V for Vendetta may well be Alan Moore’s most politically concerned work, and its sci-fi dystopian vision has a decidedly practical edge. No doubt it will be mined for decades to come by commentators looking at the intersections between comics and their social impact, especially with the ongoing interrelationship (one that Moore doesn’t particularly mind) between the V mask and the Occupy movement.
But V also stands at a unique crossroads in Moore’s life. Not only did its production span more than seven years (from 1981-88), the comic itself runs the gamut of Moore’s frustrations with social order, the potential of the individual “voice” in society, and it even tracks the major instance when Moore considered taking his family and leaving the UK under Margaret Thatcher. V for Vendetta may stand as a remarkably independent unit of Moore’s canon, but for fans, a more satisfying reading is to remember just how much the man invested himself into this work. Creatively, V seems to occupy a decisive position in determining the trajectory of Moore’s later work. By the time Moore had finished V, he was essentially distancing himself from DC and heading in new directions with comics, toward a more “independent” phase.
Where Do Ideas Come from?
During the time he was working on V for Vendetta, the explosive success of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen put Moore in the limelight as a writer, and he was increasingly asked why his work pursued certain ideas, or more particularly, where his ideas “came from.” He opens his essay “Behind the Painted Smile,” published when V was at its halfway point, with the acknowledgement that the question about the origin of “ideas” is the only one worth asking. He then explores the question at length, and with personal verve, in Alan Moore’s Guide to Writing Comics. It seems to be a question that bothered Moore enough to prompt him to really try to get to grips with some possible answers. The answer concerning V is lengthy, involved, and fascinating. The back-and-forth pattern of idea generation for V and its remarkably cohesive results reads like a life-transforming experience for both Alan Moore and David Lloyd. It was particularly remarkable because of the synergy arising from their equal collaboration.
During the first phase of the idea-generating process, Moore found himself in an unusual state of mind: “One night, in desperation, I made a long list of concepts that I wanted to reflect in V, moving from one to the other with a rapid free-association that would make any good psychiatrist reach for the emergency cord” (“Behind the Painted Smile” 272). The “free-association” Moore is talking about is similar to the association tests used by Carl Jung early in his career, a practice that led Jung to his major theory of the existence of archetypes in the collective unconscious. Moore was accessing the unconscious and encouraging its contents to emerge. This was, however, only the beginning of the process. Moore and Lloyd were almost too overwhelmed with possibilities to form a cohesive vision for the comic until David Lloyd made a decisive suggestion; that the main character in V be a “resurrected Guy Fawkes” (“Behind the Painted Smile” 274).
This idea of digging into the past and “resurrecting” something is remarkable in itself, something Moore would explore extensively in his “psycho-geographical” performances, but it also has a somewhat eerie connotation that connects with vengeance narratives. Revenge plays of the Jacobean period often present an anti-hero character who is driven, careless of their own life, in pursuit of retribution, usually for the death of loved ones. Their cruelty is shocking and is meant to be. They consider themselves, to some extent, already “dead,” and so they operate far beyond the bounds of “normal” social behavior. Revenge plays are bloody and never skimp on dramatic dialogues that explore motivation and ideology. Let’s also remember that V is a character that frequently speaks in poetic format, not unlike the verse of a play. The “resurrecting” idea, the ties to the past, and the title of the work itself form an interesting convergence of vengeance narrative features.
Moore says that when he heard Lloyd’s brilliant suggestion, “All of the various fragments in [his] head suddenly fell into place, united behind the single image of a Guy Fawkes mask” (“Behind the Painted Smile” 274). There’s an emphasis here on unity as a feature of a solid “idea.” The “fragments” that Moore and Lloyd were attempting to arrange resisted unity until something transcendent occurred to pull these disparate elements together. Interestingly, Carl Jung calls such an epiphany “transcendent function,” which arises from the interaction of the conscious intellectual ego and the unconscious psyche. In other words, the unconscious produces the solution to a “problem,” seemingly out of nowhere.
