Review: V For Vendetta by Alan Moore
Allow me a moment of melodrama as I say that in hindsight there’s a sense of prescient to reading this just before the UK general election. Following the results, a dark cloud descended on me as I reflected on the machinations of power.
But that would be in the future, because I had ear marked this tale of vengeance for a little holiday break at the end of November 2019 – something I discussed in: Talking To Myself: Dec 2019 (Out of the Hermit Hole). So, with my feet up in an idyllic little house by the sea, I took the time to sit down and enjoy it.
Which I did.
A few weeks later and with the election results in, I got busy venting spleen on Facebook. It’s never a healthy way to go about things, but there was a strangely dystopian feel to events as some of the UK’s worst, far right ideologues stepped out of the shadows, some openly joining the Conservative Party and others tweeting remarks that wouldn’t have been out of place in 1930s Germany about cleaning up all the undesirables tarnishing our great nation.
A grim shadow falling over the UK indeed…..
What’s It About?
It’s 1997 in fascist England which has avoided the direct effects of a nuclear exchange, but still suffers from the dire environmental consequences. In their desperation the population turn over political control to the Norsefire Party which now oversees a surveillance state where all the “undesirables” have been rounded up and disposed of.
Enter ‘V’, the titular character, who wears the (now iconic) Guy Fawkes mask. His first act is to rescue Evey Hammond, a sixteen year old forced to prostitute herself to pay the bills. When she sexually solicits one of the state’s secret police, the “fingermen”, it’s clear that she’s going to meet a grisly end.
Out of the shadows steps V, and in theatric form dispatches the goons. Taking Evey with him they ascend to the roof tops where they watch as the Houses of Parliament are demolished by an explosion, followed by fireworks. The grand opening has begun and V takes Evey back to the Shadow Gallery, his repository of banned cultural history where they exchange stories.
Thus the pair’s relationship begins and will evolve into one of the core components of the unfolding tale. V is waging a campaign against the fascist state, the nature of which we learn more about through the efforts of Detective Finch as he works to uncover the identity and history of this masked terrorist.
Meanwhile, in the background, state leader Adam Susan mobilises the state to quell the disquiet that V is causing, all the time sitting and obsessing over the state supercomputer known as Fate.
The stage is set, and the drama unfolds, punctuated with moments of action and revelation.
Should I Read It?
We are perhaps quite used to the notion of the one man army taking on a corrupt state to liberate the people, but whereas the Hollywood version is usually framed in terms of simple black and white, V for Vendetta takes pains to add the shades of grey into its story.
For example, there are moments where V’s actions are morally ambiguous. He’s not a straight up super hero, but rather someone acting on his beliefs, neither wholly good nor wholly evil. And with those actions come consequences.
V also often refers to himself in terms of the “devil come to do the devils work”, and this is contrasted in his discussions with Evey towards the resolution of the story regarding the acts of destruction clearing the ground for acts of creation. Meanwhile Adam Susan is not without sympathy, it being suggested that he was once a lonely child, is socially awkward, and perhaps even a repressed homosexual. He claims to have done what he did because order is necessary to people.
(And hmmmm? Adam, Evey, the Devil…….)
Moore has remarked of the story that he didn’t want to so much tell people what to think, but rather to consider the kind of extremes that have existed historically and which might come about again, in this case through a story framed between the perspectives of Fascism and Anarchy (the latter’s definition being “no leaders” rather than the often misconceived notion of total chaos).
Thus framed, the characters are thrown into their respective dilemmas. Should Evey help V? Does V have a right to his vengeance? How does Finch feel about the details of what he digs up regarding V’s history and its connection to the state? As the story progresses, these play out as choices which, although difficult, are perhaps the best sign that a person is free to make them.
One of the interesting stylistic choices was to not use thought bubbles for these characters. Their interior workings are carried by the framing and artwork, along with their actions and dialogue. One of my favourite panel sequences is where a security guard/doorman puts his hand on his gun, and then it cuts to his face as he contemplates what he’s going to do next – you get everything from that simple frame; the scales of his mind balancing out action and consequence.
Another stylistic choice is the complete lack of the traditional sound effects. When something blows up there is no “BOOOOM!!!“. It’s an interesting take, and one that I think leaves the pages uncluttered. I don’t feel it detracts, because when something happens I think we tend to assume the sound effect anyway. If the graphic novel is a visual medium, perhaps visual sound effects aren’t that necessary.
One of the questions that I have been thinking about lately (as a writer) is the depiction of events that make us uneasy. V for Vendetta has some rather ethically questionable moments, and I’m not talking about blowing up government buildings. There is one key scene in which V manipulates Evey for what he believes is her greater good. This act again plays to the greater notion that V is neither good nor evil. He is, in many ways, the trickster who remains a mystery to the end.
And it’s these kinds of aspects that give the overall story its thought provoking feel, a profound depth that makes it more engaging than a simple stand up fight the heroe and the villain.
What’s Not To Like?
Well, assuming that you’re not a fascist who’s still reading this and who thinks that the actions of a totalitarian state rounding up every deviant scapegoat and executing them is a rational form of governance, then let’s move on to some genuine criticism.
One of the short comings, one that Moore himself acknowledges, is that this graphic novel developed as it went along. As it was collected together it was not revised, but came warts and all. Moore didn’t want to polish it, and there are elements of the story that are – in his opinion – lacking due to inexperience.
(I think I’ll have to read it again to see if I can understand just what those might be…..)
Personally the greatest hindrance to reading was the occasional lack of detail in the art work – not to dunk on David Lloyd – but specifically just the occasional indistinct depictions of a character where I had to pause and work out just who they were. It’s a strange disconnect because where there are no thought bubbles, sometimes a character’s inner expression is carried by their expression.
I think the biggest put off for many will simply be the flavour of Moore’s style. Most of us are familiar with Watchmen at this point, and that alternative take on superheroes is similarly in action here, although enacted in a very different manner.
And just as Watchman might feel stylistically a little old fashioned, so too might V for Vendetta. It is a product of it’s time, and although it’s themes might be timeless, there are those that might find it a little dated.
So Who Is The Man Behind The Mask?
Let’s talk about Scooby Doo.
“Scooby Doo?” you ask. “What the hell?”
Bear with me one moment and all shall be made clear.
I recently found that lots of Hanna-Barbera material had been re-imagined. I was quite up for checking out Scooby Apocalypse after watching Mystery Incorporated with my little boy.
But why do I mention this? Because it was a massive let down. In comparison to V for Vendetta it was filled with pointless and repetitive dialogue, repetitive action and pretty devoid of any depth. It was uninspiring, although it certainly looked really good.
V for Vendetta, on the other hand, had dialogue where every line was carefully worded, scenes where every panel carefully set out, and action that was always part of a developing story line. It doesn’t look visually stunning in a modern sense, but it was a far, far more involving read.
There’s a reason that Alan Moore is regarded as a legend, and it’s work like V for Vendetta that reveals why. This is an engaging slice of counter culture in the market place of superheroes, a dark fantasy that treats the reader as capable of thinking about the difficulties inherent in discerning the where the lines are draw in the battle between good and evil.
So who is the man in the mask? Well, I’ll leave the last word to V.
An iconic classic.
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