Like Watchmen before it, V For Vendetta is very much a product of its time. First published in 1982, this Alan Moore tale follows a masked revolutionary setting out to destroy the totalitarian government of a post-nuclear war Britain.
The character of V, a theatrical, enigmatic and masked terrorist/freedom fighter / revolutionary (depending on how you interpret the story) is one of the most developed, sophisticated and at the same time confusing characters in the history of comic books. We’re first introduced to the Guy Fawkes mask-wearing V when he comes to the rescue Evey, of a young woman who would otherwise have become the victim of rape at the hands of a couple of Fingermen – a corrupt arm of a future British police force. The rights and freedoms the people of Britain enjoyed before the right-wing Norsefire party turned Britain into a police state are gone. The nuclear war that left Britain mostly untouched but by no means unscarred provided the perfect climate of fear for freedoms to be chipped away at, for undesirables to be removed.
Comparisons with National Socialism here are inevitable. Norsefire doesn’t deal with opposition in the Houses of Parliament: they send them to concentration camps. Britain isn’t a tolerant or multi-cultural society: it’s one where people get imprisoned because of their sexuality. Standing against this Nazi-like state is V, leaving a calling-card style mark (more than a little like an inverted anarchy symbol) at each of the high-profile acts of rebellion. It’s these symbolic signatures left behind by V that will lead you to something of a revelation about our main character: throughout all of this, V is trying to rally the people of Britain. Each act, more elaborate and theatrical than the last, leads you to think that it’s less about a personal vendetta and more about mobilising ordinary people. Mobilising people by blowing up key locations in and around central London, admittedly, but mobilising them all the same.
Moore pulls no punches throughout V For Vendetta. There are times when you’ll question V’s actions. There are times where you’ll be shocked at the lengths the revolutionary will go to. You might even question V’s sanity, especially when, surrounded by elaborate costumes, make-up, wigs and props, V begins to act like an underground, West End of London based Phantom of the Opera. Through the book, Moore hints at V’s origins, sexuality, and at times even gender, making the relationship that you build with the lead character a little complex. You’ll find yourself flipping between supporting, condemning and empathising with V several times over, yet that’s one of the strengths of the book as a whole.
The supporting cast in V’s operatic dismantling of the government are just as engaging. Moore deals with their big issues on a suitably big stage but also takes time out to focus on the smaller ones too (how he depicts one family hearing news of the outbreak of war is brief, simple but heartbreaking, for example). Evey gets drawn into V’s world, just like the reader is. She’s the bystander that gets tangled up in the revolutionary plots. At times, she’ll feel like a disposable pawn in V’s games, too. The truth is, she’s probably a bit of both. Characters like Valerie, seen only in flashback, provide a glimpse of what life was like before the regime changing nuclear war, and her loss of liberty and life are symptomatic of what the country as a whole is losing: freedom, individuality, hope.
They all play out their parts in an incredibly convoluted, at times ridiculous, camp and tragic tale – but it’s brilliantly done. David Lloyd, who provides the artwork for most but not all of V For Vendetta, compliments Moore’s words perfectly. His pencilling provides a suitably dark tone to the story as a whole, and he manages to take a character with an unchanging, emotionless mask for a face, and make it engaging and emotive. Lloyd provides us with a snapshot of a suitably ugly underworld, full of right-wing iconography, and does what all comic artists should do: capture the essence of the world the writer has created and present it on the page.
Yet it’s not the twists and turns in the plot (and there are plenty) that provided the biggest surprise for me. That prize goes to the revelation that I had after reading it. Throughout the trade paperback, there was something that just felt a little bit off-kilter. Something wasn’t quite the same as all of the other comic books I’d read before. I’d flicked past hundreds of pages featuring V and Evey, but still hadn’t really got into their heads. I couldn’t make up my mind if V really were a hero or a villain. For the life of me, I couldn’t work out why.
I wasn’t new to comics as a medium – far from it. So the realisation of how and why I felt this way was like a slap in the face, that I really should have noticed earlier, but didn’t. A major convention of every comic book I’d ever read was missing. Yes, I could hear what the characters were saying through the standard speech balloons on the page, but I couldn’t get into their head – wasn’t allowed to: there were no thought bubbles.
And that’s just another one of the reasons why V is so good. By locking out the reader from the thought processes of the characters, Moore makes them even more ambiguous than they already were. Admittedly, there are moments where V delivers an internal monologue, but there are frames where David Lloyd holds on the unchanging masked face of V, and you’d love to know what was going on in the mind of the person behind it – but you never will. Moore strips the reader of the very privileged position they usually take in comic books. We’re no longer mind readers – we’re just bystanders. Simple observers. Characters caught up in the story, just like Evey is, unsure of the motivations of the mysterious masked figure that drives V For Vendetta along.
The story of V as we now have it could have so easily never seen the light of day. First published a couple of pages at a time in British anthology comic Warrior back in 1982, the story was left unfinished after the cancellation of the host book three years later. Readers’ conceivably might never have found out about what happened to V and Evey. Fortunately for us, Moore agreed to DC’s offer of reprinting the collected pages and published the completed story, split across ten issues. This wrapping up of V for Vendetta also gave Tony Weare, another British artist, his most high profile job and the opportunity to provide pencils for some of the incomplete chapters, at the invitation of David Lloyd.
V For Vendetta raised the bar for comics as a whole. The themes were more challenging, the issues darker, and the lines between right and wrong or good and evil were blurry at best – completely missing, at worst – providing a much more mature story than many of the books that it shared shelf space with. It spawned the 2005 movie of the same name but saw Moore distance himself from the adaptation, sending a message to most fans of the book that if they wanted the real story of V, the only place they would find it in the pages of a comic. It’s there that you’ll find your own personal reading of it. It’s there that you’ll figure out who V is. You’ll make up your own mind. After all, that’s what V would want.
V For Vendetta raised the bar for comics as a whole. The themes were more challenging, the issues darker, and the lines between right and wrong or good and evil were blurry at best