The full-on Skin Two Lost Girls Interview

The Skin Two Yearbook 2009 features an interview by Michelle Olley with comic book genius Alan Moore and illustrator Melinda Gebbie, as their new graphic novel, Lost Girls, is published. Here, Michelle expands on and contextualises the interview…

Thanks to major Hollywood movie Watchmen, Spring 2009, whether he likes it or not, (fairly safe bet: not) is Alan Moore time. Broadsheet profiles cobbled together from online interviews abound; the UK’s top bookstore chain, Waterstones, are having a 3 for 2 sale on his graphic novels; DC comics, it states in The Observer newspaper, have printed up another 900,000 copies of his seminal deconstructed super-hero classic to meet the upsurge in interest; and just to add some South American synchronicity to the mix, hot-shot literary sensation du jour, Junot Diaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao uses Watchmen as its moral compass. This month, by far the most ubiquitous latex-clad lovely is Malin Akerma, the actress playing Watchmen’s Sally Jupiter. And here comes the Skin Two Yearbook 2009, with an exclusive interview with the big man himself – and not a sausage on Moore’s seminal men in tights narrative. Why?

When I approached Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s publishers twelve months ago, I had no idea that the interview I would be doing with them for the Skin Two Yearbook would be coming out into this Watchmen-crazy moment. For a start, I was far more interested in finding out more about Lost Girls, their three-volume-box, erotic graphic novel project that had taken sixteen years to come to completion. One does not have to be a publishing fetishist to appreciate this work as an object of beauty. The spot lamination, heavy paper, luscious inks, thread-binding and ribbon-book-marks alone, before you even get to the art and the writing, take your breath away. For me, an Alan Moore reader from an early age, plus an arriviste at Skin Two at the exact point artist Melinda Gebbie packed up her pencils and Muir cap for Moore’s Northampton, it was a no-brainer. Here was a chance to talk to them both about one of the most mind-blowing pieces of erotica I’d ever experienced. Being advised by their august publisher to stick to Lost Girls really wasn’t an issue. I knew enough about my subject not to ask him about the movie adaptations of his work, plus, still reeling from having just read it, I wanted to talk to them about the radical imaginings and erotic philosophy of their self-styled work of ‘benign pornography’ – if that wasn’t a Skin Two subject, I don’t know what is.

Between Alan and Melinda, we talked for two hours. It was easily one of the most intense and, dare I say magical, interviews I’ve ever done. It was a long-time ambition fulfilled to finally talk to Melinda, whose art had inspired me to come to Skin Two in the first place, and they don’t call Moore ‘the genius of British comics’ for nothing. I hope I managed to distil the essence of the conversations into the ‘Golden Girls’ feature in the Skin Two Yearbook. Let’s just say that I’m still blushing from the amount of gushery that went on in that two-hour, fifty-thousand word, twenty-page transcription.

I wouldn’t normally do this – but here follows some word-for-word long answers, plus some extra highlights from the two conversations that didn’t make it into the Yearbook. Transcribed phone interviews can be excruciating territory to return to, especially when dealing with individuals from one’s pantheon of all-time-greats. I didn’t enjoy listening to my gurgling fannery a second time – there was nothing kinky to be had from my discomfort, believe me. Good people of Skin Two (and fellow Alan Moore nerds) – I did it for you. Please be warned that it’s riddled with spoilers for the books and does not contain full contextualisation of our esteemed interview subjects either – ideally, you want to have read Lost Girls and the Skin Two Yearbook before reading on. Otherwise, enjoy:

Alan Moore

The ‘owning up thing’ seems a key message in the book – it’s like the story gives us ‘permission’ to enjoy the sexual imagination – especially in book three when it all kicks off…

