Is Alan Moore a Universal Genius?
No, of course he’s not. Though I yield to no one in my love of Voice Of The Fire — especially I loved the trick of “Hob’s Hog”, a thing that as I’ve said before I think Alan Moore does better than anyone, and perhaps it’s the finest degraded-vernacular first-person narration I’ve ever come across — truly a magic spell! — nevertheless I won’t deny that in a handful of places the book is something just a little bit less than pure gold. I think it’s a fantastic, exciting, brilliant experiment, and in spots something of an out-and-out triumph…but in other spots I confess I think it misses pure gold just by an inch or two, and hits pure silver instead. Very pure silver; but silver. Similarly, though I can sit and read, watch, or listen to his thoughts on culture, philosophy, magic, and the future for hours on end — and I really can, for me he throws off sparks of inspiration so thick that it might as well really be magic — and of course he would say it really is, and what’m I looking so surprised about anyway — good heavens, what an idea-man he is! — still Alan can’t talk with absolute brilliance about everything in the world…and though he is (for example) more serious than Grant Morrison or Warren Ellis, he is not as up-to-date, and therefore some of his talk inevitably falls the tiniest bit flatter than some other of his talk.
And I haven’t heard the recordings of his Happenings. I’m sure I’d like them. I might even love them.
But would they be pure gold? I’m not going to say I think anything about this one way or another, except finding out is going to be half the fun, so don’t ask me to spoil it for myself by idolizing Alan too much…
And I loved the Black Dossier, and even think I detected in it some extra-sly material that effectively answers some of the more sensible-sounding criticisms of it…
But I thought his mimicking of the styles of other authors was not as convincing as some other mimickings of this kind. The Shakespeare really wasn’t a good match at all (oh, well, come on! Let’s be reasonable, my God what do I want from poor Alan…!), the Wodehouse didn’t sound very much like Wodehouse, the Kerouac was funny but unreadable…and so.
And have you noticed that he seems to thrive particularly well in the superhero genre, or anyway the quasi-superhero genre?
And not quite so well when he’s out of it…
Oh, well except of course there’s From Hell…and Big Numbers as well, maybe…
And I’ve got news for you: now there’s Lost Girls, too.
No kidding: it’s a stunner.
A Universal Genius he might not be, but Lost Girls sure won’t do much to convince you of that. It is simply — yes — pure gold. I’ve never seen his much-vaunted talent for double vu on such fantastic, effective display; I’ve never been so amazed at the pure cleverness of his conceit. Consider two things, here: one, his (heretofore merely amusing, but now something else besides) insistence that Lost Girls is not erotica but porn…and two, that he might’ve chosen to pull the Watchmen trick of making up thinly-veiled “alternate” versions of these beloved children’s stories — that we all would’ve known were intended to be Alice, Wendy, and Dorothy anyway — but he didn’t.
But, why didn’t he?
Hey, it worked for Watchmen, and it worked incredibly well: in fact it worked better that way, than if he had used the pre-existing characters!
There’s an obvious answer to this: which is simply that if one desires to discuss the powerful current of sexual implication that runs underneath much of our childrens’ literature, that discussion benefits from the re-imagining of the old familiar characters as themselves, instead of as shadowy cognates with new names, ambiguous pointers to a strictly suggestive or wished-for meaning that’s never allowed to become what it really is, or intends to be. I mean…first of all, it pulls completely against the point. Because the point’s supposed to be about freeing truths that were previously sublimated! And it’s really hard enough already: Alice is Alice, but until the end of Book One she isn’t specifically named as “our” Alice. Neither is Wendy, though it’s just as hard to miss that Wendy is who she is. Meanwhile Dorothy is the plainest-spoken of these identifications, but even she can’t help but be somewhat masked, by (for example) the replacement of the movie’s Ruby Slippers with the book’s original Silver Shoes, by a new nickname, by a whole bunch of things. And they’re all older; they all have new invented histories and sexual inclinations and lives; it’s really hard enough already. Without Alan’s brilliant double-vu shenanigans it wouldn’t even be possible to do it. But even Alan can only stretch double vu so far before it breaks.
