“Its offspring made small mewling sounds”: Edward Gorey’s “The Trouble With Tribbles”

This made me laugh harder than anything else all week.

It’s a… I don’t even know how to say what it is. Shaenon K. Garrity, a fan of Edward Gorey and Star Trek, discovered that the former had been a fan of the latter, and created this imagining — essentially a fanfic mash-up in comic form — of what Gorey would have done with “The Trouble With Tribbles.”

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The drawing doesn’t quite have Gorey’s touch (who does?), but it’s pretty darned good, with some very Gorey-esque compositions — and the writing is dead-on. Absolutely not to be missed.

Note to the artist: Gorey was also a Buffy fan. Can we get a mash-up of “Band Candy” next? Please please please please please?

Via Making Light, and also via my friend Rebecca.

“Its offspring made small mewling sounds”: Edward Gorey’s “The Trouble With Tribbles”
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Literally

No, this isn’t about literal interpretations of the Bible. It’s about the word “literally.”

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Faithful readers of this blog will know that, when it comes to language, I’m a fairly ardent usagist/ descriptivist. I think language is a biological function that depends on constant change in order to work. I tend to embrace changes in the language rather than resisting them. I think grammar books would be more effective if they taught the rules of the language as it actually is, rather than as the authors think it ought to be. And I think that arguing “that’s not what this word really means,” when it’s how the majority of people using the language use it and understand it, is absurd. There is no objective, Platonic form of the word “nice” — it means what we understand it to mean.

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But while I am a passionate descriptivist, I’m not a hard-line one. I understand that, while language has to change in order to work, it also has to have some consistency in order to work. If we don’t agree on what the words we use mean (as well as on the structures we use put them together), then language becomes nonsense. And while I think it’s silly to resist changes in the language just on principle, I think it is worth discussing whether any particular change is necessary, desirable, comprehensible, and/or graceful.

Which brings me back to “literally.”

Continue reading “Literally”

Literally

Atheism in Pop Culture Part 4: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Just so you know: I’m kind of getting all my Harry Potter blogging out in one swell foop, so I can get it over with and move on. I think this is my last one. No spoilers here, but if you want your reading experience of the new book to be completely unsullied, you may want to skip this until you’ve read the book.

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You didn’t think I’d be able to keep atheism out of this, did you?

I suppose it’d be more accurate to call this “Skepticism in Pop Culture.” Although I do think it’s interesting that, for all the magic and ghosts and afterlife in the Harry Potter series, there’s a conspicuous absence of any sort of divinity. Another reason the Christian Right hates it, I guess…

Anyway, when I was reading the new Harry Potter book, this passage jumped out at me as a perfect and hilarious example of great skeptical thinking, and I wanted to pass it on.

“Well, how can that be real?”

“Prove that it is not,” said [X].

[Y] looked outraged.

“But that’s — I’m sorry, but that’s completely ridiculous! How can I possibly prove it doesn’t exist?… I mean, you could claim that anything’s real if the only basis for believing in it is that nobody’s proved it doesn’t exist!”

“Yes, you could,” said [X]. “I am glad to see that you are opening your mind a little.”

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Let me just say: I love Y. One of my favorite characters in the book. And they’re completely right. One of the most common fallacies in defenses of the metaphysical, paranormal, and spiritual is that, because you can’t prove that something doesn’t exist, therefore it’s reasonable to believe that it does… that because you can’t prove that something doesn’t exist, the proposition that it does exist and that it doesn’t are equally likely.

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And that, of course, simply isn’t the case. The classic example is Bertrand Russell’s china teapot orbiting the Sun: you can’t prove that it doesn’t exist, but the theory that it doesn’t exist and the theory that it does aren’t equally likely.

It’s like I said in my piece, The Unexplained, the Unproven, and the Unlikely. Even when you can’t talk about proof and certainty, you can still talk about evidence and likelihood. “Well, it could be true” and “You can’t prove anything” are arguments best left to ten year olds and stoned college students.

Tip of the hat to Friendly Atheist. This quote had jumped out at me, too, but I had to copy it from F.A.’s blog, since Ingrid has the book now and she’s in Chino.

Atheism in Pop Culture Part 4: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

The Fake Spoilers?

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So what’s been your favorite fake Harry Potter spoiler so far?

Mine is the one from the Daily Show: Harry gets decapitated by Ron, who turns out to be Voldemort’s evil robot son. Although I’m also fond of the one I made up for Ingrid: Harry dies on Page 10, and the rest of the book is filled up with personal ads.

So what are your favorite fake spoilers — either ones you’ve heard, or ones you’ve made up?