That’s great – what you’re saying about permission – I’ve been thinking about that a lot and it seems to me that a lot of the attitudes and conditioning, you’ve been talking about, with regards to this particular area it probably goes all the way back to when they were Christianising Britain at the end of the Dark Ages, when they had to attract people away from their pagan temples to Christian places of worship. Now you may have heard various folklorists talking about the figure with the gaping vulva that is sometimes found on old churches, mis-identified as an ancient fertility goddess, whereas, as far as I know it was actually a personification of lust and the six other statues that would have accompanied it would have either been lost or taken down because they were boring. The point is that the early medieval church, anxious to attract patrons was not above using sexual imagery. It’s a really good way of getting bums on pews, so they would have illustrations of awful acts that if you were to commit them, you would go to hell. But the fact that they had pictures of these acts, mostly sexual, was a way of getting the patrons in. So there was a kind of understanding that was being arrived at there where you would come along, you would look at the sexually arousing pictures and you would be aroused. You would also be aware that becoming sexually aroused was a sin, so it would create that circuit – that thing that automatically links sexual arousal with guilt and shame – which I think is the way that pornography generally tends to work and to a degree the sexual imagination tends to work in an awful lot of western cultures. It doesn’t seem to be quite that way in places like Denmark, like Spain, like Holland, where they have a different relationship with pornography – where there doesn’t seem to be that immediate sense of self-loathing that mostly typifies the experience over here. That was one of the things that we were trying to do with Lost Girls was to short circuit that immediate sense of guilt that seems to accompany pornography in repressed cultures like our own.

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For some readers/fetish people who are our readers there’s a lot play around guilt/shame…

That was a theme which we found particularly appropriate with the character of Wendy – taking our lead from JM Barrie’s Peter Pan we’d made Wendy, initially anyway, the most prudish, the most repressed, of the three characters. Actually, by the end of the book you realise that Wendy is the most heroic and the most self-possessed of the three. She defeated her particular bogeyman, and OK, yes, alright the experience has frightened her so that she retreats into this middle class safety, and a fairly loveless marriage, but yet she is the strongest character. In the initial stages of her development this element of her – the guilt, the shame – it was part of the prudishness, it was part of what made sex exciting to her.

Wendy’s pirate fantasies seem very driven by the difficult area of the ‘overwhelmed/against voiced protests’scenario…

In the final episode of Wendy’s narrative, which was probably the most important one, there’s that final nightmarish scene with her being chased by someone we’ve established is not a very nice person, he’s a rapist, and we’ve got this internal conflict in Wendy’s mind about the fact a lot of her fantasies have been about humiliation or some form of degradation and isn’t this what she wants – and she reaches the point and says ‘no, I have a right to fantasize or imagine whatever I want and that does not mean that anybody else has the right to impose their fantasies on me.’ Political correctness or morality don’t really feature in the sexual imagination – I think that most of us have fairly amoral imaginations, the important thing is that that doesn’t mean that just because we fantasised about things or imagined them that we wish to be subjected to them in reality. I guess that what you’re saying about this as an element of play, I guess, that is the area where Wendy can relate to it and she knows enough to know that beyond a certain line it isn’t play anymore and it isn’t something she wants anything to do with.

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One of the themes of Lost Girls is how bad early sexual experiences can alter sexual behaviour and expectations. You occasionally hear that from some people on the fetish scene as an explanation for why they don’t do ‘normal’ relationships…

I’m sure that also could be said about people who form abusive relationships, who flee from them in horror, only to form a new one. I mean I’m sure we’ve all seen that. It’s pretty widespread. By actually showing the process of growing up, growing through the beginnings of our sexuality onto the adults we were going to become – we were trying to say ‘this is not necessary, this compulsive behaviour is not necessary – we can move beyond the mad hatter’s tea party…’

I LOVED that page! Even if it wasn’t a very pleasant part of the story…
Did you notice Björk in there? Melinda had just liked her face and perhaps been a bit sort of coloured by Björk …

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I wanted to ask you about guilt of a different kind – about dealing with consequences of assimilation. When something that started out as empowering becomes a tool of the mainstream, maintaining conventional ideas of beauty/desirability – co-option – in the fetish scene, that can be something as mediocre as girls in rubber bikinis in men’s lifestyle magazines or more seriously the photos from Abu Graib – images of porn fantasy acted upon real human beings – it’s terrifying and depressing to think that you could be responsible for promoting the normalisation of torture by being open about this stuff…

I can understand the point. We would have been terribly upset if anyone would have done it with our work – I can’t imagine anyone replicating any of the decadent Art Nouveau scenarios that we have in Lost Girls – this is one of the thing about setting Lost Girls where and when we did – it meant we were able to lift it out of the traditional landscape of pornography. In Chile – under Pinochet – they used to refer to torture as the ‘blue lit stage’ – actually that’s not a lot different to the average porn film set. It’s making something which is profoundly human – in both instances unfortunately – into a theatrical piece – but it’s always in this grey over-lit convict environment which – actually – it’s not a huge jump from that kind of pornographic image to the kind of situations we’ve seen in Guantanamo and Abu Graib. One of the things that we were trying to do with Lost Girls was to completely alter the language of the pornography in a visual sense and a verbal sense – in the atmosphere, in the lighting, in the costumes… One of the things that makes it easier to torture people, I would imagine, is that they are dehumanised to their assailants. I would imagine that is one of the things that makes it easier to rape people – and it’s one of the things that bad pornography is particularly guilty of – is that these individuals are ciphers – and certainly the Marquis de Sade was as guilty of that as the next person…

