Alan Moore, the author of Watchmen, V For Vendetta, and From Hell, now returns with Lost Girls, a three-volume hardcover graphic novel produced in collaboration with Melinda Gebbie, who began this project 16 years ago as Moore's artist-for-hire, and finished it as his fiancée. Lost Girls teams up three icons of children's literature—Alice from Alice In Wonderland, Wendy from Peter Pan, and Dorothy from The Wizard Of Oz—and re-tells their stories with the fantasy elements stripped away, replaced by real-world sexual experiences. Unsurprisingly, the book has stirred some controversy. Fans of the original characters have attacked Moore for turning them into porn stars, the owners of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan copyright have been contemplating a lawsuit, and some have questioned the way Lost Girls features young teenagers and pre-teens engaged in sexual activity, frequently with family members. Meanwhile, Moore has also been in the comics-news headlines this year for refusing to accept any money for the movie version of V For Vendetta, furthering his reputation as a prickly iconoclast. Reached by phone in his Northampton, England home, Moore genially explained himself to The A.V. Club.
The A.V. Club: Given the pre-release controversy about Lost Girls, are you anxious about the response it's going to receive when it finally comes out?
Alan Moore: Well, Melinda and I have had 16 years to talk about this, and I think our position is pretty solid. If we're serious about this stuff, and we are, we have to be prepared to defend it. One of the reasons we started this was because we were sick of the approach to sex in the culture. It seemed to us unhealthy, unproductive, and unbeautiful. In countries like the U.S. and Great Britain, we exist in a wholly sexualized culture, where everything from cars to snack food are sold with a healthy slathering of sex to make them more commercially appealing. But if you're using sex to sell sneakers, then you're not just selling sneakers, you're selling sex as well, and you're contributing to the sexual temperature of society. You're going to get people who, unsurprisingly, become overheated in that kind of sexual environment, and if they attempt to assuage their desires by resorting to the widely available medium of pornography, they're going to have their moment of gratification, and then they're going to have a much longer period of self-loathing, disgust, shame and embarrassment. It's almost like a kind of a reverse Skinner-box experiment, where once the rat has pushed the lever and successfully received the food, then he gets the electric shock.
I think if you were to sever that connection between arousal and shame, you might actually come up with something liberating and socially useful. It might be healthier for us, and lead to a situation such as they enjoy in Holland, Denmark, or Spain, where they have pornography all over the place—quite hardcore pornography—but they do not have anywhere the incidence of sex crimes. Particularly not the sex crimes against children that we suffer from in Britain, and that I believe you suffer from in the United States. It seems at least potentially that pornography might be providing an essential pressure valve in those countries, which we do not have access to here. Rather than being able to have a healthy relationship with our own sexual imagination, we're driven into some dark corners by shame and embarrassment and guilt, and those dark corners breed all sorts of monsters. Things that cross the line between the kind of pornography Melinda and I are doing, which only occurs in the realm of the mind, to the very unpleasant things that can occur in real life.
AVC: After immersing yourself in erotica for 16 years, are you sick of sex?
AM: No, no. It's only during this last year that Melinda and I have been living together all the time. Normally we'd spend two or three days out of every week in each other's company, but we've only been living together for these last 18 months. We're hopefully going to get married later this year, if we can get the paperwork sorted out. I'd recommend to anybody working on their relationship that they should try embarking on a 16-year elaborate pornography together. I think they'll find it works wonders.
Melinda's and my relationship made Lost Girls a very different and much richer book then if Melinda and I hadn't been in a relationship. We were approaching the work with such diligence, and approaching our actual relationship with a great deal of diligence as well. It was a happy synthesis that the two tended to work well with each other. Because in order to do something like Lost Girls, from the word "go," you've really got to be completely frank with each other. That's the way that we started our relationship, a condition some relationships never arrive at. And I would say at the end of this 16-year run, I'm still every bit as interested in sex, and every bit as interested in the erotic in art. But I would probably never again attempt to create another work like Lost Girls. I think in the future, I'd prefer to take what I've learned from Lost Girls and follow that back into my other work. To include sex scenes alongside the adventure scenes and everyday-life scenes, as if they were all part of the same thing. Which of course they are. Sex is not discrete from the rest of our existence. We tend to have our sex scenes in uncomfortably close proximity to our everyday-life scenes, and our scenes of despair and torment.
