Here in the UK, Bonfire Night is a time to commemorate the failed Gunpowder Plot and the downfall of one of its chief architects, Guy Fawkes. However, for comic book fans across the globe, it’s also an opportunity to reflect on V for Vendetta, Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s seminal 1980s comic book series, which draws heavily from Fawksian iconography and themes, and which spawned the popular 2006 big screen blockbuster of the same name.
But does V for Vendetta still hold up? After all, the last issue hit stands 25 years ago, when both the comic book medium and the world itself were markedly different – is it possible the series, frequently cited as one of the greatest of all time, has lost some of its impact? As it turns out, the answer is a resounding “no”. On the contrary, thanks to Moore and Lloyd’s combined storytelling skill and the timeless nature of its themes, V for Vendetta remains just as powerful today as when it was first published.
Set in a dystopian future where the UK is under totalitarian rule, V for Vendetta introduces us to Evey Hammond, a young girl unwittingly swept up in the revolutionary plans of an enigmatic anarchist dressed as Guy Fawkes and known only as V. The mentally and physically enhanced survivor of a brutal concentration camp, V is finally setting into motion a carefully orchestrated plan to topple the fascistic government.
And while this seems like a noble cause, Evey soon has reason to question her mentor’s motives – and even his sanity – and aims, as it becomes increasingly unclear whether the uncertain anarchist utopia V is desperate to build is preferable to the tenuous stability the ruthless police state currently provides…
If this all sounds pretty heavy, that’s because it is – this complex, sprawling narrative explores the merits of freedom versus stability, asks whether violence in the service of a higher purpose can ever be condoned, spotlights the power and permanence of ideas, offers a meditation on the nature of identity, and advocates the benefits of an anarchist society!
But don’t let that put you off, because V for Vendetta might also be writer Alan Moore at his most accessible. It doesn’t require any prior comic book knowledge (unlike Miracle Man or Watchmen) and it isn’t overly didactic (like Promethea), either. Instead, Moore focuses on spinning a cracking and innovatively told yarn, which is perfectly brought to life by Lloyd and occasional fill-in Tony Weare’s fluid, moody artwork.
Yet part of the appeal of V for Vendetta lies in how Moore eschews simple answers and binary storytelling in favour of presenting the pros and cons of opposing ideas and ideologies (in particular, fascism versus anarchy) and leaving us to decide which we prefer.
It’s a daringly ambiguous approach to genre fiction, which typically errs on the side of spoon-feeding audiences, and it helps V for Vendetta transcend its less-than-original origins – Moore borrows liberally from Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, and even riffs quite heavily on Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera! – to stand out as a valid and vital work all its own.
Another way that Moore distinguishes V from Vendetta from other dystopian fiction is by telling a tale that was highly relatable to readers in the mid-1980s. Sure, V for Vendetta might be set in the then-future of 1997, but it’s an obvious allegory for the UK under the Thatcherite regime.
And while this dates the comic to an extent, the themes and concepts at the heart of V for Vendetta’s story are so universal that it could also be a parable about the UK today. All the same fears we have now – government surveillance, suppression of civil liberties, persecution of the working class and minority groups – are present and accounted for here. If you then toss in Moore and Lloyd’s ground-breaking storytelling approach, you end up with a comic that’s lost none of its artistic impact or social relevance, more than two decades on.
V for Vendetta is a captivating story and a fantastic example of what comics are capable of. While it wears its influences on its sleeve a little too openly at times, its sheer creativity and the enduring applicability of the social commentary at its core ensure that this classic comic book series is as potent today as it was in 1989.