I always say he was a political writer rather than a sex writer

…that’s it, and he was probably making the point about people being reduced to ciphers, and that is the point, in most contemporary pornography you don’t get any sense of personality, you don’t get a sense of character or plot – or all of the things that actually redeem every other form of culture, every other genre that we apply ourselves to. They wouldn’t work either if you were to absolutely strip them bare – all adventure books would end up like Mickey Spillane or something – they would end up with all humanity taken from them and these flat, aggressive characters that are just working from brute urge – as much as anything…

It’s one of the things that makes Lost Girls so good, is you can’t help but have an emotional investment in the characters. You mention in Promethea, your comic about magic and story, that the Pentagon has found that comic books are one of the most useful mediums for getting across information – in Lost Girls it’s even more of an intense experience than usual – with all the softness of the contours of the bodies and richness of the colour…

What you’re saying about the intensity of the experience, I think that that’s true. And I would say basically if you’re talking about a visual narrative, putting aside things like Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress, or something like that, you’re talking about a film, or you’re talking about a comic strip – now the thing is that film – it’s a medium that I’m particularly disenchanted with at the moment, but it seems to me that one of the main problems that I have with films is that it’s such an immersive experience…

Marshall McLuhan talks about the film as being a ‘hot’ medium, doesn’t he?

…The film leaves nothing for the audience to do – it’s telling them what the characters look like, how they move, it’s telling them how to look at the story, whereas with comics and even more so with straight literature you are having to do quite a lot of the work yourselves, you are having to fill in the movement between the panels, you’re having to give animation to a two dimensional character’s expression In light of what they’re saying – it’s a very involving and very intimate experience and yet at the same time it has got this incredible visual punch that you don’t get perhaps in straightforward literature, so it really does combine the best of both worlds, so that you feel involved in what the characters are doing – because it’s you as much as the artist and writer who is bringing them to life – you are investing a lot of yourself into those characters – it feels like you’re there in a much deeper sense than even if you were in a virtual reality – if such a thing existed – where you could just put on your full body suit and be there in the experience. I think that would dump you back in the same problem as a movie – well I’ve said to people in the past – even if you could have some kind of virtual reality set up that could put you in the middle of the Napoleonic wars, and you could actually feel the recoil of the canons through the ground, you could hear the horses, you could smell the powder and the terror –yeah you could do that and probably have a very incoherent and very upsetting experience. Or you could go and read Tolstoy, couldn’t you, which would actually give you some order and form and meaning. A book is virtual reality – given the fact that we’re all only experiencing reality through our perceptions – yea, like there’s any other sort! (laughs). We did very much want to make that happen in Lost Girls.

The link between Lost Girls and Promethea is probably only after the fact. When I started Lost Girls 18 years ago I was yet to get involved with magic and occultism in the way that I have, but after finishing Lost Girls and looking back on it I think we both felt that it was actually quite an alchemical piece of work. Partly because of the simple fact that it was a man and woman collaborating on it – a number of the alchemists, not all of them by any means – but a number of the more prominent ones, like say the Flamels – they were a husband a wife team and there were a number of other alchemists that worked either with their wives or with their daughters – and they seemed to feel that it was important in the purest and most abstract forms.

I find alchemy fascinating, especially when you see it as an allegory in literature etc…

Once you start looking at alchemy you start seeing it everywhere. In Jean Cocteau’s Opium, Diary of a Cure – there was a line in there when he said for any creative act, the highest female and the highest male part of any individual have to be engaged in a creative sexual union in one person. After we had completed the work, we realised we’d hit upon a winner when we hit upon that combination of characters, because we’ve got three women of different ages, different classes, and we realised in retrospect that we’d also got women that kind of represented the three alchemical elements – Alice is mercurial – there’s something combustible about Dorothy – she’s like sulphur – and with Wendy there is very much the feeling of salt – it struck us – it may not be meaningful – but it struck us that lost girls was a very long alchemical work during which we probably went through all of the stages that the matter in the crucible – the degrado and all the rest of it – goes through. We do I think tend to think of it as our gold – you know…

