This blog entry is me playing catch-up with two large scale works by creators I respect. The reasons I put off reading them until now are mainly logistical. I have increasingly relied upon borrowing library copies of books, or reading them in eComic form (often using the Hoopla service). Neither of these projects have been readily available in those ways.
Chris Ware’s Building Stories is like the anti-library book (as well as the anti-eComic book): a box containing fourteen printed works in various sizes, shapes, and formats. Having worked in libraries for years, I can think of no way to safely circulate a copy of it, and would be surprised if any library has (although I’m sure there are research collections that own copies in non-circulating special collections). And while I can imagine a digital edition of it, one does not exist as of this writing.
Alan Moore & Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls is another unlikely library purchase, due to its controversial explicit sexual content (fanned by Moore himself when he described it as “pornography” when it was first published). I had long hoped to pick up a marked-down copy of the hardcover at a convention. But as the years go by that seems increasingly unlikely, and finding the Comixology version at half price was too good to resist (this only became an option years after the print publication).
Reading Ware’s Rusty Brown recently reminded me that I had never gotten around to Building Stories. So I bought a used copy (it has to be said that the retail price is a bit prohibitive, even if it is probably more than justified by the cost of printing and producing the unusual package). The story centers around the residents of a three-story Chicago apartment building (which at one point serves as narrator, a literal rendition of “building stories”): a 30-something woman who has not found her mission in life, nor someone to share it with; a couple, possibly married, who have drifted apart; and the building’s landlady, an elderly woman who has lived alone for decades.
But the narrative branches off in all directions (not least because there is no prescribed path through it). The main protagonist is an unnamed woman who lost a lower leg in a childhood boating accident (never shown explicitly, and often just referred to as “the accident”). Unsure of her physical attractiveness anyway, she often obsesses on her disability–although ultimately she does find partners, including the husband who figures into the latter part of the story. As a male author, it is notable that Ware devotes so much of the book to telling women’s stories.
Her story goes back to her childhood, then her high school and college years. She was an art student, and had her first serious relationship. When she moves into the apartment house she begins working at a florist shop, and discovers a talent for floral arrangement. Later she moves to the suburbs with her husband, we watch her child grow up, a friend commits suicide, her longtime pet cat dies…a whole succession of life events.
The collection includes a comic book devoted to the couple upstairs in the apartment building (which shows their courtship, as well as the apparent collapse of their relationship). Another comic book tells the landlady’s story, from her life as a young woman to her marriage and widowhood managing the apartment building. There are also a book and a newspaper devoted to the story of Branford the bee. Taken by themselves they may look like an irrelevant side story, but they are also part of the relationship between the protagonist and her daughter (as bedtime stories), as well as a commentary on family, which is one of the themes of the book.
As usual Ware’s art is rich and diverse, made even more so by the different presentation formats. I do wish he would use much less tiny print! It’s a genuine struggle to read sometimes. The more you read, the more the story broadens and deepens. It does not need a large cast to maintain interest: in fact it could be argued that focusing on a few characters in depth is a source of strength. Watching them go through their lives and experiencing their internal monologues produces a rare sense of intimacy. I felt I really got to know these characters. I was almost sorry to get to the last piece, and look forward to reading it again, probably in a slightly different order. I do think that the suggested reading order on the bottom of the box was helpful. It would have been confusing to have started somewhere other than the two books that are suggested, although reading about the protagonist as an adult first might have given an interesting perspective.
Lost Girls began publication in 1991, but was first published in finished form in 2006 by Top Shelf Productions in the U.S. The lost girls of the title are Alice (from Alice In Wonderland), Wendy (from the Neverland of the Peter Pan stories), and Dorothy (from The Wizard of Oz). Now adults ranging in age from elderly to middle aged to young adult–knowing Moore, this is likely also a reference to the neopagan Triple Goddess archetype (Maiden, Mother, Crone)–they all arrive at an Austrian hotel just before World War I breaks out. They engage in increasingly explicit erotic adventures together, while also telling each other the stories of their sexual histories. Alan Moore famously described it as “pornography” at the time: it was not clear if he was just trying to head off potential criticism and/or book banns, or if he really thought that was the most accurate description. Its controversial nature certainly limited its distribution–there surely could not have been many sales to libraries, for example–and represented a major financial gamble for the publisher.
