Mon
Dec 12 2011 2:00pm

The Great Alan Moore Reread: V for Vendetta Part 2

Tor.com comics blogger Tim Callahan has dedicated the next twelve months to a reread of all of the major Alan Moore comics (and plenty of minor ones as well). Each week he will provide commentary on what he’s been reading. Welcome to the seventh installment.

I suppose it makes sense to begin this week with some words from Alan Moore himself, specifically regarding the in-the-news use of the Guy Fawkes mask within the contemporary protest movement: “It turns protests into performances. The mask is very operatic; it creates a sense of romance and drama.” That’s Moore as quoted in an article a few weeks back from The Guardian about the iconic role of V for Vendetta and the irony of a corporate, mass-produced mask used as an anti-corporate symbol.

I’m engaged in this reread because I want to look back at the Alan Moore books, and see what they have to offer as texts, as artifacts, as narratives, but when the iconic image of the V for Vendetta mask pops up on the 24 hour news channels and inside repurposed Shepard Fairey prints, there’s a deeper cultural reading at stake. And I’ll defer to Moore on what it all means, because his comment on the “operatic” nature of the mask-wearing is pretty spot-on. It’s protest as performance, demonstrating self-awareness of the role of the protestor and yet providing an anonymity symbolizing defiance of authority. It’s not quite the comic book character come to life – not even close, really – because (a) it’s far more likely that any potential mask-wearer would be more familiar with the Wachowski-Brothers-produced film than with the comic that inspired it, and (b) the Alan Moore/David Lloyd character of V is a romantic hero only in the literary sense. He’s not a guy you’d want to emulate. Not by the end of the story.

So let’s look at the final five books of V for Vendetta, and see what kind of hero – and what kind of commentary on the world – they actually present.

 

Absolute V for Vendetta, Books VI-X (DC Comics, 2009)

Book VI begins with “Vengeance,” in its title at least, if not in deed, interestingly enough. And the vengeance of the chapter heading seems to point toward Evey’s failed attempt at shooting her lover’s murderers in the back. Because Evey had been happy, perhaps, for a few moments in Book V, or at least connected to someone – Gordon – who could offer her safety and stability. That didn’t last long in this futuristic London, and Gordon is soon murdered by an unexpected sabre through his front door.

So in this comic book series which is about one man’s elaborate, theatrical quest for vengeance against those who imprisoned him, in the one chapter with “Vengeance” in the title, there’s no actual vengeance to be found. Just an attempt – one foiled by V himself, who abducts and provides a false prison for Evey. But it’s one that feels real. And that’s the point.

This whole sequence, with Evey in a prison manufactured by V, living a caged lie in a cruel imitation of V’s own experience in the Larkhill Resettlement Camp, feels longer than it actually is. I remember it being a major part of the ten issue series, and, even rereading it again, it had a vicious power that makes it feel like a major percentage of the pages of the series. But it isn’t. It’s really only fifteen pages of Book VI and the first six pages of Book VII. It’s not even quite a full issue’s worth of content, a mere 10% of the total package at best, and yet the imprisonment and psychological torture of Evey at the hands of V resonates as the centerpiece of the entire story. Emotionally, it has such a burdensome weight on the narrative that it feels like 40-50% of this Absolute Edition is all Evey torture. But it’s not.

So why does it carry so much weight?

Probably because it’s grueling. Evey, who has been nothing but a victim in V for Vendetta from the moment we met her (other than her naïve assistance to V and her one feeble attempt at revenge thwarted by V), is established as the reader’s gateway into V’s world. She’s the “audience identification” figure, and if she were slightly more proactive, she might arguably be the protagonist of the story. But she’s not – the ever-faceless, ever-nameless V is – and the protagonist of the story tortures her, psychologically but also physically (how much time has passed in the sequence we do not know, but you can see her become desperately thin and weak, so it must have been months, at least). So that means that V, in essence, tortures us. And even twenty-one total pages of that feels like far too much.

I suppose that’s the point. Alan Moore’s point, and V’s point. To put the reader, to put Evey, in his position. To not simply explain what caused his pain and suffering, but to show it happening to us, or to a character we have been conditioned to identify with.

