Nov 5 2013 6:05pm

Anarchy In The UK: V For Vendetta at 25

V for Vendetta

It was 1988. I was 12 years old, squeezing through the crowded and cluttered aisles at Little Rock’s only comic store, when I saw a poster of a cloaked, chalk-faced figure running across the top of a wall. The copy on the poster read:

A ten issue series by

I’d never seen such a thing. My comic book buying in those days was exclusively of the Batman, Captain America, and Green Lantern variety. I didn’t know what “fascist” meant, had no idea who Moore and Lloyd were, and had no good reason to want to collect a ten issue series of English comic books.

But something in the stark imagery of the poster appealed to me. (It was around this same time that I discovered the 1950 Edmond O’Brien flick D.O.A, which kicked off my love of film noir, so maybe I was just ready to take a plunge into a certain kind of dark crime story. Or maybe it was something in the Arkansas water.) I went back a week later and bought issue one.

Guy Fawkes V For Vendetta

V For Vendetta was over my head. It told the story of a young Englishwoman named Evey Hammond, living in a dystopian London ruled by the fascist government of Adam Susan, aka The Leader. A rightwing despot who came to power after a nuclear war destroyed most of earth’s other major powers, Susan rules his subjects under strict codes of racial, religious, and moral purity. Seemingly all-seeing and all-knowing, the government is corrupt, vicious, and inescapable. Into this hellscape comes a caped stranger wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, wig and hat. He kills some government goons (known as Fingermen) who are trying to sexually assault Evey, and then he whisks the girl away to a secret domain he calls The Shadow Gallery. An underground compound, The Shadow Gallery is filled with forbidden art and books and music and movies. It seems, in fact, to be the final collection of an eradicated culture. It’s like the Batcave if Batman were a gay theater major turned domestic terrorist.

I don’t make the gay reference casually, or to get a cheap laugh. One of the things that flew over my head back in 1988 was the extent to which V For Vendetta was an angry screed from a side of British politics and culture that had seldom been heard from, and I had no idea the extent to which that message was bound up in a furious reaction to the rise of rightwing politics, anti-gay policies, and indifference to the AIDS epidemic. Evey’s caped savior calls himself V, and he’s out to dismantle the government:

Evey: That’s very important to you, isn’t it? All that theatrical stuff.

V: It’s everything, Evey. The perfect entrance, the grand illusion. It’s everything. And I’m going to bring the house down.

V For Vendetta was an immediate hit with serious comic book fans. The late eighties was some kind of second golden age of comic books. Crisis On Infinite Earths, Watchmen, The Killing Joke, The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One, Man Of Steel, Todd McFarlane’s run on Spider-Man—every few months seemed to bring some landmark classic that helped redefine comics as most people knew them. Even among these titles, though, V For Vendetta stood out as something different.

V for Vendetta Alan Moore Warrior

The book had its origins a few years prior, in Warrior, an anthology comic in England. Appearing in stark black and white, V For Vendetta was serialized and soon became the comic’s most popular reoccurring feature. When Warrior was canceled before V could complete his mission to blow up Parliament, DC Comics brought the series to America, let writer Alan Moore and artist David Lloyd complete their run, and added new material including new pencils by Lloyd and Tony Weare, and muted colors by Steve Whitaker and Siobhan Dobbs.

The resulting book is, in every sense, a graphic novel. Broad in scope, with a large cast of characters, it is really Evey’s story—the story of a lost and lonely young girl who embarks, unknowingly, on the hero’s journey. Left an orphan when her activist parents are hauled off by government thugs, she finds herself in the company of a kind but scary stranger, a superhuman man in mask who talks in riddles and kills other human beings with disturbing ease. The person Evey becomes by the end of the book in not simply a carbon copy of V. She’s a woman and a revolutionary.

V himself begins and ends as a mystery, a man behind a mask, a performance. We never fully learn his story, only that he was taken by the new government to a concentration camp where he was used—along with other undesirables—as lab rats in a series of experiments. The government didn’t get what it expected.