It IS gold (gush gush). But it is a bit like going into the crucible taking the journey with the characters. It’s a testing but rewarding journey…

Well thank you – we meant it to be that – we didn’t want this to be a book where people just thought – well that was sexy or that was aesthetically beautiful – we wanted something that would actually grip people emotionally and at the most intimate and personal level, talk to them…

I found the second read less testing and more delightful

We were so involved with the characters ourselves from all sorts of levels – from the outset we were terribly conscious that we were dealing with three characters here who were as precious to our readers as their own relatives and we were taking these characters and putting them into a self-described pornography so we wanted to make really sure that we were in no way disrespectful of those characters that we allowed them their dignity, that we didn’t degrade them – I’m always fairly squishy soft about my characters – I know that the readers have a lot invested in them and I don’t like to (pause) – it would hurt me as much as it would hurt the reader as much as it would hurt the character – that was one of the reasons at the end we allow a complete page of the light changing in the deserted room because we wanted to say to the readers – look it’s OK – they got away – there was a whole 24 hours between them leaving and the soldiers arriving…

Can we talk about the drugs in Lost Girls? In the fetish scene there’s a lot of ambivalence around the use of drugs – people are quite divided about them, particularly around SM sex and stimulants. In SM scenarios, many would argue, you don’t want people having poppers, not knowing how far they’re going etc…

We were not in any of the scenes in Lost Girls advocating anything – what we were trying to do was to extrapolate upon the original characters – now as I’ve said in Wendy’s case that was fairly easy – as she’s the only one that has grown up in the original book and she seems to have grown up into the neat little housewife that you’d have expected her to grow up into. When we were decoding those original stories and making them into sexual narratives it was difficult not to notice that the only one in which there does seem to be imagery that is at least reminiscent of drugs is Alice in Wonderland – famously inspiring Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit song. There are an awful lot of elements in Alice in Wonderland that do seem to suggest drugs – it was also because of the three characters – the one with the dreamiest way of thinking was always Lewis Carroll’s Alice – she is a curious little girl and we wanted to continue that into the adult woman but to have had an adult woman going through those strange elliptical thought processes that Lewis Carroll’s Alice went through she’d have ended up something like Phoebe from Friends, you know, so the idea of introducing opium, which was almost universally used in Victorian times, made sense. I’m sure that there were an awful lot of respectable aristocratic, middle class, working class women and men who were addicted to opium in one of its many varied forms – so by having the opium as part of Alice’s character make-up, that enabled us to talk about the hookah-smoking caterpillar in sexual terms. Drugs were another example of the kind of decadent amoral purgatory that Alice was sliding into during that part of her life – I’ve certainly got no axe to grind for opiates. I’ve never used them – it seemed appropriate to Alice’s narrative – it was useful as an element in the 1913 storyline – for one thing it enabled us to introduce the symbol of the poppy – it’s the very last image – on a magical level the poppy is the symbol of the realm of Yessod, which is the lunar realm of the imagination – which is one of the main things we were talking about in Lost Girls and in its highest aspect it’s the highest third female sphere of Binah – which is the compassionate mother sphere – it seemed to us that it was an appropriate symbol and referred to in various ways – y’know – sorry … I’ve drifted off -…

We were talking about opium (both laugh). There’s also alcohol – which was involved in Alice’s traumatic, non-consensual introduction to sex.

Those are the two experiences in the book which aren’t consensual: the rape of the Tinkerbell-like character and the molestation of Alice – now we did go to some effort to make sure that these scenes were not in any way enticingly depicted or arousing – and those characters, Captain Hook and the friend of the family – the white rabbit-like man – these are some of the most unpleasant characters in the book – this connects back to what we were saying earlier about worrying about if this book fell into the wrong hands – say for example a paedophile who for some reason had decided to shell out all that money, and wade through all that extraneous material in Lost Girls rather than just log on to his favourite website or whatever, I would think that in the story of Captain Hook/Wendy where we pretty much do deconstruct the real drives of Hook and in that sense, paedophiles in general – they’re frightened. This is a thing that a friend of mine who works in the prison service said recently. He’d been working with child molesters – and he thought that the term paedophile was probably wrong. Because that suggests that they are drawn to these crimes by a love of children, whereas they’re more adultophobic – they are frightened of grown up women because they emotionally don’t go much beyond the children they molest – this I instinctively felt was probably true – for one thing, most of them have been molested themselves.