AVC: How did Melinda Gebbie get involved with Lost Girls originally?
AM: I'd been an admirer of Melinda's work since the underground days, in the early '70s, when she was working with people like S. Clay Wilson and Spain Rodriguez and Robert Crumb. I think Neil Gaiman was instrumental in getting in touch with her and telling her what I wanted. She and I started talking about how we felt about erotica, pornography, and the comics medium. It was a subject we didn't think had been treated in the way we'd like to see it treated. Then I mentioned an idea I'd had, a kind of half-assed connection between flying in Peter Pan and Freud's comment that dreams of flying are sexual. I thought there might be something I could do with that, but I couldn't come up with anything beyond a smutty parody of Peter Pan. Then Melinda mentioned that in her earlier strips, she'd enjoyed working with stories that had three women. So these two ideas kind of collided, and I thought if Wendy from Peter Pan were one of three women, who would the other two be? Alice and Dorothy sprung to mind immediately. The story kind of suggested itself from there, in an excited rush of conversation.
The way that we worked on Lost Girls was actually different than the way I've worked on any other comic I've done. I'm known for turning out book-sized scripts with detailed written descriptions of each panel and all the dialogue and captions and sound effects. But Melinda had never worked with a scriptwriter before, so she looked at these enormous scripts I'd written for the first four or five episodes, and I think it crushed her spirit. She wasn't comfortable, and she suggested that maybe I could do thumbnails, which is something I haven't really done for other artists because I'm so lousy at drawing thumbnails. I have to write pages of explanation to tell them that this little blob down in the right-hand corner is actually the leading character's head and shoulders. But Melinda, since she was living up here, I could talk her through all the breakdowns. She'd take my rough thumbnails and a pep talk and would go and turn out these lovely pages. Then I would do the dialoguing after the artwork was done, so that I could have a look at the expression that Melinda brought to the work. I could fine-tune the dialogue for the images so everything was much more synchronized. Lost Girls probably marks the closest that I've worked with an artist on a comic, perhaps unsurprisingly. With the nature of the material, it more or less demands an intimate relationship between the creators. Not just intimate in the usual physical sense, but also intimate in a mental and creative sense.
AVC: Lost Girls resembles your other work in that it follows a very formal structure. There are eight pages per chapter, the chapters seem to be grouped in threes, and there are three books of 10 chapters each.
AM: A lot of the structure of Lost Girls grew out of its inception. I was originally invited to submit an eight-page story for a proposed erotic anthology that was going to be coming out over here in England. I quickly realized it was going to take more than just eight pages, but even though Melinda and I conceived of Lost Girls as a 240-page graphic novel, we decided we'd better break it down into units that could be serialized.
Also, I'd found in some of my earlier work that in an extended story, you can keep it tighter if you're doing it in six- or eight-page units. You have to craft each little piece as a unit in itself, with some kind of a beginning, middle and a ending, and an overall theme. That seemed a way of keeping Melinda and myself tight while we were working through this fairly sprawling narrative. The structure of three books seemed convenient, because that's a pretty good structure for almost anything. And we'd already had a look at a timeline of the period we were talking about, and realized that [Igor Stravinsky's ballet] The Rite Of Spring debuted in 1913, and we figured that would be a great place to end the first book. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand happened a year later, which concludes the second book. And the outbreak of World War I was the climax of the piece.
AVC: By the time you get to the third book of Lost Girls, it's almost cover-to-cover explicit sex, but the third book is also where you push furthest into moral grey areas, with the pairings of children and adults. Was that intentional, making the material that would be the most potentially arousing also the material that would be most likely to make readers flinch?
AM: The reason that stuff mostly occurs in the third book is because we wanted to build slowly throughout the course of the narrative, and avoid what happens with a lot of pornography, where they start off at full strength and continue at full strength until the full-strength ending. Which is a bit exhausting. We wanted to build to a climax, because if ever a genre should build to a climax, it should be pornography.
