Already a star in the world of graphic novels for wildly successful and critically acclaimed books like Watchmen and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, British writer Alan Moore reached a new level of mainstream fame this spring with the success of the movie V for Vendetta. So what's he doing for his next act? Pornography.
For nearly 16 years, he's been working on Lost Girls with American cartoonist Melinda Gebbie. It is, everyone involved with it declares, beautiful, literary and moving. It's also bluntly pornographic, with explicit sex scenes on almost every page. Beyond couplings of every combination of women and men, the story involves fetishism, incest and even a touch of bestiality, as well as a whole lot of sexual activity involving minors, all depicted in Gebbie's sensuous pastels and paints.
Set in the period leading up to the outbreak of World War I, Lost Girls centers on three women who meet at a European hotel: an aristocratic British lesbian in her late 50s; a middle-aged, middle-class, unhappily married English woman; and a 19-year-old farm girl from the American Midwest. Amid increasingly heated bouts of debauchery, they tell each other the stories of the early sexual experiences that formed their fantasy lives and worldviews. Oh, yes: the three women are, respectively, Alice from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Wendy from Peter Pan and Dorothy from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The story also incorporates tributes to Moore and Gebbie's favorite moments in the history of X-rated writing and artwork. "You've no idea how tiring the research was on this book," Moore jokes. "It's a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it."
Set to debut this summer at Comic-Con International in San Diego, the book is the latest move by a creator known as much for his provocations as for his talent. Moore is an anarchist and an occultist, and (most shockingly to Americans) refuses to accept money for the film adaptations of his work. Whatever the critical reception or commercial fate of any of his projects is, he's one of the most sought-after writers in his medium.
But for Lost Girls' publisher, Top Shelf Productions, a small indie house specializing in literary graphic novels, the book has the potential to elevate the company to a whole new level—or financially cripple it. "This is the single most expensive publishing project Top Shelf has ever done by a factor of almost 10," says co-publisher Chris Staros. "We're putting the whole company on the line, but it's the book I personally want to be remembered for as a publisher. It's one of those books that's going to challenge our system to live up to itself."
Top Shelf is planning a 10,000-copy first printing for Lost Girls as a set of three oversized, 112-page clothbound volumes with dust jackets, packaged in a slipcase and shrink-wrapped. To cover the heavy production costs, the book will be priced at $75.
But for all of Moore's popularity, the book has a number of things against it, in addition to its daunting price. Given the explicit content, it will largely miss out on sales to libraries, an important channel for graphic novels. At least one major book chain, Borders, is passing on the title, says Kurt Hassler, graphic novel buyer for the chain. (Hassler says the explicit content was not the sole reason for the decision, but declines to elaborate.) Concerns about running afoul of law enforcement or offending community sensibilities also have some independents refusing to order the book. "We like to be an all-ages—friendly store; generally, we won't sell anything that's porn. We definitely try and avoid that at all costs," says Phil Boyle, owner of Coliseum of Comics in Orlando, Fla. Likewise, one owner of a small bookstore in the Bible Belt, who declined to be named, told PW that while her store sells both erotica and a growing selection of graphic novels, she won't carry a book that's billed and promoted as "pornography."
That's the term Moore deliberately, defiantly uses to describe Lost Girls, though. "I didn't want to call this 'erotica' because, for one thing, erotica is material relating to love," he says in a telephone interview from his home in Northampton, England. "What we wanted to talk about was sex, and so I thought that the word 'pornography' was probably blunter and more honest."
Still, in the U.S., any comics that involve nudity—let alone graphic sex—carry the potential for censorship or even prosecution. Paul Gravett's reference work Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics was recently removed from California's San Bernardino County Library because of nudity, and Georgia comics retailer Gordon Lee was arrested in 2004 after accidentally givinga minor a copy of a comic containing nudity. To date, the nonprofit watchdog organization the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (the comics equivalent of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression) has spent more than $40,000 defending Lee.
Top Shelf knows exactly what it's getting into with Lost Girls—Staros is the president of the CBLDF. According to Staros and his co-publisher, Brett Warnock, CBLDF lead attorney Burton Joseph has vetted Lost Girls, and claims that if the book is prosecuted in any state, it's defensible.
Not all retailers are scared off by the book's explicit content. Michele Sulka, v-p of marketing at the Ohio-based bookstore chain Joseph-Beth Booksellers, which has stores in Ohio, Kentucky, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, says, "It certainly looks like [Top Shelf] has put a lot of effort into making this not just another book, but an art piece, really. It would definitely be something that we'd want to offer to our customers. But would it be something we'd be bringing in in tens? No." (She notes that it will help that the book will be shrink-wrapped.)
Cliff Biggers of Dr. No's Comics and Games in Marietta, Ga.—where Top Shelf's Staros also lives—says that his store "will be cautious and prudent about how we display and market the book. Every store owner has to be careful to make sure that they're making it available to the intended audience, and not to people thinking that it's a perfect follow-up to Watchmen or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen."
Why is Top Shelf willing to bet so much on this project? Top Shelf also publishes the current edition of Moore and Eddie Campbell's From Hell, and recently made a deal to co-publish a future volume of Moore and Kevin O'Neill's successful League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series after Moore broke with DC Comics (in a much-publicized dispute over the film adaptation of V for Vendetta). Perhaps the publisher is just trying to please a superstar author. But Top Shelf's agreement to publish the super-deluxe edition of Lost Girls was the tiny company's first deal with Moore, back in 2000. Both Staros and Warnock were rabid fans of the project, on the strength of a few early chapters that had been serialized by several long-defunct companies in the early '90s.
"I'd been a fan of Alan Moore my whole life," Staros says, "and I realized I'd gotten my first Alan Moore autograph, and it was on the contract to publish Lost Girls." Top Shelf has spent years and thousands of dollars on the grueling process of preparing Gebbie's fragile artwork (Moore had been paying Gebbie to draw the book; they are now engaged to be married) for publication. But all the financial risk has an upside: a $75 book with a name as big as Moore's attached to it has the potential to be an enormous moneymaker.
As for his own intentions, Moore explains, "Lost Girls originally came about because it had struck me that there really isn't any good, serious artwork dedicated to sex, given that it's a human activity in which most of us have some interest. There are whole genres of books dedicated to the fields of, say, being a detective, or being a space patrolman, or being a zombie back from the dead, which are fairly rarefied in terms of their actual human application. But the only genre that is actually dealing with sexual material is this gritty, unpleasant, under-the-counter kind of genre, where there are absolutely no standards."
Lost Girls' third volume includes this eminently quotable line: "Fiction and fact: only madmen and magistrates cannot discriminate between them." It appears on a page with several images whose content can scarcely even be alluded to in a family magazine, the largest of which is lovingly rendered in the style of the Decadent artist Franz von Bayros.
"That probably will be the chapter that gets us burned," Moore jokes. "We've accompanied it with a narrative that is allegedly by Pierre Louÿs. This is stuff that appears in the later parts of the book, because we figured that, really, if any genre should build to a climax, it has to be pornography. We set ourselves this goal of doing something that works as art and as literature; however, with pornography, you have the problem of a kind of brain-genitalia blood balance. If all the blood rushes to your head, it's probably nowhere else."