I’m taking a bit of a break from the Romanticism and Fantasy posts, as I’ve got a few other things I’d like to write about. To start with, since I discussed Alan Moore’s Marvelman a few weeks ago, I thought I’d take a look now at V For Vendetta. V started as a series that ran, like Marvelman, in the early 80s in the black-and-white anthology magazine Warrior. Though the story was left incomplete when Warrior folded, in 1988 the series was republished in colour by DC Comics, and Moore and artist David Lloyd were able to finish it as they’d hoped. (Some spoilers for the book follow; also spoilers for Watchmen, oddly enough.)
A bit of cultural background may be in order here to explain V’s iconography, themes, and why the main character’s mask is suddenly turning up in protest movements in metropolitan centres. Guy Fawkes was a militant Catholic in early 17th-century England, part of a group of confederates led by Robert Catesby, who planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament and kill King James I. Fawkes was apprehended underneath Parliament, near the conspirators’ vast store of gunpowder. There has been much discussion since about how much England’s intelligence services knew about the plot; it seems that James’ spymaster Robert Cecil may have known about the scheme in advance, and let it proceed in an effort to capture higher-placed Catholic agents. In any event, Fawkes was tortured and executed along with seven other conspirators. The anniversary of what would have been the date of the explosion, November 5, became an annual celebration in England, marked with bonfires and the burning-in-effigy of Guy Fawkes.
Moore and Lloyd used that imagery when they created V For Vendetta. They had planned, at the suggestion of Warrior editor Dez Skinn, to create a comics series focussing on a pulp-era gangbuster figure. As they talked over that idea, it turned into a near-future adventure series, following a heroic anarchist out to overthrow a fascist totalitarian state. They used the iconography of Guy Fawkes as the visual inspiration for their hero, dressing him in 17th century garb and a smiling mask, and began the series with the destruction of the Houses of Parliament that the historical Fawkes couldn’t accomplish.
The comic was well-received upon its publication, and in 2006 was adapted for film. I don’t think it was a particularly good adaptation, though one can argue that as an adventure movie it was above-average. Moore had filled the series with well-thought-out characters, political ideas, and a real questioning if not outright undermining of his hero’s violent action. I didn’t find much of that transferred to film. And I thought Moore’s interest in anarchy, as well as his depiction of a society made up of different people with different and largely self-directed interests, was undermined by the movie’s choice to conclude with an image of a mob all essentially wearing the same uniform — the Fawkes mask.
Still, it has to be said that the mask itself has a visual power in both comic and film. Lloyd’s art is filled with shadows and leering faces; in the comic, the mask seemed one face among others, ironically emphasising the artificiality and cruelness of the personae of many of the other characters — the man whose ideology is most blatant is the one whose face we never, in the end, see. In the movie, the stillness of the mask, the eerieness and inhuman fixity of the Fawkesian grin, acquire a different and more alienating weight.
The power of the mask was not lost on the hacker collective Anonymous. A loosely-defined “coalition of internet citizens,” they started using the Fawkes mask at various protests following the release of the movie. Recently, Anonymous helped promote the Occupy Wall Street protest, and encouraged the spread of the protest to other cities. Along with the protests came the mask. The mask has become a general sign of populist rebellion, and one of the most popular masks in the world (oddly, since it’s copyright Time-Warner, each sale of a mask benefits one of the world’s largest corporations). A few weeks ago, visiting the Occupy Montréal camp, I was struck by the profound strangeness of seeing the very English Guy Fawkes mask in my home, the world’s second largest francophone city — ironically underlined, perhaps, by the fact that the protest was situated in a place named for an English Queen, Square-Victoria, since renamed Place du Peuple for the duration of the occupation. And all of this, of course, is nothing next to the global irony that an image of a man who was effectively a Catholic absolutist has become a symbol of anarchy.
So much for the contemporary situation. What about the comic?
It’s set in 1997, roughly fifteen years after its initial publication. We get the facts of the world quickly enough: a Labour election win in 1983 led to Britain’s nuclear disarmament, meaning in turn that Britain escaped being a target in a brief 1988 nuclear war. Four years of chaos followed until a fascist group took over in 1992 under their Leader, Adam Susan. The fascists, Norsefire, set out to obliterate homosexuals, blacks, and political dissidents, imprisoning them in ‘resettlement camps’ that opened in 1993. Four years on, England is a dystopia, engaged in a terrible war in Scotland, with television cameras on every street and in every house, the whole of the nation overseen by Susan and a massive computer called Fate.
We follow a number of threads through the story; though the book nominally revolves around the action of the masked anti-government terrorist called V, we frequently see him through other people’s eyes, and learn of him by the effect he has on others. One of those characters is a girl named Evie, saved by V from being raped by a group of secret policemen at the start of the story. Another is Detective Eric Finch, a man who has chosen to co-operate with the fascists while still telling himself that he’s not really one of them (it’s tempting to see Jeff VanderMeer’s Finch — V for VanderMeer? — which depicts another detective named Finch colluding with an occupying power, as a response). Still other characters are members of the fascist hierarchy, conniving and struggling for power.