The Fake Spoilers?

Abbey Road or Let It Be? Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

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WARNING — SPOILERS!

Well, sort of.

I don’t actually talk much about the details of the book in this post. But if you haven’t yet read “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” and want to read nothing at all about it until you do, I suggest that you not read it — especially since we might talk about the book in the comments.

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Once upon a time, back in the old days of this blog when we were debating the relative merits of Harry Potter versus Lord of the Rings, I hit upon an analogy that I thought was very apt. I said that Harry Potter was like the Beatles and Lord of the Rings was like Wagner… and that, while I acknowledged that Wagner’s music was certainly greater than that of the Beatles by whatever objective standards might exist, I still didn’t personally like it. I still found it bombastic and heavy and humorless. I still enjoyed the Beatles more, by several orders of magnitude. And I believed that this was a reasonable and defensible position.

I still do, by the way.

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Since then, I’ve carried this analogy quite a bit further. I think the Harry Potter books are, in fact, a lot like the Beatles — something that started out as a well-done, tremendously fun, significantly-better-than-average bit of pop fluff that somehow tapped into a deep and wide vein in the culture, and that over time evolved into something more than that, into something that approached art — often awkwardly and clumsily and with a reach that exceeded its grasp, but nevertheless exploring interesting deep waters with pleasure and skill, and worthy of serious attention and consideration. (While at the same time still hitting that deep vein of pure pop culture fun.)

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I even had specific books matched up with specific Beatles albums (although not one-to-one, obviously, since the Beatles made more than seven albums). The first three books are the happy, poppy, early Beatles, with Book Three, “Prisoner of Azkaban,” being the pinnacle of that period in the same way that “A Hard Day’s Night” is. Book Four, “Goblet of Fire,” is the tired, fallow, grinding-it-out, “Beatles for Sale/Help!” low-point.

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And Books Five and Six, “Order of the Phoenix/Half-Blood Prince,” are the “starting to evolve and come into its own, as something new and worth paying serious attention to” books, a la “Rubber Soul,” “Revolver,” “Sgt. Pepper,” and “White Album.” (Ingrid points out that the analogy isn’t perfect, since the musical equivalent of the long, rambling, confusing, self-indulgent battle scene at the end of Book Five would be a 17-minute guitar solo from Rush or Yes or Spinal Tap, something the Beatles never did… but on reflection, I think “Magical Mystery Tour” might count).

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So ever since I read Book Six, I’ve been waiting for Book Seven with some trepidation. Would it be “Abbey Road” (the last Beatles album recorded) — a beautiful, inspired, nearly flawless example of the band at its best, and a grand and fitting note to go out on? Or would it be “Let It Be” (the last Beatles album released) — a messy, sloppy, kind of sad anticlimax with a few high points?

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I’m happy to report that “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” is Abbey Road. All the way.

It’s not quite flawless, to be sure. It’s certainly heir to many of Rowling’s usual foibles, including long awkward exposition passages, important plot points that are confusing or poorly thought-out (the whole thing with the wands at the very very end I thought was total bullshit), and obvious sops to the audience.

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But on the whole, I think it’s an extremely strong book. It’s got action, romance, politics, philosophy, moral complexity, humor… all well-executed and in good balance. It’s a serious page-turner — I pretty much didn’t do anything from the time I started it to the time I finished it except sleep, eat, and read. It’s even reasonably tight… well, for a Rowling book, anyway. And while the basic arc of the book is very much what you might expect, there are some serious surprises and shocks along the way.

I want to reserve final judgment until I’ve had time to let it gel (and until I’ve re-read it at least once). But right now, a day after finishing it, my initial assessment is: Best book in the series.

Abbey Road or Let It Be? Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry Potter Prediction Contest — The Winners!

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SPOILERS!

SPOILERS!

OH, SO MANY SPOILERS!

DO NOT READ THIS IF YOU HAVE NOT YET READ “HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS” AND DON’T WANT TO FIND OUT HOW IT TURNS OUT!

And the winners of “The Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” Prediction Contest, or, The Most Trivial Thing On This Blog To Date, And That’s Saying Something” are:

Continue reading “Harry Potter Prediction Contest — The Winners!”

Harry Potter Prediction Contest — The Winners!

Craig Thompson’s “Blankets”: Atheism in Pop Culture Part 3

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First of all: Atheist or not, if you haven’t read Craig Thompson’s Blankets, it’s a reading emergency. It’s not just one of the most beautiful and compelling graphic novels I’ve read; it’s one of the most beautiful and compelling books I’ve read in any format.