The thing about the underage characters… It all gets a bit silly when you're talking about characters that are made up. Alice In Wonderland is like 150, well past the age of consent. And we have a culture over here—and I'm sure in America as well—where we go in for an awful lot of pedophilic titillation, in magazines like Barely Legal, where we're told that these women are over 18, but just look young. But then we were told that about Traci Lords, weren't we? And anyway, it doesn't really matter that much, does it? The intent is still the same. Look at Britney Spears and her sexy schoolgirl imitation. What is that actually saying, and how many apparently normal men is it saying it to? We are sexualizing our children at an increasingly young age. Exposure to The Spice Girls seems to have doomed us to a Western world where every 10-year-old wants a belly-button ring and a "Porn Star" T-shirt. And we just think it's cute! "Ah, look at them! They're acting like little whores!"
It's an obvious, weird part of our sexual makeup, but one that we'd rather do anything than talk about. We have to put our hands up and admit to our complicity in the sexual problems we have. As for incest, yes, in real life, incest is very, very, very seldom an idyllic thing. It's much more often a monstrous thing that destroys people's lives. However, we're not talking about real life. We are talking about the human sexual imagination. Sigmund Freud, frankly, I've not got a great deal of time for, because I think he was a child-fixated cokehead, to be perfectly honest. But his is still the prevalent paradigm in our attitude to sexuality. And Freud said that all sexual desire was sublimated incest. I don't agree with that for a moment, but it does suggest that incest is one of the big players in the theater of our desires. So that has to be referred to.
We felt we had to explore even the problematic areas of pornography, because they're a big part of pornography. We didn't want to be accused of turning out something arty that claims to be pornography but isn't. We felt that if we were going to do this thing, we were going to have to do it properly. We wanted it to be as pornographic as possible, and as artistic as possible. We wanted it to be a pornography that would include even the more extreme pornographies. All right, we chickened out with the Marquis De Sade to a degree. I don't think you can do anything that examines the field of pornography without referencing De Sade, because De Sade was the first person to use pornography for anything other than simple arousal. He was the first person to use it almost as a kind of social weapon. And I believe he was, in many respects, a profoundly moral man. However, his books are incredibly boring. I don't think that he himself got past the 15th day of Sodom. He gave up out of sheer ennui.
There's not a lot of scatology in Lost Girls, because… well, to say that it wasn't anything that appealed to us is not to put it exactly correctly. Because there's lots of things in Lost Girls that don't appeal personally to me or Melinda. But there were things that we had to find some way of getting interested in, in order to make them arousing. We had to be, to some degree, aroused ourselves, or it wasn't going to be interesting to the readers. But things like scatology were a bit beyond the pale, and we just couldn't find a way that we could get even vaguely interested in it. Sorry, all you scat fans out there.
Inevitably, there will be people, I'm sure, who will be offended by one thing or another, but we really couldn't pay any attention to that. This has taken us 16 years. We didn't know it was going to come out in 2006, in the middle of George Bush's second administration, with the world plunged more thoroughly into war then it's been in a couple of decades. It could just have easily come out nine years ago, when Clinton was in office, and it might've seemed irrelevant, and not particularly shocking in a time of [Andres Serrano's photograph] "Piss Christ." And if we'd done this 40 years ago, there would've been people asking us if we hadn't gone a bit far by portraying homosexuality.
We're working for, hopefully, something human and timeless, like I think our sexual imagination has proved to be thus far. It's been with us since [the ancient erotic statue] The Venus Of Willendorf, and will certainly be with us until we've managed to eradicate ourselves from this planet. We wanted to speak to that quality, that timeless eternal human interest in sex. We wanted to apply art to that. We had to be as comprehensive as possible. We tried to be encyclopedic without making too big of a deal about it.
AVC: The incest scenes in Lost Girls are reminiscent of two things: Victorian erotica, which frequently has cousins discovering each other's bodies and then moving on to their brothers and sisters and so on, and R. Crumb's story "Joe Blow." Were those similarities intentional?
AM: Both played a considerable part in Lost Girls, though probably the Victorian erotica played a bigger part than the estimable Robert Crumb. I looked at a relatively small amount of contemporary erotica and found that it didn't really appeal. None of the filmed or photographic material did anything for me, because there's such a lot of emotional human baggage that comes with anything that involves real models, real actors. You're too aware that this is somebody real, and that they might not have actually wanted to do this for a living. There's an air of disappointment or sadness that hangs over the material. So I tended to gravitate toward literary and artistic pornography of the Victorian and Edwardian period, simply because it's a lot better. It was a kind of golden age of porn. There were some very cruel and unpleasant pieces of writing, but at the same time, there were some surprisingly liberal and progressive pieces as well. The stories all seemed to take place in a kind of porno-topia, where characters in the middle of an orgy would be likely to deliver a lecture on sexual etiquette, about considering the feelings of one's partner, and how gentlemen should always defer to ladies. A lot of surprisingly enlightened views for this notorious and repressed Victorian period.