V For Vendetta

The 2005 film adaptation of the book helped popularize V as a symbol of resistance—leading to the establishment of the Guy Fawkes mask (really the V mask at this point) as an instant icon of anti-government feeling (or rather, a certain flavor of ant-government distinct from the Tea Party flavor)—but while the film has its virtues, it also rewrites much of the book. Many of these changes are for understandable reasons. A condensed plot point here, a deleted subplot there. But other changes, like a late-in-the-film ham-handed attempt to build a love story between V and Evey, actually work against the emotional core of the story. V can’t be both mentor and would-be lover—he ends up as a rather awkward combination of Obi-Wan Kenobi and the Phantom of the Opera. Interestingly, though, the film retains most of the book’s radical politics. The film is still a pretty subversive work—it still ends with an act of terrorism celebrated as a heroic call to arms.

Alan Moore is one of the great grumpy geniuses of our modern culture, and V For Vendetta is the result of his deeply held political convictions. Asked if he considered himself an anarchist in an interview in 2007, he responded:

[A]narchy is in fact the only political position that is actually possible. I believe that all other political states are in fact variations or outgrowths of a basic state of anarchy; after all, when you mention the idea of anarchy to most people they will tell you what a bad idea it is because the biggest gang would just take over. Which is pretty much how I see contemporary society. We live in a badly developed anarchist situation in which the biggest gang has taken over and have declared that it is not an anarchist situation—that it is a capitalist or a communist situation. But I tend to think that anarchy is the most natural form of politics for a human being to actually practice. All it means, the word, is no leaders. An-archon. No leaders.

V For Vendetta remains as fresh and fascinating as the day it appeared at my local comic book store. It’s one of the truly indispensible graphic novels and one of the best books, period, of the last 25 years.

Jake Hinkson is the author of the novels Hell On Church Street and The Posthumous Man. He blogs at The Night Editor.

Thom Dunn
1. ThomDunn
Great piece about a great story. I personally, however, disagree with your assessment of the two endings. While they definitely share a concern for social justice and an end to fascism -- and I definitely felt myself emotionally swept up during both climactic explosions -- I think graphic novel V was all about anarchy, a world of no rules, no government ("the land of do-as-you-please," if you will), while movie V represented a socialist mission, where everyone was united together and working together to achieve harmony. One is a esque left wing political view of a governed utopia, while the other is a hard right view of no government, no restrictions, and pure individual freedom and responsibility.

Certainly the political clock starts to swing the other way at a point, so those two philosophies do more in common than their hard right and hard left positions might suggestion, but they're still significantly different revolutions.
2. iola
I haven't read V, though I have seen the movie (and yes, Evey somehow falling for V after being tortured is gross as hell).

I have read a few of Moore's other works. Though I understand why they were perhaps "revolutionary" to the period, I quite disagree with his supposed "genius" status. On a story level, I find his writing over-wrought and largely boring at a stretch. Then suddenly there's as "offensive" or "shocking" a moment as he can think to make up for the endless narrative trudge. On a personal one, it's also horribly, deeply sexist. Not just the obvious sexism, but the overall subtle sexism that seems to miss detection by some while everyone's pointing at the "shocking" moments. The kind of sexism you can't neatly dress up as "commentary" or "shocking." All the female comic readers I personally know find his work sexist as well, and we are always amazed when someone comes 'round to tell us how "feminist" he actually is. Yeah, okay. As I've said, I've read quite a few...I've no desire to torture myself more.
3. Petar Belic
I had two problems with 'V for Vendetta', even though I enjoyed it immensely, but these two things almost ruined it for me

1) The artwork is terrible. It seems to be a combination of two things - the reproduction, using heavy black, has produced a lot of bleed and the colouring was just an afterthought. Secondly, David Lloyd's style was not consistent. Sometimes it was easy to confuse characters (which absolutely should not happen) and characters themselves were rendered so badly it was hard to know we were looking at the same person. David is a great illustrator - in fact the covers were by and large great, so perhaps he was rushing, or there was some other reason, but I just didn't like the artwork for the most part.

2) The story goes on several tangents, and the 'Vicious Cabaret' chapter seemed far too didactic and simply unentertaining for me. Perhaps Moore needed to be reigned in a bit, or there were some other editorial considerations driving this - it's hard to know.