That’s the obvious answer.
Here’s the not-so-obvious one: if the girls had been called (say) Donna, and Nikki, and Shelley, instead of Wendy and Dorothy and Alice…
Why then, it wouldn’t have been porn.
Yes: only erotica. The kind of stuff art teachers put on their walls to intrigue their slightly-tipsy students or browbeat their button-down businessmen brothers-in-law with…oh, oh! Oh, the avant-garde. What they love today, you’ll love tomorrow…!
Porn’s not like that. Nobody loves it tomorrow.
And yet is porn so vile, by its nature? It is not; and yet, it is. Porn can dress itself up as it likes, give words to itself to say that are sly, cute, coy, or otherwise defensible-sounding…and yet all porn’s defences are really only pretenses, and no one really buys it, and indeed no one ever really sees it. Except the, ah…the enthusiast.
Ah, porn, porn, porn…who you trying to kid, friend Porn? There are no “enthusiasts”, just people with excuses to make. Excuses that must, that do, always fall flat. Because porn is porn. As the young amoral folk say today: “it is what it is.” And that’s all that it is.
And here’s the beauty of it: I cannot hang Lost Girls — for all its beauty! — on my wall, and call it erotica. I cannot call it art, though art is most definitely what it is. Because people will ask me what it’s about. And if I dare to tell them…
“It’s about Alice In Wonderland, Wendy Darling, and Dorothy Gale fucking each other…”
No, oh no! I can’t tell them that! They’ll think I’m some kind of sick pervert!
Guaranteed they will.
A nineteen-year old girl of my acquaintance — you see how delicate I am (“hey, man…it is what it is”) — recently asked me about my copy of Lost Girls. And I told her what it was. What it is? What it is. And she asked if she could read it, and I said: “Um…I guess so…”
And then she asked if she could borrow it.
And I said:
“Hell no! Look, I don’t care if you are nineteen, I’m pretty sure lending you this would get me strung up…!“
Hence: it’s porn. Not erotica.
If you have to hide it when people come over for dinner: it’s porn. Not erotica.
No matter how artsy or delicate it is.
Here’s where Alan’s genius of conception (not to mention sense of humour — again, double vu) really shows. If it were Donna, and Nikki, and Shelley, then it could be erotica: “what’s it about?” Well, it’s about exploring the undercurrent of sexuality in childrens’ stories, my dear…why haven’t you always felt, that when the tornado comes for Dorothy…
“Wait, wait. This is Dorothy? Like, from the Wizard of Oz?“
Of course not, my sweet. Why, what do you take me for? No, this is only a girl that may be Dorothy, that might be Dorothy…because, don’t you agree, isn’t Dorothy really a metaphor for all young women on the brink of sexual awareness? So we might legitimately say, then, that there is no Dorothy…never has been a Dorothy…
Oh, but please: allow me to take your coat. Gracious, where are my manners…
Now that’s some erotica right there, friends. That is some plausible deniability. No, no…not porn. Good heavens, Constable, what an imagination you’ve got! No, this is erotica…
Perfectly harmless stuff, I assure you!
Now…may I freshen your drink?
Meanwhile they lock me in a room, and then they throw away the room, for letting a nineteen-year old woman, mind! see a picture of an old lady doing something nasty with another old lady.
Well, such was the genius of Alan’s intention.
Mind you, it wasn’t all his intention…
Let’s talk art for a minute. I confess when I discovered who Melinda Gebbie was, I was a bit trepidatious — would she turn out to be the comics version of Linda McCartney? Although I could appreciate the intellectual suitability of the particular style she brought to the work (that I saw in excerpted panels online), still I wondered if she was doing it that way because, well, she couldn’t do it any other way. Not that I’m a snob for any kind of art! But I worried a little, deep down, that her art wouldn’t live up to Alan’s words, and Alan’s fine conceit.
Shame on me.