That’s why it’s so brutal, because we feel it, in a way that we simply do not when we learn about fragments of V’s past from other scenes in the series.

But while it’s a powerful effect – and one that few writers in any medium have successfully pulled off – it’s not okay. I realize that it’s not supposed to be okay. It’s supposed to be unsettling. But here’s where Moore fails: not in the cause, but in the effect.

We are so bound to Evey, and we feel her suffering so deeply (thanks to Moore and Lloyd’s masterful storytelling), that when she learns that V has contrived this whole Live Action Role-Playing torment, her immediate devastation makes sense, but then she capitulates too easily to V’s easy moral.

“The door of the cage is open, Evey…all the blindfolds are gone…become transfixed, become transfigured...forever,” he says, as she, naked on the rooftop, opens her arms to the world.

That’s it. In a series that has been so methodical and bleak and unyielding, this facile turn toward acceptance from Evey is almost too much to bear. It’s one thing to set up a character to take the audience through a journey of suffering, but it’s something else entirely to provide such an easy resolution. Oh, Evey learned that the world is horrible and somehow still wonderful? And now she basically has not personality left for the remainder of the series, and she will eventually just take over V’s position as swashbuckling anarchist? Okay. Huh.

It’s not that Evey, as presented in the series, has the strength of will to defy V and provide any effective counterbalance. It does follow an in-character logic that she would be brainwashed by him so easily. But it derails the reader’s connection to the story. It derailed my connection with the story, at least, and in rereading it, I realized why I’ve always felt that V for Vendetta might be a masterpiece, but it started a lot stronger than it ended. It’s not just that it stalled at Warrior and took years to return. It’s not that the final sections were originally released in a colorized format which softened the effect.

It’s that Alan Moore crafts a descent into suffering – casting a light on the kind of cruelty we inflict upon one another in this world we live in — and asks you to join him in the exploration, then, at the lowest point, he pins his characters to the wall and starts a puppet show about what happens next. He doesn’t go deeper after the Evey-in-prison sequence. He goes shallower, and starts barreling toward the conclusion of the story.

Structurally, it’s like that bit of Hamlet where all of a sudden the inaction hero survives a pirate attack and negotiates his return to Denmark, all off-stage, between scenes. Shakespeare had to get his prince back into the thick of the courtly intrigue. Alan Moore needed to get his protagonist back to the final stages of revenge. Shakespeare put his cheap twist out of the audience’s way, conveyed it in a letter. Moore doesn’t resort to such cheap narrative tricks, but the result isn’t much less clumsy.

Still, I suppose any comparison to Shakespeare is hardly condemnation, even if the escape-from-pirates is the goofiest part of the best play ever written.

That leaves us with V for Vendetta Books VIII, IX, and X, where our “hero” gets his revenge, and as is the case in a tragedy like this one, falls in the process, a victim of his own hubris.

One of the things Moore does so powerfully with this story is to create an oppressive threat from his antagonists without them actually doing much of anything. They have identities, they have roles to play within the story, but other than Inspector Finch, who makes the interesting choice to take LSD while reconstructing V’s past at Larkhill, the characters set up as antagonists are cogs in a machine. They are the machine, really, whether they enact that role through their control of the Fate computers – even back in the 1980s, Moore could foresee that we’d all be controlled by computers connected together – or through their methodical, completely uninspired routines. They lack imagination.

One obvious reading of V for Vendetta is that it’s a story about art over industry, creativity over machinery. It’s Romantic in that way, and even as V takes lethal shots to his chest, he ominously declares, “There’s no flesh or blood within this cloak to kill. There’s only an idea. / Ideas are bulletproof.” V, hoarder of art and artifacts from the recent past, the only one in this futurescape who seems to understand the value of music and passion (as opposed to noise and sex) and literature and painting and old jukeboxes and flamboyant costumes – he’s at odds with a world that would cage him. A world that did cage him, simply because he was different, and therefore a danger to the hegemony.

