Don’t cast Melinda Gebbie as one of the wayward characters depicted in The Lost Girls, the three-volume, 30-chapter masterpiece of erotic fiction she illustrated and coauthored with long-time love Alan Moore. Sure, she’s had her fair share of weird exploits and random affairs — she was making feminist comics in 1973 in San Francisco, tuning in and dropping out.
But these days, the renowned graphic novelist and erotic comics artist/illustrator’s real life appears much more grounded than the worlds and characters she creates in her febrile creative imagination. The 50-something Gebbie recently married Moore, creator of the critically acclaimed Watchmen graphic novels and V for Vendetta, after working together for many years on their magnus opus.
In an interview this spring from her cottage in the English countryside, she confessed to, of all things, bridal jitters, along with ambivalence about marriage.
“It was not my idea,” she says, giggling like a teenage girl. In fact, she had to be cajoled a bit into marrying Moore, the mad genius author who’s had an enormous influence on Gebbie’s work and career. The pair worked together on The Lost Girls for 16 years, discussing ideas and narratives, plot points, illustrations, and strategy as they carried on their love affair.
Marriage, Gebbie explains, was never on her mind: “I never thought of myself as someone who would marry. I thought caring about someone too much is a real trap for a creative woman. You can get completely caught up in caring for someone else.” And while she decided to marry Moore, Gebbie remains ambivalent over just how much care and feeding a woman gives her partner in marriage, particularly in a relationship where both parties are full-time artists. What she doesn’t say exactly is just how much Moore’s renown has influenced, nurtured, and promoted her own career.
The couple met in 1986 at a comic book signing during an AIDS benefit.
“He was aware of my career in comics. He had respect for me as an artist before we ever met.” Gebbie, of course, had read Watchmen and Moore’s other work.
Gebbie had plenty of her own gigs going at the time she met Moore: she had moved to London in 1984 to work on animated film adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ When the Wind Blows and created short stories for anthologies Strip AIDS and Heartbreak Hotel. Gebbie had also been part of an obscenity trial when Knockabout Comics was prosecuted by HM Customs over the importation of “pornographic” comics, including her comic Fresca Zizis. The verdict was that all the comics should be confiscated and burned making it illegal to possess Fresca Zizis in the UK. Also, during this time, Gebbie was briefly married and divorced. Shortly thereafter, she began dating and collaborating with Moore on various projects including the well-known “Cobweb” stories which appeared in a dozen issues of Tomorrow Stories between 1999 and 2002.
“For a long time, what happened was I would come up [to Alan’s] on weekends and we would just sit and talk about this project [The Lost Girls], which was still an eight-page comic story. But in the process of talking about it, because it was an erotic comic, we just started talking about all sorts of things having to do with our personal philosophies about life. We both had a lot of the same opinions about what a poor field pornography is, how joyless it is, how the photography always makes the models look cold and uncomfortable. Most of the porn magazines I’ve seen might as well have been plumbing manuals,” Gebbie relates.
Gebbie was well-primed to create her best work of erotic fiction: Her San Francisco days were spent at the white-hot epicenter of feminist and erotic comics as part of Wimmin’s Comix, all-female underground comics anthology.
Ultimately, the heavy consciousness-raising vibe became too intense for Gebbie and she left: “Those groups are only as strong as their weakest links; we had a lot of weak links,” she recalls. Still, the experience was “absolutely necessary…I think everything that I have experienced was absolutely necessary. It was fascinating being in the underground art scene. It was an amazing kind of petri dish to be sitting around in.”
It was also an era of experimentation, where Gebbie honed her craft and incorporated the punk and disco influences around her. In the ‘80s, she took her inspiration from punk bands and attitudes; her style was meaner and tighter. Zines like Damage and Bust, in their early iterations, propelled her.
“I was learning the language of everything — visual and verbal,” Gebbie says, recalling a street clash in San Francisco in the early ‘80s between her group of freakish punk friends and straight college students. “I remember we were out walking and there were some college guys coming out of a bar. We were all dressed in black and they started screaming at us that we were just so offensive to them. Punks were like a scary virus [to them].”
Gebbie was also influenced by the work of other women comics’ artists including Carla Speed McNeil, originator of the sci-fi comics series Finder; Alison Bechdel, cartoonist/creator of Dykes to Watch Out For and graphic memoir Fun Home; and Aline Kominksy-Crumb, underground comics artist, author of “Dirty Laundry,” Need More Love: A Graphic Memoir, and, of course, wife of R. Crumb.
“When I was growing up, in underground comics we were all fussing and fighting and carrying on like little brats, but we were getting so much attention,” Gebbie recalls. “We had a kind of famous anonymity. We were just pursuing our creativity. When you’re young now, you’re getting into the mainstream comics. I never had any experience with that.”
Gebbie has described herself in interviews as “kind of the bad girl of the Wimmin’s Comix scene. I was always the one getting us in trouble by writing really dirty, weird, scary stories that upset the male cartoonists and the public.”
Inevitably, this attracted the attention of male comics editors and she was eventually invited into comics like Young Lust and Anarchy.
Female artists and women in general [still] live in a culture of “acquiescence,” she says. “I am still in the process of trying to think of myself as two individuals, male and female, but we are two individuals who both have the same rights. Creative people have a very ferocious sense of what they want to do, and it’s very imperative. And you don’t like having to negotiate with someone else. You just want to go and do it.”
Working on The Lost Girls together with Moore was “very, very difficult,” Gebbie states. She and Moore kept separate houses, which was important to the work process: “The intensity with which we were working was complicated. We were stepping on eggshells. The book was the most important thing between us because of what we wanted for it. And we also needed our relationship, which was also a friendship, and everything had to be kept in balance. So it was important for us to go back into our own worlds and refresh our own selves.”
Gebbie describes working with Moore as a kind of “alchemy.”
“I think it’s a very peculiar process, two creative people living together in proximity. It’s two very intense worlds. The imaginary world [we were creating] was more real to us and [we worked hard to] keep that world intact.
“We worked beautifully together. Alan accommodated his writing to my art. He put the writing in after my art; he did thumbnails, of course, but the words matched perfectly,” Gebbie explains. Asked to dredge up her recollection of a vivid disagreement, Gebbie recalls the instance of the characters Dorothy and the Tinman in a shed with a horse. Moore wanting her to make the drawing more explicit than she wanted to, and she explained why it wouldn’t work: “It was me who really wanted it to be something that women would enjoy. I won out.”
The struggles and the detailed work involved may be the reason why it took 16 years to create the book: “I was trying to draw sex in a way that women would find beautiful. It’s very hard historically because a lot of porn isn’t attractive to the eye.” Gebbie spent an average of three days drawing each panel; there are six panels per page. “I had to layer the colors and used between six and 13 layers of wax crayon. That gave it this kind of shimmer. The layering takes time.”
Moore and Gebbie tried to be patient with one another. The reason the collaboration works? “We have an awful lot of genuine respect for each other as creators. That sense of respect sets the tone for our relationship. We both value each other for what the other person has accomplished and what they’re capable of, and we listen very, very carefully to each other. We’re very attached to each other and that would be the case whether we were married or not. He’s the most important person to me in the world.
“[The Lost Girls] represents my greatest achievement, because we achieved something that nobody else has done,” Gebbie continues, noticeably switching from “my” to “we.”
“It’s a first. It’s socially significant, and it was really hard. It has all the ideas we had about pornography and trying to make a beautiful world out of something that everybody was absolutely sure was nothing but a swamp.”
Her hope is that the book will make women feel “a lot more relaxed about their own sexual ‘beingness’ and that they’ll see the book as a metaphor about what it means to be completely human.