Friday, October 13, 2006

A massive contrivance

The Institute of Education was jam-packed last night for Stewart Lee’s tussle with Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie.

We’ve been to a few of these Blackwells events now, and this was certainly the busiest, and with the best quality of audience questioning, too. This one was co-organised with ComICA, and (he googled) Chez Chrissie has some nice photos of it.

And all for a book that’s not published until 1 January 2008. I’ve not read it either...

“Lost Girls” is, if you have been living under some rocks, a three-volume comic book about three women meeting in a hotel on the eve of the first world war. And, er, then they lez up.

To make things more literary, the three women are Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, Alice from Alice in Wonderland and Wendy from Peter Pan. The latter is still (depending who you hear it from) in copyright until the end of next year, which is why the book’s not yet been published in the UK and Europe.

Lee began by asking how many of the 1,000-strong (I’m guessing) audience had been able to get hold of a copy: about a fifth (I’m guessing). So we knocked through a sequence of pages, blown up on a whopping great projecto-laptop, with Alan and Melinda giving notes.

It has been a labour of love – both because Alan and Melinda are not just partners creatively and because it’s taken them 17 years to finish the thing. They spoke of wanting to produce a “benign” pornography, something that would appeal to both sexes. Or, Moore pointing out that porn for boys is piss-easy, a pornography of appeal to the ladies.

This was something that came out of the questions. Moore admitted he’d followed feminist arguments – both for and against porn – avidly, and found the debate rational and intelligent (as opposed to religious arguments against porn, based on “God doesn’t like the smutty stuff”). Angela Carter of course got a mention.

Gebbie argued she’d be much less bothered by porn if it wasn’t so industrial and soulless, photographed in tatty-looking rooms on a bed that’s been dragged from an alley. That did not, she said, make her feel like a goddess…

Pornography – the authors made no bones about that being what they’ve made – is a pejorative term. So they have attempted to do for this gutter genre what Moore did for another low form. Just as with superheroes, he’s subverted the derivative and derided, and made it all relevant and clever.

I’d argue that he’s done this with comics more generally. The Dr (who impressed me greatly on our first meeting by speaking knowledgeably of V for Vendetta) and I have read a lot of comics over the years, but we are not actually comics fans. The good stuff comes rare and occasionally, an exception to the tedious rule.

A colleague was telling me last week about his own experience working on a comic. The only letters they got were from those wanting to draw comics, with a small minority who asked about writing them. His conclusion – and he admits to not seeing the appeal – was that people want to make comics more than they want to read them.

Whatever the truth of that, Moore is a rare exception to my general dissatisfaction with comics.

I think this may even be dissatisfaction with most fantasy (and I’d include sci-fi in that bracket quite often), which tends to be about “escape”, so avoids reality when it can. Moore confronts the problematic in his fancies. He doesn’t just name-check politicians and political movements, he deals with the issues involved. V For Vendetta, for example, doesn’t need to include the word “Thatcher” to deal with (then) contemporary policy and its affects.

That’s the key thing – not the names that are being dropped but the affects that throwing these influences together can have.

Compare that to serious-minded Star Trek when it mentions the IRA, or when they realise that their precious warp drive is killing everyone on some planet. Topical and difficult as these things might be, they’re dealt with so glibly they hardly even register. Moore is all about affect, about wanting to touch the sides.

I think that’s important when considering how Lost Girls (which I’ve admittedly not read) uses its source works. Moore does not just name-check a few Victorian writers and artists whose works he wants to evoke. The various kinds of pastiche challenge the subtext of the originals, playing with their meaning and changing their effect.

Moore feels no need to explain the myriad allusions as he once might have – Google, he’s sure, will be more than adequate. He’s also unrepentant about how Lost Girls looks for the rude bits in children’s stories and brings them to the fore. Better to acknowledge our weird, sexy thoughts than to lock them away as too awful.

He was asked how he thought the original authors would have taken his revisionism – especially given Moore’s own lack of delight with adaptations of his own work. He argued he was not knocking out something derivative that claimed to be in any way the same thing. He’d made something new, something inspired by the original and which could not knock the original from its august and iconic pedestal.

But of course Barrie would probably hate it.

There was something more revealing earlier on, when he described Sigmund Freud – obviously a big influence on his reinterpretations – as a “coked-up kiddie fiddler”, with an apology to any Freudian relatives who might still be alive.

I thought it was interesting that he made a distinction between the sensibilities of the currently living and the long and now-mythic dead, the latter having lost their reality to the soup of history, so fair game to be played with.

(That’s my interpretation, not something Moore himself said…)

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