This does not occur without preparation, whether that preparation is apparent or not. This is essentially the “work” that Moore refers to, the “work” of the conscious and unconscious mind working together to solve a problem in a satisfying way. Moore wryly comments: “It’s only those exceptional and rare individuals who have brilliant ideas delivered to them by the muse, complete and gift wrapped. The rest of us have to work at it” (“Behind the Painted Smile” 275). However, the long “work” of the collaboration had turned a corner, after which it became an exciting process: “Ideas start to occur almost magically as opposed to being the end result of a long and grinding intellectual episode. This started to happen with V right from the first episode” (“Behind the Painted Smile” 276). It’s interesting that Moore contrasts the “magical” with the “intellectual” here, establishing a similar duality to that between the unconscious and conscious mind. The “magical” is to be preferred, the “intellectual” to be avoided, or at least abandoned when excessive. This “magic” could not have occurred without David Lloyd. It is possible that this was the first major instance when Moore realized that true collaboration between a writer and an artist in comics could rise to the level of a magical experience, maybe even a magical performance.
Let’s take stock of what collaboration, which Moore would later investigate further in his magical performances, included. In working together, Lloyd and Moore immersed themselves in a tide of imagery and possibilities. They were engaged in trying to construct a world in which V could operate as much as creating the character of V. The world would not hang together without a strong enough central vision, and that vision needed to be a visual symbol, a focus for concentration. That symbol would be drawn from the past and, therefore, highly charged with associated meaning. It would also be a mask, something used in shamanic practice to alter the identity of the shaman and channel the manifestation of altered reality. The comparison can only go so far, but as anyone who has felt the strange power of the V mask in protests can attest, there’s plenty of uncanny magic about it.
Moore’s later performances would channel the historical realities of a particular location and key figures from that past to act as links in a cohesive vision of the embodied spirit of a place. In The Highbury Working, in fact, violence would play a key role as a kind of thematic “problem” that Moore seems to want to resolve through the magical explorations of the event. Firstly, the subtitle of the “working,” “a beat séance,” is suggestive. The past will be “unearthed” and the dead, at least temporarily, resurrected. The past will be interrogated to construct a complete geographical identity. Reconstructing that identity is essentially hard “work” until the epiphany, or suddenly unifying vision, of the Angel of Highbury.
In the first steps of this process, Moore acknowledges that the journey into Highbury’s multi-temporal identity is linked inextricably to a journey into his own subconscious: “Highbury does not come recommended, will take hardboiled psycho-geography to penetrate. Best start with the foundations. Subterrania gargling in the lower reaches of imagination. When we excavate the place, we excavate ourselves. The inside is the outside. These steam flooded tunnels, rising up about us. Lady, that’s my skull!” (The Highbury Working). The middle sections of the “working” are indeed an exploration through time, taking in the spectacle of Highbury’s darker but oddly consistent history in obsession, delirium, and violence. The search for a single unifying vision, or simply the ability to fully embrace such an ambivalent past, is exhausting. Moore expresses a sense of failure or lack in locating a unifying, transcendent vision:
But where is the Angel Highbury? If she exists it is not in the index of the A to Z. She is not of the Earth, the buried furlongs where Epona rides her boneyard horse. Nor is she of the Water, of the human torrents swilling in the streets. She is not to be found in Air, in Coleridge castles made of opium smoke. If she exists, it is in Fire, the realm of burning and consuming spirit that the lower climes aspire to, when men fly too high, and graze against the sun, fall, in clouds of acrid cordite smoke ( The Highbury Working).
The continued searching and questioning, however, leads to a remarkable solution when the Angel at last appears. She is both the avatar of all of her inhabitants over time and the “answer” Moore is looking for to the problem of understanding Highbury:
And up above them all the Angel Highbury stands a thousand feet tall, with her pinions fanned from Hampstead to Stoke Newington. Her robe is stitched together from the tattered cover fronts of pulp science fiction magazines, erupting from the Fantasy Book Centre in Holloway Road. Her hair is woven from the blazing priory, long curls of flame caught in the wind that writhes about her face, a beacon fire against the sharp November dark. She towers above the cinemas and chip shops, lights them from above with white sparks dripping from her wings. Crushingly beautiful, and there because we say she is. She rises, lifts into the galaxy like the last notes of “Telstar.” All of Highbury’s ghosts saved at her breast. Exultant, shining, she ascends at last to take her place amongst the faultless constellations (The Highbury Working).