In fact, shame on me twice: once for doubting, and a second time for denying Melinda credit for shaping and originating that very conceit, that very cleverness and complexity, that Alan’s name on the book convinced me to expect. Alan Moore, without question, writes a damn fine pictorial narrative; but he’s also (which may be higher praise) a very dedicated believer in artistic collaboration, and he does a damn fine job of that too. Well, I’m not just making this up: you can see it throughout his body of work. Alan’s a fantastic Maker, but he’s not THE Maker, not the one and only Maker…well, who in their right mind would overlook Eddie Campbell or Dave Gibbons or Steve Bissette, just because Alan Moore was there? It doesn’t make sense, and it isn’t supportable — “artist” does not mean “secretary”, except in the Blakean sense of all creators being but secretaries “of a greater Author”.
So: Melinda. This is every bit as much her book as it is Alan’s, and my God she makes great stuff of it. One often encounters art which is jolting at first, but then swiftly draws the reader in past the membrane of defamiliarization, almost mesmerically into a state of aligned vision (the principle of opposition becoming the principle of harmony, if you will), a lot like going cross-eyed. Or, like reading something with 3D glasses on, and then looking up at the real world to find it gives you a headache? (A-HA!) And the art in Lost Girls is like that, only more fast-acting: at the risk of sounding like a complete idiot, it doesn’t lower you into the rabbit-hole, it drops you. And then you’re falling. And how? Why? Well, because these are very powerfully recursive images Melinda gives us — very very powerfully recursive images, that use the story to tell the story of the story…
You Watchmen lovers out there, take note: this is really something. This is M.C. Escher. This is not just Alan. This is Melinda.
I won’t even spoil it for you. The thing’s an onion; it’s got layers. It’s a Julia Set. It’s a thrilling accomplishment. Go buy it, go read it…double vu, Good Lord. It really is.
Quite a staggering achievement, for PORN.
Which is by its nature something as unsavoury, as it is ineliminable. Yes. And, yes: this may already be the most intellectually audacious comic I’ve ever read, even though I’ve only just finished Book One. And something in me says I should wait to read it all, before I post this review…not because I may be let down by Books Two and Three (I’m absolutely confident that I won’t be), but because no doubt Books Two and Three contain such marvellous and felicitous outrages in them, that no half-decent reviewer could bring himself to pass over without mentioning…
But then another part of me is saying that if I wait, I’ll only have less to say. Because I’ll have too much to say: already Book One (and a bit of Book Two) very nearly defeat me. If you were ever a person who thought that Alan Moore had grown overly reliant on a small handful of stylistic choices and narrative techniques, if you ever thought to yourself “oh, bloody Alan Moore again with his juxtapositions and his foreshadowings and his double meanings, can’t he ever learn more than one tune to put all those excellent words to?”, then come on and see what use he’s putting that bag of tricks to, these days. This right here, this is a novel that he and Melinda have written. This cries out for a couple dozen inches in the New York Times Review of Books. This is not fooling around, this is about something. This is a million miles away from “style-as-crutch”.
As I head deeper into Book Two, I cannot imagine having any cause to reverse myself on that. Although if I do, you’ll be the first to know!
But beware, casual reader: Alan wasn’t joking. This is fucking PORN.
And also, just by the way: a masterpiece.
…So, only one more bit of business to tidy up, then…
I found myself wondering just now, as I was going to check on the rice, what my friend Willow may make of this review of mine. Not that I can alter my opinion to conform to anyone’s reading but my own! But I didn’t just go out and get Lost Girls because it’s Alan Moore, I also went out and got it because I’d read so much controversial stuff about it online, that I had difficulty believing in. Many, many feminist comics bloggers (I do feel silly using “feminist” that way, because it almost feels as though I’m accusing people of being all single-issue-y — in the comics blogosphere anyway, I suppose the always-contested term “feminism” has accumulated some specific bullshit connotations that I’m uncomfortable with, and so therefore it feels like I’m overgeneralizing even to talk about feminist comics bloggers, as though there should be anything outre about feminist anything in FREAKING 2008 FOR GOD’S SAKE…!), have spoken out against it, some quite passionately.