In the end, it’s a simple dystopian narrative: the individual who recognizes that society, in attempting to make everything safe, has taken away everything that makes life worth living. Moore smartly decorates the basic narrative by using a faceless hero – a self-proclaimed “idea” – and including a revenge plot to color the through-line, but it’s 95% George Orwell and 5% Gilbert and Sullivan by the time it’s all wrapped up.

But isn’t that what this story is about? Using the art of the past to awaken life in the present (or future)?

V for Vendetta certainly engages with the Margaret Thatcher Britain in which Alan Moore lived at the time of its writing, and it’s the most overtly political text of his early career. But it ultimately doesn’t offer any answers beyond a healthy distrust of oppressive policies and an awareness of the anarchic power of the arts, and merely gives us Evey-in-the-role-of-V and a new pupil for her to teach. The cycle continues, even as Inspector Finch wanders down a darkened road towards who-knows-where.

Earlier, I wondered if this was a moral comic or if that even mattered, and I think it is and it does. V is no one to emulate, though, and to mistake his psychopathy for heroism is to fall into the trap the weak-willed Evey fell into herself. But Moore doesn’t position V as a force of righteous morality. He wears the mask of an anarchy for a reason, not just because it looks cool. And while the idea of pure freedom is worthwhile, inflicting torture and humiliation on another person just to achieve that end is not something this book advocates, even though it dabbles with those notions for a time.

No, I think the true morality of V for Vendetta exists in the questioning. The act of asking, of looking, of exploring possible answers. The characters that do it in the story are the ones who have a chance at redemption. Everyone who goes along with what’s accepted, or blindly take what they’re told, those are the ones who suffer the most. And that’s the true role of the artist in society, to ask the questions that matter most, and then leave us to find out how to explore answers to them.

After rereading the book again, I may not like it as much as I once did, but I still respect it in the end. It aspires, and almost succeeds.

 

NEXT TIME: Alan Moore’s Lovable Alien? SKIZZ!


Tim Callahan writes about comics for Tor.com, Comic Book Resources, and Back Issue magazine. Follow him on Twitter.

19 comments
Xnoubis
1. Xnoubis
The story of Eve's captivity and liberation at the hands of V has always struck me as the core of the tale, executed very successfully. She undergoes a spiritual initiation and transfiguration (prefiguring the mysticism of Moore's later work, e.g. Promethea) that enables her to assimilate V's wider perspective. Ultimately, she continues V's work, but it is her own decision; she is not brainwashed.

While there's much to dislike in the movie adaptation, I was very impressed that they seemed to get the significance of the rooftop scene. Even though the movie's ending goes off the rails, so to speak, the memory of the opening on the rooftop remains as a gift to the viewer.
Xnoubis
2. a-j
I have a theory that the torture sequence is meant to be akin to a shamanic series of ordeals that an initiate must go through to achieve enlightenment. Finch does so by using drugs, just as some shamans do. Given Moore's interest in magick I do wonder if that was what was in his mind. I agree that it, and Evey's ready subsequent acceptance of V's correctness in doing that to her, is a flaw in the story.
On the plus side, I do like the collapse of the fascist state into total criminality thus betraying its own 'law and order' fig leaf and I particularly like the removing the mask sequence. In the original Warrior issues, the letters page was filled with suggestions as to V's identity, most of which are referenced in the unmasking sequence, and Moore's solution is, to my mind, elegant and intensely powerful.
Sadly, the destruction of No. 10 Downing Street is less so. The sudden referencing of a 1980s political symbol which has no place or identity in V's Britain, is clumsy and comes across as an attempt at shock value which fails.
Xnoubis
3. a-j
Xnoubis@1 - got in just before me and made my point rather better.
Emmet O'Brien
4. EmmetAOBrien
In referring to V as "he" throughout, are you intentionally rejecting the possibility of V being Valerie ?

Much though there was to like about Hugo Weaving's performance in the film, his sheer bulk felt to cut against that interpretation in ways the comic's V does not; this struck me as another positive consequence of the lapping together effect of the original b/w art, in often making V's physicality appropriately more abstract.
Eli Bishop
5. EliBishop
Emmet@4: But there are things in the text that rule out V being Valerie, unless he's just lying. He says she was the woman in room four, and he was in room five. Dr. Surridge's journal describes the man in room five as a separate case from "the lesbian". And Valerie's story makes it sound as if she was on the brink of death due to the drug experiments, but Surridge says V showed no side effects except for strange behavior.

