It’s the fifth of November, so I offer my humble thoughts on one of the true classics of our favourite medium. This is by no means an exhaustive analysis, simply a reflection on the book and its message. Sequart offers lots more on the subject of Alan Moore.
The always-quotable British historian Simon Schama once said, “It’s a bit odd to think of Britain as the fountainhead of revolution. Doesn’t seem very English. All that shouting…” And yet here we are once again on that other date which will live in infamy, the 5th of November, when we remember a time in British history when things could have taken a very different turn. It’s quite possible that old Guido Fawkes, the militant Catholic (those words seem almost oxymoronic), would find it strange that we still remember the time he manifestly failed in his revolutionary mission. And it’s more than likely he would find it odd that we remember him in modern times via a comic book.
V for Vendetta was a product of its times, just like all works of art. It was, at least in part, Alan Moore’s response to the Thatcher era, when he, and other progressives, were feeling distinctly marginalized and in some deep place yearned for a shot of revolutionary zeal that would bring about a new and better age. Moore spoke openly about wanting to emigrate to the United States at the time, a rather remarkable statement from someone who is famous for never leaving his home town. (He didn’t, of course, but he did marry an American, Melinda Gebbie, another politically-minded activist whose issues at the time (nuclear disarmament) were also tilting towards the revolutionary.) There’s an obvious ebb and flow to politics, and it’s somewhat heartening to reflect that, since its publication in the late 1980s, V for Vendetta has become a poster child for any marginalized progressive movement, particularly when a right-wing government comes to power. Here in Canada, we’ve just emerged from a decade of right-wing rule, where progressives would spray paint the outgoing Prime Minister’s name onto “stop” signs, and sales of V for Vendetta have undoubtedly spiked. Wherever there’s a need to oppose an authoritarian government, we don the Guy Fawkes masks and show solidarity, not with Fawkes himself, but with V, Moore’s political mouthpiece and icon.
Few comics have penetrated popular culture more deeply than V. That broad acceptance and wide appeal is somewhat puzzling because when one revisits the original comic book today, it reads as strikingly specifically British. From the opening pages with the “voice of Fate” speaking over the radio, a trope pulled directly from the wartime BBC radio broadcasts, through the setting, the language and the mature yet pulpy storytelling style, the book is a coherent synthesis of many contemporary British popular styles. In fact, it resembles nothing so much as the ubiquitous TV miniseries being produced both then and now, primarily for the UK market. The best analogy would be something along the lines of the original British version of Traffik, or the slightly earlier Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Hopefully Moore’s legions of admirers, present company included, will find that a flattering comparison, as those series set the stage for the sort of serialized storytelling we find today on Netflix or any of the mature-audience network series. We could never have had Mad Men or The Walking Dead or Narcos without that model.
The book’s art, by David Lloyd, is as original as the text, with a striking style and deep shadows. Eschewing such formal notions as frames or action lines or onomatopoeia, Lloyd brought a maturity to comics that had not yet been seen. His art was meant to be just realistic enough: not cartoony, nor overly stylized. This was, if anything, one of the more realistic works of science fiction ever committed to comics, reaching back into pre-code comics and Classics Illustrated for inspiration. Every page is a rich mixture of comics styles, including the use of photocopied photographs (a device borrowed from realist comics and underground comix like American Splendor), creative use of colour and simplified character looks and backgrounds, which stand out compared to the obsessive details in contemporary books like 2000 AD. It’s significant, for example, that the first issue was originally published in black and white, which, when it came time to render the panels into colour, led Lloyd to many innovative inking styles, leaving some panels almost monochromatic, and sneaking in cool blues, greens and oranges into others, almost completely avoiding the bold primary superhero colours. It’s a comic that celebrates the possibilities of comics as a medium. Still, its cultural influence extends far beyond comics, or even literature. That’s just one example of the most important quality of V for Vendetta: it succeeds at being universal by, counter-intuitively, being extremely specific.
The major theme of achieving universality through specificity is even embedded right into the plot (about which I’ll reveal very little here: all the better to read it for one’s self). The title character of V is obviously inspired by many previous masked heroes, as a commentary on the nature of superheroes, but we can’t ignore the influence of Spiderman co-creator Steve Ditko’s character “Mr. A”. A moral purist with a mask, Mr. A was Ditko’s pure distillation of his sense of justice and order. Mr. A carried cards, which were half white and half black, illustrating his absolute belief in pure right or pure wrong. And when faced with a pure wrong, there was no debate or discussion for Mr. A: he was all action. Alan Moore himself has stated that Mr. A was a great influence on Rorschach from Watchmen, but echoes are also to be found in V, including the choice of a one-letter name. (Other sources of inspiration for the story and character, by Moore’s own admission, include Batman, which comes as no surprise.)
