Content Warning: Discussions of sex, rape, and pedophilia.

It’s hard to believe it’s been a decade since the release of Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls—and all the controversy that came with it. Part an attempt to elevate pornography as a genre of storytelling, part a celebration of love and beauty in the face of war and destruction, and part a glorified fanfiction that two artists made us pay $75 for upon its initial release, Lost Girls takes place in a picturesque, decadent Austrian resort where Alice from Alice in Wonderland, Wendy from Peter Pan, and Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz have all come to stay on the eve of World War I. Upon meeting, they discover they all saw their sexual awakenings as a type of dreamworld and share each others’ stories and beds.

Lost Girls New Hardback Cover, art by Melinda Gebbie, and words by Alan Moore,Any work from the writer of Watchmen and V for Vendetta—especially one that was sixteen years in the making—immediately gets the comics world’s attention. While the book received high-profile accolades from Neil Gaiman and The A.V. Club, it also prompted some negative reactions. Comic artist/writer John Byrne infamously called a commentator an “asshole” when they said on Byrne’s message board that they were looking forward to the book. Byrne claimed the work was sullying the original authors’ intent, and the publishers had to wait a year to put release Lost Girls in the United Kingdom due to a copyright claim by The Great Ormond Street Hospital (a children’s hospital in London), which held the rights to Peter Pan after J.M. Barrie’s death.

Ginnis Tonik and I decided to sit down and take a look back at one of the most famous dirty comics ever written.

Rebecca: I’m not old enough to remember Lost Girls’ initial partial publication in 1991-2 (I was in second grade at the time), but when I initially saw it advertised in Top Shelf’s catalog, I got really excited for it. It seemed to hit the intersection of my interests in fairy tale retellings and fanfiction-like sexually explicit takes on stories. Plus, Top Shelf was specifically marketing the book as women-oriented. Since I was just finishing college when Lost Girls came out in 2006, the $75 cover price was a bit steep, but I was working at Borders Express, and the employee discount brought it down to a more manageable $50.

I really enjoyed the book then and, despite my best efforts to be harder on the book on this re-read, I still really enjoy it now. I love Moore’s re-envisioning of the original characters as adult women of vastly differing ages and social strata. As I grow closer to Wendy’s age, I appreciate how Moore and Gebbie are committed to portraying characters having sex who aren’t all twenty-five and beautiful. I also like Moore’s attempts to wrestle with the transgressive aspects of pornography and fantasy—the parts that eroticize danger or violations of consent—even if I’m not sure if he’s always successful. Aside from the occasional stiffness and dead-eyed faces, Gebbie’s art is gorgeous, both in her own style and imitating others, all soft colored pencils/watercolors and intricate details.

Ginnis, what was—no double entendre intended—your first experience with Lost Girls, and did you end up paying as much as I did?

Ginnis: Ha, Lost Girls actually had a significant influence when I was returning to comics. I found it, wrapped in plastic, in the graphic novels section of the local Books-A-Million, and like you, the fairy tale retellings instantly appealed to me. At that point, I mainly knew Moore from Watchmen, and therefore, knew he was a big fucking deal in comics. I think it was a really good price for this beautiful, big, hardcover book, maybe $30, so I figured why not?

Rebecca: Heh, that’s the joy of waiting, I suppose.

Anyway, Moore and Gebbie have always wanted this work to be treated as pornography. Every chapter except the last features a sex scene—whether real or imagined—and there are very few pages that don’t have a naked body on them. Still, the creators clearly have artistic goals. There’s a lot of foreshadowing of future plot elements in the early chapters, and the book is brimming with big ideas about sex versus war and the nature of fantasy. That being said, do you find this book arousing, or does it mostly work as an art piece? I’m in the former camp, although I can understand why someone wouldn’t find this sexy.

Ginnis: Both. First of all, the Belle Epoque is one of my favorite eras from an art perspective, and I appreciate how much consideration that both Moore and Gebbie give to the artistic and intellectual developments of this era and how it plays in with the story. And I also find it arousing because of this—there’s obviously porn, but it is all tied together in the beauty of the Belle Epoque, and Gebbie really pays attention to this with the clothing, the background, etc., it feels like it is for someone who enjoys all this stuff, altogether, and I can’t help, but find that stimulating in a myriad of ways.

Rebecca: That’s really cool. How do you feel about the original works? I’ve read both Alice books, Peter Pan, and the first three Oz books, but except for the first Alice book that was all during adulthood. Most of my experience with the stories as a kid were through adaptations. I think all of the original stories have their charms, but I don’t have an especially close connection to them. How about you?