And if you’re interested in religion — whether you’re godless or a believer — it is absolutely a must-read, pretty much right this second. Thompson’s depiction of his fundamentalist childhood is a pitch-perfect depiction, in vivid and unignorable detail, of how, precisely, a religious upbringing can traumatize and fuck up a child. It’s not written as a critical argument, it’s not Dawkins or Dennet or Hitchens; it’s a personal, emotional, intensely intimate view of what this experience felt like from the inside. I don’t actually know if Thompson is an atheist or if he’s just discarded the fundamentalist faith of his childhood (maybe I should have called this post “Questioning Religion in Pop Culture,” but I’ve dubbed the series “Atheism in Pop Culture” and I’m sticking to it). But if you want to know how religion is playing out in families across the country, you have to read it stat.

So here, more specifically, is what I want to say about it.

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Over at Daylight Atheism there’s a beautiful, eloquent post about how religious teachers act and speak as if they know how the spiritual world works — often in startling detail — better than the rank and file. The post, and the discussion that followed, reminded me immediately of this scene in Blankets:

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Craig is a child in Sunday school, being told in detail about what Heaven is like, how everyone will be singing songs and praising God forever. Craig asks his Sunday school teacher if he’ll be able to draw in heaven (even as a child he loved to draw), if he could praise God and creation with drawing instead of singing. And the teacher says, unequivocally and with complete confidence and authority, No. You can’t draw in Heaven.

The exact words in the book: “I mean, come on, Craig. How can you praise God with DRAWINGS?” And when Craig asks if he can “draw His creation — like trees and stuff,” she replies, “But Craig… He’s already drawn it for us.” She’s quite adamant about it.

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Now, let’s set aside for the moment how appalling it is to squelch a talented child’s creativity by saying something like that. My point is this: How on earth did the Sunday school teacher know that you can sing in Heaven, but you can’t draw? On what basis was she making that claim?

None at all, that’s what. It’s not what she was taught about Heaven — she was taught about singing God’s praises, not drawing them — and in her closed mind, drawing therefore couldn’t be part of Heaven. But she didn’t really have any basis for her answer. She taught it to a child as if it were a plain fact — but she was just making it up.

The same way that all religious teachers are just making it up.

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They don’t have any basis for their detailed claims about Heaven or Hell, God and the soul. They have Scripture, sure; but Scripture is self-contradictory and vague, and if you ask ten religions teachers what Scripture means you’ll get ten different answers. And there’s no evidence for any one of those answers being right or wrong. Ultimately, it always comes down to faith.

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So I think this Blankets story shows beautifully how the very idea of religious teaching warps the basic idea of authority. I don’t mean authority like cops or bosses — I mean intellectual authority. Human civilization is based, at least partly, on the passing down of knowledge from generation to generation, from people who know stuff to people who don’t; and in particular children’s brains are wired, for good evolutionary reasons, to believe what adults tell them. But that only works when the intellectual authorities have their teachings based in reality and evidence (and are open to new ideas and being proven wrong). Religious teaching, of the “I know what Heaven/ Hell/ God/ the human soul are like, and I’m going to explain it to you” variety, completely hijacks that process, by presenting with the conviction of authoritative truth ideas that they are just making up.

Craig Thompson’s “Blankets”: Atheism in Pop Culture Part 3

Harry Potter Prediction Contest: A Reminder

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Just a reminder, folks: The deadline for your predictions in the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Prediction Pool is coming up (12:01 am Pacific time on July 20.) So if you’re planning to play, get your predictions in soon! The full rules are here in the original prediction pool post. Remember: five predictions, plus a optional tie-breaker question — which two major characters will die in Book Seven? (And if you made predictions already but didn’t answer the tie-breaker, please feel free to do that now.) Let’s play!

Harry Potter Prediction Contest: A Reminder

Lost Girls: A Review

I wrote this review for Adult FriendFinder magazine, but for some reason the publication got delayed, so the reprint rights only recently returned to me. Enjoy!

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Lost Girls
by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie
Top Shelf Comix, ISBN 1-891830-74-0. $75.00.

It’s not just that it’s surprising — although it is. The first printing of “Lost Girls” — 10,000 copies — sold out in a day. The second printing, also of 10,000 copies, sold out in advance two days later. The day the book went on sale, it hit Amazon.com’s “Top 20.” And it’s gotten passionate rave reviews, not just from the adult press, but from places like Publisher’s Weekly, USA Today, Kirkus Reviews, Variety, Booklist, and many, many others — and from individuals ranging from Neil Gaiman to Brian Eno to Susie Bright.

