Please to remember

Guy Fawkes by George Cruikshank (1840)

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.

Gunpowder Plot conspirators, including Guido Fawkes, by Crispijn van de Passe

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.

Victorian Guy Fawkes procession

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

Artwork by Tithi Luadthong from

18 thoughts on “Please to remember

  1. Excellent questions, especially when presented with circumstances where it seems one man or woman can cause such destruction that their removal would seem like a blessing – but we don’t want to end up in situations where it is more likely a good person has been removed (‘Sic semper tyrannis’ took Lincoln from the nation, and a bullet took John and Robert Kennedy) – and dictators and demagogues live forever.

    It always turns out, though, that there is an unending supply of people ready to step up and be the next tyrant – they were propping the present one up, and waiting for their own opportunity at the public trough. So removal of the one is not a solution at all.

    A reminder that history is written to flatter the winners.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for responding, Alicia, and there’s nothing I can disagree with in your assessment about tyranny. In this book there are actually several with a totalitarian mindset, not just the one at the top, and V targets them all, leader and wouldbe successors. His Achilles heel may yet prove to be the honest Joe, however, which is a thread running throughout, but I won’t say more…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’d forgotten about reading ‘V’, some years ago, but as soon as I saw your title I could visualise some of the graphics. Thank you for the comprehensive breakdown, I’m sure I didn’t think this through at the time. I’m beginning to think I should give it another reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Cath, I shall be giving it a second reading soon as well, as it’s such a dense text despite so much being told visually, sans paroles.

      As for this being a comprehensive breakdown — you’re very kind but I demur: I tried not to expand on it too much (so as not to give many spoilers) since there’s so much one could say about it, isn’t there? I’m sure treatises could be composed on it, if they haven’t already been!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. piotrek

    I sort of envy you, getting your Catholicism under control so long ago 😉 but I remember seeing comparison of Fawkes’ signature before and after torture, and it’s a chilling reminder that some means are evil regardless of the cause they’re used to further.

    The graphic novel is great, one of the classics. I’ve read it twice, and it was worth it, I’m sure there will be more re-reads.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Alan Moore’s work is something else, always political, always provoking, and I knew after Watchmen what was in store. I’ve got one of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series somewhere…

      Violence is violence, isn’t it, whoever — Catholic, Protestant, Islamist, atheist alike — perpetrates it; and Tudor and Stuart England was as cruel a period as any that preceded it and as vicious as any of its contemporaries among European countries. Despite V’s assassinations and his own experience of abuse, most of the violence here turns out to be mental.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. piotrek

        League starts great, and a few volumes in turns into something for Moore’s enthusiasts only. I’ve read most of it, and went from four stars down to two… early parts are definitely amazing though.

        You are, of course, right. And then I see rows of policemen attacking demonstrations of my people, and I wish really hard something bad happened to them…

        Liked by 1 person

        1. The League sequels? Yes, I’d heard their quality was variable, but I’ll give at least one a try, can’t remember which one I’ve got but it’s a bit bawdy…

          You must be very anxious about developments in Poland, Piotrek — what Duda’s lot are proposing is horrendous even if it has been held in abeyance after the recent mass demonstrations, and is clearly just the latest in their erosion of Polish liberties. Let’s hope that what goes around comes around…

          Liked by 1 person

          1. piotrek

            I feel we’re nearing a moment when it’s either change – or overt authoritarianism. But we’ll see, it’s all highly unpredictable. Sociologists will explain later, why it had to happen the way it will 😉

            Liked by 1 person

            1. I really do hope the protests don’t go the way of the Prague Spring or, more recently, the Arab Spring. But then we’re only just approaching winter so the pattern mayn’t be set in stone!

              Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah yes, the social contract. But I suppose certain governments will say they never had to sign up to it because, you know, ‘we’ voted for Brexit, or the Wall, or whatever; or, more likely, they’ll just lie about it.


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