Ginnis: Good question, because I can imagine this can feel sacrilegious for some people. I adore Alice as a character and am fascinated by the sort of cultural obsession with Alice, and Carroll, even, but it can all get a bit tired, and in some ways, I feel Lost Girls indulges in that in a way that really puts me off the Alice storyline.

Rebecca: I think I know what you’re talking about, but we’ll get into the specifics later. Do you think that seeing these original works through this sexual lens is a desecration or do you think it’s a worthwhile interpretation? For me, I feel like Moore and Gebbie commit to the concept enough. Something like, “The book conflates flying and getting caught in a tornado to a sexual awakening,” sounds silly, but they’re not treated as such in the book. That sets a good precedent for when the sexual interpretations in the story get extremely dark, especially in the last third of the book.

Ginnis: I adore folktales, fairy tales, and intertextuality, so it is hard for me to get up in arms about taking beloved characters from beloved children’s literature and adding sex. In fact, it’s fun, as I grow older, to continue to enjoy these stories in new ways!

Rebecca: Lost Girls references a lot more than just those three works. The inserts from Monsieur Rougeur’s White Book pay tribute to artists like Aubrey Beardsley and Egon Schiele as well as writers like Colette and Oscar Wilde. These are some of the most beautiful parts of the book—especially the Guillaume Apollinaire and Alfons Mucha section modeled around The Seven Deadly Sins, but I also feel like they’re the most alienating. I think Gebbie does a great job imitating the artwork, but Moore tends to overwrite in these parts, like if he buries the sentences in enough adjectives and asides it’ll seem intelligent and refined. Sometimes it works and it comes off as sexy, but other times I want to tell him to take it down a notch.

Are you more familiar with these works? What do you think? Is Moore’s imitation good? Gebbie’s? I don’t want to get into the infamous underage bit right now, but what do you think they add to the story in general?

Ginnis: Again—my fascination with the Belle Epoque, I can’t help but be intrigued and amazed by Gebbie’s imitations. As for Moore … I mean, meh is about all I have to say; honestly, I find myself paying little attention to the words in these parts as they occur beneath Gebbie’s lovely imitations. But overall, the inclusion of these illustrations all flows together for me—the inclusion of this emphasizes the themes of sex and war and reality and fantasy that Moore and Gebbie are exploring in the context of the Belle Epoque, the era just preceding modern warfare as we know it.

Rebecca: The other big reference is the Rite of Spring riot that closes out the end of the first book. I’m pretty uninformed when it comes to opera and ballet; even though this is my third or fourth time reading the book, I still felt a bit at sea reading that section. I think the use of the historical event helps cement the book in its time period, and I like how Moore/Gebbie parallel the girl dancing to death in the story to the loss of self that comes with the exploration of sexuality. On the other hand, I feel like if you don’t know anything about the ballet or the historical event, the book isn’t particularly interested in helping you understand. How do you feel about this and the “real world” backdrop?

Ginnis: Since I have been talking about how much my appreciation of the art of the Belle Epoque, I think, yes, it makes a difference. Further, I just read a comic called Casati from Europe Comics about the patroness Luisa Casati, which is set during the Belle Epoque—so the attitude and aura of this era is still very fresh in my mind.

You can read the story without knowing much about the era before WWI, but I think it really improves the reading and what Moore and Gebbie are doing—paralleling the transgression of boundaries, the looming oncoming war with the sexual awakening and healing of these three characters.

What about you; how do you experience the story in its historical context? Is it ahistorical for you or more specific?

Rebecca: With some caveats, I generally enjoy bending history (depending on the goals—I love Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, not so much Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous). The pre-World War I era isn’t one I have a whole lot of knowledge of, but seeing Alice, Wendy, and Dorothy and actual characters in a backdrop of history was an interesting thought experiment. I also liked the idea of each of their stories existing at the time of the publication date, which Moore’s kept up into his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series.

Spoiler Warning: Discussion of the book’s ending follows.

Rebecca: So, let’s talk about some of the scenarios the book presents to us. Most of the main characters’ sexual initiation involves a violation or threat of violation in some way. Alice’s first sexual experience, her “white rabbit,” is a predatory friend of her parents called “Bunny.” Wendy worries about being raped by “The Captain” who peeks in on her having sex with her brothers and Peter in the park and actually does rape Peter’s sister Annabel (who is clearly meant to be Tinkerbell). Dorothy’s trip to the Emerald City to meet the Wizard is actually her father taking her to New York City to have sex with her away from the eyes of her step-mother. The book invites us to find these scenarios alluring, but also never lets us think that makes them acceptable models for reality.