I can only say (to my friend Willow, whose respect I’d be sorry to lose) that I believe those bloggers (those comics bloggers, damnit!) have not — sorry, sorry, you’ll pardon the expression, but I have to, it’s the mot juste — damn you, Alan — penetrated to the artistic intention of Lost Girls. To my reasonably well-travelled eyes, there’s much here, in this brilliantly, purposely transgressive work, for an enlightened person to welcome. And so…? I confess to being a bit downcast at the outcries against it. Surely if feminism stands for anything, it stands for uncompromising honesty — and Lost Girls, as a work, is just about as honest as it comes. It seems to me.
But of course — your mileage may vary.
Now please stand by to see if I find any reason to do an about-face after all.
Pleasant dreams, Bloggers!
Thanks for playing a character in my story, Tyche!
Any chance for “Spring Review #2: Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele”?
As a matter of fact, that’s Spring Review #3!
UPDATE: Just finished Book Two, and suddenly a bit alarmed that somebody will think the specific details of the womens’ “stories” are all I’m talking about, when I’m praising it. These details are very good, but they’re not primarily the point, even though they are perhaps the porniest porn porn porn part of the book. Alan’s angles on the original texts mostly jump out at you unexpectedly here, but sometimes the edges of them seem more rough-cut than I might’ve expected — a puzzle: is it just because it’s such damn familiar stuff? Or because you know perfectly well, and are in fact turning the pages to see, what Alan’s Angle will be. Actually, I’d suggest not — at least, not entirely. There is a sense of predictability here at times, impossible to surprise, even as there’s also (I promise you!) scenes that just make you shake your head and laugh at how you didn’t see it coming…so I can’t help but wonder, why the mix? The more rough-cut stuff doesn’t make sense, if you take into account the well-oiled nature of all Alan’s tics and tricks — if we know anything about him, we know he can make this stuff go absolutely smooth as silk, and we can in fact see just how we would lubricate it more economically, too…and then again, suddenly BOOM! Suddenly the flow straightens out again and becomes perfectly laminar, beyond what we could do: all the justifications seem utterly unforced again, natural, even inevitable.
It must be intentional: this isn’t a matter of “maybe he messed it up”, this is like coming across a Ditko panel with no tense bodies in it, for heaven’s sake. And then WHAMMO! you’re right back into the tensest bodies ever. Oh, maybe I should leave you in some suspense about my conclusions, since I’ve got this pounding sinus pressure to deal with (is this damned bug spread all across North America, or is it just here?), but maybe I’ll just say a couple things…like, I think in all these recountings/revelations there are three aesthetic attractors in play, and switching in and out of the interpretation-controlling position: one, the peeling-away of the concealing elements of the children’s story to reveal the unexpected analogous causes and effects that (if you’ll allow me) cast the same shadows only from different objects, in what we might call the Miracleman effect; two, the preservation of the flow of anticipated analogical effects, to the point where we see a thing that preconditions a later thing, practically giving away the game already two or three pages before the scene ends…I mean I hope no one needs a Spoiler Warning on the idea that Alice encounters a Red Queen, you know? And yet though we know perfectly well the Red Queen connection is what we’re looking at, for some reason Alan swoops in and practically whispers “Red Queen” right in our ears. But we already knew that, Alan! Sorry, I think I just lost my semicolon…anyway, this is a good example: why should Alan Moore, of all people, feel he needs to work in that word “Queen”? It isn’t the payoff; it doesn’t spin your head around. You see what I mean? The game’s given away very neatly already. It’s a rough cut, instead of a smooth join. It isn’t necessary.
Or, not for the Miracleman effect, anyway.
But for the effect of preservation, it does work. That “Queen” whisper is a reminder, a reinforcement — not a BANG! moment, but a defusing of a BANG! moment, a deferral…oh, but see what the bastard’s done to me, right? He’s made it impossible to write about the thing without engaging in double-entendre. For Christ’s sake.