She is an idea, the idea of Highbury. The statement that she is “there because we say she is” is of particular interest. As in the first performance of the Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels, a “real idea” takes the stage, and its effect on human life is emphasized. The figure and character of V in V for Vendetta is, by comparison, also an idea that binds things together for Moore and Lloyd; it would be difficult and perhaps unwise to pin down or limit just what that idea is. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s talk about one dominant idea V contains, particularly associated with the uncanny mask: transformation.
Transformation would become a very important lynchpin of Moore’s later work, and it can be seen very strongly represented in V, particularly in the lives of Evey and in V himself. Both have their own turning points within their life-narratives that radically alter their identity and social trajectory, and this transformation is at least partly based on personal trauma. One could argue that V’s transformation comes first and that he passes it on to Evey by a kind of proxy re-enactment in the hopes of establishing a kind of chain reaction of change for society.
When the reader “meets” V, he is already “masked” and in costume. Only later in the graphic narrative do we receive a partial backstory, more of a myth really, concerning V’s “origin.” His “origin” is, in fact, a transformation from a victim in a government camp into something else. The “something else” he becomes is, moreover, terrifying to others. Perhaps he is a kind of super-human when he is glimpsed during the burning of the compound from which he escapes: “And in the yard I saw him. He had flames behind him. He was naked… He looked at me. As if I were an insect. Oh God, as if I were something mounted on a slide. He looked at me” ( V 83). The images that accompany this description are actually just as disturbing as this halting explanation. The calm, motionless, silhouette of a figure against a yellow, fiery background, viewed in increasing close-up, is both haunting and menacing by suggestion. This seems to be the moment of V’s transformation into the inhuman and perhaps super-human. Trauma and violence mark that eruption of a new being. In an illustration David Lloyd provided for the essay “Behind the Painted Smile,” he further captures the uncertainly and power of this moment by depicting V standing naked in front of a fire at the compound.
This pattern of reversal from victimhood to empowerment is also reconstructed in Evey’s life. She is about to become a victim when V first “saves” her from the dangers of prostitution. This is then substituted for the elaborate ruse of her victimhood in V’s artificial but perfectly staged imprisonment of Evey. Evey is an identification character for the reader, and much of the interesting ambiguity in V for Vendetta focuses on the ways in which Evey becomes “everyman” or perhaps evolves into V. When Evey is shown during her transformation process, she appears grotesque, an outer image of inner imprisonment. Her shaven head and deeply lined face suggest much greater age and a complete shift of identity.
The contrasting image of Evey toward the end of the comic, following V’s death, is one of generalized youth with curly hair, a return of fullness to her face, and of course, her adoption of the “uniform” before she dons V’s mask. She, too, “sees” V by looking under his mask, but she is empowered by that moment, rather than terrorized by it, discovering that “…And at last I know. I know who I must be” (V 250). The greatest aspect of outward transformation for Evey, however, may be the appearance of her V-like smile. Evey has become an icon and symbol for the reader at this point, through witnessing her transformation. Her “new” appearance and assurance doesn’t really need a mask, but it will aid her in duplicating the transformation process. As a credit to both Moore and Lloyd, they manage to present the full ambiguity of a transformation whose origin and outcome are mysterious. Nevertheless, because Evey is an identification character who manages to be a hero of survival, readers are drawn towards approval of her new state of being.
