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By Alan Moore and David Lloyd
Warning: there are spoilers in this review, by reading this I assume you are familiar with the works of Alan Moore, or at least will not be offended if I discuss the ends of a few of his books.
“Because while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth. And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression. And where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission. How did this happen? Who’s to blame? Well certainly there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable, but again truth be told, if you’re looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror. I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn’t be? War, terror, disease. There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense. ”
As the cold air creeps into our homes, and the smell of pumpkin spiced confectioneries seems to permeate our everyday lives, I figured that today would be the perfect day to look back at a literary classic that is relevant to this very week (November 5th to be precise). It’s the story of a future Europe riddled with fascism and the one man (?) willing to try to change everything for the better. If that means razing it to the ground to start over, that’s par for the course for our hero. Of course, I’m talking about Alan Moore‘s dystopian masterpiece V for Vendetta.
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
Most of V for Vendetta originally appeared in black-and-white between 1982 and 1985, in Warrior, a British anthology comic published by Quality Communications. That publication went under in 1985, leaving the story unfinished. DC comics came to the fans rescue and encouraged Moore to complete his work, an act that seemed awesome at the time, but has led to years of litigation and sour grapes between the two parties. I’m not going to touch on that too much, but it’s hard to consider that if Moore had his way, V for Vendetta wouldn’t be the cultural lightning rod that it has become some 32 years after pen touched paper.
It’s hard to write about any version of V for Vendetta in 2014 without stumbling over many modern uses of it’s iconography, most notably with the modern anarchist-driven protest movements led by the self-styled “hacktivists” that go by the name Anonymous. It can be argued that they have slightly missed the point in their use of the iconic Guy Fawkes masks and other homages, but one cannot ignore their passion for their hero – the antihero named V. Artist David Lloyd has been quoted saying: “The Guy Fawkes mask has now become a common brand and a convenient placard to use in protest against tyranny – and I’m happy with people using it, it seems quite unique, an icon of popular culture being used this way.
Before I get too far, I wanted to drag out my soap box for a minute. Notice, I said “literature” up there and not dismissive things such as “comic book” or “graphic novel”, because, as pretentious as this must sound, I feel that this is one of the many examples of sequential art that can easily be considered a classic of modern literature. Even today, comics somehow still have a near hundred year old stereotype as either a silly or childish storytelling medium. This is, of course, the established art community trying to resist new mediums, much in the same way that video games get the cold shoulder by critics and art lovers alike. I challenge anyone to hold in one hand a popular book such as 50 shades of Gray and in the other a copy of V for Vendetta and come to the conclusion that the former is in some way a better piece of literature. Just because something has pictures in it, it doesn’t immediately mean it’s inferior. Love him or hate him, Alan Moore has been one of the few comic writers to break this elitist barrier and gain even the slimmest amount of recognition by the non-comic media.
The story of this book is pretty complex, but it mostly boils down to the story of a girl named Evey Hammond, and how a chance encounter with a domestic terrorist (or a freedom fighter?) changed her life. It’s Bonfire Night in London in the far off future year of 1997 (I always love joking about dates in sci-fi, don’t mind me). A down on her luck young girl named Evey has resorted to prostitution due to her inability to find a job, and makes the mistake of soliciting men who are undercover members of the state secret police, called “The Finger.” These men plan, not to arrest her, but to rape and kill the poor girl until a cloaked figure calling himself V steps in and takes care of the situation. V is a well-spoken, seemingly intellectual, anarchist wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, a long black coat, and a tall old-timey hat, all fashioned to look like the infamous Guy Fawkes. What follows is the story of how V slowly dismantles a fascist regime through both ideas and bloodshed.
The backdrop for this dark world revolves around uprising of the villainous white supremacist group Norsefire. Sometime in the late 1980’s there was a large-scale nuclear war that ravaged the Earth, and while Britain was unscathed physically, it led to economic and social scars. After something like 5-6 years of lawlessness and rioting, a group stepped up with claims that they could bring stability back to Europe, this was of course with a cost. Norsefire implemented a by-the-numbers Orwellian nightmare upon the populace including mass surveillance and re-education campaigns. Racial and political cleansing was soon instituted, leaving most of the populace afraid to do anything that would remotely put themselves on the state’s radar.