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Hence, the acting out and repeating in Alice’s story

It’s when she finds herself basically molesting a child that she has her complete breakdown – I had read up on the literature, such as it was, and I’d talked to people who had had unfortunate experiences and situations where I could observe things that were happening and those were the conclusions that I came to. They seemed to me and to Melinda to have an emotional truth to them, so we followed our instincts and I think that we were quite possibly right, that in Captain Hook we did come up with quite a template.

And quite a vengeance! The crocodile is an image that will stay with me…

That’s the one we called the Pussygator between ourselves and the giant penis was the Jabbercock. Those two images are the crux of Lost Girls – they’re shocking and they make you laugh and that’s because they are absurd boilings down of fears that each gender has about the other gender and you see them and yes they’re terrible and terrifying and they’re also stupid. They’re really funny, and I thought that we exploded a lot of sexual tension. I remember saying to Melinda when she was doing those drawings, ‘a lot of people talk about Vagina Dentata – not many people do anything about it’. Really glad you like those – those were key images for us as well.

Can I ask you some Skin Two type questions now before I let you go. What God or goddess archetypes would you associate with the fetish/SM world? Khali is one that seems popular, if a bit obvious…

Well, Hermes, the god of magic – he’s very ambivalent – he is a girlish boy at best – although he has a strong sense of mischief – there are I suppose other gods like Set the Egyptian god – no-one’s quite sure what Set is – he’s just referred to as the Set beast – some people think it might be some sort of dog or jackal – some people suggested it perhaps looks a bit like an ant-eater – so it’s just called the Set beast…

It Set a transmogrifying deity?

Set was quite dark – I believe he did all sorts of terrible things to the god Horus – which really upset the god …. So I don’t know if there’s anything there – basically the main sphere of sexual fantasy is the moon goddess – or the moon gods; mostly moon goddesses, but there’s the odd moon god as well – and that is not the sphere of sex – I expect that would be at the emotional sphere of Venus – or Nepptap as it’s called – but the sphere of the imagination is the sphere of sexual fantasy – which is probably the most important part of sex, which is not the physical part of sex but using the imagination. In the area of sexual fantasy a lot of those moon goddesses have got a lot of interesting little angles to them. Off the top of my head that is the most I can think of – if you were to go into the other various demons and other entities you’d have a whole lot of interesting quirks and kinks to choose from…

Where do you think that kinky sex fits in with evolution?

I suppose that it’s an evolution of our sexual ideas – our ideas about ourselves, our ideas about our own desires, it’s a stylisation and an abstraction to a certain degree. I presume it’s something that we’re trying out as part of our evolution. It may turn out to have some positive parts in the evolution or it may turn out to be something which is equally positive by being something that we reject. It’s probably something that expands our ideas about sexual identity – whether we choose to follow them up along those lines, of course, will always be up to us.

Do you have any favourite erotic writers or artists?

I have a particular fondness for some of the Victorian writers, and the decadent writers. Pierre Louÿs is someone I greatly admire as an erotic writer – mainly because he’d got the sheer bottle to have written a book which gained him a literary reputation, which was The Songs of Bilitis, he didn’t like it, so he said ‘right, I’m only going to write pornography that is so depraved and filthy that nobody will ever publish it’, and that’s what he did for the rest of his life. That has got style and dash; I do tend to go towards people like Louÿs. Sometimes he’s a little strong even for my tastes. I appreciate his ambitions…

In terms of the artists – where I think we have generally been a lot better served – there really are a lot that are really good. All the ones featured in Lost Girls; Franz von Bayros is stunning, although Beardsley, in some ways he’s not a better draftsman but he’s a better artist. There is something really personal and easy about Beardsley’s line. You get the impression of excessively overworked mania with Bayros. I like Gerda Wegener; I like the cartoony style she has. There were a lot of people that we didn’t use – people like Félicien Rops and George Grosz that I’ve got a lot of time for that we couldn’t squeeze in the White Book for one reason or another – it would have been too late for Grosz and Félicien Rops. Melinda did do some beautiful Rops pastiches, but if you’re gonna do Rops you’ve got to make anti-clericalism a really big part of the pictures – and while we’ve got nothing against anti-clericalism it would’ve been a distraction so we opted for ‘Anonymous’ for the final chapter instead.

