It seems fitting on Bonfire Night (or Guy Fawkes Night, depending on where your sympathies lie) to re-examine 1980s comic book classic V for Vendetta, which (by way of its 2006 film adaptation) brought this very British occasion to the attention of the wider global consciousness in recent times.
Set in a dystopian future where a post-nuclear war Great Britain is ruled by a totalitarian regime, V for Vendetta charts the loss of innocence of 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.
Having escaped from a brutal concentration camp years ago, the mentally and physically-enhanced V is only now setting into motion his plot to topple the fascistic government, and after a chance encounter, he soon takes Evey under his wing (a mentoring program which sounds unlikely to secure accreditation).
The complex narrative that follows questions the merits of stability versus freedom, and asks whether violence in service of a higher purpose can ever be condoned. It also examines the power and permanence of ideas, discusses the nature of individual identity, and advocates the benefits of anarchic society.
Don’t let all this heavy subject matter put you off, however; the series actually provides an example of celebrated author Alan Moore at his most accessible. V for Vendetta requires no previous knowledge of comic books (unlike his deconstructionist superhero works Miracle Man and Watchmen), nor is it overly didactic in expressing its key themes (which makes it the polar-opposite of Promethea, where the overall story is merely enjoyable window dressing surrounding a treatise on Moore’s beliefs about magic and spirituality).
Instead, Moore focuses on telling a cracking yarn that still manages to make the reader think, with the gripping prose perfectly complemented by the fluid, moody artwork of David Lloyd (with occasional assistance by Tony Weare), itself ably served in turn by the carefully controlled pastels of colorists Steve Whitaker and Siobhan Dodds.
LOOK OUT! SPOILERS!
That’s not to say that the thematic and symbolic concerns of the story aren’t important. On the contrary, a key element of V for Vendetta is its scrutiny of opposing ideas, or rather ideologies, namely stability (in the form of fascism) and freedom (expressed here as anarchy).
In an example of rather daring storytelling , at various points throughout the tale, we’re shown that the despicably racist and homophobic ruling party’s oppressive brand of social order does actually lend this post-apocalyptic world a degree of order it might very well need to survive.
Conversely, V’s physically and emotionally violent activities in the service of securing freedom are often presented ambiguously rather than heroically, with Moore keen for readers to determine for themselves whether freedom or stability are more important in a society, and what cost is acceptable to achieve either goal.
Even in the end, when the government is left in tatters and power seemingly returns to the people, the chaotic, mob rule scenario that results does nothing to conclusively answer the question, nor to finally reveal V as either a hero with a vision or a dangerous madman with a grudge.
If Moore was keen to avoid spoon-feeding readers on what overriding quality they should value in their heroes or society, he does seem a little more forthcoming on what type of societal structure he thinks they should implement.
An avowed anarchist, Moore communicates his ideal social framework by having V make reference to the storybook language of The Magic Faraway Tree when the revolutionary describes the world he is trying to usher in as “The Land of Do-As-You-Please”, which is implied to be a system whereby everyone governs themselves individually.
By contrast, the dog-eat-dog environment witnessed at the end of the story is labelled “The Land of Take-What-You-Want”, which Moore (again via V) argues is a necessary step along the path towards true freedom.
Thus the question Moore is really asking appears to be not whether the type of society V advocates is the most worthwhile, but whether his blind devotion to realising his dream of a self-governing populace is actually in service to the common good of a humanity already on the brink of extinction.
Perhaps fearing he’d been a bit too open with his views on social governance, Moore returns to his cagey ways when it comes to talking about identity, which can be seen as the nexus point for many of the other themes of the story (can I just say at this point that I am aware of how nerdy the phrase “nexus point” sounds?).
Moore never makes an open case for or against individuality, but rather chooses to use this theme to explore other major discourses within the comic book.
Certainly, for one character in particular, personal identity is shown as a vital aspect of who they are. In her final testimony, Valerie, the beautiful lesbian actress imprisoned next door to V, declares, “I am me”, refusing to allow her captors to rob her of her sense of self or personal integrity.
Ironically, it is Valerie’s strong individual character that initially provides V with the motivation to display a similar sense of commitment to his ideals, even as he completely disowns his own individuality in the process, which allows him to become the powerful figure of later in the narrative.
Indeed, V’s transformation into the living embodiment of ideas (and ideologies) inspired by Valerie is so complete that, upon his death, Evey makes no attempt to uncover his identity, surmising that in this instance, the idea is far more important and valuable than the man.
So whereas Valerie’s determination to retain her sense of self in the face of unfathomable adversity is shown as an undoubtedly good thing, V’s role as a living symbol, rather than a person, is also shown to have considerable worth.
Taking things further still, Evey then goes on to surrender her own identity (which develops over the course of the story from naive girl to strong young woman, similar to Valerie) in order to take up the mantle of V herself and perpetuate his legend. In the process, she showcases the capacity for ideas to far outlive the individual personalities of flesh and blood humans, which again leads us to question whether an identity or an idea is more important (Moore would go on to reconcile the two points of view into one transcendent theory in the final chapter of rightly-celebrated Supreme in the mid-90s).
THE SPOILERS! THEY’RE…THEY’RE GONE!
All-in-all, V for Vendetta is a genuinely captivating story and a fantastic example of what the comic book medium is capable of. Sure, it borrows quite a bit from 1984 and Brave New World, and it riffs quite heavily on The Phantom of the Opera; like many great pieces of pop culture, it wears most of its influences on its sleeve (Moore even lists several more of them in his entertaining introduction to the collected edition).
What makes it outstanding in its own right is the ability of Moore and Lloyd to bring new concepts of their own to the table, and combine the new with the old to create something unique that successfully reflects the fears and concerns of the 1980s time period during which it was published.