This use of a narrative with multiple centres is an elegant structural rebuttal to the monolithic character of fascism; that is, the story incorporates within itself a rejection of the forced unanimity of fascism. The world of V is a world defined by many perspectives. Even a doorman whose sole importance is holding a door open for V as he runs by gets an interlude all of his own. This multiplicity of perspective is the antithesis of monolithic fascism. It’s implicitly anarchistic, de-centering the narrative from the supposed hero even as we’re encouraged to question V’s morals and actions.
Moore uses other texts within the main story, most affectingly the autobiography of an actress interned in a concentration camp, but including also songs and a diary. On a narrative level these voices deepen the story, giving it more resonance and power, but it’s probably no coincidence that one of V’s first actions in the story is to kidnap the literal voice of the government, a radio broadcaster who is the ‘Voice of Fate’ — presented as the actual voice of the computer that governs the country. Susan explicitly comments on the unity of fascism; the story’s structure is Moore’s rebuttal.
Having said which, the general presentation of fascism within the story is odd. Clearly the story was created at a specific time — the technology’s that of the 80s, with record players and CRT TV sets and so forth. But the setting’s also strangely mundane, even beyond that. Lloyd’s stunning art creates a grey, everyday world, and yet that very mundanity seems at odds with the upheavals of a recent war and military takeover.
(I must take a moment here to praise Lloyd’s work. I talk an awful lot about Moore in this review, but Lloyd’s contribution is not to be overlooked. His art’s stunning, at times minimalist and at times highly expressive and detail-oriented. His design sense is understated but strong, by turns theatrical — as in the creation of V’s underground lair — and playful. His storytelling flows consistently, and his sense of atmosphere and shadows is masterful. Above all, I think, his characters look and act real. They’re individuals, with individual postures and expressions. From time to time, I’ll pass someone on the street, and think “Ah, that’s a David Lloyd face” — a certain tilt of the head, a certain play of shadows. I don’t have that reaction to most other artists, and I think it’s a measure of how intensely Lloyd’s able to inhabit a certain emotional reality.)
V’s England simply doesn’t seem to be as changed as one might expect. Sure, the country seems to be in the throes of a recession. But the fascist presence is muted. The propaganda doesn’t seem omnipresent. Characters don’t seem to expect to encounter violent repression in their daily lives. They don’t appear to have any of the habits of thought or action that one might expect to see in citizens of a totalitarian police state.
And, having read the whole book, it’s difficult to put a finger on any precise creed of the Norsefire party. How does the Catholic-inflected state church relate to their ideology? What sort of foreign relations do they have, beyond the war in the north? How is the economy managed? Obviously it’s difficult to fit these sort of details into an adventure story, but after 300 pages one ought to have some sort of idea of what the characters think, what story they believe they’re a part of.
The reclusive Adam Susan hardly seems like the sort of figure about whom a fascist cult of personality could develop. Even his idea of fascism is non-specific. An early chapter, “Versions” (and, yes, every chapter title begins with ‘v’), contrasts his love for fascism with V’s love affair with anarchy. Susan doesn’t seem interested in the glory of the English state, or the white race, or any of the sort of thing one might expect from the Leader of a fascist state. He’s more driven by an abstract idea of control and unity. It’s a technocrat’s fascism, perhaps, efficiency raised to an ideal. But it means that his fascism is an abstraction of fascism; stripped of nationalistic imagery, it’s the platonic ideal of fascism.
I’ll note here that V, in that same chapter, presents his love of anarchy as a wholly different matter. By his account, he became infatuated with anarchy only when justice ‘betrayed’ him. Though ostensibly a rousing speech about the power and wildness of anarchy, in fact it puts anarchy forward as something one turns to only after the course of justice is proven corrupt — it’s not your first choice, V seems to say. (It is also interesting that both Susan and V personify their political loves as female; and while the fascist is blissfully happy with his imagined lover, the anarchist upbraids his ex before symbolically blowing her up.)
To return to the mundanity of fascism: I think the similarity to our own everyday life (or, at least, life-as-it-was almost thirty years ago) is deliberate. If characters don’t seem to worry about acts of violence in their everyday lives, if they rarely seem to run into moments of heavy-handed repression, well, neither do we. Perhaps the most degrading, bitter storyline in the book is the story of a widow of a man killed by V; deprived of a pension, she becomes a burlesque dancer, implicitly trading sex for even that grotesque job. Her story is surely not unique to a fascist state — and I think that’s the point.