Microcosm and Macrocosm
Why is it that V and Evey are so closely linked? Is it just a perverse method of reproduction? Does V just pathologically induce the same traumas in Evey that created him? One can’t answer these questions definitively; that’s part of the beauty of a text that’s such a “real idea.” However, one approach that may help us understand this transformative relationship is to note the similar patterns running through both experiences, and that they are interconnected. V and Evey may operate as a kind of living model of a microcosmic / macrocosmic relationship. It’s clear that V has an unusual level of identification with the whole of society, and hence he takes it into his hands to change it. That sense of authority is what makes him feel it is acceptable to “trick” Evey into changing through her false imprisonment. It is part of the key to his personal empowerment and linked to his transformation.
V essentially identifies with the macrocosm, the universe as a whole, and feels that he is righting an imbalance in that universe. It’s a vastly inflated sense of self that could be deemed psychopathic, but it is also very useful in enacting change on a large scale. Evey, however, comes into the narrative as the most limited of microcosms. Through her father, she grasped the sense of larger ideas but has remained a “little world,” even disconnected from the larger context of society around her. Her isolation is only emphasized when she is taken in by the loner V. He recognizes her potential for transformation. Evey is, understandably, largely concerned about herself and her own survival and not with the suffering of others or the problems of the world at large. Paradoxically, it takes intense personal suffering — and the empathy induced by the true “story” that Evey learns while in “prison” about a fellow prisoner — to transform her outlook. It is part and parcel of her movement from a victim focused on survival to a survivor focused on change. She finally fully engages with this macrocosmic role when she dons the V costume and replaces V.
V’s identification with the macrocosm is not unprecedented in Moore’s magical works. In the Grant Egyptian Theatre of Marvels performance, the universe is identified finally as being “one soul.” That is also Arthur Machen’s final understanding in Snakes and Ladders. In The Highbury Working, the entire experience of the “ghosts” of Highbury and its angel is described in psycho-geographical terms as being inside one “skull.” V is “enlightened,” or crazy, or both. He has grasped a higher reality of some kind, and it has facilitated impossible feats of transformation. Evey’s journey, in fact, is not unlike the journey that the audiences of the performance pieces are encouraged to make, from their own microcosmic isolation to a point of communion with the macrocosmic universe. The fact that this similar pattern is found in one of Moore’s least overtly magical works is remarkable. It confirms a preoccupation with humanity’s growth and progress closely linked to Moore’s philosophical positions later in life.
The “idea” behind V for Vendetta was so large in scope that it couldn’t come into being all at once. Moore and Lloyd had to build a world — one shadowy and purposefully ambiguous in Lloyd’s black, white, and grey washes — before the symbol they were looking for could inhabit it. Moore’s emphasis on the “work” behind the idea compares well to the intensive preparation put into Moore’s “one-off” or limited performance events. The preparation was often very practical, from stage props to sound equipment. Once everything is in place, whether writing or performing, you have to get yourself into the proper mental state and address this with some seriousness. Then you wait and expect something magical to occur within that state. In writing terms, that’s an idea. In magical terms, that’s an experience. The two are, of course, closely related. In an interview, Moore describes a “twilight state” that occurs, where “a lot of the ideas come from”; this is a “trance state” that seems to “emerge from the act of writing itself” (qtd. in Kavanagh). These “states” are described in almost identical terms to magical experience. So, what’s in a good idea for Moore? Magic.
Kavanagh, Barry. “Interview with Alan Moore on 17 October 2000.” Blather.net. Accessed 6/20/2012. Available from: http://www.blather.net/articles/amoore/alanmoore.txt.
Moore, Alan. “Behind the Painted Smile.” V for Vendetta. New York: DC Comics, 2005.
Moore, Alan (w). David Lloyd (ill.). V for Vendetta. New York: DC Comics, 2005.
Moore, Alan (w.), Jacen Burrows (ill.). Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics. Rantoul, IL: Avatar Press, 2010.
Moore, Alan. The Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels. Ed. Glycon. Accessed 6/6/2012. Available from: http://glycon.livejournal.com/6905.html.
Moore, Alan. The Highbury Working. Ed. Glycon. Accessed 6/6/2012. Available from: http://glycon.livejournal.com/1091.html.
Coming up Next Time: “A World Inside, Outside in Alan Moore and Oscar Zarate’s A Small Killing.”