A pretty surprising response for a book of pornography — and even more surprising given that it’s essentially a big, beautifully-made dirty comic book.

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It’s not just that it’s groundbreaking, either — although it is. I’ve been reading (and writing about) adult comics and graphic novels for many years, and not only have I never seen anything like “Lost Girls” — I’ve never seen anything that comes close. “Lost Girls” is a full-length, three-volume, adult graphic novel that attempts to be both pornographically hot and artistically substantial… and that overwhelmingly succeeds at both. Now, I’ve seen excellent work in adult comics before — fun dirty comics with good stories and good art, comics that gave me new perspectives on sex while they were making me shove my hand in my pants. That’s not new.

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But I’ve never seen anything this ambitious, with this much labor lavished on it — Moore and Gebbie spent sixteen years on the project. And I’ve never seen an adult graphic novel with anywhere near this much depth and breadth. “Lost Girls” has single-handedly raised the bar on dirty comics and graphic novels, destroying with a single stroke every snarky, dismissive assumption about what the genre can do. It’s profoundly important for that reason alone.

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And it’s not just that it’s ravishingly beautiful — although it absolutely is. A hefty, hardbound, three-volume deluxe boxed set printed on thick, archival paper, the book is a sensual treat just to pick up and hold. Then when you open it up, the sensual treats pour out like a river. The elegant, luscious color art, influenced by Victorian and Edwardian illustrators of all genres, is both finely detailed and lush. And the exquisite beauty of the art takes the explicit images — explicit, excessive, wildly promiscuous, profoundly filthy, often perverse images — and makes them seductive and intriguing, like an upper-class courtesan or a handsome rake.

Yes, “Lost Girls” is all these things — surprising, groundbreaking, stunningly beautiful. But it’s also — and perhaps most importantly — all these things… while at the same time remaining blindingly hot.

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There is way too much erotica in the world that’s artful and touching but completely forgets to grab your cock or tickle your clit. “Lost Girls” isn’t among them. Co-creator Alan Moore (“Watchmen,” “From Hell,” “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”) has said flat-out that “Lost Girls” is not erotica — it’s pornography. It’s a story about sex, not love. And it’s clearly meant to get you off on almost every page. The first-rate storytelling and superb artwork are in service to the lewd, sybaritic sex … every bit as much as the smutty sex is in service to the story and the art.

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In fact, the art and the smut aren’t separate. They’re intricately entwined, each supporting the other. This isn’t one of those art-smut books that alternates between plot and sex scene, plot and sex scene. Not only does the smut not conflict with the art and the story — there’s never a hint that they should conflict. When you read “Lost Girls,” the all-too-common idea that porn can have quality or heat, but never both at once, seems like a fading memory of a truly ridiculous bad dream.

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Gosh, I’ve told you all this stuff about how great the book is, and I haven’t even told you what it’s about! “Lost Girls” is a re-imagining of three characters from classic children’s stories: Alice from “Alice in Wonderland,” Wendy from “Peter Pan,” and Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz.” All grown up now, Alice, Wendy, and Dorothy meet at an elegantly decadent Austrian hotel just before the start of World War I. The three women — a decadent and seductive older Alice, a repressed and conventional middle-aged Wendy, and a young, adventurous, exuberantly horny Dorothy — soon discover that they have similarly bizarre sexual pasts. In the midst of seducing one another — along with the hotel staff, other guests, and anyone else they can get their hands on — they tell each other their histories… illustrated, of course, in full detail.

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I won’t spoil things for you by telling those stories here. I’ll let you discover them for yourself. What I will say is that each of the stories is inspired by the children’s book it’s based on. Wendy does her sexual exploring with an innocent band of lost urchins; Alice does hers with a dizzying cast of fascinating but often selfish or cruel characters; and Dorothy does hers with an assortment of farm hands in sore need of brains, heart, and courage.

And when entwined with the women’s present-tense lives and explorations, their histories become more than just porny flashbacks. They become complicated ballets of the shaping of sexuality, sagas of sexual trauma and sexual healing, with the women’s libidos becoming stunted or nourished or twisted — or a little bit of all three.

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On a purely smutty level, of course, the sexual images in “Lost Girls” are intensely compelling — a diversely perverted medley of lesbianism, heterosexuality, bisexuality, bestiality, foot fetishism, orgies, sex toys, sadomasochism, dominance, role-playing, game-playing, and more, with a side story of male homosexuality thrown in for good measure. But both the sex and the story are made even more compelling — and more erotic — by the fact that, despite the sybaritic fantasy world the women lose themselves in, the sex doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Sex is a powerful force in “Lost Girls,” with the power not only to create the ecstasy of a moment, but to drive and shape an entire life. Unlike so much porn that somehow dismisses sex even as it places it center stage, the sex in “Lost Girls” is never trivialized. It matters.