Book 1 (“Older Children,” a Lewis Carroll quote from the Alice in Wonderland books) introduces the three women as they arrive at the hotel, plus a bit more past history of Alice’s departure from South Africa. It also includes the first book-within-book (a Moore trademark), in the form of a pornographic book created by the hotel’s proprietor called The White Book. The fact that there is a copy in each guest room–like the Bible found in so many today–tells a lot about the nature of the hotel. Shortly after the women meet they start telling their respective stories. This is where Moore begins to build a literary connection between the source material and his story. He re-imagines all of the central facts of the character histories as if they were suppressed memories of childhood sexual experiences. The girls were all young in the original stories, so there is also an element of child sexual abuse in all of them.
Dorothy experiences an orgasm during the tornado that threatens her farm, and winds up as her father’s lover. Wendy’s Peter is a young man living rough in a nearby park; he initiates her and her brothers into the world of sex already shared by him and his group. Alice was raped by her father’s oldest friend, and escaped by imagining herself to be the girl in her mother’s elaborate mirror (that mirror is now in her hotel room, where it acts as a recurring visual framing element). The book concludes with a trip to Paris to attend the famous, tumultuous premier of the ballet Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) with choreography by Nijinsky and music by Igor Stravinsky. Moore’s story pairs the emotional audience reaction with the explosive emotional connection elicited in the three women.
Up until this point the sexual acts illustrated could reasonably be described as erotica. But the visuals become considerably more explicit in Book 2 (“Neverlands,” a J.M Barrie quote from Peter Pan). And the sex takes on an increasingly large role in the story. But there is still literary reference: a meeting between Alice and Wendy follows the Seven Deadly Sins, for example. Meanwhile, the men in Wendy and Dorothy’s lives have a homosexual encounter. And a trip to an island parallels the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the triggering event for World War I.
Book 3 (“The Great And Terrible,” an L. Frank Baum quote from The Wizard of Oz) finds the hotel emptying in anticipation of the coming war. So of course the women and the hotel staff (who were all hired because they were prostitutes) celebrate with a huge orgy. It includes more readings from The White Book, and a discussion of the incestuous relationships depicted. The hotel owner/pornographer argues that while they would be horrifying in real life, they are only fictions. They represent the idea of incest, not the thing itself. Hard not to see this as an author’s statement from Moore himself, as well. At any rate, the endless illustrations of every imaginable sex act have become monotonous by now: numbing rather than arousing. The Lost Girls still have secrets to reveal, so their past histories continue as stories. They finally leave the hotel, and Alice leaves her beloved mirror behind, having come to terms with her past. The scene shifts to a group of German soldiers taking the room, smashing the mirror for firewood in the process. The final scenes depict the stark reality of a dead soldier on a battlefield.
A good deal of the success of the storytelling has to be attributed to Gebbie. Her delicate pastel artwork renders even the most outrageous sexual acts in a visually attractive way, and she also proves adept at shifting styles to mimic historic art or to differentiate between the different characters telling their own stories. As always Moore creates layers of literary and historical references, even in a story as bawdy as this. I found it very slow, however, and was not entirely convinced by the addition of the war commentary to a story that did not give any indication of that direction until late. It adds a poignancy to the ending that did not feel earned: is it meant to contrast the ugliness of war with the beauty of the natural human sexual impulse, or the constant struggle between life and death? The story does succeed in drawing a convincing picture of the women’s lives, and of the relationship they established in an intense few days together. I doubt that will be enough to motivate me to reread it.