Are you still working with Steve Severin from Siouxsie and the Banshees?

No – not for a few years – the Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels parted company amicably with Severin, and I think I’m going to be in touch with my musical accomplice Tim Perkins soon. We’re probably going to be doing another album maybe this year or next year

Other future projects? Are you doing something on William Blake?

There’s a William Blake poem on the Angel Passage CD. That’s a thing I did a long time ago, and Melinda might be adapting that – but what I’m mainly doing at the moment is this enormous book Jerusalem – if it isn’t the biggest book written by a single author it’s gotta be up there – it’s like over three quarters of a million words – which is nearly 2,000 pages and I’m nearly two thirds of the way through it – it’s all about the place that I grew up in, it’s all about my family, all about a lot of completely mad fantasy stuff that is somehow worked in with all this – it’s about my thoughts concerning life,death and what our continuity might be. It takes in a lot of other things – racism, the development of protestant ideas through all of those wonderful mad cults like the Moravians and the Ranters and the Lollards and the Dissenters that Northampton was always a focus for.

Is there a lot of utopianism in it?

There’s almost everything in it – there’s a lot of talk about poverty and about community and about the glorious heart of fable that lies under all these things – it’s a difficult book – it’s going to take me three quarters of million words to do it – it covers a lot of ground…

Melinda Gebbie

Five minutes of me Gush gush gush gush… gushing about how much I love the books… and then a little bit of background on what everyone’s up to – or not up to – at Skin Two since her time there…

Was Lost Girls the first project you two worked on?

Yes it was kind of the reason I left actually. We’d both been invited to work on a magazine – Tales of Shangri-La or something – we were each invited to do like an eight-pager for this magazine that never did come to light, so I came up here on weekends and we’d literally just talk about what we thought about pornography – because that’s what this comic was about and we just found we both had a lot of feelings about it. Ever since my dad used to have a subscription to Playboy and my mother when the magazine came would get ferociously angry – and my mother would say – “well you’ve got two weeks to read it before I throw it out…I was still a kid then and I remember thinking ‘well what’s going on there, what’s the problem, it’s just a magazine, and I grew up mostly thinking about sexual politics. In terms of art, I think my art’s always been around the subject of sexual politics, since I first started to pick a subject matter – and so initially the chance to do an eight pager gave us a spring board, each of us had somebody to talk to about our opinions about pornography and why it never works – and when that little magazine never came to fruition, we talked some more and came up with this blueprint for the next sixteen years of my life! (laughter)

You must not have thought it would take that long when you started?

I didn’t have a clue because I’d never actually collaborated on a comic with anyone. I’d always written and drawn my own comics, so… Alan swears it took me eighteen months to do the first chapter – that sounds preposterous to me but it might be true. I went through the book – thinking ‘sixteen years, that’s insane, what’s the matter with me?’ – but I divvied up all the panels in the book and I found that it actually averages out to me having spent three days per panel…

That’s fast really considering how beautiful and varied the book is. Was there much change – you say you blocked it out – did it change much in sixteen years?

No – thanks to Alan who’s a master a working out the angles. He’s a master cartographer of the world of plotting. When we first got the character ideas he just went off and came up with this pretty complete chapter listing of what the chapters would be like, what would happen in them generally and then he kind of elaborated as he went on – and there really weren’t any changes that I can remember. Everything he thought about ahead of time – because he obviously gives everything a lot of thought. A lot of scriptwriters don’t even bother thinking of what’s going to happen next week – on things like (TV drama) Lost, they don’t even know what they’re doing.

Lost Girls is still pretty much the way Alan laid it out – I’ve only really done short stories before. At one point in my career as a cartoonist in San Francisco, people were interested in my art but they didn’t seem to understand my stories, which is understandable. I don’t think very many artists are good verbally; people are usually much better at one than the other. It’s very rare that you’re good at both. I thought, ‘if only I could find a writer that was as good at writing as I like to think I am at what I do’, and eventually that did happen – so I never had to worry about story line. The only thing that I contributed in terms of the storytelling came down to the visual end of it, not to the verbal end of it – aside from a few little helpful hints with Dorothy’s dialogue, with her being American.