These issues aside, it's a fantastic read, and I highly recommend it. As the reviewer said, it IS a novel, in graphic format, and the growth and change in characters, their situation and their politics is wonderful to behold. One thing the movie got absolutely wrong is Evey's character - she starts from such a low place, and totally politically naive that her change is all the more meaningful. Not for a moment did I believe that Natalie Portman's Evey was as naive as the character in the book was. The other big issue the movie got wrong - as Moore has rightly pointed out - was that V was an anarchist, not just a revolutionary. The exploration of Anarchy as a tool, and not necessarily an end within itself was one that wasn't explored anywhere near as it should have been in the movie. Others have said that V was all about anarchy but I disagree - the end would seem to justify my statement, but I'll leave it for others to their own reading of it.

Highly recommended.

England Prevails!
4. a1ay
Both good points from Petar; the novel sags badly in the middle, and the artwork is not good quality.

Juan Pazos
5. seanamber
I'm with iola in comment #2 personally. When I first read V I was very impressed and though the story was terribly bleak I admired it very much, and I say admire and not love consciously. Many years later I re-read it and was just infuriated by how manipulative it is. The fact that Evey is esentially tortured to be taught a lesson and she just understands and respects V for it is monstrous as far as I am concerned, and the way the "bad guys" are portrayed is far from nuanced and puts into play some awful tricks. I don't have the time now to go through it again to better support my point, but that was very clearly what I got from it second time around. Ultimately I can agree with the basic political ideas at the root of this work but my opinion is the execution is just not good at all.

On a side note: I was rereading The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen the other day and I just realized how male-gazey it is, with a rape attempt in the first chapter and all the "holy ghost impregnations" in the boarding school later... just stopped reading. And Moore had the gall to say Hollywood had stolen his work from him and disfigured it when not a single character was his own creation! Go figure.
6. BWrites
I'll have to re-read but I actually thought Evey was one of Moore's more believable female characters, which to be fair can be a low bar to clear. But I thought her journey worked; I saw her, at the end, accepting V for what he was - a deeply flawed person and pretty much batshit, but one who set her on her path. A little Stockholm Syndrome, a little 'all that matters is the way forward.'

This whole article is making me want to re-read and re-evaluate though!
alastair chadwin
7. a-j
Agreed. Evey pointedly rejects V's violent approach as it is no longer necessary.

The torture sequence is a mistake to say the least. I believe that Moore intended it to be seen as a sort of shamanistic initiation ritual but it doesn't really work.

A bit of background. The early part of the story was written in the early '80s when Britain had just voted in Margaret Thatcher. By the time DC picked it up, the AIDS panic had started with open calls for sufferers to be placed in concentration camps in order to protect the rest of the population.

As to the film, it is good and doesn't duck some of the less commercial issues. My two main problems are the love affair aspect and the odd conspiracy plot angle which, as Moore himself admitted about the nuclear war in the comic, is unnecessary. It is frighteningly easy for a country to tip into a fascist state.
8. Wizard Clip
"The film is still a pretty subversive work." Moore didn't see it that way. In this case, he was actually irritated that the movie was too faithful to his work. He wrote V very specifically as a response to the political climate in Britain in the 1980s. When the movie came out in 2006, he wondered why the filmmakers didn't have the nerve to shift the setting to the US and alter some of the plot details to more directly address the peculiar political climate here. I have to say, I think he had a point.
James Whitehead
9. KatoCrossesTheCourtyard
@8Wizard Clip, and if the makers of the film had moved it to the US, Moore would have complained about having his work 'Americanized.' He can be a very contrary SOB. ;-)

I liked both the comics & the movie but do agree that the movie Evey & V's relationship was problematic & that they hadn't thought it through properly.

Thomas Thatcher
10. StrongDreams
I liked the movie, and never read the comic to compare it to. I think dropping nuclear war made eminent sense, as by 2006 it was clearly much less likely than it would have been seen to be in the 1980s, and the consequences known to be much more horrible. Linking the rise of Norsefire to unspecified troubles overseas, plus a dastardly conspiracy at home, makes more sense for the times. Plus, the audience is not going to want to think that the country wanted to become fascist, it's easier to imagine falling into it by accident/manipulation.*

(*In fact, that would undermine the ending of both versions. If the population willingly became fascist because of nuclear war, and prefer the seeming security of the heavy-handed state, then killing a few party leaders and blowing up a couple of buildings is not going to suddenly turn them anarchist or populist or libertarian or anything else, any more than blowing up the White House would suddenly cause the US to abandon representative democracy.)