More to the point, V is trying to put Evey through something very much like what V went through-- which included reading Valerie's letter, not writing it. I think that's related to what Xnoubis and a-j said. V didn't just torture Evey physically, he set up a whole experience that included an element of hope and inspiration and loss, all personified in this unseen friend. So at the end of this, Evey wasn't just broken down, she was also primed to have a transformational moment and see it as something positive.

The other reason I really don't like the idea of Valerie being V, and don't think Moore intended that reading, is that Valerie's personality comes through very strongly in her narration and it's not like V. She's sort of a martyr and she gets to a state of almost saintly acceptance, but she's still recognizably human and understandable in a way that V just isn't. I can't imagine her going on from that point to spend the next few years setting up elaborate murder plots.
Eli Bishop
6. EliBishop
Tim: "our 'hero' gets his revenge, and as is the case in a tragedy like this one, falls in the process, a victim of his own hubris"

It seemed to me more like V is a deliberate victim of his own revenge, by design. He expects Finch to find him ("I'm waiting for the man") and, apparently, to shoot him; at least Finch thinks so, and it's hard to believe he couldn't have defended himself when the policeman was in such a debilitated state. If he deliberately sacrifices himself, then that's not really hubris-- it's almost the opposite, as if Moore is suggesting that it's literally impossible for anything *not* to go according to V's plan. As for why he does it, the way the endgame plays out partly depends on the government making overconfident assumptions about the terrorist having been killed. But also, some of his last words to Evey suggest that he thinks of himself as an engine of destruction that has to be disposed of once its task is done-- like the explosive-filled train she buries him in-- to make way for the new V, Evey, who's more human and better suited for building things. That's a sign that your interpretation of Moore's attitude toward V-- that he's not really a righteous hero, but more of a scary side effect of the fascist tyranny, that helps to bring down the tyranny but isn't an answer in itself-- is correct, because V actually sees himself that way, and V is so in control and infallible that he's almost literally the author of the story.
Emmet O'Brien
7. EmmetAOBrien
EliBishop@5; This interpretation does definitely require rather a lot of lying from V; I just find the pattern of dissociation between current-V and the saintly image of Valerie that V presents quite plausible as a shape of reaction to so severe a trauma, and as a way a human mind might try to process such a trauma into something that could be claimed as positive transformative experience. (I'm not saying I think Moore means us to read it this way; I think Moore may mean it to be impossible to rule out reading it any of several ways including this way.)

It has been some time since I read V for Vendetta, but I am not recalling anything textual to preclude V forging Sturridge's journal; is there anything I am forgetting?
Eli Bishop
8. EliBishop
Emmet: No; that is, yes, V could have made up pretty much every piece of evidence we see in the whole book. But that way lies madness, or at least it would mean losing any ability to read the story as a story in which certain things did happen, rather than a textual game. And I don't think that's really Moore's bag, unlike, say, Grant Morrison.
Xnoubis
9. a1ay
It has been some time since I read V for Vendetta, but I am not recalling anything textual to preclude V forging Sturridge's journal

IIRC Finch even speculates that this could be the case. And, for that matter, we have only V's word for it that Valerie ever even existed and wrote the letter. Maybe the whole story there is just what V thinks Evey has to go through to become free; his own liberation was considerably darker. (We don't know for sure what happened there, if the journal isn't reliable, but we know it resulted in the destruction of Larkhill Camp - Finch saw the ruins - and Surridge's voluntary internal exile. Sounds dramatic.)