And that, all by itself, makes it a rare and important piece of work.

Now, before you go running to the bookstore with your credit card in hand, there’s something important you should know about “Lost Girls.” And that’s that it depicts underaged characters having sex.

Frequently. It’s not just in a scene or two — it’s all over the book. In fact, it’s one of the central themes of the book: how sexual experiences in youth can shape not only your adult sexuality, but your entire adult outlook on life.

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Now, I happen to think that “Lost Girls” deals with this subject tastefully and thoughtfully, in a way that acknowledges the sexuality of minors without exploiting it. And when I say “minors,” I’m not talking about five-year-olds — the underaged characters in “Lost Girls” are, for the most part, in the fifteen-to-sixteen year old range, not legal in most states but not children either. More importantly, while the sexual play among minors is generally depicted as joyful and healthy and even innocent, the book has nothing but harsh words — and pictures — for any predatory adults who tamper with them.

But I realize that this topic pushes huge buttons for a lot of people — not unreasonably — and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it. And in fact, it raises a crucial question: If it’s profoundly fucked-up for adults to be messing with minors, what makes it okay for adults to get off reading this smutty graphic novel about minors?

The authors don’t ignore this apparent contradiction — they deal with it head-on. In the third volume of “Lost Girls,” the proprietor of the hotel — and the creator of a pornographic book that he’s thoughtfully placed in every room — discusses this very question, in a voice that sounds suspiciously like the authors explaining their own erotic philosophy.

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“You see?” the hotel owner says of his lavishly perverted porno book. “Incest, c’est vrai, it is a crime, but this? This is the idea of incest, no? And then these children: how outrageous! How old can they be? Eleven? Twelve? It is quite monstrous… except that they are fictions, as old as the page they appear upon, no less, no more. Fiction and fact: only madmen and magistrates cannot discriminate between them… You see, if this were real, it would be horrible. Children raped by their trusted parents. Horrible. But they are fictions. They are uncontaminated by effect and consequence. Why, they are almost innocent.”

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In other words, pornography, by its very nature, is consensual. Certainly pornographic writing and drawing is. The creator consents to make it; the audience consents to look at it; and nobody else has to be involved. Getting excited by immoral acts in a porn story is no more immoral than getting excited by immoral acts in a crime or horror story — and it doesn’t violate anyone.

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Of course, the sex in “Lost Girls” isn’t uncontaminated by effect and consequence. It’s not some silly Victorian smut novel where incest and rape happen blithely with no repercussion but the reader’s orgasm. The women in “Lost Girls” are real characters, and while their sex lives are definitely on the fantastic and implausible side, you still care about how they feel and what’s going to happen to them next.

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But that’s one of the things that makes “Lost Girls” so brilliant — not just artistically brilliant, but erotically brilliant. It makes the more twisted and perverse parts of the story that much more intense, by making you believe in the characters and care about how they turn out. Yet at the same time, it explicitly gives you permission to get off, even on the seriously fucked-up stuff — by reminding you that porn is fiction, and fiction is always consensual.

I could nitpick the book if I wanted to. I could point out that Dorothy’s Midwestern farm-girl accent doesn’t ring true. Or that some of the parallels with the original children’s stories are cutesy and awkward. Or that not all of the art is consistently stunning — some of it is merely lovely. I could even nitpick about how the deluxe oversized printing makes one-handed reading a challenge (the books are a bit too heavy to read with one hand, and they’re far too pretty and expensive for you to want to get goo all over them).

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But none of this matters in the slightest. Of course I could nitpick on “Lost Girls,” and if there were more books like it, I might be more inclined to do so. But “Lost Girls” is a first, an important and groundbreaking book as well as a beautiful and blisteringly hot one, and I have no desire to lay anything on it other than praise. “Lost Girls” hasn’t just raised the bar for adult comics and graphic novels — it’s grabbed the bar and raced up the stairs with it, and is now dangling the bar over our heads from several stories high, waving it triumphantly and daring everyone else to chase it. And I passionately hope that its success — both artistically and commercially — inspires other serious comic artists to dip their pens into the murky but fertile well of pornography, and see what they come up with.

(P.S. Quick conflict-of-interest confession: I work for a company, Last Gasp, that sells Lost Girls. That’s not how I found out about it, but it’s how I managed to get my mitts on a first printing.)

Lost Girls: A Review