly, while the sexual play among minors is generally depicted as joyful and healthy and even innocent, the book has nothing but harsh words -- and pictures -- for any predatory adults who tamper with them.
But I realize that this topic pushes huge buttons for a lot of people -- not unreasonably -- and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention it. And in fact, it raises a crucial question: If it's profoundly fucked-up for adults to be messing with minors, what makes it okay for adults to get off reading this smutty graphic novel about minors?
The authors don't ignore this apparent contradiction -- they deal with it head-on. In the third volume of "Lost Girls," the proprietor of the hotel -- and the creator of a pornographic book that he's thoughtfully placed in every room -- discusses this very question, in a voice that sounds suspiciously like the authors explaining their own erotic philosophy.
"You see?" the hotel owner says of his lavishly perverted porno book. "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."
In other words, pornography, by its very nature, is consensual. Certainly pornographic writing and drawing is. The creator consents to make it; the audience consents to look at it; and nobody else has to be involved. Getting excited by immoral acts in a porn story is no more immoral than getting excited by immoral acts in a crime or horror story -- and it doesn't violate anyone.
Of course, the sex in "Lost Girls" isn't uncontaminated by effect and consequence. It's not some silly Victorian smut novel where incest and rape happen blithely with no repercussion but the reader's orgasm. The women in "Lost Girls" are real characters, and while their sex lives are definitely on the fantastic and implausible side, you still care about how they feel and what's going to happen to them next.
But that's one of the things that makes "Lost Girls" so brilliant -- not just artistically brilliant, but erotically brilliant. It makes the more twisted and perverse parts of the story that much more intense, by making you believe in the characters and care about how they turn out. Yet at the same time, it explicitly gives you permission to get off, even on the seriously fucked-up stuff -- by reminding you that porn is fiction, and fiction is always consensual.
I could nitpick the book if I wanted to. I could point out that Dorothy's Midwestern farm-girl accent doesn't ring true. Or that some of the parallels with the original children's stories are cutesy and awkward. Or that not all of the art is consistently stunning -- some of it is merely lovely. I could even nitpick about how the deluxe oversized printing makes one-handed reading a challenge (the books are a bit too heavy to read with one hand, and they're far too pretty and expensive for you to want to get goo all over them).
But none of this matters in the slightest. Of course I could nitpick on "Lost Girls," and if there were more books like it, I might be more inclined to do so. But "Lost Girls" is a first, an important and groundbreaking book as well as a beautiful and blisteringly hot one, and I have no desire to lay anything on it other than praise. "Lost Girls" hasn't just raised the bar for adult comics and graphic novels -- it's grabbed the bar and raced up the stairs with it, and is now dangling the bar over our heads from several stories high, waving it triumphantly and daring everyone else to chase it. And I passionately hope that its success -- both artistically and commercially -- inspires other serious comic artists to dip their pens into the murky but fertile well of pornography, and see what they come up with.