But I think we also see Sturridge say that V was "the man in room five". So V, whoever he was, wasn't Valerie. (Not to mention that everyone who encounters V identifies him as male...)
Xnoubis
10. a-j
I think EliBishop@6 has a very valid interpretation, V does not intend to survive his meeting with Finch. V must die and be destroyed for Evey the pacifist (she is given the option to kill and refuses to take it) to step in and, presumably, start the healing of the country with the aid of the policeman she takes in whose name I cannot remember.
Is V Valerie? That never occured to me and I agree that it doesn't quite fit, but then, as the story makes clear, V's identity is not important and his gender, sexuality, race or creed are irrelevant.
Kevin Maroney
11. womzilla
Eli @6, a-j @ 10:
V does not intend to survive his meeting with Finch. V must die...

V is a murderous, psychopathic monster; by his own description he is the villain of the piece. It's easy to forget, because his victims in the first Act are so monstrous, but he is also the bastard carnival barker of the Vicious Cabaret. As such, he is the figure needed to tear down the Hand, but he is not the figure to usher the world forward into the land of doing-as-you-please; he is too much trapped forever in Larkhill.
Xnoubis
12. a-j
Womzilla@11 - agreed. Though V as a concept survives only now inhabited by the pacificist Evey but once V destroys/exposes the fascist state there is no longer a place for him and, as you say, he can never leave Larkhill.
Xnoubis
13. Pendard
@EliBishop (#6): That was also my interpretation of V's death -- that he knows his role is to destroy, and so he must die at the moment of his victory. He spends the entire story grooming Evey to be a creator, not to continue his work but to do the things he can't do.

I've always thought it makes his character absolutely fascinating. He is a man trying to bring down a system, and he has the self-awareness to see that that makes him a part of the system. He has the vision to see that his quest for vengeance is just a small part of the greater picture, and yet he plays his small role anyway. He's the puppetmaster, but he's also one of the puppets.
Xnoubis
14. Nicholas J. Pirro
The story is so elegantly dark... and the rolls so substantial. Yin and Yang come to mind, that is to say, internal conflict is both light and dark...constantly pulling at one another creating balance. V the destroyer, Evey the reformed builder. Valerie plays a lathargic drug test, his love though they never met- She was enlightened by the medication, and V the latter. I love this story, and the movies depiction was more than adequate.
Xnoubis
15. robbie1998
I agree that the aftermath of the torture scene in the comic is very problematic. While the movie version had its flaws, it tried to adress this problem. Evey's decision to leave V's protection after the ordeal show she had gainded a new strength from it, and the same time realized it was still a monstruous thing to have done. Of course the character in the film had a quite different backstory, which made her developpement into an independent person more plausible.

What I had not realized is that, as Tim Callahan points out, Evey's evolution in the comic is internally consistent : she never had enough willpower to escapes V's influence and ended up a pawn in his scheme. Very bleak ending. Was it what Moore intended us to get from the story? I doubt it, and that's why I agree the ending is weaker than the beginning.
Xnoubis
16. clebooks
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-16968689

A recent article by Alan Moore on the enduring appeal of the mask
Xnoubis
17. Kip W
We see a lot of V and Evey, but I feel as though Finch was more like a protagonist. It's true that Evey changes in the course of the book, but it's also true that Finch changes from a cog to a free agent, and once he's free of his old bosses, his life seems about to start.
Xnoubis
18. Kip W
It also occurs to me that one of the things about Moore that got me early on is that a story of his becomes something else while you read it. V starts as a mystery story, and we're going to solve these crimes and learn who did them… and by the time it's over, we're as much in the dark as we ever were, and in the equivalent of my darkened theater seat, I seem to recall telling the screen not to let her take his mask off, because by that time a resolution would have diminished what Moore had done.
Xnoubis
19. justin donnelly
Good posts. Was suprised to discover that there is a general consensus about the Evey character participating in the "rebuilding" process. When I read the book, i felt that when Evey assumed the mantle of V, and donned the mask, she was in some ways becomming V, the harbinger of anarchy. By the same token, she takes on a novice, the policeman, who might someday replace her. I think there is the suggestion that the world will always have need for a powerful voice of anonymous dissent. While Evey cannot produce substantiation that she is the "patient from Room V", everyone who ever saw that individual is dead midway through the tale. By donning the mask, Evey has become Vendetta incarnate, and can represent to the world everything he did. Let me know if I'm misreading this, or stating it to forcefully.

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