I think that the mundane fascism in V brings home the dystopic nature of our own world. I think it encourages us to look at the totalitarian narratives and tendencies around us. The supposed fascism becomes revealed as a mask, a flimsier mask than V’s Fawkes get-up. And the appearance of justice in our societies becomes apparent as a mask as well. Anarchy, the book seems to say, isn’t just for overt totalitarian states. Anarchy is a necessity even in places that look like our homes.
On the other side of the coin, Moore doesn’t shy away from interrogating the givens of his story. Can one tell an anarchist fable about a lone hero? Is that not at a certain level contradictory? Moore has considered this, and so has his V. The result is a story that subtly and sometimes overtly calls into question its lead’s actions.
Moore sets up his character as a heroic killer, then undermines that sense of heroism by having decent people, notably Finch, be shocked at the casual brutality with which V murders. The questioning of violence continues throughout the story, at the same time as the story questions whether non-violence is possible or whether even the well-intentioned characters are complicit in violent acts. That obviously applies to Finch, but just as much applies to Evie, who refuses to take part in V’s killings but also refuses to take action against him or even debate the point with him.
Perhaps even more profoundly, Moore makes us doubt his hero by driving home the point that he uses the weapons of the villains. He uses propaganda techniques and brainwashing techniques just as they do; in one extended sequence near the middle of the book, he effectively disguises himself as the villains to manipulate another character. In an even more literal sense, we find that V has turned the state’s greatest weapon against it; the computer called fate, the surveillance cameras — V has hacked into these things, and does not hesitate to use them in his war. Nor does he hesitate to use this influence to cause food shortages and power outages.
Adam Susan may love fate, but it’s V who tells another character that “There is no co-incidence, Delia. Only the illusion of coincidence.” V’s analogous to Ozymandias in Watchmen; he’s the man with the intricate, brutal plan that will save the world, the plan his enemies figure out too late. V may indeed be greater than Ozymandias; his plan works, and there are fewer loose ends. V even plans for his own exit, aware that he himself has no place in the new world he envisions.
And yet in a sense this is a weakness with the book, I feel. How effective can a utopia be, if it’s predicated on the notion that if you just kill all the killers everything will be all right? The story in a sense ends where the real work begins. With the violence done, with the hero no longer needed, the story of constructing a society filled with people good and bad must begin. But we don’t get that story.
Perhaps that’s understandable. As I read V For Vendetta, it’s fundamentally a tale about the process of maturation. The characters we follow through the book do more than change; they grow. Evie in particular grows out of reading Enid Blytion books about “the Land of Do-as-you-please” into taking up the challenge of actually building a better world. V’s actions, we learn, are intended to bring her to that point; though the book categorically denies that he is literally her father, taken away by the fascists soon after they came to power, he metaphorically is in the father’s role, guiding her and teaching her. His methods are extreme, and some people have voiced the valid complaint that the result of the trials to which he subjects Evie is psychologically unrealistic. I think, though, that the way it reflects the essential concern of the book overcomes that objection; it’s dramatically true, however literally unlikely.
To me, the play of anarchy and fascism is effective in the book because it’s anchored to a yet more fundamental concern within the human psyche: the urge to remain in childhood, versus the need to mature. To change or die. Fascism, as Moore depicts it, is fundamentally childish. It’s brutal, stupid, and glories in shallowness, in displays of its own power. Its obsession with strength is a desire to live forever in the Land of Do-as-you-please — or as the Leader pleases. The Leader is a repressive father, then, infantilising his people, as opposed to V, who appears equally harsh but is in fact concerned with the actualisation and maturity of the people in general and Evie in particular. If V has to die before the new world can be born, it is not only because the mentor, the father, must always be killed; it is because, in his costume and mask, he is a symbol of the people’s immaturity, a power fantasy, a symbol of childhood. It may be relevant that Guy Fawkes’ Day, as I understand it, is mostly celebrated by children.
I think in the end the story doesn’t quite resolve its tensions effectively. I think the themes are there, and I think that Moore is an incredibly skillfull writer, but I also think that the adventure form tends to overwhelm the subjects and characters. I think the ending is too easy; the resolution of the political situation too simple, and V’s ascendence into myth too pat. This is not to say that V For Vendetta is a minor work, or that it’s to be taken lightly. It’s an early work (mostly) by creators of great craft and integrity. I certainly wouldn’t call it a failure. It’s flawed, perhaps, but really only because it dares things that few comics, and relatively few works of fiction, even consider.
It could be read, perhaps, as the work of a writer who was himself in the process of maturing; in the course of finding the way to write comics for adults. In that sense, V is the gateway not only to Watchmen, but From Hell, Lost Girls, and maybe even Moore’s prose novel Voice of the Fire. It’s a solid, thought-provoking work, and if, in the random way of things, the use of the iconography of the book in contemporary protests helps to bring readers to the original text, that’s some good right there. To me, the use of the mask in protests is more faithful to Moore’s original concerns than the Hollywood movie. It’s a pleasing thought that an explicitly political work is, after all, finding an appropriate audience.
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His new ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.