When the movie came out in 2006, he wondered why the filmmakers didn't have the nerve to shift the setting to the US and alter some of the plot details to more directly address the peculiar political climate here.

Sigh, dastardly fascist conservatives is just such lazy writing. I wonder if anyone writing now would consider a dystopia ruled by liberal/progressive/greens who have everyone's best interests at heart but get it horribly wrong in the execution. As one of the inhabitants of hell says in Season of Mists, "that makes it worse."
11. AnthonyX
Strong freams says:
Sigh, dastardly fascist conservatives is just such lazy writing. I wonder if anyone writing now would consider a dystopia ruled by liberal/progressive/greens who have everyone's best interests at heart but get it horribly wrong in the execution. As one of the inhabitants of hell says in Season of Mists, "that makes it worse."

Please read 1984, Brave New World and Farenheit 451. Read it in and look at todays news cycle. Hate speech, media manipulation, Obama's NSA etc etc etc
Thomas Thatcher
12. StrongDreams
I have. Whether they start with good intentions ("we know what's best for you and we will protect you from yourself") or just a naked grab for power and control, I think every totalitarian government eventually becomes Big Brother. I don't recall 1984 addressing how EngSoc got that way, and I don't think BNW addressed the origin of society either. F451 explicity describes society existing because the government "knows best," but there you make my point, because it was written (and indeed all three books were written) more than 60 years ago.
13. Wizard Clip
@Kato: Regarding Moore's contrarian nature, fair enough.
14. Wizard Clip
@Strongdreams: Who mentioned conservatives? In any case, it's not lazy writing if you're responding specifically to the political climate of a given era, whatever that climate may be. In the middle of the last decade, there was a great deal of overt and subtle squelching of dissent in the name of patriotism. This seems worthy of criticism, no matter who the squelchers may be. Also worthy of criticism: a hefty percentage of the American people across the political spectrum who seemed willing to go along with it.
15. Petar Belic
The torture sequence is a mistake to say the least. I believe that Moore intended it to be seen as a sort of shamanistic initiation ritual but it doesn't really work.
I would disagree.

It showed that V was 'crazy' and that for him the end always justified the means.

It also made us - the reader - question the extent we would go to in order to engender change in an individual. Is it worth it? Can it be justified? Is it just brainwashing? Or is it a path to transcendence? There's no simple answer and each reader will bring their own biases to their reading of it. This is exactly the kind of questions 'V for Vendetta' is posing in general, and for me forms the core thesis of the book.
Eduardo Greif
16. greif
It was never clear to me, from the graphic novel, whether V is really a man or a woman. Since we can never hear the character's voice, or see 'him' without the mask, I always thought that it might as well be a woman.
Emmet O'Brien
17. EmmetAOBrien
greif@16: indeed, one possibility that the shadowiness of the comic art allows but that the movie kind of inherently rules out is V being Valerie.
alastair chadwin
18. a-j
Petar Belic@15

Fair point. But I think a problem arises when Evey forgives and accepts his actions too quickly for that to fully work.

Three characters in the book undergo shamanistic transformation. V via experimentation, Evey through torture and threat of death and Mr Finch through drugs. I suspect that Moore, like V, believes the end justifies the means.
19. kadett
talking about the movie for me it raises the question whether individual terrorism like tyran murder ist justifiable. and the answer is yes. maybe it is not enough - system remains - but it can awaken the masses. Of course - it is art and not the manual for making revolutions.
20. Kartikeya Gajjala
I have read my share of Moore (LXG, VfV and Watchmen) and must confess that I really like his work and ideas. However, I have noticed a tendency in his writings to get overly carried away in a manner that takes away from the initial concept that drew a reader to the series. I find this most strikingly in LXG, where two brilliant volumes were followed by rather tepid (and frequently arbid) volumes that entirely cast away the initial concept (which was what drew me to the series). I find that Watchmen dodged this bullet while VfV fell into the trap (the later issues tend towards the seemingly random, defeating the initial narrative that was set up). I have found this even amongst the later writings of GRRM (ADwD was dull as ditchwater right until the final (admittedly awesome) chapters). But, like I said, I am still avowedly a fan and have lost count of the number of times I have read LXG Vols. 1 & 2.

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