To understand how Moore thought up Norsefire, one has to look back at the British political climate in the early 1980’s. Many were scared that the conservative ideas of politicians such as Margaret Thatcher were leading towards the acceptance of ideals usually held by radical groups such as The National Front and The British National Party. These groups were after political offices, and many felt that any success they might have would pave the way for something akin to Nazi Germany. As a result, many anti-fascist and anarchist groups popped up to “fight” the dangerous ideologies behind these Nationalistic parties, and it seems Alan Moore was very active in those scenes. Alan Moore was interviewed back in 2000 by a site called Blather about his creation of Norsefire, and here is a snippet about what he had to say:
“Well, exactly. You know, like originally, when I thought “Oh, I’ll make fascists the villains,” it was precisely so that I could sort of do a bit of propaganda, I mean, remember at the time I think I was still – I mean, this was 1981? 1980-81? – I mean, I was still involved with Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League, things like that – but it doesn’t do anybody any service to actually just do a load of cartoon Nazis, you know, with funny monocles and cigars and accents […] they’re just caricatures. “Ve ask ze questions”, you know? Whereas in fact fascists are people who work in factories, probably are nice to their kids, it’s just that they’re fascists. [Laughs]. They’re just ordinary. They’re the same as everybody else except for the fact that they’re fascists. Like, in order to really -I mean, I’ve read somewhere that – I’m sure I’m not going to get this exactly right but the basic quote is something like – “Total understanding is total love.” It’s something [like that] or vice-versa. ”
One of the more refreshing things about the character V is that he is no hero. In fact, he does some pretty deplorable things in order to further his cause. I liken him to other villain-protagonists like Dexter, Light from Death note, or even Tony Soprano. In the comic at least, it becomes pretty evident that V’s time in the Norsefire concentration camp system may have shattered his mind completely. As readers, we are challenged to determined if he is sane or psychotic, hero or villain, due to his morally ambiguous acts. At one point he goes as far as torturing one of the former guards of Larkhill concentration camp in just about one of the most messed-up ways imaginable.
The man, Lewis Prothero, was once the site Commander of the camp, and was promoted to a role not unlike that of a news pundit. He basically takes information from a state computer system and broadcasts it to the masses. V kidnaps Prothero from a train and dresses him up in old Larkhill clothes. Prothero wakes up, and very quickly is driven insane by a combination of an overdose of the same drugs that were used to experiment on V and the shock of seeing his prized doll collection burned in a mock recreation of mass killings of camp detainees that he oversaw. Usually when V does stuff like this, he is seen wearing a more grotesque mask that is similar to a clown.
I actually plan on reviewing the 2005 film based on this comic, but I do want to point out that much of V’s “dark side” is absent from the movie version of the character. We do see him getting revenge on folks, but it’s in a borderline heroic way. Many see the film, and do not realize that there is a duality to the character that makes him very unlikable at times. For example, V’s entire reason for taking Evey in was to use her to get at a priest known to be a pedophile (Evey is only sixteen in the book), one can assume that she was going to be left to get raped and killed along with the priest, that is had everything gone to plan. This is one reason I mentioned the misguided idolization by internet hackers earlier – to them V is a modern hero, but the book says otherwise. To V the ends justify the means, and he is just as willing to inflict all manner of atrocity to end the reign of the Norsefire leadership. The only difference is that V is willing to die, and has no plan to lead if he meets his goals.
Moore later revisited this idea with another character in his book The Watchmen. One could say that the character Ozymandias is the main villain of the piece, but when you think about what he actually did it becomes a gray area that involves testing your own morality. Ozymandias did commit mass murder on a terrible scale, but he was working towards a “good” result. He planned to stage an alien invasion to bring the world together and stop an impending a nuclear holocaust. It could be argued that in by blowing up cities such as New York City and Paris he actually saved billions of people that would have died otherwise. Then again, some of the best villains in fiction are heroes in their own story, and are only bad to us because we don’t agree with their methods.
The edition of V for vendetta that I am using for this review happens to be one of the trade paperback editions released in the 2000’s prior to the release of the theatrical film. Between issues of the 10 comics, there are a handful of “making of” vignettes and other extras that are pretty entertaining. I’m unaware if these were part of the original DC run, or if they were added when the comics were grouped together as a trade paperback, but their inclusion is still very nice. Since the comic was originally black an white in Warrior, a lot of the first chapters are pretty drab despite being in color. In a way this adds to the dystopian feel of everything as it seems like everything is always dark, dingy, and sick in some way. With such a text heavy script, David Lloyd was able to create panels that were both exciting and somehow action-packed even when very little action was going on. The griminess somehow makes the art age better than some other 80’s comics. Even classics like The Watchmen seem older in comparison. Compared to another text heavy comic such as The Dark Knight Returns, with it’s multitude of “talking head” panels, this was a breath of fresh air.
I think a copy of V for Vendetta should be on the bookshelf of most comic fans, and read alongside many other subversive classics like Orwell’s Ninteen-Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The book is a challenge to anyone used to the typical hero vs. villain motif seen in most fiction, and plays up things like moral ambiguity. This isn’t a story of “The Government” vs “Freedom” like some would like for you to believe, that’s too simplistic. This is the story of how we rationalize things that could be seen as heinous, even evil, if it means a greater goal can be reached. Do the ends really justify the means? If that means that we’re better off with a draconian fascist police state, that’s one option that a character like Detective Finch strives for. If that means we’re better off with freedom through anarchy, that’s yet another option that V stands for. This book is the key to keeping someone from looking at things in a truly dualistic manner (i.e. “good” vs “evil”) and to see all of the factors that go into the choices one makes. Think of what the mask represents – the real Guy Fawkes, a Catholic mercenary that tried to kill King James and his full parliament on that fateful day over 400 years ago, to some he was a hero, and to others a terrorist.