I really liked the fact you gave her silver shoes (like the original Frank L Baum story) – I thought that was cool

I think the people who did the movie were quite possessive about that – I’m not sure if we looked into the copyright or the publisher did, but I think silver’s better anyway. Ruby’s a much more 1940s thing…

I also loved fact the first sexual thing that happens is shoe related (laughter)…

Talking of girl things, one of the great thing about working with Alan is he’s one of the only men working in comics certainly who is able to write from the female character’s point of view. He’s very good at observing women’s language. He did ask my opinion on some aspects of the story though. For instance, the chapter between Rolf and Harold. We both thought, ‘now, how’s that going to work – this soldier who’s apparently heterosexual and this husband who’s very, very stuffy and is probably barely sexual at all, and Mr Harold Potter – that name was decided long before JK Rowling… (tuts and laughs) – how do two heterosexual men end up in bed together – especially when one of them is a stuffy old bastard and I said, ‘Well, I would imagine that Rolfe would be very good at flirting – because neither of us know how men actually flirt with each other – I mean I’ve had lots of gay friends and spent a lot of time in clubs in San Francisco, but in terms of flirting I used to just see people dancing and picking each other up mostly. I didn’t actually see people feeling each other out to see what the other person was thinking so that was quite a challenging chapter. I would say I probably had more input into that chapter in terms of the interaction of those two characters but I think the rest of it, it was more of a give and take thing really, like going along the seam of a dress and trying to decide which of two threads is more dominant, it really worked so completely together.

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Did he talk about little sketches?

(Moore sketched the story out for her, page for page…)

It was a different process to the usual huge scripts he does, right? They look rather intimidating…

They are and for an artist, because – I do like to read but I’m not a meticulous reader, I don’t have total absorption the way I do with visual detail – I would always miss out this or that and sometimes it was am important detail and sometimes it wasn’t – you know, it kind of would slow down the process in the pencilling…

Are there any Skin Two experiences in there? The Tin Man, to me, had the repetitiousness and abstracted emotional engagement that can happen in fetishistic behaviour…

That’s an interesting question. Personally speaking I was quite fascinated by the inter-personal vocabulary sexually – and sort of what I looked for in terms of emotions – it took a long time to see how people were relating to each other. The clothing and stuff was quite sexy and it was a lot of fun to draw…

I used to love your fetish art work – especially the Bettie Page stuff.

Did you know I was the first woman to draw Bettie Page? I was drawing her back in San Fran, I think in 1980. Joey Kinney was the first person to draw her that I know of at all and he drew her in 1979, then the craze came on quite a few years later.

Can I ask you about the Lettering – Todd Klein’s done a fabulous job…

I said to him I wanted the little clouds to be square-ish with clipped ends, which he did, then I sent him a sample of my printed handwriting, saying I’d like it to look like this, but correct, and he created a typeface/font called TK Gebbie. Todd is genius of lettering, he is the best in the world. I couldn’t imagine anyone better than him.

Also the contrasts/shading on the clouds are beautiful …

That was very important to me because I really don’t like the intrusion of clouds on my artwork. On the original artwork, it doesn’t have any printing on it at all, it’s just the art, so all of that’s added later.

I love the pastiches – all the different styles – different artists – I particularly love the gates and silhouette in Wendy’s story– love those…

I was really proud of those, especially as they got more ornate – with the lace and little bits of grass – I’m very proud of those actually…

Did you have to do much research for the White Book?

I’ve been collecting art books for years. I would go down to London if I didn’t have a book and look for something that was a bit more detailed than what I had. It was great fun to do [the pastiches]. Some of them were harder to do than others – the von Bayros was kind of like the forbidden stitch – I felt like I might go blind or mad or something…

I love the seven deadly sins paintings

Mucha was difficult for me because his backgrounds are so precise and architectural and I thought I can do the figures and get the colouring in but all the tight mosaic right corners, I just couldn’t deal with that, so I left all that kind of background stuff out…

Can we talk about body shapes? I really enjoyed the sensuality of older and different looking women, and men, in Lost Girls – unlike regular pornography where everything is a very commercial, commodified idea of sexuality, the same thing in mainstream media – one body type – boyish figure, gravity-defying big boobs. Were you consciously going against this when you were creating the characters body shapes?

It was deliberate – I really hate body fascism – the whole point of the book – everything I did in that book I did to attract women to it and to attract women to the idea that every women is a goddess and deserves to be treated like one and if she’s not being treated like one she’s on the wrong page of the wrong book. Anybody who tries to make a women feel any less than that is not worthy of her attention – and the whole jist of the book, I said to Alan, why I thought pornography was never aimed at women was that it was always ugly, it always made the women look like victims or somebody whose unreal in terms of being scrawny or vain or troubled or ill or some kind of emotional problem or diet problem – in terms of Ally McBeal, skeleton girl – that kind of thing – underfed and emotionally crippled.

