In 1974, the Belier Press published a book called The Adventures of Sweet Gwendoline, by John Willie, whose real name was John Alexander Scott Coutts.
John Willie was an artist and photographer, and he might best be described as a bondage freak, though he was in my opinion harmless rather than sinister. True, John Willie's heroine, sweet Gwendoline -- she of the spectacular bosom-- does get in some fearful scrapes, and is frequently tied up in the most awkward positions; but one really doesn't feel that she suffers any lasting damage.
Anyway, the point is that The Adventures of Sweet Gwendoline came with an introduction by the artist Allen Jones. In that introduction, Jones tells us that there is a form of drawing which he calls Popular Illustration. This, he says, exists outside the accepted area of Fine Art, and can be divided into six categories (at least).
These six categories are, briefly: satirical cartoons; book illustrations; the picture story; commercial advertising; the animated cartoon; and the pin-up.
Lost Girls, by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie, falls firmly into the picture story category (as, of course, does Sweet Gwendoline). In other words, it is a long story told in comic-strip form, with several frames on each page. Comics, by the way, have a long history, and are sometimes known as sequential art or graphic storytelling. The point of comics/sequential art/graphic novels is simple. By comparison with other forms of fiction, you get a lot of pictures and not so many words.
First published by Top Shelf in August 2006, Lost Girls comes in three volumes, all enclosed in a slip case, and carrying a fairly high price tag: current Amazon price $75. Officially, the book is not yet on sale in the UK (copyright problems, of which more in a moment), but some copies have been imported.
So, what is this graphic novel cum book-length comic, or whatever, all about?
The answer, I suppose, is that it's mostly about sex, which is vividly illustrated. If you are offended and upset by representations of human sexuality -- erect penises, exposed vaginas, and the like -- then this is not for you. Neither is it for you if you feel that any persons under the legal age of consent can ever willingly engage in sexual activities. (For a discussion of these controversial aspects of the work, see Wikipedia.)
And who are the Lost Girls, you may be wondering. The answer here is that they are characters drawn from fictional media. To be precise, they are Alice (now Lady Fairchild) from Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy (Gale) from The Wizard of Oz, and Wendy (nee Darling, now Potter) from Peter Pan. In Lost Girls these three fictional characters are shown in later life, as it were; and if you object, on principle, to the lifting of such characters from much-loved classics, let alone their involvement in sexual activities, then this again is not the book for you. Alan Moore, however, has made a habit of the practice: his graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was something of a success, not least in the film version.
In book 1 of the Lost Girls trilogy we are gradually introduced to the three principal characters in the story. The time, we realise, is immediately prior to the outbreak of World War I. The three girls -- actually women -- find themselves attending the 1913 premiere of Stravinsky's ballet Le Sacre du Printemps. And already we find the girls' traditional experience (in their original book/movie/play) being reinterpreted in sexual terms. Book I, my notes say, is rather fine: imaginative, erotic, original, interesting; the artwork distinctive.
In book 2 there are instances of lesbian sex, involving the three girls, and gay sex, featuring other characters. A number of additional characters from the source works also make their appearance: Captain Hook, for instance, becomes Captain Huxley, a paedophile.
It is also in book 2 that the reader begins to absorb the sense of doom which is perhaps the overall impression of this book -- at least it is once you have got over the shock/horror of the graphic sex and the liberties taken with famous characters. We are reminded, over and over again, of the coming tragedy of World War I, a tragedy which the characters are mercifully unaware of, but which somehow is in the atmosphere. It's certainly in the book. There is a great deal of red in these pictures, and I don't think that's an accident: I think it symbolises the terrible bloodshed which is shortly to come about.
Not only are the pictures remarkable, by the way, but the prose is also noteworthy. I am not going to quote examples, because when taken out of context they will inevitably seem banal.
As the story progresses, we are treated to pastiches of works by artists and authors of the period: these include such luminaries as Colette, Aubrey Beardsley, Wilde, Mucha, and so forth.
At the end of book 2, the women cavort while the Archduke dies at Sarajevo. And instinctively, Alice tells us that 'something quite glorious was finished with for good'. Thus she provides an epitaph for the age which was about to close.
Book 3 features a number of Beardsleyesque illustrations which in my view are the best in the book. And it contains a very English joke about not having sex while the train is standing in the station. In fact book 3 contains a very large amount of sexual activity, enough to make me feel that it was rather repetitious. However, one has to remember the context, which, I repeat, is immediately prior to World War I.
The book ends on the morning after the assassination of the Archduke, a crime which acted as the final precipitator of war. All the girls' most intimate secrets have been revealed to each other and it is time for them to leave the hotel where they have been staying.
German soldiers arrive and smash everything. The war begins.
The dialogue on the last few pages is entirely in German. But should you wish to know what the German soldiers are saying to each other, you can find a translation online.
A few final notes. Lost Girls reportedly took 16 years to complete. The authors found themselves in disagreement with Great Ormond Street Hospital, which owns the copyright in J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, but the Hospital has now reached an amicable agreement with the publisher (Top Shelf Books), to the effect that there will be no recourse to legalities so long as the publisher does not attempt to publish Lost Girls in the UK until after 1 January 2008: at which time the copyright allegedly expires. However, as always with copyright, the position is hideously complicated. I think that both parties would be well advised to avoid the courts, as the only people to benefit from such nonsense would be the lawyers.
This is a book which will repay study. And, should you wish to explore some of its complexities and subtleties before buying a copy, the Wikipedia article is a good place to start. The same article also provides links to some of the extensive internet comment on this book.
The publisher, by the way, naturally has its own web site.
I have stated what might put you off this book. But, if you are to enjoy it fully, you need not only a tolerance to those aspects that I have highlighted, you also need a sound working knowledge of European history and culture; otherwise, I suspect, many of the references will pass you by. And I do not claim that I understood all of them myself.
It is, in fact, rather hard to identify the natural audience for this book. It will appeal most, I think, to those with an odd combination of eccentric tastes -- tastes in art, literature, popular culture, and erotica (if we must use that shop-soiled term). Despite its exclusivity, however, I believe that this book will still be read in many years' time.
Some of the illustrations may not fall within the definition of Fine Art, as Allen Jones would have it, but they are definitely fine with a small f. The book will certainly tell future generations something about the present generation of writers, artists, and readers: though what that is, I cannot say.
If you have academic ambitions, you may care to note that there is material here for any number of PhD theses. To give but one example: all the participants in the sexual activity have an impossible number of orgasms; but the point is made in the text that pornography is not real. The girls tell stories of people doing things which the girls acknowledge are awful and dreadful, but which will excite the teller and the listeners. This seems to me to be a morally complex idea.
Overall this is, in my view, a much more subtle and complicated book than it might appear. It deals with imagination and fantasy as compared with real life, and guilt about our fantasies.
P.S. 16 May. Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie just got married. How romantic. Neil Gaiman was there and took some photos.