Now, Robert Crumb was an influence in a different way. Crumb was an influence simply because in my eyes and in Melinda's eyes, he's an impassable giant in the field of erotica. I mean, he was doing this 40 years ago. He just didn't care. And he's one of the few people of his era that has progressed throughout his lengthy career. Last year, we had a Crumb exhibition over here in England, and one Britain's leading liberal newspapers, The Guardian, devoted a big feature to it in its supplement every day for a whole week, and included reproductions of sections of "Joe Blow." And this is a national newspaper. So I wonder if we're doing anything that shocking in Lost Girls, when Crumb set the benchmark 40 years ago. If you're going to be dealing with erotica, you want to do it as frankly and directly and full-on as the way Crumb handled it.
AVC: Like a lot of your work, Lost Girls contains a lot of layers, in that it's about pornography, children's stories, and the loss of innocence that accompanies wartime. Would it be accurate to say that there's also some commentary about class privilege as well, since these women really only get to enjoy their sexual adventures because they have the money to do so?
AM: Certainly. All three characters are from different class backgrounds. You've got Alice, who is a very disenchanted member of the English upper class. You've got Wendy, who is very much a part of the hidebound and repressed English middle-class. And you've got Dorothy, who's from a rural blue-collar background. It's probably not one of the overwhelming themes in the book. It probably takes second place to the war and things like that. But at the same time, it is an important theme, particularly in the Wendy chapter. In J.M. Barrie's original book, you get the sense of class difference between very prim and proper Wendy and the rascally Lost Boys, who are rough and wild and essentially working-class. We come to the same end of our narrative as Barrie did, with Wendy grown up and married and with a child. And shutting the nursery window, so that none of the influences that came into her bedroom window and took her off into the night can ever do the same to her son. She's shutting the window against sex and shadows and the working class.
AVC: Speaking of Peter Pan, what's the status of the Great Ormond Street Hospital's copyright complaints?
AM: I don't know how much of a fuss that actually is. They expressed some concerns, but I'm not entirely sure why. There's always a chance that I might have something wrong, but if I understand it correctly, Barrie gifted them with royalties to the stage performances of Peter Pan, and I believe different circumstances apply to the book, which is already in the public domain in America, and will be in the public domain in England by next year. I personally have never seen the play Peter Pan, or read it. I did go over the book extensively when we were putting Lost Girls together. I tend to think this is a bit of a storm in a teacup. Not to condescend or overlook Great Ormond Street Hospital, and I mean, me and Melinda and [Top Shelf publisher] Chris Staros have got no problems with giving them a royalty or something. It's a children's hospital, you know? Who's going to say no? But I think they seem to be making a bit more of it than I'd expected from people who've been gifted by a fantasy writer. It seemed a bit odd that they should take on so vociferously. Especially when we actually never used the words "Peter Pan" or "Captain Hook" or even "Wendy Darling" anywhere in the book. Obviously, it's based upon those characters. But it's just as obviously not the same Peter Pan and Wendy Darling that J.M. Barrie wrote about. And as far as I know, Great Ormond Street had not seen any of Lost Girls or read any of it when they decided it wasn't the kind the thing they wished to be associated with.
AVC: Between the Great Ormond Street trouble and the possibility of obscenity statutes in the U.S. being violated, are you worried about bankrupting Top Shelf?
AM: I'm incredibly proud of the way Chris is standing behind this book. Chris knew what the book was when he decided to do it, and we've been completely honest about what this book contains during the whole 16 years we've been working upon it. Of course we don't want anybody to be disadvantaged or bankrupted by this book. At the same time, what are our alternatives? If you're living in a politically repressive time where you have this seemingly fundamentalist-directed agenda percolating down not only through America but through all of those countries who are fortunate enough be in the shadow of America, you've really got no option other than to make your statement as you see fit, or shut up. We are prepared, if there's trouble, to stand in our corner and fight. I have heard of comic shops being raided for things like posters of Wonder Woman. The officer involved thought it looked pretty pornographic to him. There isn't any way you can defend yourself against this kind of irrationality. The only thing you can do is publish and be prepared for the consequences.