Whatever the influence, V’s character has the interesting twist that he has no “secret identity”. In fact, he’s simply V, having erased his identity years ago by being subject to government torture and medical experimentation. In terms of the superhero idiom, he’s actually closer to a super-villain, with no demarcation between his heroic and “civilian” life. This has the peculiar property of reducing his identity to a mask, a cape and a moral/political stance. Which, of course, is one of the reasons why this character resonates so powerfully over a long period of time and in many cultures. Literally anyone could be V – it’s not even made clear that V is male, let alone what sort of person he is, or was. He’s the essence of the superhero, boiled down to nothing but poses and ideology, and even though he’s very specifically concerned with the problems of Britain in the “1990s” , he’s infinitely adaptable to any time and any place. Many such characters are bound to their unique fantasy worlds (DC heroes), or fantasy-versions of the real world (Marvel heroes), and locked into certain plots and story motifs. V, on the other hand, can break free of all of those conventions.
The plot of V for Vendetta is, in the end, a simple revenge story. Then again, so is Hamlet, and the comparison of the two texts is not off-base. Some scholars believe that Hamlet existed in earlier drafts, or versions, which focused entirely on the revenge plot. (The cry, “Hamlet! Revenge!” was apparently a bit of a theatrical joke in the late 16th century.) Shakespeare’s critical re-write, following the death of his young son, injected his masterpiece with all of the existential yearning and psychological complexity that allows it to speak to us across vast oceans of time. The actual plot of Hamlet is probably the least interesting thing in the play; a classic example of Hitchcock’s Maguffin. V for Vendetta is similarly rich and textured, to the point that the biggest problem with the 2005 film adaptation was how it struggled at times to get beyond the simple machinations of a hokey revenge story, having had to jettison some, but not all, of the comic’s deep emotionalism.
The key message in V, upon consideration, has nothing to do with revenge, which makes the title doubly ironic. The message is, or at least may be, the same as every message in Alan Moore’s body of work: communion. That is, not only communion between people, but the awareness that any individual can develop that allows them to see the connections between people, their history, and the forces of the universe. Moore sees that connection through magic, and he shares that awareness primarily through the medium of comics, no matter what the superficial story happens to be.
V is actually not much like the usual superhero trope precisely because of his communion with the people he serves. He doesn’t save people; he empowers them to save themselves. While all heroes profess to love humanity, V really demonstrates this love, and his communion with his people. He takes it further than Superman or Batman would dare dream: he actually invites everyone to join him, to physically become him, thus taking the metaphor of connection to its logical conclusion. But it’s important to remember that V does this all out of love.
There’s a passage in V for Vendetta that perfectly summarizes V’s, and one senses, Moore’s, relationship with his audience. It comes at the end of the famous sequence in which our civilian hero character, Evie, is being subjected to psychological torture similar to that which was experienced by V, right down to being passed notes from an unseen neighbour in the adjacent prison cell. The final note she receives, which in fact was the final note V received, ends with a crystallization of Moore’s attitude towards the entire universe, expressed in emotional rather than intellectual or even psychedelic terms, and all the more powerful for it:
I don’t know who you are, or whether you’re a man or a woman. I may never see you. I will never hug you or cry with you or get drunk with you. But I love you.
Many don’t associate Alan Moore with emotional writing, or sweetness, but those of us who have met the man know that this is his authentic voice. It’s his core message throughout all of his work, in many media and though when considered in the cold light of day it seems hokey and sentimental, it’s the distillation of a deep well of intellectual and philosophical consideration. And it has the abiding virtue of universality, even as it speaks on that very subject.
V is certainly not Guy Fawkes, who was a demolitions expert and an intolerant religious fanatic, driven to act of terrorism. Where those two characters intersect is in their conviction, and their willingness to face what they most fear. Just one look at “Guido” (Guy’s birth name), his almost illegible scrawl of a signature acquired on his confession after days of torture, speaks to a man with the true faith. A person who has been through just enough pain and suffering to know who they are can be a dangerous or wonderful thing. V invites us to remember the fifth of November, not by blowing something up, but knowing that when we don the mask or light the bonfire, what we’re celebrating is having the conviction to stand up for the things we believe in, and be true to ourselves.