At times the book clearly states that there’s a difference between dreaming about ugly, non-consensual scenarios and wanting them. My favorite part of the book is when Wendy realizes that her dreaming about the Captain hurting her doesn’t mean she actually wants or deserves to have that happen to her. On the other hand, I have a lot of trouble defending the insert which portrays parents having sex with their clearly pre-pubescent kids. It’s presented by Monsieur Rougeur, who reminds the audience that this is fantasy, yet then he also claims to have molested kids. Of course, we’re still real people watching fake people, but parts like this seem like the creators are daring the audience to be okay with it. What do you think? Does reading this make you feel like an “asshole” as Byrne says?

Ginnis: One of my favorite quotes from the book is:

“Pornographies are the enchanted parklands where the most secret and vulnerable of all our many selves can safely play.”

What a beautiful and healthy take on porn, right? Yet, this quote appears to be coming from Monsieur Rougeur, who like you said is the same character who lauds fantasy and acknowledges that we can have harmful sexual fantasies, but then admits to molestation. It just kind of ruins that perspective for me. There’s no safety there, there’s no appreciation for vulnerability, instead it becomes about a man exploiting people to fulfill his fantastical desires. It really ruins the comic for me in many ways.

Rebecca: I think the reveal ruining the safety net is a good observation. There’s also the idea that a lot of these characters’ abusive experiences have formed their sexual proclivities. I know in talking about this article you mentioned you weren’t completely comfortable with this. I personally dislike the idea that Alice’s first time having sex with an abusive man turned her into a lesbian, and I think the idea of her going after Monsieur Rougeur at the end is particularly gross. Can you share more of your thoughts, though?

Ginnis: I really, really hate how Alice and her sexual orientation is portrayed, because every other character in this book is shown to be bisexual or pansexual, and she is the only one who is an identified lesbian, and this sexual orientation is shown to be a result of sexual molestation like you said. This molestation leads to a mistrust of men, so bam, Alice is a lesbian. And it gets worse. Moore and Gebbie play on the degrading stereotype of lesbianism being a desire for sex with oneself (as shown in Alice’s interaction with the mirror). How fucking archaic and degrading.

In this context, I suppose the interaction with Monsieur Rougeur is supposed to be cathartic? Healing? A taking back of something? But, Monsieur Rougeur finds pleasure in this, and the three women, Alice, Dorothy, and Wendy all question the validity of his story. So much of that scene negates the potential for healing that the story in some ways tries to get at.

Rebecca: Yeah. Since in some earlier scenes he’s portrayed as this almost-innocent idiot savant it’s particularly jarring.

Finally, this isn’t necessarily a work inclusive of all women. Given that by design it’s around three white female characters I don’t think it can be, although I do appreciate that they’re from different class backgrounds and ages. I also think that while the backwards racial attitudes of some of the characters don’t go completely unremarked upon, it also relies upon tropes like the sexy Native American when Wendy dresses up as Tiger Lily or the nefarious Asian man with the opium in its portrayal of the caterpillar.

Still, while Moore has the writer’s credit; he’s always talked about Gebbie being influential in the writing process and said they actually wrote in “Marvel-style,” with Moore writing out a general idea, Gebbie laying out the pages in a way to tell that story, and Moore writing in the dialogue later. Do you think that inherently shows in the work? Does it seem more female-friendly to you than most pornography? I think in a world where everyone’s mother has read 50 Shades of Grey it still seems mostly female-positive, but what do you think?

Ginnis: I do think it seems more female-friendly or aware of its potential reader in that way, which is why despite Alice’s storyline, I find many things to like about Lost Girls. There’s an attempt to rid sex of shame, though it is a very muddy attempt, and attention to even how shame surrounding sex influences what we desire, and honestly I think this has more to do with Gebbie’s influence than Moore’s. I could probably read this comic without the words honestly.

Rebecca: I think the idea of Moore planting the germ of the idea, but Gebbie bringing it to life is a legitimate one. Thanks for talking with me about this book.

Ginnis: You bet, Rebecca, rereading Lost Girls is always interesting, and it also reminded me that I need to find more comics pornography with a female audience in mind!