V for Vendetta
by Alan Moore and David Lloyd,
with Steve Whitaker and Siobhan Dodds,
additional art by Tony Weare.
Vertigo / DC Comics 2005 (1988-1989)
“Vengeance is mine; I will repay.”
What should one do, how should one react, under an unjust, authoritarian government? What is the correct response when faced with the evidence of a fascist state’s war on its own citizens? Should one heed St Paul’s advice to the Romans, to recompense to no man evil for evil; avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath? Or should one take the law into one’s own hands, meet force with force, fight fire with fire, and forever taint oneself with the selfsame actions that the state is accused of?
These are the dilemmas at the heart of this powerful graphic novel, when an individual known only as V — for reasons both personal and societal — makes war on the authoritarian leaders, their minions, their stooges, and the symbols of their power. His own symbol, a V enclosed in a circle, is reminiscent of the universal sign for anarchy but (as V insists) ‘anarchy’ doesn’t refer to no rule at all: it applies to an absence of legitimate government — archon refers to a ruler in ancient Greece — and this pertains in the Britain that’s depicted in V for Vendetta.
Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s Thatcher-era perspective, when individual freedoms and norms of social justice were determinedly being eroded, was an apt time to consider a narrative, a scenario in which a totalitarian Britain would be challenged by a figure from the country’s past, one whose effigy instead of being placed on a bonfire would initiate a pyre of all that was rotten in the state. Ironically, the fictional risorgimento was positioned as beginning in the year that a left-of-centre Labour government in fact won an election but which now fits a political situation three decades on from publication just like a glove.
This is a complex Orwellian narrative outlining a one-man campaign against a corrupt British government. At least it’s a one-man campaign until V enlists a young woman called Evie, and then, disturbingly, we witness her being groomed and horribly gaslighted first to break her and then possibly to persuade her to, quite literally, take up his mantle. That in the past he has been treated — as we gradually discover — in a similar way is no excuse at all, but it does provide a rationale behind his singleminded vendetta against the fascist leaders and their would-be successors.
For V is a vigilante, for whom the means justify the ends, a figure both like and unlike the comic book crusaders that Alan Moore was trying to both emulate and distance V from. Unlike those masked crime fighters, though, we never do discern the features behind his Guy Fawkes mask, nor his identity, his background, nor how he coped with and survived the experimental drugs to which he was subjected.
Like much of Moore’s work this is a richly-layered story which developed from his collaboration with artist David Lloyd, evolving while it was being published in instalments. Its dark themes are matched by Lloyd’s atmospheric shadow-filled panels and muted colour scheme. Virtually everything is conveyed by speech balloons and visuals, without thought balloons or third-person narrative commentary: this forces the reader to be constantly assimilating hints, judging motivations and actions, reevaluating initial conclusions. And yet we are still left with questions at the end.
Unlike, say, Watchmen, with its interludes and supporting textual digressions, this novel is like a fold-out map, with more areas revealed as one explores further; however, there will always be regions marked terra incognita which even a reread might not throw light on.
Still, the questions remain: Do the means justify the ends? Should one break the law to uphold the law? Is there a difference between natural justice and the letter of the law? Also, who decides? This is the strength of this graphic novel, that under the guise of a superhero story we are confronted with issues of morality. And if heroes — or antiheroes — are mortal, even if they escape multiple attempts on their life, what will their legacy if any be? Will they, like the fall guy Guy Fawkes was, be vilified and his effigy burnt, or will they be remembered as a valiant freedom fighter, a Robin Hood standing up to tyranny?
Please to remember
The Fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot;
I see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
— Iona and Peter Opie,
‘The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book’
This book-length edition from 2012 includes a 1983 article by Moore ‘Behind the Painted Smile’ and preliminary artwork and pieces omitted from the magazine format issued in the late eighties, all fascinating background to the genesis and development of this dystopian graphic novel though not essential for experiencing its impact.
A final read for #SciFiMonth and possibly a fitting end to a month in which bonfire gatherings have been banned while a plague rages