Well, but then again this is the Dirty and Sweet part of the book, after all. This is where the intentions of the higher narrative appear to disappear for a while, this is just the part, the very part, where it plain gets all horny about beloved childhood characters. This is the in-your-face part, the porny part, the not-erotica part. And yet Melinda draws us at least two pictures that rivet the eye to the page, two uncommonly realistic pictures that break out, just for a second, from the visual conceit that’s all about porn’s artificiality, porn’s made-ness…all while Alan’s habitually meticulous analogizing is being submerged, made temporarily chunky and rough-edged. And then he kicks back into it: suddenly the reins are in his hand again, and there’s a big delicate swerve, big delicate payoff, big light-fingered Miracleman thing happening. In other words it starts to look like Art, again. Defensible.
In other words, yeah, I think it’s occasionally desultory, but I think that’s deliberate. Because there’s your second controlling aesthetic, now where’s your third? I’ll take a stab at it and say that the third is all about psychological realism: in this book, Dorothy’s story doesn’t come from Oz, and it doesn’t decode Oz either, instead it’s a third variety of fish — I am trying so hard not to fall into using the words Alan wants me to, here — and it’s all about her construction of the story, specifically and particularly as an actor in the text of Lost Girls, and indeed her own life. Remember, this is just Book Two: if there’s to be a discussion of how real “real” is, it hasn’t come up yet. And yet it’s unavoidably there anyway, in the intermixture of the three aesthetic aims — but still, the matter of psychological realism must occasionally dominate, if only because the characters’ voices must not merely “recount” the cleverness of their author, or even their artist, if they’re to be believed.
Jeez, I think I’m developing a fever. This is really awful: I was supposed to go off and do some fairly heavy labour tomorrow. But instead I’ll be taking a hot and sour soup day, I see.
Anyway…am I still talking? Nuts. Anyway it is not, in my view, the womens’ stories where you can see the genius of Lost Girls, although the womens’ stories are obviously an absolutely necessary part of it. But they’re just the (dangerously sharp) tools that draw the recursion, and not the recursion itself: reading Book One, I thought “nah, they probably wouldn’t lock me up for this, not really”, but halfway into Book Two I started to think “whoops, they probably would!” In Book One, I thought the identities of the main characters saved the book from being erotica, and rescued it into the world of dirty filthy porn…which is just the right fertilizer for the Art it’s got in it, in the seed. But I don’t think you can read Book Two without thinking “sheesh…if it weren’t for the fact that these chicks are who they are, this would have no artistic merit at all…!”
It is, of course, a deliberate arrangement of elements. Testing, pushing, prodding, joking. Making fun of, and with. Damn it’s clever though! Cheeky little bastard. Yes, and where there’s a Red Queen there’s also a Red King, isn’t there? So you have to dig for the metatext here, because it’s been buried…but of course that doesn’t make it less brilliant, does it? No, it makes it more brilliant. Once you unearth it. We get our clue from the first section of Book Two, the Seven Deadly Sins — there’s more going on here than meets the eye.
Oh, and now I really do have to stop. I’m not even going to pretend to do a full-on exegesis of this book, but any further down this road and I’ll have no choice. Very much looking forward to Book Three, where I’ll see if a couple of guesses I’ve got are in fact right, or wrong…
So don’t be fooled by Book Two, people! Where it’s hitting you over the head, it’s doing it for a reason! Because sometimes you have to look for the flaws in a narrative too, you know.
Okay, echinacea time.
And by echinacea I mean scotch.
What they’re not combining the two yet? Scotch and echinacea I mean. There’s an untapped market there.
Not as untapped as you might think…
UPDATE: Ohhh-KAY, I can’t believe this made it through Canada Customs, wow. Having just finished it, I find myself a little concerned — and is this wrong of me, I wonder? — that in the end it was just about who analogized the Caterpiller, who analogized the Tin Man, etc. etc. Book Three contains more secrets, but more spelled-out associations too, and really, all my suspicions of what it might also contain have I think been proved totally wrong. Oh, except what becomes of the looking-glass: that, at least, I was right about.