Over here we have the Today program, a radio program, and they were the ones who first informed me of the Great Ormond Street story. They aired the subject of Lost Girls a couple weeks ago, and the first question the interviewer asked me, with a microphone practically halfway down my throat, was, "If even one child is harmed as a result of Lost Girls, how would you feel?" I wish I'd said, "If even one Ministry Of Defense covert weapons expert was found dead in the woods as a result of being outed by the Today program, how would you feel?" But instead I said I'd feel very surprised, because as far as I'm aware, attacks upon children are generally predicated upon the psychopathology of the individual involved rather than upon expensive, over-wordy literary pornography. Then, at the end of the program, when they were handing back to the main news desk, the woman turned to the sports presenter and said, "I bet you'll be ordering your copy," and the sports presenter said, "I bet you'll be ordering yours first." They were having a bit of a smutty snigger. Which is a healthy reaction, I think.
You know, most of the supposed underage sex in Lost Girls, it has to be said, is occurring between sexually active teenagers. There's no more underage sex in Lost Girls than is probably occurring in this block at the moment. I think the first time I had sex, I was 17, and I was embarrassed because I was a late starter. So something sexually questionable might happen to an imaginary character that looks too young by our current standards… though not by the standards that we held 100 years ago, when the age of consent in Britain was 12, and working-class teenagers were married with children. But because these characters appear to transgress upon our current arbitrary line of when it's permissible to have a sexual identity, are people really going to be that upset? When there are children right now being blown to pieces, often at our behest or in our name?
AVC: If there do end up being any legal repercussions from Lost Girls, will you regret not holding on to that V For Vendetta movie money, to help pay any bills?
AM: No, no. I've not regretted that for a moment. Yes, it led to a year of completely unnecessary trouble which led to me more or less severing myself from the American comics industry, apart from the increasingly slender thread that is Chris Staros. Because he has lost a lot of weight recently. But no, no. It's been so liberating. I've never really cared that much about money. I've got enough to live on. And it's not like I live in a fancy house, it's not like I own a car, and it's not like I ever go on holiday. For this past 18 months, I've been blissfully involved with writing my next novel, Jerusalem, which will probably take me another couple of years to finish and edit. It's going to be over a half-million words, probably about 1,500 pages or something. As big as a book can be, if not bigger. I've not got a deal for this book, nor am I seeking one. I haven't gotten an advance for it. I haven't earned any money for the past 18 months. I haven't done any paying work. But I'm not greatly inconvenienced. There's royalties still coming in.
The only thing that was important to me was that I completely sever my connections with Hollywood. I just wanted to get my work back to reality, which I found very difficult to do working with the movie or comic-book end of the American entertainment industry. When Jerusalem is finished in a couple of years, I'll think about how I want to publish it. I'm sure I won't be short of people offering to do it for me. But I will have written it exactly as I want to write it. I won't have anybody telling me to make it a bit shorter, make it a bit less obscure. It will be exactly the book I wanted to write. At the moment, that kind of freedom is most important for me.
You know, when I started Lost Girls, I had just walked away from an awful lot of money. I've been done with DC Comics since 1989, and I wouldn't have found myself working for them again if they hadn't gone to the extraordinary lengths of buying a company I'd just signed a contract with. Back then, I turned down an awful lot of security and money to work upon Lost Girls, From Hell, my first novel, and other things that weren't really commercial propositions. So money hasn't stopped me from doing Lost Girls. It's just taken a bit of time. We had two or three publishers go out of business, not entirely because of Lost Girls, but because of the market. These last several years, I've been paying Melinda, so she didn't have to do anything else. Because I was very committed to this book.
We both felt it was important for this book to come out. I don't think I'll ever personally break even on Lost Girls. But it remains one of the works I'm most proud of. It's not about the money. It's about the accomplishment. I'm a very smug show-off at heart. I'm altogether too pleased with myself. The big boost for me is to be able to turn out something that I think is pretty marvelous, like Lost Girls. I'm not in it for money, I'm just in it for the glory. Me and Melinda think that Lost Girls is pretty glorious.