Childhood revisited

<em>Roly Allen</em> meets Alan Moore, the Shakespeare of the comic book, to discuss his latest, porn

"In the immortal words of the Elephant Man, John Merrick," says Alan Moore, "'Everyone's been terribly kind.'" He seems perversely rueful that his latest comic epic, Lost Girls, has not generated more in the way of moral panic, or a tabloid assault on his Northampton doorstep. "It's a bit like one of those Western films where people say, 'It's quiet, almost too quiet,' just before the arrows hit them in the back." One can well imagine how Lost Girls might have generated such a backlash: not only are its three volumes laden with sex, but it's explicit sex of kinds guaranteed to alarm our moral guardians - gay, foot-fetishistic, group, drugged, underage, incestuous, adulterous, coercive, and so on and so on. Furthermore, its heroines are lifted from some of English literature's best-loved children's books - and one of them, to boot, happens to be the intellectual property of the nation's most prominent children's hospital. Small wonder that Moore warned his artistic collaborator - and now wife - Melinda Gebbie to expect a "monstering".

The book is set in Austria, 1913 - a time of ideological conflict: the belle époque ending, modernism on the rise, Freudian ideas gaining currency, geopolitical tensions pushing a continent to war. To the idyllic Hotel Himmelgarten come the ageing, disgraced Lady Alice, a young American named Dottie, and a thoroughly respectable English couple, the Potters. The proprietor, one Monsieur Rougeur, leaves an erotic anthology in each bedroom, and before long the elder of the Englishwomen has seduced Dottie and Wendy Potter with its (and opium's) assistance. They are, it transpires, none other than The Wizard of Oz's Dorothy, Peter Pan's Wendy and Alice in Wonderland's Alice; grown-up, deracinated, and free to concentrate on nothing save pleasure. And what fun they have, romping sensually around: as well as making thorough use of the hotel's facilities (and guests, and staff), they go to the opera, take opium and talk, sharing memories and fantasies.

The meat of the book is the eroticised reimagining of encounters from the source novels: thus, Peter Pan becomes a randy urchin, the Cowardly Lion a lusty farmhand, the Mad Hatter's tea party a lesbian orgy. That baldly stated, the conceit sounds crass: but Moore's technique forces us to reimagine what kinds of circumstances might have given rise to the original fictions, and can carry real punch. What kind of sexuality could have been sublimated into these strange stories, he asks - and can I recast them as a new kind of erotic literature? What fantasies might relate to the imagined worlds of Wonderland, Neverland or Oz? He wants us to enjoy his ingenuity, re-examine the source material and get turned on at the same time - not a challenge that many writers would dare to set either themselves or their readership.

While it is undoubtedly Moore's name that will attract readers and attention, the achievement is as much Melinda Gebbie's as his. Her art - mostly worked-up layers of coloured pencil - is as unlike conventional comic art as could be; eschewing the primary colours of the usual comic-book palette for lush greens, purples, oranges and pinks (there's a lot of pink), she composes luminous, sensual panels and pages. Visual metaphors abound: Wendy's stories are full of shadows, Alice's of reflections, and Dorothy's memories of flat Kansas farmlands are framed in widescreen, horizontal panels. Small wonder that it took 15 years to draw the 320 pages and two more to see them to press; small wonder that Gebbie is now working not on comics, but on a memoir and a series of paintings. As Moore notes: "It takes a long time to depressurise after something like that." But it works, and the intimacy of the relationship between artist and writer is evident on every page. Imagery and dialogue bounce off each other, generating new resonances, and page layouts, colour schemes and graphic treatments are thoughtfully employed.

One tour de force of visual and textual counterpoint ("I like showing off, structurally," remarks Moore laconically. "It's a failing of mine") has our heroines going at it in the front row of the Paris premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, the audience rioting behind them as the dancers enact Stravinsky's primitive rituals. Another combines a daisy-chain of sexual encounters around the hotel with an unwitting ironic commentary from Wendy's priggish husband. Gebbie gives the scenes lightness and wit, and the displayed bodies, members and orifices weight and warmth. More to the point, the pages do not tire the eye at all, the variety of compositions and palettes more than matching Moore's formal and verbal dexterity. Most pornography is disposable in nature, and cold in tone: Lost Girls is warm and demands rereading - and, as Moore comments, it certainly avoids "the stale, locker-room atmosphere that would probably have resulted if two men had been working on it".

The impression given is that Moore is a man very much in love with the possibilities of his medium. This enthusiasm does not, however, extend to the current crop of literary graphic novels: "On one end of the spectrum," he says, "you've got the tough-guy material like Frank Miller's, an awful lot of which could be called teenage and Neanderthal. I hear that his next project is liable to be 'Batman v Bin Laden' . . . What can you say? And at the other end of the spectrum, there's this perfectly designed material, like Chris Ware's, that seems to be endlessly reiterating how emotionally hollow and lonely modern American life is. And America is the most comfortable and best-off country on the face of the planet. It's not like they have a lot to complain about, and yet you get these beautifully illustrated . . . whinges. I see very few people who are actually attempting anything literary with the comics medium."

Lost Girls is no whinge. At times, it all falls into place and the book offers a completely original synthesis of literary jeu d'esprit, marvellous graphics and fierce concentration on the redemptive powers of love and sex. At others, it falls flat: the plethora of incestuous themes is no doubt a faithful reflection of Edwardian porn, but difficult to appreciate now. It's all in our imaginations, we are being encouraged to consider; and while the juggle of ideas from memory to fantasy, reality to fiction, is well worked, the sad fact is that the harder you have to think about something, the less arousing it tends to become. Ultimately, the book reflects its creators' personalities - fiercely intelligent, barmily col ourful and shamelessly lusty - and many readers will no doubt allow themselves to be seduced. Just don't tell the Daily Mail.

"Lost Girls" by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie is published by Top Shelf (£49.99)

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Moral crisis?