Ask the Brit comic book artist Alan Moore about his relationship with Hollywood or DC and he’ll slump back to Northamptonshire, grumbling that he’ll never cross the Atlantic again. He has every right perhaps. His labours of love such asV for Vendetta, Watchmen and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen have been bastardised by film adaptations, resulting in Moore relinquishing all associated with what is still, essentially his writing.
Over the last few years, Hollywood has descended upon the colourful fields of graphic novels and comic books like a plague of locusts, stripping them of their depth and resonance to fly off to the box office ever fatter. Main stream movies, having once been made by men that love film, are now made by men that love money. So, reigning it back in possibly, with another type of collaboration and two fingers up to Hollywood, Alan Moore created a comic book (or graphic novel) that definitely can’t be adapted into 3D and marketed to every age group. Because it’s porn, and unconventional porn at that. Denying the film industry of yet another comic book movie might not have been his intention, but I’m hoping that it crossed his mind. Lost Girls, a graphically erotic exploration into the sexual awakening of three very different, and yet familiar girls, was not made by him alone however.
If the film industry and Alan Moore are a match made in hell, that’s not to say there wasn’t a perfect partner, with one foot in the fantasy realm in which he dwells- for him to find eventually. Melinda Gebbie, a San Franciscan artist- who in the 1970’s was collaborating with the subversive, satirical illustrator Robert Crumb, S. Clay Wilson and Spain Rodriguez, was called to Northampton as Moore’s artist-for-hire when he had the premise for a new story. It began with Peter Pan and the Freudian notion that dreams of flying are linked to sex, but when Melinda Gebbie joined forces the project turned a corner. The couple soon shared a mission to rehabilitate pornography and to take away the associated furtiveness and shame. If sexual imagination cannot be policed, then a graphic novel is possibly a good forum in which it can be explored.
Lost Girls is set in a resort hotel on the Franco-Swiss border, in 1913. The girls in question are the now all-grown-up heroines from popular childhood classics. The silver haired aristocrat with a long list of scandal behind her is Lewis Carroll’s Alice from Into the Looking Glass, Wendy Potter, wife of a staid middle-aged businessman, is Wendy from J.M Barrie’s Peter Pan and Dorothy Gale, the free-spirited young American tourist seeing Europe for the first time, is the heroine from L.Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. All three come together in an exploration of sexual awakening that progress into pages of more graphic, and at times, relentless pornography.
But the book is rooted firmly in the fantasy world. And what a couple to create it: a man who in 1993 declared that he was a wizard, and a Californian feminist artist. Gebbie’s illustrations- all in a soft pastel pallet- match the sensuality of the material and are far from the brutal images of modern day pornography; and Moore’s narrative (as always) is a multi-faceted commentary- only this time on sex.
Many references are made to a literary tradition that dates back centuries, from the free-wheeling explicit cartoonist Robert Crumb, to Victorian erotica in England: Oscar Wilde and the British illustrator Audrey Beardsley. The book is layered with ideas about ‘childhood’ and the taboo, but also the sexuality of war. By the end of a rambling narrative, where the intimate sexual back-stories of each protagonist is unveiled, and we learn that their awakening has not just been erotic, but restorative and binding, the women escape the hotel as German soldiers storm through and blow everything up. World War one envelopes their journey and the mindless aggression of the soldiers defile the sacred space these women have shared. War, therefore, becomes the ultimate perversion of sex. And the lasting message that Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie wish to promote is to make love and not war- something their collaboration landed on during the process.
The project took sixteen years to complete and by the end of it? Moore and Gebbie were married. “I’d recommend to anybody working on their relationship that they should try embarking on a 16-year elaborate pornography [project] together. I think they’ll find it works wonders.” Moore said in hindsight, on a relationship and product that might last longer than any Hollywood budget.
It was a sad moment for my dad when I stayed with him recently and he caught me in bed reading Judy Annual, 1976. It had enraged him when I was sixteen, as he sent me to a “good school” and I “should be reading proper books!” But after studying a whole other world of classics at school and university, I am still like a magnet to comics, annuals and – now the biggest money maker in the publishing industry – the graphic novel.
Words are an imperfect medium. How can we faithfully translate emotions into words when consciousness is infinite and words are finite? In the late 1970’s, Will Eisner created a biography of Dropsie Avenue in the Bronx and “the ethnic and social changes of its stream of occupants”. In the hope of enticing the patronage of a main stream publisher he called it a ‘graphic novel’. The book , A Contract with God , is a series of stories – “some are true, some could be true” – about “life, death, heartbreak and the never-ending struggle to prevail… or at least survive”.
Eisner wrote it after his sixteen year old daughter died. And it’s not a comic nor is it The Year of Magical Thinking. The tales are caught with a cinematic approach to images and a literary economy of words. It’s a man in a metropolis, his head bowed; with “the sewers overflowing and the waters rising over the curbs of the street” exorcising his rage at a deity he believes has violated his faith. The stories are told in the same multifaceted way that they were experienced.
As a dyslexic, maybe it’s only fitting that I deal better with images than straight narrative. Words don’t always suffice. There’s no excuse for Judy Annual- apart from the fact that I just love it. But there’s no excuse for not seeing how skilfully clever a book like Asterios Polyp (by David Mazzucchelli) is. In it, form becomes function. The arrogant anti-hero Asterios Polyp, an architect teacher and womaniser, is at times drawn in red cylinders when arguing with his wife (drawn in blue etchings). And when he asserts his character the make-up of his students physically changes. But Asterios is introduced to us first “standing in the rain watching his home burn up, thinking one thing: Not again.” I am as fazed as he is, trundling through five pages of New York terrain with only the clothes on his back. Sodden and alone in the subway, a small bird flies out of the station (and the page); a woman sits on her suitcase at the bottom of the escalator vomiting on her shoes. Neither is explained. They don’t serve as metaphors but are shown as random happenings, the backdrop to Asterios’ first steps on an epic journey of discovery. Asterios stares out the bus window watching the American landscape shoot past. And it’s the same land Jack Kerouac described- the same fields of dreams and ash heaps from The Great Gatsby, brought to a new audience.
Before Asterios Polyp, Mazzucchelli had the painful, arduous task of working with Paul Auster, adapting City of Glass into a graphic novel. The story is packed with strange metaphysical happenings. A lone man gets mistaken for a detective, decides to play the role, follows a jittering old man through New York, and ultimately disintegrates into the very foundations of the city. Frame-by-frame we see this little figure turn from man to brickwork, literally becoming the wall he leans against.
The latent theme of City of Glass is the word itself. So what better way to discuss our severance from language, our inability to connect feeling with the tool on the tip of our tongue than images? In my eyes, the genre of ‘The Great American Novel’ is all about the dream, the hope and possibility of a new life in ‘the land of the free’ and the loneliness which pays for it. What better way to tell this than through pages of un-narrated frames of a man moving from one disaster in his life into the unknown? Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp and his adaptation of City of Glass force the reader to slowly reflect on his characters and the epic adventures they embark upon. We get to see them wander through inexplicable dreamscapes, shrink in the vastness of the city, or literally become the bricks and mortar which built it.
Graphic novels are not just about girls with blonde pigtails flirting with the neighbour’s son over the garden fence. It’s a medium where anything seems expressible. And if I was to send one to my dad, he might just come round to the idea.