Whatever his literary reputation ends up being, there's one thing Alan Moore, the British scriptwriter of such legendary comics as V for Vendetta, From Hell, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, will always have going for him. When he started in the business, people were still reading comic books. Now, thanks largely to him, they still read comic books, but they're called "graphic novels." Just one example of how he has upscaled his medium: Time magazine last year lifted Moore's 1986 superhero deconstruction Watchmen out of the funny-book ghetto to rate it among the best 100 novels of the last eight decades.
Prior to Moore's milestone works, writing comic-book dialogue was an occupation akin to being the script doctor on a porn video: It wasn't clear the job even needed to be done. Beginning with his brilliant 1982 reimagining of the cornball U.K. superhero comic Marvelman (Miracleman in the United States), Moore changed the rules of the game, introducing pastiche, artful juxtapositions, intertextuality (in which real and invented portions from novels, histories, and other sources flesh out the story), an obsession with historical eras (in particular the Victorian and Edwardian periods), and a flair for the ominous and surreal. Moore is one of the reasons you can't find a simple pulp superhero adventure at the drugstore, and why your local library is clearing out shelf space for its graphic novel section.
With his new, boxed, three-volume work of pornography—Lost Girls, drawn by his fiancée Melinda Gebbie—Moore, a 52-year-old who worships a Roman snake god and boasts of having been expelled from school for dealing acid, has finally completed the perfect mélange of his talents and concerns. He really has become the script doctor on a porn video.
Almost inevitably, Moore has a devout following among libertarians. The movement has always been top-heavy with geeks, and Moore is the rare figure willing to pay a steep price for personal and artistic freedom, walking away from a lucrative contract with DC Comics and refusing to take any credit for or money from this year's V for Vendetta movie. More important, his work deals with anarchism and freedom fighting (V), the bloody corruption of governments (From Hell), Pynchonian conspiracy and the attractions of bully worship (Watchmen), and other topics dear to the libertarian heart. Whether Moore handles this material well or his idea-hungry fans are just happy to see it done at all is another question. For my money, V for Vendetta's warmed-over 1984 plot is the height of bogusness, a story that congratulates itself for daring to stand against a right-wing totalitarian state so over the top that nobody would support it in the first place. And for all its Ulysses-esque density, Watchmen has one of the hokiest conclusions ever devised.
Lost Girls continues this pattern, in which none-too-sophisticated ideas are put to us amid much whirring of machinery. The book's heroines are the grownup versions of three icons of British and American children's literature: Alice of Alice in Wonderland, Wendy of Peter Pan, and Dorothy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Their adventures with the Red Queen, Captain Hook, and the Tin Woodman are literalized as episodes of wild, incestuous, Sapphic, bestial, multifarious sex.
That Peter Pan, the Alice books, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz contain veiled elements of sexual awakening will surprise nobody remotely acquainted with the cracker-barrel Freudianism that has informed popular views of these books for decades. The setting of Lost Girls, an idyllic Austrian hotel called the "Himmelgarten," is a clear tip that we're in one of those pornotopias beloved by 19th-century writers of erotica. Whatever complex structure Moore is building here is as subtle as a Ron Jeremy money shot.
Moore's strengths and weaknesses are on full display. The pastiches of period erotica seem completely convincing to this reader (and rendered in high beaux arts style by Gebbie's nuts-butts-clits-and-tits drawings). Moore's ear for dialogue, on the other hand, remains Helen Kelleresque, with Dorothy Gale's Americanisms standing out as an embarrassment. (The stuffy British-gentleman dialogue given to a shipping magnate is not much better.) Best of all are Moore's trademark portentous juxtapositions: In one key scene two women get it on at the riotous premier of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring; later a super-orgy is intercut with the shooting of Archduke Ferdinand. It all builds to that hoariest of literary tropes, in which the outbreak of World War I sweeps away the earthly paradise of La Belle Époque. As hipsters used to say in Moore's childhood, heavy, man, heavy.
Then again, how subtle should porn be? In a kind review for the Manchester Guardian, comics writer Neil Gaiman (whose cheerier and even more self-consciously literary work owes a debt to Moore) acknowledges that the book fails as "a one-handed read." Like a frigid bride on her wedding night, I found myself wanting the thing to end, yet the expanse of still unread pages seemed at times to be growing rather than shrinking.
Even the book's political theme, of sexually liberated rebels building a temporary free zone away from the stodgy world, goes undeveloped, as do its occasional flirtations with class issues. The token square (the shipbuilder noted above) ends up in an episode of wide-eyed gay sex with a strapping German, but this subject is dropped once everybody gets off. Moore really doesn't respect us in the morning.
What does this flaccid achievement say about Moore, a legitimately important figure who has expanded the boundaries of a form that now commands respect from the cultural commissars at The New Yorker, university lit departments, and Hollywood studios on the hunt for their next franchise? Ever since being initially bowled over by Watchmen, I've been rooting for Moore to kick ass, and my inclination is to applaud anybody who markets full-bore pornography to a mainstream readership. But the transgressions on sticky-fingered display here fail to live up to their billing. Lost Girls has received a welcome share of prepublication controversy, including a threatened lawsuit from the Great Ormond Street Hospital, which owns the Peter Pan copyright. But in practice it looks suspiciously like an aging wild child trying to show he can still let his freak flags fly at The Man and all his hang-ups.