It’s tough stuff, that moves pretty fast, in Book Three — the recollections of the women go by ever more briskly, zip zip zip zip zip, while their langourous way of talking to each other gets more repetitive and more formalized, a circle slowly closing down on subject. And in a way this is a story, the story of the hotel before the War, that we’ve seen many, many, many times before, just not with so much incest (yup: incest)…but is it as successful as some of its less obviously audacious cousins?
I’m not quite sure Alan and Melinda’s point is made, here, and I’m going to have to think about that — because to me the circle they’ve drawn is wider than Book Three’s ending really makes it look, and takes in some unusual topics outside the conclusion that, well, frankly we’ve been so thoroughly set up for that it can’t come as any surprise. So, is it that these other topics produce other, less expected implications? Just having finished it, I’m not quite sure about that, either: on the one hand, if the topic of incest really is there not just to prove a point along the way, but to resonate with the book’s other themes, then I’d have to say holy SHIT is that some ambitious material right there…!!!
But, I’m not convinced it is intended that way.
Of course it may be: at the close of Book Three we revisit (briefly: we really kind of just whiz past it!) the opening images of Book One, and they’re certainly images that suggest, in combination with the — damn — climax of each woman’s respective story, this same Big Conclusion I’m hinting at here. So…maybe.
Or am I just reaching?
If all that stuff isn’t integral, then maybe I was wrong about the brilliant audacity I saw back in Book One — or, at least, partly wrong about it, wrong about how much it had hidden up its sleeve. So I suppose it’d be natural for me to do a little reaching.
Well, give me a day or two, and I’ll let you know. Some things do get a bit more desultory in Book Three than they were in Book One, or even in Book Two, but maybe that’s just because that particular underground stream has been so thoroughly daylighted by this point; another one is still hidden.
We’ll have to see.
Got it, now.
I don’t think anyone would be so crazy as to argue that all the incest stuff in Lost Girls isn’t included on purpose — and for some readers, there’s no question in my mind that this would be an ABSOLUTELY HORRIBLE THING…
But, y’know, it is horrible, at times. The family story in the White Book is certainly a tidy evocation of hellishness that parallels (among other things!) the young Alice’s descent into danger, and the frightening dissolution of distinctions, of real and false and imagined, that accompanies Dorothy and Wendy’s reminiscences too. Topsy-turvy looking-glass worlds of imagination are everywhere, and sometimes they’re ominous and alarming, in part because the sublimation of sex in the children’s stories of the nineteenth century is perhaps also a form of retardation: of fugue. Of course this is all readily apparent in Lost Girls, from the title on down — fugue, of one kind or another, is really what it’s all about: the aspect of imagination that tempts and terrifies simultaneously, and from which return or escape is problematical. Fugue as the imagination’s incestuous congress with itself? Maybe so…and those children’s stories that have admitted of so much Freudian analysis over the years probably shouldn’t seem such a bizarre locale for that thesis, but would I give Lost Girls to the average feminist friend of mine? Book One, yes…Book Two, maybe…Book Three, very likely not. Because the conclusion becomes quite challenging, for a feminist reading, and I don’t like being beat up: the lines are not fully drawn-in, for all the speechifying we receive about imagination’s harmlessness and how war kills it, because really the point is that imagination is not “harmless”, at least not innocuous…war kills it, not by doing away with it, but by doing away with its distinctions. War is another sort of incestuous fugue, and Rolf’s destroyed body, with its glistening yonic wound, is the natural endpoint of a type of pornographic seduction, not too dissimilar from the natural endpoints reached by Alice, Wendy, and Dorothy in their own stories.
I’m pretty sure that’s all in there.
Which means: Christ, it really is ambitious as hell! But it brings the point incredibly hard, at the end; much too hard for the New York Times Review of Books after all, I think.
Okay, if I think of anything else, I’ll add it.