Very often with silicon implants…

Yeah – I think that’s really terrifying. I think it usually ends up doing something dire to the body as well and it looks terrible. The thing is, (sigh) it’s just another sign of this self-hatred thing – that’s a thing that Lost Girls is meant to address – that we are fine the way we are – what we need to work on is loving ourselves more and expecting more out of life than we do. Not expecting that was have to crawl for attention but that we deserve it and we deserve love and we deserve to be comfortable and we are beautiful and we must not forget that, no matter what package we come in, and that is the path that we are on – to understand the beauteous person we are inside and out – we our boundless in our wonderfulness, and you know culture and commodity fetishism – social control, this perennial pounding down of the female and the male psyche – although pornography as we’ve known it has been very much male produced – I don’t pretend to understand about so-called male sexuality as it is manifest in pornography – I respond to almost none of it. I like gay pornography more than straight pornography. I like Russ Meyer, he’s fun…

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What are you up to next?

Alan’s got a beautiful poem in tribute to William Blake which I’m working on and that will be a small book. What I’m working on right now is a series of paintings. A friend of mine sent over some huge paintings of mine from 30 years ago and I’m working on about another 30 pieces and hope at some point to have a show. Almost everything in there is sexual themes. I’m quite excited about those. I’m also taking notes in order to write a book about my life in San Francisco – not about me but about all the people that I knew and all the things that went on, you know, people like William Burroughs, those kind of people. It’ll be kind of a fun format, because there will be lots of lots of drawing to go along with the writing. Hopefully, on every other page you’ll read about a person and then you’ll see drawings of them or postcards they sent – nobody seems to be doing that about San Franscisco right now. Eli Kaminsky (Robert Crumb’s wife) she did a book called Need More Love – I looked forward quite eagerly to that book and read it and I thought, well, maybe she’ll have some stuff – but she mainly wrote about her own life. Nobody’s really done a book about the San Francisco people, the underground cartoonists, the hippy stuff that went on. People have done hippy stuff but they haven’t done a book about the people I knew and they were all such a marvellous crew of fascinating and exotic people… I was very surprised and amazed that nobody has turned around and written that book. I kept a diary from the age of 25. I wrote down what people said to each other and I wrote down the things that happened at parties and the fights. When I went back and started looking at them I was amazed at how funny some of the things were. People said amazingly funny things and got into, you know wild piss- ups and mad grudges…

Are you interested in magic – you can’t escape it… Alan’s magic comic Promethea is dedicated to you – and there’s the alchemical model he mentioned earlier in Lost Girls…

Alan and I had been studying the tarot and the kabbalah all these years… and I’ve been studying Tibetan figures and things like that. We’ve been looking at various different things and we have been discussing magic quite a bit between us – I’ve been reading Jung and the lives of the great visionaries like Milton and Blake and combining that with a sort of dream iconography and human myths – all these things, alchemy, myths, magic the internal world of the self – it’s actually the most important part of every human being, you know. We’re so busy trying to live on the surface of our consciousness, that we ignore the boundless plains and universes of our interior selves. I think culture at some point will slowly return to that – I think there are little vibrations of that thinking coming back, because we’ve absolutely exhausted the veneer of consumerist existence. The idea of the voice of the soul: people have been trying to still it and then they wonder why the get ill; we’re so isolated from each other, we’re so isolated from our internal landscape which is much deeper than the programming that we get stuck with. From the time we’re small, we’re told ‘don’t do that’, ‘love me, don’t’ love her’ – hate yourself – buy this – dance to that – go to war, don’t go to war’. Programming is not who you are…

My only real art teacher who was my friend as well said to me ‘Hell is a lot easier to depict – it’s very easy to depict Hell; it’s very, very difficult to depict Heaven’. I guess somewhere inside I did take that on as a challenge, I mean, Francis Bacon did Hell so well – who needs to do it? I don’t think existence is about tooth and claw. I believe that we do go through phases – but we are part of the universe, we are unified, just like leaves on a tree, or bumps on the skin of a mammal, we are all part of something together – if we just understand that we don’t ever have to feel isolated because we are so connected to each other.

Michelle Olley

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